Djuna Barnes

Sara Flores on “Djuna Barnes: Reclusive Exile”

Djuna Barnes is not often the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of the Lost Generation. Her voice is not that of a writer like Gertrude Stein, who has been widely claimed to be a guiding force for early American modernists. Barnes wrote about controversial topics such as same-sex relations and family drama, coming from a place of otherness steeped in “eternal pain” (Neilen, 703) which came from her personal life. These were not uncommon themes for modernists, yet she, unlike many of her peers, did not seem to revel in the grand idea of being in exile. Rather, she chose to be a side-lined creator of themes and ideas that spoke for themselves.

Barnes was extremely close to her grandmother growing up. Some critics, such as Phillip Herring in his biography of Barnes, believe that it may have been an incestuous relationship. Additionally, she was part of a large family that included her father, mother, his mistress and their many children. This led to Barnes eventually moving to New York with her grandmother and supporting what was left of her family (Neilen, Herring, 702). She then travelled through journalistic circles and eventually landed on fiction writing as her main focus. Her journalistic tendencies are interesting in that they speak to a removal of the personal and embrace of a more public persona. Though she used her real life for inspiration in her works, her truths were told through fictionalized characters.

Barnes represents the idea that one does not have to be a physical exile to fully understand the way of life, as illustrated by Malcolm Cowley in Exile’s Return. While she did, in fact, explore her writing outside of the United States and lived in Paris, it could be argued that Barnes experienced exile long before it was popular, growing up in an alternative family. Perhaps this is why Barnes is referred to as “one of the most famous shut-ins of the modernist movement” (Hardie, 118) and why she felt that republishing her earlier works, with nostalgia being the driving force, was a waste of time (Hardie, Barnes, 118). While many exiles of the modernist era have become more famous for their way of life than of their writing, Barnes represents the shedding of that glamour to reach a certain sense of contentment with the self.

Works Cited

Neilen, Deirdre, Phillip Herring, and Djuna Barnes. “Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes.” World Literature Today 70.3 (1996): 702-03. Web.

Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1976. Print.

Hardie, Melissa Jane. “Repulsive Modernism: Djuna Barnes’ The Book of Repulsive Women.” Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2006): 118-32. Web.


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