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The Letters of Sylvia Beach (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 4, Summer 2010
pp. 649-652 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0005

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As prominent a figure as Sylvia Beach has been in modern letters, our conception of her derives largely from secondary materials—Women of the Left Bank, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, the Richard Ellmann biography, and a handful of less readily available sources.1 Until now, just about the only published primary source has been her short anecdotal Shakespeare and Company.2 We envision her as a resolute entrepreneur, and we know the familiar chestnuts of her initial introduction to “Mr. Joyce,” her offer to publish Ulysses, and her tireless fulfillment of Joyce’s daily demands to send, to find, to write, to provide, to pay. Little has been known about her relationship with her parents and sisters Holly and Cyprian and little about her years after the close of Shakespeare and Company in 1941 until her death in 1962 just as the Joyce Industry was getting underway.

The Letters of Sylvia Beach offers some confirmation of the received view but also fresh facts and perspectives. Two hundred and sixty-five letters chronologically arranged from her teen years in 1901 (she was born in 1887) to ones sent months before her death in 1962 show Beach engaged in a greater world than we have known her to inhabit. The wonderfully entertaining voice shows her participating fully and confidently in a life like no other. Of particular value are the numerous letters to her family and her lifelong friend Marion Peter in which Beach documents the vicissitudes of her bookshop while recording her travels within France and occasionally across the Atlantic. Family letters sent during and after World War I provide details about her time in France spent picking grapes and later in Serbia as a Red Cross translator in the chaos of the war’s aftermath. Moreover, these letters show Beach, the Baltimore native, becoming a European and, in her independent manners and styles (for instance, a preference for pants over skirts), a feminist. Letters to writers and others in the 1920s—Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Sisley Huddleston, George Antheil—document the centrality of Shakespeare and Company in Parisian cultural life. Later letters to Richard Wright, Bryher, and H. D. explore the close relationships that supported her in her older years. Letters to Adrienne Monnier scattered throughout (as they were from time to time apart from one another) show the domestic intimacy they shared. The thirty photographs, a chronology, and a glossary of correspondents are useful additions to the text.

James Joyce has a relatively minor role in this compilation. No letters document their first meeting. Beach introduces Shakespeare and Company’s first publication in an enthusiastic message to Holly in 1921: “Ulysses is going to make my place famous” (85). The book’s renowned publication goes unmentioned, occurring chronologically between a letter to Waldo Frank in November 1921 and another to Harriet Shaw Weaver in June 1922. Much can be found in succeeding letters regarding Joyce’s health problems and the sales of Ulysses. For instance, in preparing for a second printing of the novel, Beach writes Weaver for advice about negotiating with the printer Maurice Darantiere. Letters to Peter show the latter’s role in bootlegging unmarked packages containing copies of the book and then forwarding them to American purchasers. Of letters to Joyce, the volume contains only a half dozen and about twice that number to Paul Léon. These record in detail the falling-out between Beach and Joyce in the early 1930s, most dramatically expressed in her letter to Joyce of 24 October 1932 in which she writes with absolute frankness: “Although I shall always continue to be devoted to your work, Mr Joyce, I am sorry that I shall no longer be able to serve you personally” (145).

Perhaps of greater value to Joyce studies are the letters that postdate Joyce’s death, showing Beach’s participation in keeping the flame burning during and after the war. Messages to Weaver document the growing interest in Joyce scholarship by Joseph Prescott as well as Stuart Gilbert’s and Ellmann’s compilations of Joyce letters.3 In these and in correspondence with the writer Jackson Mathews, we can follow Beach’s negotiations with potential buyers...

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