The Dix Hills Roots Of Writer Djuna Barnes
These days a lot of attention is being paid to the preservation of John Coltrane’s house in Dix Hills as a tangible reminder of the presence of one of the most noted 20th-century American artists who lived for a time in Huntington Township.
Less known locally is the fact that a seminal period in the life of Djuna Barnes, a central figure in the expatriate writing communities of Paris and Berlin in the ’20s and ’30s – and later a reclusive and legendary denizen of Greenwich Village – was spent on a family farm in Huntington.
The family of Barnes, whose family name at the time was Gusafson, resided in what was then known as “Upper Half Hollow Road,” today’s Half Hollow Road just west of Deer Park Road in the southern portion of the town.
Historical research has revealed that Djuna’s grandmother, Zadel Gustafson, bought two parcels of property on July 1, 1902, near what was then known as “Heck’s Drug Store” a few hundred yards west of Deer Park Road. And while Barnes moved from the farm as a young woman and began associating with artists and writers in Greenwich Village as early as 1915, Zadel continued to live on the farm until her dying day in 1917.
Primarily known in American literary circles today for “The Book Of Repulsive Women,” a collection of overtly lesbian poems, Barnes’ literary output was once lionized by the likes of TS Eliot and Peggy Guggenheim, and two of her novels – “Ryder” and “Nightwood” – were considered vital reading in the modernist canon. She was a sought-after columnist and essayist on the New York journalistic scene, like her grandmother before her. Barnes’ colorful lifestyle in the inner circle of the American avante garde and later expatriate community revealed her socially radical leanings and informed the forthright and daring nature of her literary work.
Her circle included many legendary figures. In her early years, they were Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugene O’Neill; later, it was modernists and surrealists that included Gertrude Stein, Charles Henri Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Mina Loy, Berenice Abbott, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce and Kay Boyle.
And over the course of her flamboyant early years, the combination of challenging of social conventions with a deeper need for privacy caused her work and her personality to be confused and misunderstood by many. These days she is held up by gay and lesbian writers as an important early example of forthrightness and courage in addressing these themes. However, as in other matters, Barnes’ sexual orientation was far more complex than that – and in fact, was deeply influenced by the singular household life she experienced on the farm in Half Hollow Hills.
It seems that Zadel was a product of the Free Love movement of the late 19th century. According to Barnes biographers, the farm was home to an experimental lifestyle that included multiple marriages, wide-ranging liaisons and the distinct suggestion of incest.
Through Barnes’ life, biographers suggest, the boundaries of her romantic and emotional relationships were profoundly shaped by this period of her pre-teen and teenaged years, providing her with both a broader range of acceptable behavior than many other people, and at the same time a negativity and pessimism perhaps brought on by the traumatic experiences of that time.
Through the texts of her life and her writing, Djuna Barnes tantalizingly reveals and hides the woman she was – and how her years living in Half Hollow Hills so indelibly shaped her character and disposition. Sadly, there is no longer a trace of the farmhouse on Upper Half Hollow Road where her childhood experiences took place.