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Zadel Barnes: journalist.

When we think of Zadel Barnes (1841-1917) today, we often reflect on the mystery surrounding those erotic letters she wrote in 1909 to her granddaughter Djuna, which suggest that they may have been involved in one of the rarest forms of incest. That mystery in turn is part of a larger tapestry depicting the evolving relationship of these two women from earliest days, when Djuna was Zadel's devoted pupil, to the bitter years following the divorce of Djuna's parents Wald and Elizabeth Barnes in 1912.

Zadel had orchestrated the coupling of Wald and Elizabeth as well as their sundering; two years before the divorce she had even helped seduce Djuna into a failed common-law marriage to Percy Faulkner, the brother of Wald's mistress, a Bridgeport soap salesman three times her age. Djuna never forgave Zadel for the disasters she cheerfully brought down on the heads of her family, all the more so since she had loved her with a passion that eclipsed her feelings for parents or siblings.

But Zadel provided the model for Djuna's own evolving career from journalist to author of serious literature, and she helped her make contacts among New York editors. Zadel was never far from Djuna's thoughts. She is the model for Emma Gonsberg in Djuna's story "Oscar" (1920), and she is a central figure in Ryder (1928). She makes a cameo appearance in Nightwood (1936), and in The Antiphon (1958) is referred to with much the same awed irreverence as in Ryder as the promiscuous hostess of a salon that was a mecca for London's intelligentsia.

With Zadel a liberal attitude toward sex began as early as adolescence; it was reconfirmed in the radical circles to which she gravitated as a journalist. At the age of sixteen, in 1857, Zadel married Henry Budington in Leyden, Massachusetts, a few months after he graduated from Wesleyan University. One would have expected them to marry in Middletown, Connecticut, where Zadel was born and raised and Henry had studied. That they did not points to the sort of risque behavior mentioned in Djuna Barnes's Ryder, a family chronicle whose facts and characters are almost without exception autobiographical.(1) There Zadel's counterpart Sophia confesses to the seduction of her Latin tutor, who then marries her when her pregnancy is discovered. Sophia tells Amelia that she went for a lesson in Latin and came back a mother, having parsed the Latin verb "to lie" and demonstrated the recumbency. A page of Djuna's notes mentions Zadel "running away and of her consequent disgrace and forced marriage with the tutor Henry Budington."(2) Another fragment confirms that Henry was indeed a tutor in Zadel's house. Ryder tells us that Sophia's first born had died in his sixth month (34), which also smacks of truth.

Zadel the journalist is listed in Who's Who for the first seventeen years of this century as Zadel Barnes Gustafson. Since she lingered only briefly at school, she was probably looking beyond to a writing career, for at thirteen she was publishing in local papers, and two years later her poems appeared in the Home Journal.(3) When she married Henry, few teenagers (then or now) could have matched her prior achievement.

When the Budingtons moved in 1874 from Greenfield, Massachusetts, to Springfield, forty miles south along the Connecticut River, Zadel left a small town, her husband's newspaper, and his relatives. What she found was a small city, located a few miles from her old school in Wilbraham, with arguably one of America's best newspapers, the Springfield Republican. She would have been welcomed by editors and journalists impressed by her credentials.(4) It was known for its progressive sentiments. The Republican advocated, for instance, the abolition of slavery, equal voting rights irrespective of color, women's suffrage, and the gradual introduction of free trade. The Republican also became a training ground for aspiring editors and those with literary ambitions and political sentiments similar to Zadel's. In Ryder, Sophia is mentioned as writing editorials for the Republican in the office of Samuel Bowles, the editor (154).

If Zadel caused scandal in wedding Budington, she caused a greater one when she divorced him in 1877 - this time not in Leyden, but in Middletown. She charged "intolerable cruelty and such conduct on the part of the defendant ... as permanently [to] destroy the happiness of the petitioner and defeat the purposes of the marriage relation." This is found in Henry's petition to remarry filed in Springfield in 1879, where, noting no contradiction, the judge found that, since he had been of good character during the last six years, he might remarry.

There is no record of Henry's rebuttal, nor is it clear whether or not he contested the divorce, but one can speculate that he was glad to be rid of Zadel, being irritated by her success as a writer and by her extracurricular activities. She outdid him, with his Wesleyan education, and she had the drive to succeed as a writer, which he probably resented. At a,time when her husband was gearing up to publish esoteric spiritualist tracts, Zadel had already published widely and well: for seven years she had contributed articles and poetry to Harper's, and would continue to do so until 1889.

Mostly Zadel's journalism was written to satisfy an editor's demands, and little is revealed of her personal life. Today her writing for the most part would be called sentimental, but it suited the taste of the time and the market for which she wrote. Beyond this, one sees a passion for social justice, a love for humankind, and a desire to call attention to the talents of notable American women writers such as Genevieve Ward and Maria Gowen Brooks. Still, few of us would have the patience to finish her novel Can the Old Love?, which begins:

For those who know themselves to be travelling down the hill of Life, it may be a consolation to remember that old hearts need not be cold ones; To remember, that beyond the faltering step, and fading eye, and trembling hand, and gray hair fluttering in the evening wind, and the abrupt yawning of the inevitable grave, - lies the fair, free Hereafter of Eternal Youth, wherein all souls shall find what life and light and love do fully mean.(5)

In similar vein, her story "Where is the Child?" begins "The ends of the yule-log are in shadow, but its heart is a heart of fire," going on to explore the injustice and human waste of modern society.(6)

One poem received national attention. "Little Martin Craghan" is a memorial to a boy of the mines who died in a mine fire trying to save older miners; the poem is a protest against the exploitation of children (Harper's, April 1872). There was an important newspaper article on capital punishment (which has yet to turn up), which supposedly attracted "general attention." "Is It All There Still?" is about a poor girl of the slums, who dies dreaming of a beautiful week spent on a farm, a visit made possible by a charitable organization (Harper's, October 1880).

Zadel did a considerable amount of unsigned writing, but it was the stories and verse published in Harper's that gave her a national audience as a magazine author; for example, there was the long poem called "The Voice of Christmas Past" with eighteen illustrations for Harper's (January 1871) on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which managed to bring in for a bow most of the interesting characters in Dickens. Such was her success that Zadel wrote another long poem for Harper's Christmas issue, called "The Children's Night" (January 1875), which brought in familiar characters from bedtime stories. Zadel even wrote an article on Afghanistan, containing purported truisms about Afghan character that today would be seen as embarrassing ("As the Afghans are a nation of thieves, and live upon the fruits of this vice, they are lenient toward it ...").(7) The wide range of subjects Zadel covered for Harper's is remarkable: from the Flemish artist Nicaise de Keyser to Moses Monte-fiore to Saint Cecilia.

Soon after her divorce, on 3 May 1877 to be exact, Zadel was married to a Swedish pastor's son seven years her junior named Axel Carl Johan Gustafson in a Middletown church ceremony. They had a son, Emmanuel, who died as a baby (her second loss); the couple separated permanently in 1890.(8)

Zadel was sent to London in 1880 by McCall's Magazine, and, though she and her new husband traveled extensively, London remained their base until 1889. It was probably in 1882 that the Gustafsons met Samuel Morely (1809-86), a very wealthy woollen manufacturer, philanthropist, reformer, and Member of Parliament for Bristol, who persuaded Axel to write on the abuse of alcohol rather than tobacco, as he had planned. The result was Axel Gustafson's book The Foundation of Death: A Study of the Drink Question (1884), one of the most successful temperance books of the last century. It was written between March 1883 and May 1884 (later revised), and its influence on the Women's Christian Temperance Union and similar organizations was apparently profound.(9) Zadel collaborated on the final edition.

The Gustafsons lived well in London. Not only did Morley pay publishing costs, he paid the Gustafsons well enough so that, with her earnings from articles in Harper's, the Pall Mall Gazette, and other journals, they could have a respectable address, where Zadel at one point kept an influential literary salon.

In London Zadel made friends and had love affairs in radical, literary, and reform circles: she knew Speranza, Lady Wilde, some of the Pre-Raphaelites, Robert Browning, the actress Mary Anderson, the actress-comedienne Lotta Crabtree, and Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx. Of especial importance in Zadel's London life was Speranza (and to a lesser extent her son Oscar Wilde), with whom Zadel had much in common beyond an interest in literature.(10) As a journalist and radical thinker Zadel would have found Speranza's salon of immense interest.

Both Speranza and Zadel contributed articles for the Pall Mall Gazette from 1883-1889. In its pages also appear articles by Matthew Arnold, Leslie Stephen, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde. This magazine Zadel represented while in the United States in 1886; it was the most passionate voice for reform in Britain in the 1880s.

In London Zadel Barnes would have found the company of thinkers who theorized that women would be better off without the bonds of matrimony, that love was sufficient grounds for sexual involvement, and (this is one of Djuna's father's favorite lines) that both prostitution and the oppression of women would end if polygamy became widespread. Wald Barnes's view assumes that women would never be able to support themselves - that single women would always need men. It is a pity that he destroyed his book manuscript on free love.

Victoria Woodhull, the radical feminist, spiritualist, reformer, and sexual-freedom advocate, was already in London when Zadel arrived, having moved there in 1877 after the death of her benefactor Cornelius Vanderbilt. Woodhull had pleaded for women's suffrage before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in 1871. She divorced her husband a year before Zadel divorced Henry Budington. The year after Zadel moved to London, Woodhull married a rich English banker, John B. Martin. Back in 1871 she had been the first woman to run for President of the United States; in the next year she published the first English translation of Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto. Victoria Woodhull's views on sexual liberation would have been shared by Zadel; Djuna Barnes certainly saw the connection, because she named Zadel, whom she had called Sophia in Ryder, Victoria in her play The Antiphon.

Zadel's career as publishing author was pretty much at an end by 1898. On January 31 of that year, the journalist, labor reformer, and champion of the oppressed John Swinton wrote her that a book manuscript of hers had been rejected by the publisher O'Loughlin, mainly because it dealt with the "sex question."

By 1900, when her father died, Zadel Barnes was a tired woman of fifty-nine who richly deserved retirement and an easier life. Instead she had to support herself, her son Wald, plus his wife and mistress and their children, a commune at one time numbering thirteen, where babies were welcomed into the world with diapers of burlap. The eternal optimist, Wald continually devised schemes for instant success either as a composer, writer, or painter. He even sent a painting to Buffalo Bill, for on 6 April 1899, Colonel William F. Cody of Nebraska wrote Wald thanking him for sending a painting he particularly admired. He carefully avoided asking Wald to travel with the show.

Inevitably, people took advantage. Kate Careless, the Fanny character in Ryder, angrily insists on having as many children as she likes regardless of Sophia's age and burden. So with love and infinite patience, Zadel sacrificed herself for her family, wearing a thirty-year-old pauper's cloak to knock on doors in New York City, forgiving her bigamist son, who was content to whittle, to putter about the farm, and to play the piano while his wives and children were supported by the frantic struggles of an aging woman suffering from uterine cancer. All this was to little effect.

Zadel Barnes was a heroic woman, battling for liberal causes: women's suffrage, child labor laws, prohibition, abolition, and independence for Ireland. But there came a time when former friends and family members turned their backs on her. The psychological scars inherited by the two branches of the Barnes family, Djuna's side and Fanny's, are present down to this very day, caused by the divorce of Djuna's parents, the financial disaster that followed, and the shame of illegitimacy. The two sides of the family are still not on speaking terms. Zadel was love and generosity personified, and she instilled in family members a passion for literature; but ultimately her influence had the opposite effect from what she intended: her grandchildren elected to live conventional lives in the world of business, advertising, and banking. Only Djuna followed in Zadel's footsteps to journalism and art, but even she had a strong desire for financial security and fidelity in love relationships.

Now that we have seen the outline of Zadel's career and her free-love philosophy, let us return to the question of incest. We can begin with a fragment of 1932 called "Show Break," where Djuna defined her feelings for Zadel and Wald:

There were moments that were to stamp for me the early dawn as forever tragic - for I loved [Zadel] as a child usually loves its mother-i cared little or nothing for the rest of the family, and my father, who was to drive her down the three miles to the Wyandanch station, standing clapping his hands against the leather of his lambs wool coat, has been for me from birth a resentment that I myself did not understand. Their relationship was so close, their love for each other so evident, and yet though my grandmother was for me [up to a certain age] the greater of the two, my father always stood "outside."

If Djuna loved Zadel "as a child usually loves its mother," there would be no controversy, but most of the surviving letters from Zadel to Djuna carry sexually explicit messages. From Djuna's side, the only explicit reference to this aspect of the relationship is at the bottom of the second page of the fragment Djuna wrote about the death of Zadel. The page is torn off, but at the bottom one can make out Djuna's thoughts on sleeping for fifteen years beside Zadel, and playing with her breasts, here called "Redlero" and "Kedler."(11)

Zadel's breasts, also called "Pink Tops" and "wedlers," are the subject of cartoons at the conclusion of most of Zadel's letters. A letter to Djuna of 9 July 1905 (Djuna was thirteen) shows a sketch of Zadel with her breasts stretched out of shape to look like penises. One says "Rourk-ouk-oma!," the other "New York City." On the side is "Dey's stwetched orful! (Pull gullet!)." A letter of 25 February 1909 shows Zadel's nipples as eyes, reading one of Djuna's letters. In a letter of I I June 1908 Zadel says "Pink Tops are simply gasping with love!" and on 4 March 1909 she wrote "Oh, Misriss! When I sees your sweet hands ahuggin you own P.T.'s - I is just crazy & I jumps on oo! Like dis. Wiv dis wesult." Next to this is Zadel's drawing of one nude woman atop another, breast to breast. The letter is signed, "ownest lishous grandmother." On 14 November 1909 Zadel wrote "I'm huggin' you close to the Pinknesses, and they is cortlin' tremendous."

In a letter of this time, dated only Thursday, Zadel tells Djuna "I'm so sorry 'oo isn't feeling happy & are tired of effthing X Don't feel that way any more, my little sweetheart X. Sweetest Missrus X we is fayde our pinkyness will go pale if misriss isn't happy X." Each X was a kiss.

Regardless of whether or not the relationship was sexual - and given Zadel's exuberance and freedom from convention it may have been - my view is that these letters of 1909 were written primarily as bawdy entertainment by two women who happened to share a bed, as everybody in the family seemed to do in their small farmhouse on Long Island. Whatever happened, incest is surely too strong a word. Since there are no living witnesses, the letters should be examined more as literary texts than as conclusive proof of incest. Barnes scholars must be prepared to argue more than one side of this issue.(12)

Humor plays an important role in family correspondence, and Djuna probably carried the letters around for everybody in the family to read. Zadel complimented Djuna on her humor in letters, which suggests that Djuna read the letters as bawdy humor: "Your letter made me laugh till I was lame; you certainly are delightfully humorous" (18 February 1909, ZBG to DB). Djuna responded in kind, for one of her rare, surviving letters to Zadel of this period shows a drawing of a sticklike woman laid out with a writing pen inserted between her legs as an illustration of how Djuna looked when no letter from Zadel came that day (26 February 1909). Letters from Wald Barnes, Djuna's father, invariably include attempts to amuse, for bawdy letters were family fun.

Certain other matters militate against the charge of incest between Zadel and Djuna. Since Djuna became prudish in her later years, she would have destroyed Zadel's letters if she had worried about their contents. She easily became outraged at what she considered to be misinterpretation; for example, she was anxious to communicate the "truth" about the ending of Nightwood (she denied any sexual implications). Jealous of her privacy, why did she save the letters if they revealed incest? Then, too, if Zadel had sexual interest in Djuna, it was certainly not accompanied by possessiveness, for by the end of 1909 she was actively promoting Djuna's love affair with Percy Faulkner.

Since in 1909 Zadel was sixty-eight and Djuna seventeen, the idea of incest is more than a little bizarre, though it must be admitted that there is no evidence that in principle Zadel would have had anything against it. Djuna complained that her father raped her as a girl, and she bore the psychological profile of the sexually abused child, but I have not seen any evidence that she ever admitted sexual involvement with Zadel beyond a little fondling, and she never accused her of exploitation or abuse, as she did her father. The image of Zadel in Nightwood, "dressed as a man, wearing billycock and a corked moustache, ridiculous and plump in tight trousers and a red waistcoat, her arms spread saying with a leer of love, |My little sweetheart!'" is distinctly parody.(13)

What fun it must have been to transgress the taboos against pornography by sending through the United States mail drawings of female breasts with bug-eyed nipples reading suggestive letters! In 1909 Zadel could have been imprisoned for such letters. But even if these bawdy letters of 1909 point more surely to entertainment than incest, that still leaves the question as to why a grandmother should write to a granddaughter in this way, drawing pictures of her breasts, and fantasizing about the joys of the bed they shared. If one part of the answer is humor, the other part lies in Zadel's philosophy of free love, which she had encouraged her son Wald to believe, and which resulted in the bizarre arrangement of his two wives and two sets of children living in the same house with Zadel as matriarchal head and sole means of support. Zadel wanted Djuna to be comfortable with her body and with her sexuality, just as she wished Wald to be comfortable with his bigamy. One way to do this was to treat the normal anxiety of maidenhood with generous portions of humor so as to make the idea of free love more palatable.(14)

We can only speculate about what happened in bed, for the encoded erotic letters of Zadel may reflect more fantasy than reality. Let us try to imagine small, unheated farmhouse bedrooms where family members snuggled together for warmth. Given Zadel's views on sexual freedom and her cuddly nature, bedding with Djuna would inevitably have been physical, would have had its humorous moments, and would almost surely not have been seen as a deeply passionate lesbian alliance against patriarchy, especially given Zadel's loyalty to Wald. The relationship in bed ultimately matters if Djuna sustained psychological damage or some sense of empowerment, but there is no evidence that she did.

If fantasy, then these letters provided a model for the bawdier sections of Ryder or Ladies Almanack, for there is often a literary quality in the letters of the literati, as is seen in James Joyce's erotic missives (also of 1909) to his beloved Nora, which reflect his reading in sadomasochism. If these letters do indeed point to a truly lesbian passion, the homophobic Barnes of the last years surely forgot this when she sold them to the University of Maryland. Ultimately the problem of incest is not resolvable, but the letters in question do reflect the intense love that these women felt for each other, a love without any sense of shame or guilt or possessiveness.

Yet Djuna's love came to be embittered by a sense of betrayal that so much personal disaster - poverty, alienation, the lack of formal schooling or social status - was to be laid at the doorstep of her beloved grandmother, who chose to bear a burden too great, who was finally crushed between convention, cancer, and radical belief, dooming her family to face anguished separation - possibly even starvation. If Zadel was responsible for helping Djuna get started as a journalist, she was also responsible for the circumstances that made it necessary for her granddaughter to work to support her mother and brothers in those early years following her parents' divorce.

Amid many barbs, Djuna paid tribute to Zadel in The Antiphon:

That old lady knew how to be old. Bent double, as a sailor from the sea Low slung in gifts She came at you, blazing like a grot Hung in the offerings of her children's love."

Zadel Barnes was buried to the left of her mother in the Barnes plot in Pine Grove Cemetery, Middletown, Connecticut. There is no grave marker.


(1) Djuna Barnes, Ryder (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 35; hereafter cited parenthetically. Djuna Barnes told James Scott and others that her novel Ryder was completely autobiographical. I find virtually no facts in the novel that do not correlate with details of her early life, and so I take the liberty of drawing on Ryder for biographical information, a strategy that would indeed be suspect with most novels. (2) From a fragment owned by Peter Barnes, which begins "who was socially beneath her" (9). (3) Who Was Who in America. (4) Appleton's Cyclopaedia (vol. 3) says that for two years Zadel was political editor of a Massachusetts journal, which may just mean the Franklin County Times, but it hints at the distinguished Springfield Republican, a journal for which she did write poetry, stoties, and musical and literary reviews. (5) Can the Old Love?: A Novel (Boston: J.R. Osgood & Co., 1871). (6) Harper's New Monthly Magazine 46 (January 1873): 229-39. (7) Harper's (March 1879), 617. (8) On a sheet of Djuna's notes from her last years, owned by Peter Barnes, is the phrase "Grandmothers third child Emmanuel, died a baby." (9) Of this book's success, a reviewer in the Magazine of Poetry (July 1891) says: "Its sales in England and in South Africa, India, the far East and Australia, have been unprecedented for a work of this character" (304). (10) A curious network of connections exists between the Wildes and Djuna Barnes. Her friend Natalie Clifford Barney had, in her youth, been engaged to Lord Alfred Douglas, whose homosexual liaison with Oscar Wilde led to Wilde's trial and imprisonment. In later years Barney had a liaison with Dolly Wilde, Oscar's niece. Mina Loy, a close friend of Barnes, was married to Alfred Cravan, Oscar's nephew. (11) The family had affectionate nicknames for each other. Zadel was "Gaga" to all, though in letters to Djuna she signed herself variously as Corkerditterdillercork or Waedler or Flitch. Djuna was Snickerbits or Starbits and her breasts "Cuddlers." (12) The Zadel-Djuna correspondence is in the Djuna Barnes Collection at the McKelden Library, University of Maryland at College Park. I would not go so far as to argue, as Mary Lynn Broe does, that the Zadel-Djuna relationship was incestuous and therefore beneficial as a refuge against patriarchal violence, which confuses a number of issues. In "My Art Belongs to Daddy: Incest as Exile, The Textual Economics of Hayford Hall" (in Women's Writing in Exile, ed. Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989], 53), Broe says, "Temporarily safe from the violations of the patriarchal household, Zadel and Djuna played in their symbolic, marginalized world, a queendom of |nanophilia.'" (13) Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (New York: New Directions, 1946), 63. (14) Steven Watson defines free love as follows: "According to this doctrine, sexual relationships (or free unions) should not be restricted to married couples but enjoyed by any mutually consenting partners no matter what their marital state. Free love advocates distinguished their activity from promiscuity, describing the sexual impulse as a form of spiritual enhancement" (Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde [New York: Abbeville, 1991], 144). (15) From act 3 of the draft of The Antiphon, Djuna Barnes Collection, McKelden Library (series 2, box 1).
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Title Annotation:Djuna Barnes; Djuna's grandmother
Author:Herring, Phillip
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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