Floramye was founded and developed to be a celebration of hemp and women in history. We are honored and excited to use our corner of the internet to share some of history’s incredible, inspiring, and groundbreaking women.
Djuna Barnes is one such woman. A critically acclaimed, Avante Garde writer in the 1920s and 30s, her work has been cited as an influence by Truman Capote, Anaïs Nin, John Hawkes, Bertha Harris, William Goyen, and Isak Dinesen. Barnes was also pushed social boundaries with the content and themes of her work, writing about gender equality, women’s rights and experiences, gender identity, and sexuality.
Born in 1892 in New York, she was educated at home by her father and suffragist grandmother. She later studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then at Manhattan’s Art Students’ League. Djuna began writing at an early age to support her mother and siblings. Her journalism works were featured in The New York Press, The World, Smart Set, Vanity Fair, and McCall’s.
Djuna Barnes was a trailblazer and took full advantage of the opportunities allowed to her that had previously been denied to women and took an experiential approach to her journalism. She often placed herself in risky situations, likely sitting ringside at a boxing match and using that experience to write an essay examining the culture’s history of repression women.
Barnes also submitted herself to force-feeding, a technique then being used on hunger-striking suffragists in 1914, while researching an article for the New York World. In that article, she wrote, “If I, play-acting, felt my being burning with revolt at this brutal usurpation of my own functions, how they who actually suffered the ordeal in its acutest horror must have flamed at the violation of the sanctuaries of their spirits.” She concluded, “I had shared the greatest experience of the bravest of my sex.”
In 1928 Barnes self-published, anonymously A Ladies Almanack, and sold the book herself on the streets of Paris. A Ladies Almanack depicts a lesbian society based on Parisian writers of the 1920s. A commentary on the inconsistency of sexual identity, the outdated language, inside jokes, and vagueness of Ladies Almanack have kept critics wondering whether it is a bitter attack on the writers she based it on or affectionate satire.
That same year she published a novel, Ryder, which became a bestseller. Her first novel is experimental, nonlinear, and virtually every chapter is told in a different style. It follows the Ryder family with themes of polygamy and sexuality.
Although Ryder was innovative and groundbreaking in its themes and writing structure, it is her second novel Nightwood that is considered to be her masterpiece.
Published in England in 1936 and in America in 1937 with an added introduction from T.S Elliot, Nightwood is the work that made Barnes famous in feminist circles. It is one of the earliest prominent novels to portray explicit homosexuality between women. The book also includes themes of androgyny and gender identity.
Beyond the boundary-pushing content, Nightwood is considered to be one of the best examples of female prose of the twentieth century. Barnes was a talented and sophisticated writer, and her skill is apparent in the Elizabethan inspired modern writing of Nightwood. This book was so forward-thinking that 60 years later, it was ranked twelfth on a list of the top 100 gay books by The Publishing Triangle in 1999.
Not long after the publishing of Nightwood, Barnes quit writing, left Paris and returned to New York City. She lived the rest of her life in an apartment in Greenwich Village and published only one play and two poems. A voluntary recluse in her later life, refusing to grant interviews or allow reprints of her work.
“The very condition of Woman is so subject to Hazard, so complex, and so grievous, that to place her at one moment is but to displace her at the next.”
Her resignation from the literary world and refusal to allow her earlier work to be reprinted means that much of her culturally and literary contributions will remain lost and unknown. Even so, her writing and insights in the few published pieces that remain are powerful enough to have left a lasting and empowering legacy.
We like to think Djuna Barnes would be a proponent of CBD if she were alive today. Let’s carry her bravery and forward-thinking ideals into the new decade!