THE LETTERS OF SYLVIA BEACH
Edited by Keri Walsh
Columbia University Press, $29.95
Once upon a time, there were a lot of Americans in Paris. We liked them and they - well, most of them - liked us. And one of us the French liked very much was an enterprising young woman named Sylvia Beach who, in 1919, opened a bookstore on the Left Bank and called it Shakespeare & Company.
So much has been written about American expatriates in Paris in the 1920s that all one need do to conjure up wonderfully nostalgic images is to mention a few of the names from that star-studded cast. Think: Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Williams (William Carlos, not Tennessee) and Richard Wright. And of course James Joyce, whose epical novel, “Ulysses,” Beach published in 1922 after it had been rejected by American publishers who feared obscenity charges. It was, especially in hindsight, a great time in a great period between the two world wars.
Sylvia Beach didn’t just fit into that world, she helped create and shape it. Born Nancy Woodbridge Beach in Baltimore in 1887, she was the second of her Presbyterian minister father’s three daughters. Changing her name to Sylvia early in her life was an early indication of the independent streak that would serve her well years later when, realizing the $3,000 seed money her mother had given her wouldn’t be enough to open her shop in London or New York, Beach chose Paris. Her father having served as assistant minister at the American Church in Paris from 1901 to 1906, she was already quite familiar with the City of Light.
While a “success d’estime” from the start, with its lending library and readings by highly regarded French and American writers of the day, Shakespeare & Company often struggled financially. It was a testament to Beach’s tenacity that she kept it going as long as she did while managing, simultaneously, to nurture and befriend a wide variety of young modernist writers, many of whose works she also translated.
Sylvia Beach had survived the Great Depression, the waning of the expatriate movement, World War II (during which she had to close Shakespeare & Company, and hide her books upstairs) and a period of internment in a German prison camp. When the Allies retook Paris, Ernest Hemingway, in uniform, personally liberated the shop, but it would never open for business again.
Sylvia Beach, unlike so many of her literary and personal friends (such as her companion and lover Adrienne Monnier, whose French bookstore, La Maison des Amis des Livres, had been the model for Beach’s), lived a long life. She died in 1962 at 75. Her autobiography, “Shakespeare and Company,” had been published three years earlier.
Not that Sylvia Beach needed to be humanized, but it’s a bonus added to all the fascinating information contained in this collection of letters Beach wrote from 1901 to Sept. 3, 1962 (a year and a day from the date of her friend Hemingway’s suicide). We experience her transformation from spunky (there’s a good 1920s word for you) teen to serious yet still joyful adult despite all the trials and tribulations of the life she chose to lead.
In the first of the book’s seven sections, the letters, mostly to family members and friends, reveal a bright, playful and energetic girl. Her prose suggests the female counterpart to what Emerson meant when he described “the confidence of boys who are sure of their supper.” Then, as World War I unfolds, and Beach is working for the American Red Cross in Serbia, we see her serious and compassionate side.
On Jan. 29, 1919, in a letter to her father, she writes, “You’ve no idea how everything in Serbia was at a standstill - still is of that matter. No schools, few shops, no factories, no construction nor re construction [sic], no water supply nor lighting nor heading nor nuthin.’ ” But in the last letter of the World War I section, she is upbeat, mentioning to her mother that “Holly and m’self are leaving upon the Orient Express for the Extreme West on Monday next.”
Selected letters covering the next 20 years cover the main era of Shakespeare & Company’s - and Beach’s - influence. Here the names are the ones we know: Hemingway, Joyce (and several members of his family), Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Alfred Knopf and the composer George Antheil. The list goes on, and the letters are a delight to read.
On April 23, 1921, she tells her sister, “I am about to publish Ulysses of James Joyce. … What do you think of that, Holly? … Ulysses is going to make my place famous.” And a month later she writes, similarly, to her friend Marion Peter, calling “Ulysses” and Joyce “the greatest book and author of the age,” and reports the controversy over it: “Nine stenographers gave up the typing of the last episode here in Paris and a gentleman from the British Embassy burned a dozen pages … he threw ‘em into the fire in a rage. Ulysses is a masterpiece and one day it will be ranked among the classics in English literature.”
The final third of the book covers the last 22 years of Sylvia Beach’s life. There are quite a few letters to Richard Wright, Beach’s newest American literary discovery. They are warm and charming - and make one wish, as with so many of her correspondents, that his to her were included, even in an appendix.
At the end, her personality is as vibrant, her wit as evident and her interests as keen as in the beginning. Of how many other boldface names from the ‘20s can that be said? Maybe it’s because she stayed in Paris.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.
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