Sylvia Beach

by Elyse Graham

During the nineteen-twenties, the literary capital of the United States was a bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris, on an alleyway off the Boulevard St. Germain. The store was called Shakespeare and Company; out front hung a shingle bearing a portrait of the Bard. The front windows displayed rows of covers bearing the names Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot, and Joyce. Inside, the store presented the air of a domestic parlor. Beneath the rows and rows of books stood a warm stove, squashy chairs, a table scattered with current magazines. The walls bore likenesses of Blake, Whitman, and Poe, as well as Oscar Wilde in his usual Byzantine splendor. A small kitchenette stood just out of view, ready to discharge refreshments. For some twenty years, this was the destination if you wanted English books in Paris, but it was also a locus of drink and conversation, a place, on days when your writing ran dry, where you could go and be seen to be a writer.

The New York Times described the proprietor as follows: “Sylvia Beach, the slight young woman in mannish attire, with bobbed hair, keen, level eyes, lips both firm and sensitive, who is ready to welcome visitors on almost any morning or afternoon.” As the bookseller to Paris’s expatriate community, Beach found herself at the center of a social network that called upon her not only as a bookseller and librarian but as a job finder, postmaster, house hunter, social chair, banker, counselor and manuscript reader. “There is just one thing that has been banned definitely from her list of activities,” the Times added. “Don’t ask her to publish your latest novel or the history of your life or other masterpiece. Don’t, furthermore, try to tempt her with the information that such a work of yours is erotic, and certain to shock the sensibilities of the vice commissions. She would like it known that she is not a publisher.” 1

The reason for Beach’s leeriness was that her greatest fame came as a publisher of sensational fiction. In 1921, when it seemed that nobody would publish Ulysses—when an obscenity suit forced The Little Review to stop bringing out installments of the novel, and when no English or American publishing house would touch the manuscript—Beach made arrangements with a printer, hunted down a thousand subscribers, found volunteers to transcribe script, cajoled typesetters into laying out miles of baffling prose, and brought out the novel under the imprint of Shakespeare and Company. The Little Review case had added to the notoriety of the book, the technique of which had already joined the regular topics of comment in the echoing world of little magazines. Beach’s effort made her bookstore, already well known, the focus of international attention; and it made Beach, depending on the source, either her generation’s friend of the arts or its pornographer.

This was a strange fate for a child of the church. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Princeton, New Jersey, Beach first visited Paris as a teenager, where for three years her father led services for young Americans studying abroad. Her family loved France and returned often for visits. In 1917, Beach moved to Paris to study modern French literature.

She found a spiritual home at the bookshop of Adrienne Monnier and a lifelong companion in the proprietor, a stout, energetic woman who favored gypsy skirts and had a startlingly intense gaze. (Beach said that Monnier brought to mind portraits of Blake.) 2 Monnier’s shop was the first lending library in France and an informal clubhouse for French writers. The acquaintance intensified Beach’s ambition to run her own bookshop, and when it became clear that opening a branch of her friend’s store in New York would be too expensive, Monnier convinced her to open an American bookshop in Paris. They found an available space around the corner and stocked it with imports from London and the United States. Shakespeare and Company opened its doors on 19 November 1919.

Shakespeare and Company soon became one of the most famous hubs in the city. By the mid-nineteen-twenties, large groups of young Americans had made their way to Paris. The war was responsible for a substantial part of the exodus; organizations such as the American Ambulance Field Service recruited hundreds of young men from American campuses. Among those brought to Europe by such means were Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, John Peale Bishop, and John Dos Passos; Beach herself had worked for the Red Cross. Paris was cheap and cultured; after service many of the artistically inclined settled in low-rent neighborhoods on the Left Bank and found day jobs with banks or newspapers. 3

More waves of Americans arrived on the momentum of the first, alternately in flight from what they felt to be the provincialism of the American scene and attracted to a fertile crescent of writers and publishers. They were there for the sake of modern art, and modern works in English were rare in Parisian shops. Beach provided what they needed. Sherwood Anderson became a member of her library after he noticed in her window a copy of Winesburg, Ohio. It was the first copy of his book that he had seen in Paris, he said (SC, 30).

The question of what gives rise to cultural explosions like nineteenth-century Boston or nineteen-twenties Paris is too complex for students of history to lay to rest and too interesting for that to keep them from trying. The sociologist Randall Collins has proposed that intellectual communities are self-reinforcing. The idea is that although intellectual work is lonely work—writing happens with the curtains shut—it is often social in its sources and trajectory; not only do our thoughts tend to play with ideas from recent conversations, but also the energy that powers sustained bursts of creative labor often comes, Collins argues, from excitement generated in social interactions. Collins thinks that groups of artists talk ideas, get worked up, and then go off and use that energy to drive hours of lonely creativity, elements of which the members bring back to the group to win status and influence the conversation. Further, the terms that we use to evaluate our own ideas are partly those that we internalize from the community; ideas that feel successful, that stir private enthusiasm and the resolve to press on, feel successful as arguments in an imagined conversation with the membership of a field of endeavor, and if you’re familiar with the newest problems and terms of discussion in your field, the feeling might be that much better. By this reasoning, communities such as the Boston transcendentalists and the Bloomsbury group benefit from the intellectual equivalent of a feedback loop. Circles of writers feed off each other’s ideas, shuttle off to work in isolation, and return with new material to throw into the fray. 4

Beach provided such a community. She also provided good cold connections. Shakespeare and Company was the city’s main outlet for little expatriate magazines published in Paris, and Beach put writers in touch with editors who needed material. The bookstore sold the Transatlantic Review, The New Review, This Quarter, Exile, transition, Gargoyle, and Tambour, as well as publications from other cities, such as Poetry, The Little Review, and The Dial. For a writer, the trade-off for appearing in a little magazine was that your readership might fit in a café, but there was space and freedom for experimentation, and an editor somewhere might take notice. Noel Riley Fitch quotes a suggestion from the historian Charles Allen that some eighty percent of the last century’s notable writers first appeared in little magazines (Fitch, 61).

Beach also made herself indispensable to the many small publishing firms that struggled to establish themselves on the well-meaning business model of publishing writers who were too far to the fringe to promise commercial success to larger houses. Beach offered advice, found them manuscripts, loaned them the use of her address, and, of course, sold their books. Robert McAlmon, who published Hemingway’s first book as well as The Making of Americans, ran his business from the bookshop’s address. When the heads of the Black Sun Press requested something from Work in Progress, she brought them a scrap of manuscript that they published as Tales Told of Shem and Shaun. To the Obelisk Press, whose head was an Englishman who admired her daring for publishing such ground-breaking pornography as Ulysses, she sent the writers who offered her their own erotica (Fitch, 304).

And she helped writers. The bookshop’s street number, No. 12 rue de l’Odéon, was the postal address for Joyce, Hemingway, George Antheil, and others—so many that Bryher donated a pigeonholed case for sorting mail. As Fitch notes, Beach cheered writers on, found them lodging, advised their reading, and connected them with translators and patrons (Fitch, 17). Hemingway, who visited daily to share gossip and read fresh magazines, called himself the store’s “best customer.” Beach in turn pampered Hemingway, loaned him money, and talked up his work to the man who became his publisher in England. James Joyce for many years made the bookshop a second home.

What was so special about this woman, that those who visited never left? She was an offspring of the metropolitan era’s models of emancipated womanhood: quick, good-humored, and fearlessly independent. Democratic in manners and speech, interested in anyone who wanted to write, and poised to lure genius into her sphere, she had what Tocqueville called the “happy boldness” of the American woman. Cyril Connolly wrote in 1960 that “there really is something birdlike about her—vivacity, energy, simplicity, unsentimentality—a bird from the Greek Anthology.” 5

In the eyes of her companions, not only Frenchmen but Americans unsure of their attitudes toward home, she conveyed her nation’s virtues of optimism and self-reliance. She smiled often, smoked nonstop, and kept a cutting edge behind her humor. And she had—to speak as history—impeccable taste. If such a woman thought you were a genius, you might well hang around her shop. And if she knew you were not a genius, you might hang around in the hope of convincing her otherwise.

She was also the rare practical body in a place running over with artists. Robert McAlmon wrote to her in 1931, “I’m always asking you to do things, but you seem about the only responsible person I know.” 6 She organized readings and exhibitions, raised funds on their behalf, and took charge of manuscripts. To art she directed the devotional energy that had once belonged to her father. “To her, writers were artisans,” wrote Leslie Katz in 1963. “Publication and distribution of their work was a consecrated practicality, an act of communion, a personal commitment to merit.” 7

This is a sense of art that also belonged to her most famous associate, James Joyce, and it gave a shape to their collaboration that made it vulnerable to criticism from many quarters. The publication of Ulysses was an ambitious undertaking to begin with, and Joyce allowed no step back from the limit. “Joyce accepted favors and demanded services as if he were not a person but a sanctified cause,” Malcolm Cowley later wrote. “It was, he seemed to be saying, a privilege to devote one’s life to the cause, and those who paid his debts for him were sure to be rewarded in heaven. Miss Beach agreed with him.” 8 It is also true, though, that the effort paid off exactly as Beach hoped. They made a great book.

Beach and Joyce first met at a party in 1920 and chatted about his difficulties with Ulysses, on which he had been working for seven years. “Joyce’s manner was so extremely simple that, overcome as I was in the presence in the greatest writer of my time, I somehow felt at ease with him,” Beach later wrote, adding that Joyce seemed amused by her name and the name of her bookstore (SC, 37). He visited her the next day.

Shakespeare and Company became a daily haunt for Joyce. An admirer of the lively American vernacular, he befriended the Americans—Hemingway, Robert McAlmon, William Bird, Archibald MacLeish, Scott Fitzgerald—who frequented “Sylvia’s” shop. The American exiles felt ambivalent about how to position themselves with respect to their national identity; on one hand, they pointed up their status as exiles in order to identify with a supranational aristocracy, a global tradition in which the audience for literature was an elite of artists and readers from across historical and geographic distance; on the other hand, they felt that their language incarnated force and vigor, a sentiment that tended to heighten the democratic flavor of their speech. 9 “My rough-and-tumble compatriots used to come and go without greeting anybody, as if my bookshop were a railway station, or if they did hail somebody, it was ‘Hi Hem’ or ‘Hi Bob’,” Beach wrote. “I know this custom shocked Joyce. In vain did he set a good example by his ‘Miss Monnier’ and ‘Miss Beach’” (SC, 41).

In February 1921 The Little Review lost its obscenity suit, the fine for which ruined the magazine financially. “My book will never come out now,” Joyce told Beach. After some thought she asked, “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?” “He accepted my honor immediately and joyfully,” she reported. “I thought it rash of him to trust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I” (SC, 47).

The next year was given over to the completion and publication of Joyce’s manuscript. Alongside her bookstore duties, Beach handled Joyce’s mail, consulted him regarding changes, loaned him small sums, found a printer willing to work on spec, and commissioned volunteers to type the author’s drafts, an increasingly difficult task as his eyesight worsened. That she lived a short walk from Joyce allowed him to see the page proofs as the printer produced them daily; he took advantage of the privilege by writing additions and corrections in the margins, sending the proofs back for extension in type, much to the printer’s consternation. A third of the final text consists of these additions. The extra work delayed the date of publication for months. Beach had, meanwhile, moved the bookstore around the corner to give everyone more room and hired assistants to look after the business. “It seemed natural to me,” she said, “that the efforts and sacrifices on my part should be proportionate to the greatness of the work I was publishing” (SC, 60).

One of the aspects that Beach had learned of Joyce was that he was given to magical thinking. He believed that puns have divinatory potential, that you can punish enemies by making them suffer in print. He took heart in the fact that while writing his ambitious work he reached the approximate age at which Shakespeare had written Hamlet and Dante the Inferno. So Beach determined that Ulysses should share Joyce’s fortieth birthday, 2 February 1922. The slow pace of work made this a bold plan—the final proofs went to the printer on January 31—but the printer succeeded in producing two copies on the expectant day. Beach gave one to Joyce and set the other in her store window, where it drew a small crowd.

The preceding months had involved a frenetic hunt for subscribers, with the first print run set at a thousand copies and money from relatives as well as the store’s profits invested in the book. The price was $12 for the cheapest edition and $28 for a signed copy. The bulk of subscriptions came from Great Britain, fewer from the United States, where the obscenity verdict must have made any payment for shipping look like a loss. Robert McAlmon, who later published Finnegans Wake, mounted an aggressive campaign for subscriptions, crawling nightclubs and delivering to Beach every morning bundles of “slightly zigzag” signatures (SC, 51). By 1930 the book had gone through eleven printings, comprising some TK copies.

It may have been students and artists whose enthusiasm made Ulysses an object of intense discussion in magazines that surveyed the arts, but they were not the ones responsible for its high sales. The book had also become a vanity item for tourists. “Ten years ago,” said The Washington Post in 1934, “on the shelf of some friend who had come back from Paris, you might have seen ‘Ulysses’—a fat, black-bound volume with the imprint of Shakespeare & Co.” 10 The friend might have guided you to the shelf. Possession of such high-class contraband suggested membership in the class of sophisticates who traveled abroad and were worldly enough to flirt with decadence.

Shakespeare and Company assisted American and English customers with disguises made from the jackets of less offensive volumes, such as Shakespeare’s Works Complete in One Volume or Merry Tales for Little Folks. Alongside the confiscation of copies at New York ports there grew entertaining tales of smuggling. The largest organized importation was an innovation of Hemingway’s. He put Beach in touch with one Bernard Braverman, who rented an apartment in Windsor, Ontario, where he received regular shipments of books and rode the ferry to Detroit every day with one or two copies in his pants. From there the books went by express post to subscribers.

Back in Paris, Beach was learning that in publishing, success tends to attract not money but manuscripts. “After the success of Ulysses,” she said, “writers flocked to Shakespeare and Company on the assumption that I was going to specialize in erotica” (SC, 91). She explained to them that she would publish only Joyce. The imprint could hardly take another author, since its art-first ethos left the margins low to nonexistent. When in 1927 Shakespeare and Company published Pomes Penyeach, a collection of thirteen of Joyce’s poems, the author proposed whimsically that the volume be packaged as a baker’s dozen and sold for one shilling; he wanted the cover to be the green of the Calville apple. Beach found appropriate covers, but their price was too high for a shilling to cover the cost of production. Nevertheless, to keep faithful to the title she sold the book at a loss (SC, 175). (In 1929 Shakespeare and Company published its final work, a collection of studies of Work in Progress.)

If a publisher is someone who supports and distributes creativity, someone who takes care of the substance so that the sense can take care of itself, in a sense Beach became the publisher not only of Ulysses but of Joyce as an artistic personality. Few people imagine themselves to write as personae, but the familiar observation of inconsistency between a writer and his voice is valid: it’s just that he likely sees his daily self as the persona, and if its functions can be outsourced to an actual other person, so much the better. The self that lives in conversation with the work, that choreographs the life of an artist, requires for its support a disorderly second life made up of the sort of obligations and distractions that show up in lists and contracts and receipts, as advancing armies are said to leave behind them trails of fluttering bits of paper. It was to this aspect that Beach attended. She acted as Joyce’s literary agent in the heat of interdictions and copyright disputes, wrote appeals to prospective reviewers, handled requests from reporters and photographers, and dealt with the crowds who came to see him at her shop. She also managed his personal affairs. T.S. Eliot recalled his surprise at learning, when Joyce visited England, that Joyce had no bank account: “When he needed money he wrote to Sylvia, who promptly sent a banker’s draft, which he would then give me to cash for him at my bank.” 10

The lack of accounting in this arrangement was responsible for the sour turn their relationship eventually took. Around 1930, Nora and George Joyce, conscious that Ulysses was the subject of persistent cultural excitement and suspicious that such a book should be making more money, pressured Joyce to ask Beach for an accounting of the profits. He may also have asked for a second outlet, even though he had just signed a contract with Shakespeare and Company. 11 Meanwhile, Adrienne Monnier tried to pull Beach away from what she saw as the author’s growing tyranny over her life. (He used to send Beach to pick up eye drops and theater tickets; he wrote out what he called “grocer’s lists” of petty tasks.) (Fitch 1969, 127) In 1931, Monnier sent an angry letter to Joyce, declaring that he couldn’t insist on literary experimentalism and then turn his frustration on Beach when he didn’t sell enough books. She added a scornful analysis of a comment from André Gide that Joyce’s indifference to success and money made him a kind of saint: “What Gide doesn’t know—and like the sons of Noah we put a veil over it—is that you are, on the contrary, very concerned about success and money.” 12 It was a statement calculated to wound: who wants to think that the paper trail shows his true self? Joyce showed his hurt to friends but let the challenge subside; nevertheless, the relationship never mended. In 1932, in the midst of a contract dispute whose terms she took personally, Beach released to Joyce all rights to Ulysses.

In the nineteen-thirties, the flight of Americans from Paris and the arrival of troops drove sales into the ground, although the shop retained its reputation as a clubhouse for literary power. When Beach told Gide that she was thinking of closing shop, he got up a committee of men connected to publishing to subscribe as friends of the library for 200 francs a year. Beach survived on this support during the occupation, helping refugees and keeping a Jewish assistant on payroll. Then in 1941, when Beach refused to sell a German officer her lone copy of Finnegans Wake, which she had displayed in the window, he promised to return and confiscate her merchandise. Within two hours, Beach and her friends had stripped the store of its contents, taking even the light fixtures. That was the quick and quiet end of Shakespeare and Company.

Eventually Beach was taken to an internment camp—the transgression was not the book but the assistant—where she spent six or seven months, tending to the sick and delivering mail. On her release she spent a period in hiding before returning to the rue de l’Odéon, where Monnier still lived. Their quarter of Paris was the last to throw off the occupation. After the war, friends pressed Beach to reopen her shop—T.S. Eliot and others even sought funding for such a project—but she protested exhaustion. Instead she got by on bequests from relatives, gifts from friends, and small sums from articles and interviews, withdrawing into the pleasures of recollection and analysis. She wrote an autobiography, did translations for magazines. The first wave of Joyce students got in touch with her. Her honors included an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Buffalo and a tribute exhibition at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

Beach died in October 1962. That year, the Mercure de France published a special edition with salutes to Beach from admirers and friends. The most graceful lines were the contribution of Leslie Katz: “The person who can bring to an ‘ordinary’ profession a sense of vocation, restores to that profession its genius. Lincoln was a politician, Melville a seaman, Thoreau a camper. She was a bookseller.” 14


1 Marjorie Reid, “Shopkeeper of Shakespeare and Company,” The New York Times 3 December 1922, p. 69. It used to be routine for journalists to pretend to read personal characteristics from the arrangement of a subject’s features; hence the odd remark about the lips. Today journalists tend to look instead for social details on the body.

2 Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991): 13. Hereafter cited as SC, with page number.

3 Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation (New York: W.W. Norton, 1985): 30. Hereafter cited as Fitch, with page number.

4 Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

5 Cyril Connolly, “A Rendezvous for Writers,” Sunday Times 12 June 1960. Reprinted in Mercure de France CCCXLIX (août-septembre, 1963): 163.

6 Noel Riley Fitch, “An American Bookshop in Paris: The Influence of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company on American Literature.” Diss. Washington State University, 1969. Hereafter cited as Fitch 1969, with page number.

7 Leslie Katz, “Meditations on Sylvia Beach,” Mercure de France CCCXLIX (août-septembre, 1963): 83.

8 Malcolm Cowley, “When a Young American…” Mercure de France CCCXLIX (août-septembre, 1963): 58.

9 Pers. comm., Langdon Hammer, April 2008.

10 Troy Hall, “No End of Books: Ulysses in Dublin,” The Washington Post 20 February 1934; p. 9. The black cover would suggest that the owner had the volume rebound, which makes sense given how cheaply Ulysses was printed.

11 T.S. Eliot, “Miss Sylvia Beach,” Mercure de France CCCXLIX (août-septembre, 1963): 10.

12 Mary and Padriac Colum, Our Friend James Joyce (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968): 125.

13  Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983): 651-52.

14 Leslie Katz, “Meditations on Sylvia Beach,” Mercure de France CCCXLIX (août-septembre, 1963): 82.

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