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THE LETTERS OF DJUNA BARNES AND EMILY HOLMES COLEMAN (1935-1936) INTRODUCTION Djuna Barnes once said she was the "most famous unknown of the century," though her writing and painting distinguished her, as did her haughty, cape-tossing gestures, auburn hair and acerbic wit. Born in New York in 1892, she grew up in a family that included a charismatic grandmother who was a journalist, salon keeper and theosophist. Her American father was a proponent of free love and her British mother an aspiring poet. When Djuna was five, her father's mistress joined the household, and Djuna's siblings and half-siblings were educated at home, where all the children were encouraged to write daily. The family split up for financial reasons in 1912, and Djuna helped support her mother and brothers by writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. She was hired to write for the New York Press by novelist, critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten in 1913 and moved to Greenwich Village, where she shared a house with photographer Berenice Abbott, literary critics Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and a number of actors and artists. Her circle of friends was formed largely by the Provincetown Players, a theater collective that launched the career of playwright Eugene O'Neill and inspired Barnes to write her own final drama, The Antiphon, many years later. By 1921 she was on her way to Paris to write for McCaWs. These early influences portended a life that could not be ordinary. In Paris, Barnes was at the center of the expatriate group. She knew Man Ray, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marsden Hartley, Sinclair Lewis, William Butler Yeats, Hart Crane, James Joyce, Natalie Barney, Gertrude Stein, Constantin Brancusi , Mina Loy and Edmund Wilson, but she was most impressed by the artist Thelma Wood, with whom she lived for eight years. When their relationship foundered in 1929, Barnes began to work with great intent upon Nightwood (1936), the dark and highly wrought modernist novel for which she is best known. Set in Paris and New York, Barnes' novel (which T.S. Eliot likened to an Elizabethan tragedy for its "quality of horror and doom") is the story of five tormented and tormenting The Missouri Review ยท 105 cosmopolitan characters. Though she resisted self-knowledge, Barnes' work was significantly autobiographical and documents in a poetic style the struggles of an early-twentieth-century woman with the problems of freedom, sexual and otherwise. Her rage at betrayals by her parents and friends generated the tormented characters of the satirical Ryder (1928) and Nightwood. After being rejected by numerous publishers , the latter novel was eventually published by T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber and the following year in America by Harcourt and Brace. Emily Holmes Coleman was instrumental in the publication of Nightwood. Coleman was born in California in 1899, graduated from Wellesley College in 1920 and married in 1921. After the birth of her son in 1924, she spent two months in a mental hospital in upstate New York and later wrote about the experience in her 1930 novel, Shutter of Snow. Her poetry was published in New Statesman and transition, but she was better known for her literary zeal, keen criticism and volatile temperament. Coleman first met Barnes at Deux Magots in 1925 in Paris, where Coleman was society editor for the Chicago Tribune. They met again in 1932 at a rented country estate in England, where they and novelist Antonia White were guests of heiress Peggy Guggenheim. It was here that Barnes wrote much of Nightwood and Coleman kept an as-yet-unpublished diary that assessed Barnes in a way Barnes found too astute to bear. Though the two were judgmental of each other at first, they eventually formed a friendship that deepened after the 1934 death of their mutual friend John Farrar Holms, an erudite Englishman who was also part of their company in the summers of 1932 and 1933. These letters are a small portion of the voluminous correspondence between Barnes and Coleman. We offer them as a sampling of an intimate conversationbetween two American women writers whose significance has been underestimated. The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 105-146
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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