Happy Birthday to Sylvia Beach, the “Midwife of Modernism”

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Sylvia Beach is one of my heroes due to her influential bookshop in Paris (Shakespeare & Co.), and her nurturing of the writers of that time. You know, minor writers like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. When nobody would publish Joyce’s Ulysses due to its already-controversial nature, she decided that Shakespeare & Co. would put the book out (her first foray into publishing – not too shabby, to start with Ulysses). She got in big trouble for that, as books were confiscated at customs houses in England and America, and obscenity trials heated up over the next decade. This small unassuming woman, born in Baltimore, grew up in New Jersey, was at the center of the literary event of the century.

I’ve written a lot about Sylvia Beach, and I have known about her from my reading on all of the literary giants of the day. She was one of those people who intersected with everyone.

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Shakespeare & Co. reunion: James Jones, Sylvia Beach, Thornton Wilder, Alice B. Toklas

She was the daughter of a minister, and during WWI, she served with the Red Cross in Serbia. Afterwards, her mother helped her finance a little bookshop in Paris, which had always been Beach’s dream, and over the next 2 decades, the shop became a smashing success, and a hub for all of the famous literary ex-pats in Paris at that time. Oh, for a time machine. My #1 destination would be Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in, oh, 1925. That’s where I want to go, please. When the Nazis marched into Paris, Beach repeatedly refused to leave her books, although she was ordered to.

James Campbell, at the Times Literary Supplement, calls Sylvia Beach the “midwife of Modernism”, a wonderful turn-of-phrase. The events of Sylvia Beach’s life are fascinating in and of themselves (who WAS this woman?), and I mainly know her through her intersections with the literary giants of the day. A couple of years ago a collection of her letters was published, The Letters of Sylvia Beach (amazing that they hadn’t already been published in full), and it was quite an event. It’s a lovely volume.

Here is a really interesting anecdote (which gives you some background of just ONE aspect of her life, and, of course, of course, James Joyce is peripherally involved):

When the Nazis entered Paris, Beach, who had lately made a visit home to the United States where she underwent a hysterectomy (she was also “knocked out by headaches”€ all her life), declined to leave rue de l’Odeon a second time. In her memoir, she told the almost too-cinematic story of how a “€œhigh-ranking German officer”€ entered her shop one day and, “€œspeaking perfect English”€, asked to buy the single copy of Finnegans Wake (published by Faber and Faber) displayed in the window. Beach told him it was not for sale, and duly removed it.

A fortnight later, the same officer strode into the bookshop. Where was Finnegans Wake? I had put it away. Fairly trembling with rage, he said, “€œWe’re coming to confiscate all your goods today.”€ “All right.”€ He drove off.

Within a few hours, she had boxed up the stock, removed the sign and painted over the patron’€™s name. The Germans did not get Finnegans Wake, but they did get Beach. She spent six months in an internment camp at Vittel, alongside Jewish prisoners who would later be removed to Auschwitz.

There’s another great anecdote about Ernest Hemingway, who was with the Allied army when they liberated Paris – and Hemingway went PERSONALLY to “liberate” Shakespeare & Co.

All of this can be read about in Beach’s own memoir (Shakespeare and Company) – but in the collection of her letters, edited by Keri Walsh, we actually get to hear Beach’s unedited voice.

That was one of the best things about the volume: getting to know her unselfconscious in-the-moment voice, the voice one uses when dashing off a letter (as opposed to something more official or formal). I always knew that Beach was a homey regular kind of person, not an obvious intellectual, but more of a can-do fix-it “I’ve got a barn, let’s do a show” kind of person. She was part of a family of daughters, and all of them were strong autonomous interesting women. None of them seemed to have a sense that there was anything they couldn’t do, being women. Sylvia Beach, who loved books, had a dream of opening a bookshop. That’s all. She didn’t have a dream of attaching herself to a writer, or publishing books, or being a writer herself. She wanted to create a gathering-place for book lovers. She happened to be in the right place at the right time, AND she was a canny businesswoman who knew how to make important connections (and, judging from her correspondence, KEEP those connections). She was, to use a well-trod phrase, a “people person”. She was not embarrassed to ask for things. She often needed help, either financial or otherwise, and she, like all talented people of business, knew who to go to to get things done, and knew to ask at the right time.

The publication of Ulysses obviously put her on the map (for better and worse), and she had an awareness of that at the time, writing to her sister, “Ulysses is going to make my place famous.”

As I got to know her chatty friendly voice, full of misspellings and multiple exclamation marks, I fell in love with her. She was so enthusiastic, such a champion. Let the artists do their work, let them be eccentric and strange, she was there to usher them into the limelight where they belonged.

Sylvia Beach had a lifelong relationship with Adrienne Monnier, a French book-store owner. They were business partners and life partners.

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Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier

The relationship was so much just a fact of Beach’s life that it is barely mentioned in her letters, and the acceptance of it (by her friends, family, and colleagues) is one of those things that makes you realize that life on the ground is often very different from how it is up in the stratosphere where ideologues argue things out on an abstract level. There is no feeling at all that Beach had to hide her sexual orientation. None whatsoever. She lived with Adrienne Monnier for decades. When Monnier passed away, people from all over the world sent Beach consolation letters. Beach was now a widow, regardless of the “legality” of her relationship. It’s a beautiful example of the individual doing what the individual wants to do, regardless of the prejudice that exists in limited little minds.

Beach goes about her life with very little fanfare, ironic considering how famous (and infamous) she became for publishing a “dirty book”.

Here is a review of the letters. This is all well-trod ground for me, having read many biographies of Joyce (and other literary giants of the day), where she plays a prominent role. But there’s something about reading someone’s letters … the un-cleaned-up un-edited thought process and syntax revealed. Relationships made clear, without an editorial voice inserting itself. For example:

More and better literary gossip is spilled in Beach’s 1959 memoir, but these letters have tart moments on nearly every page. Beach introduced Sherwood Anderson to Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald to James Joyce, and knew everyone. She describes a reading in her bookstore, given by Hemingway and Stephen Spender, during which beer and whiskey were “displayed on the table in front of the boys, of which they were partaking freely.€ The sight of this made Joyce stand up and leave. It “€œmade him too thirsty,”€ she writes, “to stand it any longer.”€ Beach, a popular giver of dinner parties and a bohemian cult hero, was unpretentious. Inviting the writer Bryher to a reception, she wrote: “€œYou know it won’€™t be at all formal, never is in our house, and people don’€™t dress up here. I never wear an evening gown no matter what they invite me too – haint got none.€”

Sylvia Beach wrote of her first meeting with James Joyce in her memoirs. He walked into Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. She describes his behavior thus:

He stepped into my bookshop . . . he inspected my two photographs of Oscar Wilde. Then he sat down beside my table.

Marvelous. I wonder what he was thinking.

Sylvia said of Joyce: “As for Joyce, he treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, waiters, princesses, or charladies. What anybody had to say interested him; he told me that he had never met a bore.”

(As far as I’m concerned – anyone who can say that he has “never met a bore” is a genius of the human spirit.)

When she met James Joyce, he had already finished Ulysses (or as finished as any Joycean manuscript ever would be) but essentially unpublishable. It had already been deemed “obscene”. The funny thing about all of this is that – as Joyce said later, “The pity is that the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious word in it.”

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But Sylvia Beach – who had never published a book before – took a risk and said that Shakespeare & Co. would put out the book. This was an act of courage. Perhaps she went into it recklessly, thinking that giving a space for genius would be its own reward – perhaps she went into it knowing the eventual fallout that would crash down upon her head – But whatever her interior process, she moved forward boldly.

And the shit hit the fan.

Once it was published, the obscenity controversies heated up, the book was banned (Joyce said later, “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.”) everybody was talking about it, who had actually read it? – you could be arrested for trying to smuggle it into certain countries – and there were a couple of years where the only place on the planet you could get a copy of Ulysses was through Beach’s bookshop in Paris. And so the orders flew in from folks around the world. People who were book readers, people who were collectors, people who sensed the historic moment and just wanted a copy.

Joyce and Sylvia Beach

The comments of other great writers on this book are, of course, great interest to me. They run the gamut of disgust, elation, despair, awe, humility, and I love it, too, that Yeats (an early supporter of Joyce) changed his mind. His first response on reading it? “A mad book!” Then later, as it percolated, Yeats said: “I have made a terrible mistake. It is a work perhaps of genius. I now perceive its coherence … It is an entirely new thing — neither what the eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.”

Hart Crane had this to say (or shout): “I feel like shouting EUREKA! Easily the epic of the age.”

George Bernard Shaw was disturbed by Ulysses, and its view of Ireland – so much so that it tormented him a bit. He saw it as an indictment (and, in a way, it was). He said, however: “If a man holds up a mirror to your nature and shows you that it needs washing — not whitewashing — it is no use breaking the mirror. Go for soap and water.”

T.S. Eliot was especially devastated by the book, and his comments on it are numerous. Examples: “How could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter?” And also – this quote really touches me, because as a writer, Eliot wasn’t half-bad himself: “I wish, for my own sake, that I had not read it.” And lastly (and I think this pretty much gets at the root of what was so disturbing to Eliot): “I hold Ulysses to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”

And here is the lady who first made this “epic of the age” available to the world, at great financial and personal risk:

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Joyce eventually moved to another publisher – for later editions – which left Beach financially stranded (along with the Great Depression which really hit Shakespeare & Co. hard.) But Beach had rich influential literary friends – many of whom came to her rescue during this difficult time. Famous writers did readings at Shakespeare & Co., admission was charged, people paid subscription fees – and in this way the bookstore made it through. Beach died in 1962. She is widely revered for her courageous independent move to publish Ulysses – the book that T.S. Eliot said “destroyed the 19th century”.

She said:

I was on the platform, my heart going like the locomotive, as the train from Dijon came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone — me. In a few minutes, I was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing them Copy No. 1 of Ulysses. It was February 2, 1922.

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Sylvia Beach and James Joyce, in the doorway of Shakespeare & Co.

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11 Responses to Happy Birthday to Sylvia Beach, the “Midwife of Modernism”

  1. What a wonderful tribute, Sheila. How I envy all of your reading and knowledge about literature and applaud you for sharing it with the world. Does S&C still exist, do you know? Probably not for how could something so imbued with the life force of its founder survive her death. Thanks!

    • sheila says:

      Marilyn – so nice, thank you so much! I have to pay tribute to my father, who spoke about Sylvia Beach with familiarity as though she was a member of our family.

      Shakespeare & Co. DOES still exist – but it is no longer in the same location! But it’s a museum and pilgrimage spot – my parents went a bunch of times. I have always wanted to go!

  2. sheila says:

    Here’s the current Shakespeare & Co. website! http://www.shakespeareandcompany.com/

  3. Doc Horton says:

    Good old Frank (frankdelaney.com) is going to do a special podcast about Sylvia tomorrow. It may be found on the reJoyce section of his blog. It will no doubt be a winner.

  4. Jennchez says:

    One of my favorite time travel fantasies is Paris in the 1920’s. For artists of all walks. The greats were all there. My husband and I read “Hemingway the Paris Years” on vacation a couple years ago and our imagination soared!! What an amazing time, to be a fly on the wall :) Thank you for the essay on this incredible woman. I always enjoy reading your take on this incredible period of time.

    • sheila says:

      I know!! There’s a brief shot of the outside of the book shop in Midnight in Paris. James Joyce was, of course, noticeably absent from that film – I blame Joyce’s annoying grandson who is a jackass when it comes to allowing people to “represent” his grandfather or use his works in any way. He’s a litigious sonofabitch. As far as I know, Woody Allen hasn’t spoken of any wranglings he had with the Joyce estate, but I just know that Allen would have requested permission to include Joyce, and would have been stopped by Stephen Joyce. There;s probably a very interesting story there!

  5. The University at Buffalo has a collection of Joyceania — including a trove of Sylvia Beach material– that you should visit some time. It cheers me up just knowing it is there
    http://library.buffalo.edu/pl/collections/jamesjoyce/catalog/xx.htm

    • sheila says:

      Bill – I am always happy to know that stuff like that is safe somewhere. Like: SOMEONE is watching over it!!

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