A literary mother and midwife

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce in her Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.
Sylvia Beach and James Joyce in her Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. (Courtesy of Sylvia Beach Papers, Manuscripts Division, Princeton University Library)
Posted: October 05, 2012

By Seymour I. "Spence" Toll

Some threatened species don't have fins or wings. One such is the independent bookstore, the finest example of which was Shakespeare and Company, on Paris' Left Bank. From its 1919 opening to its forced closure under German occupation in 1941, its remarkably gifted owner was the American expatriate Sylvia Beach, who died 50 years ago today.

In a 2010 New York Times review, Dwight Garner called Beach "the patron saint" of "the world's dwindling independent bookstores." She earned that canonization through her incomparable contributions to the creative American expatriates of 1920s Paris, long misnamed the "Lost Generation." One of them, Ernest Hemingway, offered this judgment of Beach: "No one that I ever knew was nicer to me."

Despite her lack of wealth, Beach helped impoverished expats with funds, a mailing address, recently published American books that some couldn't even afford to rent, a fireside to chat by, and one of the most influential and least pretentious avant-garde salons in Paris. Part mother, part kid sister, she encouraged, backed, and promoted them. Yet if she had done nothing else, she would deserve deep and permanent respect for her selfless, single-handed role as publisher of James Joyce's Ulysses.

Mother hen

Born in Baltimore in 1887, Beach was the second of three daughters of a Presbyterian minister descended from several generations of clerics. In its early years, the family lived in Bridgeton and Princeton, N.J., and in 1901, her father took a pulpit in Paris for three years.

As a young woman, Sylvia spent much of her life moving around Europe. During the closing years of World War I, studying modern French literature in Paris, she discovered Adrienne Monnier and her pioneering lending library and bookstore on the Left Bank's rue de l'Odéon.

Monnier became Beach's mentor and lover. In her shop, she offered readings by modern French authors and encouraged their writing. Beach was so attracted to the model that she went on to open an English-language bookstore and lending library around the corner from Monnier's.

Now Beach could do for American and English literature what Monnier did for French. In an interview shortly before she died, Beach remembered being called the "mother hen of the '20s." Among those she played that valuable role to were Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, Stephen Vincent Benét, Janet Flanner, John dos Passos, and Virgil Thomson.

In 1920, the American author and sometime Paris resident Ezra Pound persuaded James Joyce to move with his family from Trieste, Italy, to Paris to complete Ulysses. In 1921, Joyce went to Beach's bookshop and shared his despair that English and American antiobscenity laws were preventing the publication of excerpts of the novel. In her modest, absorbing memoir, Beach wrote that she asked if "Shakespeare and Company [could] have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses," and Joyce accepted immediately.

Literary leech

From then until she published the book, in 1922, Beach was nearly bankrupted by the costs of publication and financial support for the poor but big-spending Joyce. When proofs began arriving from the printer, Joyce treated them as if they were blank sheets, writing new drafts; he went through six sets. For Beach, however, this chaotic, seemingly endless project was the "most important event in the life of Shakespeare and Company."

It would also become a financial success for which, thanks to Joyce, she got nothing. The critic Leon Edel called the Irish author "the most incredible literary leech of all time."

Joyce had given Beach exclusive publishing rights in a 1930 contract. In 1933, a U.S. court held that the book was not obscene. Now that it could be sold in America, Joyce negotiated its sale to a major American publisher and sent a friend to tell Beach that Joyce had no contract with her. "You're standing in the way of Joyce's interests," the friend told her.

Reflecting on Joyce and herself, Patron Saint Sylvia wrote, "I felt an immense joy over his good fortune, which was to put an end to his financial troubles. As for my personal feelings, well, one is not at all proud of them, and they should be promptly dumped when they no longer serve a purpose." In purest spirit, she concluded, "A baby belongs to its mother, not to the midwife, doesn't it?"

Seymour I. "Spence" Toll is a Philadelphia lawyer and author.

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