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  • Shakespeare on the Left Bank
  • Seymour I. Toll (bio)

A good many friends had been waiting for the opening of Shakespeare and Company; and the news soon got around that the time had come. Still, I didn't really expect to see anybody that day. And just as well, I thought. I would need at least twenty-four hours to realize this Shakespeare and Company bookshop. But the shutters in which the little shop went to bed every night were hardly removed (by a waiter from a nearby café) when the first friends began to turn up. From that moment on, for over twenty years, they never gave me time to meditate. Lending books, just as I had foreseen, was much easier in Paris than selling them.

—Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia was kind to me from the beginning. I never knew why, except that true kindness needs no reason.

—Allen Tate, Memoirs and Opinions 1926-1974

The cold hands of commerce warm nicely in a fine independent bookshop. Honoring that valuable cultural institution seems especially appropriate when its days are withering away. Since 2002 nearly one out of five in the U.S. have closed. This is happening in a year that marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), who has been rightly called the patron saint of independent bookshops. She was "canonized" for founding Shakespeare and Company, her renowned Paris bookshop and lending library. Opened in 1919 soon after the end of World War i and closed by the Nazi occupation of Paris (1940-1944) during World War ii, her shop turned out to be a major supporter in the making of twentieth-century modern literature.

The Beach sainthood was earned for enriching the lives of the creative young American expatriates in Paris of the 1920s (named the Lost Generation, [End Page 558] according to Hemingway in quoting Gertrude Stein) as well as those of their European counterparts. At her shop they could always find funds, tea and sympathy, a fireside, a mailing address, recent American books that some of them couldn't even afford to rent, and the stimulus of the least pretentious all-day salon in Paris.

Although neither a forgotten woman, nor one embarrassed by publicity, Sylvia Beach had a curious talent for fading into the background when the limelight turned on the many talented American and European artists she helped toward fame. Part mother, part kid sister, she encouraged them, backed them, comforted them, and, above all, promoted them while enduring a good deal of their nonsense and taking none of their glory. Shakespeare and Company performed like a fine lens, gathering the complicated lives and works of her patrons and friends into a place in Paris where the swirl of literary life could be focused. There they could steadily sense what was going on in their avant-garde world.

History has treated her as generously as she treated them. She has been repeatedly honored for laboring to make visible the art that many of them were trying to create in obscurity. But, even if she had never given such exceptional service, she would still be celebrated for performing a sublime act of literary midwifery—the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses.

The breadth of the benign Beach influence is barely suggested by noting some of the authors who contributed homages to her in a memorial volume published in France soon after her death there in 1962: T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, Allen Tate, Janet Flanner, and Malcolm Cowley. Her honored name winds like a bright strand through a great skein of her contemporaries' memoirs. Ernest Hemingway perfectly summarized her influence: "No one I ever knew was nicer to me."

Sylvia (who abandoned her given name, Nancy) Beach was born in Baltimore, the second of three daughters whose father was a Presbyterian minister descended from several generations of such clerics. Her maternal grandfather was a medical missionary to India, and her mother loved the company of artists, a trait that marked Sylvia throughout her forty-five years of expatriation. After living in Baltimore and Bridgeton, New Jersey, in 1901 the family moved to France, where the...


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pp. 558-569
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