Was Djuna Barnes’ Novel, Nightwood, Named By T.S. Eliot?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to poetry and poets and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all poetry legends featured so far.

POETRY URBAN LEGEND: The famed poet T.S. Eliot came up with the name for Djuna Barnes’ classic novel, Nightwood.

Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is one of the most acclaimed and well known poets of pretty much any century, but certainly the 20th Century.


Born in 1888, by the time Eliot became part of the English publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber) in 1925 he had already written most of the works of poetry that people would regard as his “classic” works, including The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland.


Eliot would work at Faber and Faber for the rest of his life. Perhaps the most important piece of work he did at that company was to aid in the publishing of Djuna Barnes’ classic novel, Nightwood.


Nightwood is about the lives of a number of expatriate Americans in Europe during the 1930s, which was the same situation Djuna Barnes was in herself, having lived in Europe since coming over from America in 1922 (here is a picture of the striking Barnes).


She spent her first six years in Paris living with her lover, the artist Thelma Wood before the pair split (here is picture of Wood).


Besides the quality of Barnes’ writing, Nightwood is also notable for the fact that the main characters in the novel are lesbians (based, presumably, on Barnes and Wood) and a prominent supporting character (perhaps the linchpin to the narrative, as it is, really) is a transvestite doctor.

Perhaps due to this fact, Barnes had a difficult time selling the work. She had a basic draft of the work done in 1932, but went years without selling it. Finally, in 1935, Barnes’ friend, the poet and author Emily Coleman (who was a hearty champion for the book) sent it to Eliot who managed to have the book published by Faber and Faber in 1936 (a U.S. edition was published the next year by Harcourt, Brace with an introduction written by Eliot).

Eliot’s connection with Nightwood has long been fodder for a great many pieces of scholarship, and along the way, a few fallacies have arisen about Eliot’s involvement with the work.

A major piece of confusion is just how much editing Eliot did on the book, but another legend about Eliot is that he is the one who named the book.

In his 1985 biography of Djuna Barnes, Djuna: The Formidable Miss Barnes, Andrew Field wrote about Eliot’s connection with Nightwood. Field wrote that Eliot’s:

single greatest contribution was the title itself, which Barnes accepted with alacrity. One can easily imagine the Barnesian glee at his suggestion with its unwitting secret watermark of Thelma’s name in it, and with her knowledge of the language Miss Barnes would not have missed the suggestion of the Old English wod, or madness, either. The novel originally had the subtitle anatomy of night, and that was very likely the springboard which suggested the title to Eliot.

However, in her absolutely brilliant 1998 essay, Djuna Barnes And T. S. Eliot: The Politics And Poetics Of Nightwood, Georgette Fleischer thoroughly debunks this claim of Field’s.

Fleischer shows a letter Barnes wrote to Coleman about the book’s title four months before Coleman contacted Eliot:

“`Nightwood,’ like that, one word, it makes it sound like night-shade, poison and night and forest, and tough, in the meaty sense and simple yet singular, … Do you like it?”

Coleman was not a big proponent of the Nightwood name, though, although Eliot later said that Coleman “was wrong about the title certainly: Nightwood is right”

So really, Eliot most likely DID have an effect on the name BEING Nightwood, and yes, Barnes discussed other titles such as “Bow Down,” which she kept as the name of the first chapter of the book and for a time, “Anatomy of the Night” was considered, so it is quite possible, if not probable, that Eliot played a part in Nightwood being the ultimate choice, but he clearly did not come up with the name himself.

The legend is…


Please read the rest of Georgette Fleischer’s article here to see her brilliantly discuss the extent and manner of Eliot’s editing of Nightwood, which has long been a matter of much contention.

Thanks again to Ms. Fleischer for her excellent scholarship!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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