DJUNA & ZADEL: BENEATH SOME HARD, CAPRICIOUS STAR
The old maps show that back in the 19th century, across the road from Anna Heck's drug store at the corner of Half Hollow Road and Hart Place in Dix Hills, Long Island, was a place belonging to someone named Mrs. Gustavsen.
There's no farmhouse there anymore, or anything else to indicate that this corner of the suburban world of Long Island holds a place of some significance in American literary history.
Yet it does. That farmhouse figured prominently in the childhood experiences of Djuna Barnes, an iconic literary figures of today’s LGBT communities, an exotic expatriate 20s who consorted with Gertrude Stein, Charles Henri Ford, and later ee cummings.
Mrs. Gustavsen, it turns out, was Djuna Barnes’ grandmother. Zadel Barnes Gustafson – a woman whose utopian and experimental ideas about sexuality and relationships - enacted, at least in part, in that very farmhouse -- proved so pivotal in shaping Djuna's life.
In fact, biographers state in no uncertain terms that the boundaries of Barnes' romantic and emotional relationships were profoundly influenced by the experiences she had living in Zadel’s farmhouse in Dix Hills -- the period of her pre-teen and teenage years -- providing her with a profoundly conflicted view of the world which included both a broader than normal concept of the range of acceptable human behavior and a negativity and pessimism about that range.
It was in that farmhouse that Barnes (1892-1982), whose writings like Nightwood and Book of Repulsive Women have become staple reading for the cogniscenti not only because of their 'modernist' trappings but because of their focus on lesbian sexuality, fell under the sway of her paternal grandmother. Zadel Barnes Gustafson (1841-1917).
Zadel, it turns out, was a suffragist, spiritualist and temperance advocate who wrote for Harpers Magazine and other publications in the 1870s, including such crusading articles as 'Why Is There A Woman Question?"
"The Barnes Family is distinctive for its longstanding tendency to select unconventional names and for a particularly high rate of solitary life and divorce, much before this became commonplace," notes the Univ of Md Archives. "The family even had a divorce in the seventeenth century."
Zadel’s life was colorful, no doubt about it. Married first to her Latin teacher and then to a Swede named Axel Gustafson, she was an ardent unionist during the Civil War and an early supporter of women’s suffrage. She had a literary salon in London where she consorted with Oscar Wilde, Victoria Woodhull and others.
Returning to the US sans Axel Gustafson, Zadel was soon part and parcel of an experimental open relationship household both at Storm King (an area in New York popular among Bohemians of the time ) and in the farmhouse in Dix Hills -- described as freethinking rural utopian scheme.
She brought along her son Wald – a composer, libertine and sporadic worker – and his children, including Djuna, who she ‘home schooled,’ conducting 'educational seances' and summoning the spirits of her favorite authors, including Oscar Wilde and Jack London, as teaching aids.
On the home front Zadel, wrote Djuna, 'believed in free love --everybody screwing each other.' "They often slept in the same bed together," notes Susan Ware in A Biographical Dictionary of Notable American Women. "Barnes later suggested that she associated her grandmother with her attraction to women."
Zadel also manipulated the romantic relationships of her son and grandchildren -- and notably cajoled Djuna at the age of 17 into marrying the brother Wald’s second wife, a soap salesman named Percy Faulkner. Djuna left him after two months.
Eventually in 1912, Djuna moved out, with her mother and her brothers, relocating to the Bronx and then to Greenwich Village.
But the die was cast -- her life in Greenwich Village, in Paris, and eventually as a recluse living with the likes of ee cummings in Patchin Place in NYC, was inalterably shaped by Zadel Barnes Gustafson. So was her literary output.
In the poems from "The Book of Repulsive Women," Djuna’s mixed feelings about the scope and nature of the intimacies in her life are made manifest.
Originally published in a landmark chapbook series by Bruno of Greenwich Village in 1915, the volume of poetry presents portraits of women of the period - a mother, a prostitute, cabaret dancer and others - which critic Douglas Messerli explains were ‘'dominated by a seething beat of sexuality and vice, whipped up into a delicious sense of perversity by Barnes' art."
What Messerli does not mention is a palpable sense of disallusionment, ennui and even contempt - beyond what is found in other modernist writing of the era.
from SEEN FROM THE EL
So she stands - nude - stretching dully
Two amber combs loll through her hair
A vague molested carpet pitches
Down the dusty length of stair
She does not see she does not care
It's always there.
Or here, from the poem From Fifth Avenue Up: "Someday beneath some hard/Capricious star...We'll know you for the woman you are...With your legs half strangled/In your lace/You'd lip the world to madness/On your face."
Her prose possessed a similar duality. In Nightwood, Barnes examines with barely concealed venom and vindictiveness events in her relationship with her lesbian lover in Paris. In Lady’s Almanack, she alternately satirizes and celebrates the women around Natalie Barney, a lesbian leader in Paris. Her novel Ryder and her verse drama, The Antiphon re-enact the ‘psychologically murderous’ upbringing she experienced – a deadly mix of freedom, license, and trauma.
Obsessed with a conflict between the ridiculous corruptions of the body and the severe weaknesses of the spirit, the author places herself, and her readers, ‘midway between redemption and damnation, ascending toward salvation, descending into the darkness of the unconscious and doom,’ according to one critic.
In no small measure, it was her time spent in the crucible of comfort and cruelty – trapped beneath some hard, capricious star of her grandmother’s conjuring -- in a long-gone farmhouse in Dix Hills, which led Djuna Barnes to this fate.