After the Great War, Sylvia Beach founded, with money from her mother, Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookshop and lending library on the Left Bank in Paris.  As the American expatriate wrote much later, “I have always loved books and their authors.”  She was encouraged by another woman bookseller, Adrienne Monnier, well known to French literary historians.  They were long-term lovers.  Sylvia had been baptized Nancy, but renamed herself—presumably after her father, Sylvester, a Presbyterian minister.  She had two sisters, one of whom likewise changed her name—to Cyprian—and took up with a woman.

Beach’s shop became a gathering place for the Lost Generation and other American expatriate authors, whose writing she fostered.  She is best known, however, as the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).  She took on that task after Joyce, then living in Paris, found no one in England willing to print the entire work.

Beach’s endeavors have been known to the literary world for decades.  Numerous studies, reminiscences, and correspondences, some familiar to Chronicles readers, have documented her role; they include two volumes of Joyce’s letters (1957), Stanislaus Joyce’s memoir (1958), Beach’s Shakespeare and Company (1959), Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce (1959), Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), Noel Riley Fitch’s Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation (1983), and Joyce’s letters to Beach (1987).  It is thus unsurprising that no major revelations appear in this volume, which draws materials from American libraries (including Princeton, Buffalo, Indiana, the University of Texas), and from the British Library.  (The Beach letters at the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich are currently closed to all but in-house scholars.)

Beach was a central figure but not a towering one, partly because she was not herself a major writer or critic.  A facilitator, to be sure, but perhaps less important than Fitch’s Foreword here suggests by calling her “the midwife of literary modernism.”  Unless, that is, modernism is defined as a purely Anglo-American phenomenon.  Even it flourished elsewhere also, with little or no help from Beach—W.B. Yeats in Ireland, T.S. Eliot in England, Ezra Pound in England and Italy as well as Paris.  Nor should one forget The Little Review and The Dial.  In France, Gallimard publishers, the Mercure de France, the Nouvelle Revue Française, and others supported innovative writing (Marcel Proust’s and André Gide’s prose, Guillaume Apollinaire’s verse) that overturned 19th-century fictional and poetic conventions.

The letters are organized by date in seven parts; the critical matter comprises an Introduction, references, a chronology, appendices, a glossary of correspondents, and an Index.  Beach’s correspondents included the composer George Antheil, “Bryher” (Annie Ellerman) and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Janet Flanner (“Genêt” of The New Yorker), Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Ezra and Dorothy Pound, Gertrude Stein, Allen Tate, and William Carlos Williams. (Letters written to Beach are not included; it is thus sometimes difficult to grasp the circumstances in which she wrote and follow her remarks.)  It should be added that Beach was no great stylist.  Eccentricities of expression and spelling mark the letters as hers, but her writing was neither beautiful, incisive, nor profound.  While many missives contain brief comments on new books as well as miscellaneous literary and biographical information, others are trivial (like Proust’s laundry lists) or tedious, notably those concerning possible acquisition of Beach’s Joyce collection by libraries.  The volume reminds one generally of a conversation filled with facts and gossip appreciated by those present but of small appeal beyond that circle and time.


[The Letters of Sylvia Beach, Keri Walsh, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press) 347 pp., $29.95]