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Barnes was born in a log cabin on Storm-King Mountain,  near Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY. Her father, Wald Barnes,was an unsuccessful composer, musician, and painter. An advocate of polygamy, he married Barnes's mother Elizabeth in 1889; his mistress Fanny Clark moved in with them in 1897, when Barnes was five. They had eight children, whom Wald made little effort to support financially. Zadel, who believed her son was a misunderstood artistic genius, struggled to provide for the entire family, supplementing her diminishing income by writing begging letters to friends and acquaintances.

Barnes spent much of her childhood helping care for siblings and half-siblings. She received her early education at home, mostly from her father and grandmother, who taught her writing, art, and music but neglected subjects such as math and spelling.She claimed to have had no formal schooling at all; some evidence suggests that she was enrolled in public school for a time after age ten, though her attendance was inconsistent.

Barnes was a familiar figure in Greenwhich Village and Left Bank literary and lesbian circles during the teens, twenties and thirties, admired by her contemporaries for her wickedly incisive wit as well as for her great beauty and style.

Her first novel, Nightwood, published in 1936, has long been recognized as a masterpiece.  Among the many critics who celebrated the book were Dylan Thomas, Wallace Fowlie and Phillip Toynbee.  T.S. Elliot wrote of this work "What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to  that of Elizabethan tragedy." 

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