Beach, Sylvia

views updated

BEACH, Sylvia

Born 14 March 1887, Baltimore, Maryland; died 6 October 1962, Paris, France

Daughter of Sylvester Woodbridge and Eleanor Orbison Beach

The second of three daughters born to a long line of ministers and missionaries, Sylvia Beach was reared in the First Presbyterian parsonage of Bridgeton, New Jersey. From 1902 to 1905, while she was a teenager, the family lived in Paris, where her father was an associate pastor of the American Church. She attended school briefly in Lausanne, but was largely self-taught.

After her family settled permanently in Princeton, Beach made several extended trips to Spain, Italy, and France without her parents. In 1919 she returned to Paris to stay. On 19 November of that year she opened her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, at No. 8 rue Dupuytren. Here she assembled the best in English and American literature. She established herself with the aid of Adrienne Monnier, owner of a bookshop and lending library frequented by André Gide, Paul Valéry, Valery Larbaud, Léon-Paul Fargue, Jules Romains, and other eminent French writers. Beach and Adrienne Monnier were devoted friends; for many years they shared an apartment on the rue de l'Odéon.

Shakespeare and Company, the first American bookshop in Paris, soon became the center of French and Anglo-American literary activities on the continent as Americans gravitated in increasing numbers to Paris. Early patrons of the lending library included Stephen Vincent Benét, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, Robert McAlmon, James Joyce, Thornton Wilder, and Ernest Hemingway. The bookshop moved to its permanent address at No. 12 rue de l'Odéon, across the street from Adrienne's bookshop, in the summer of 1921. On this quiet little street, says Cyril Connelly, the bookshop was "hidden like a cache of dynamite in a solemn crypt."

Beach published for the first time the complete edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, the first copy of which she delivered to Joyce on his birthday, 2 February 1922. Her intercession with the printer allowed Joyce to write a third of the novel on the page proofs. She promoted the book, mailed it all over the world, and arranged for copies to be smuggled from Canada into the United States. She named 16 June "Bloomsday" in honor of Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, whose life on that date is presented in the novel. In May 1930 she issued the 11th and her final edition of Ulysses. After the novel was cleared by the U.S. court of Judge John M. Woolsey, it was published by Random House in 1934. She also published Joyce's Pomes Penyeach (1927) and Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), a collection of critical articles on Joyce's Finnegans Wake, edited and introduced by Beach.

Although her fame is often associated with her publication of Joyce's work, Beach's genius lay in her ability to stimulate the interaction among the American, English, and French writers of Paris between the wars. With a sense of the genuine in literature and a devotion to literary talent, this young New Jersey minister's daughter became the hub of Parisian literary activity. And she maintained her own identity in a crowd of dominant personalities. Her bookshop and lending library was a post office, bank, and meeting center for the great and soon-to-be-great artists of the 20th century.

She encouraged them to write critical articles, influenced their reading, found them publishers, translators, rooms, and benefactors. She helped organize the English and French little magazines, in which the most distinguished writers of this century got their start, and distributed the magazines in her shop. In her rooms T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, André Gide, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Spender, Paul Valéry, and numerous others read their works. Beach occasionally translated the work of her French friends into English and of her English-speaking friends into French. She and Adrienne Monnier were the first to translate T. S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Although her bookshop was closed by the Nazis in December of 1941, she refused to leave Paris, for she was as much a Parisienne as an American. She was interned for six months in a detention camp at Vittel. After the war she did not reopen the bookshop; she did, however, continue her literary activities, writing, speaking, and lending books from her rue de l'Odéon apartment. In 1950 she received the Denyse Clairouin Award for her translation of Henri Michaux's Barbarian in Asia. In 1959 she helped organize and contributed most of the materials for an outstanding exhibition of the Paris 1920s. The exhibition was shown in Paris and London. For her contribution to the exchange of literature between America and France, she was awarded the Doctor of Letters by the University of Buffalo (1959) and the French Legion of Honor (1938). When Beach died alone of a heart attack in 1962, Archibald MacLeish declared, "She is not alone, then or ever. She had that Company around her."

Other Works:

Beowulf (translated by Beach and Monnier, 1948). Shakespeare and Company (1959, reissued 1991). Writers of the Left Bank (cassette tape, 1962).


Bryher, The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoirs (1962). Fitch, N. R., An American Bookshop in Paris: The Influence of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company on American Literature (dissertation, 1970). Fitch, N. R., Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties (1983, 1985). Ford, H., Published in Paris (1975). Hemingway, E., A Moveable Feast (1963). Hoffman, A., "Private Presses and Literary Patrons as Symbols of Modernism: A Study of Contact Editions, Three Mountains Press and Shakespeare and Company" (thesis, 1998). Hutchinson, A. S., "Nancy Cunard and Sylvia Beach: Contrasting Expatriates" (thesis, 1987). Joyce, J., James Joyce to Sylvia Beach, 1921-1940 (1987, 1990). Monnier, A., Rue de l'Odéon (1960). Monnier, A., The Very Rich Hours (translated by R. McDougall, 1976). Parker, A.T., "The Unveiling of a Genius: Sylvia Beach and James Joyce" (thesis, 1990). Rogers, W. G., Ladies Bountiful (1968). Van Gessel, N. H., Recasting the Midwives of Modernism: Autobiographies of American Expatriate Women Publishers and Editors (dissertation, 1996). Wright, C. M., "Novel Women: Literary Expatriates of the 1920s" (thesis, 1988).

Other reference:

Mercure de France (Aug.-Sept. 1963).


About this article

Beach, Sylvia

Updated About content Print Article