When was the last time you wrote a letter to a friend or even to a business? Most of us rely on Facebook and e-mail now to keep in touch. However, we don’t keep those messages the way we once did when we received a letter.
And think of what we would never know about prominent people like Sylvia Beach if we didn’t have her letters. I just read Letters of Sylvia Beach which was edited by Keri Walsh. Sylvia Beach is the woman who opened her bookstore in Paris in 1921 and made the bookstore Shakespeare and Company famous when she published the controversial book by James Joyce called Ulysses.Much has been said about her influence in the 1920s and much has been critiqued about what happened when Joyce stopped publishing books with her. But what interested me was some of the character qualities that emanated from her letters – qualities that I was drawn to.
- Sylvia Beach identified her passion and decided to pursue it.
When Sylvia was in Paris, her mother suggested that she start an export business which she tried but it just wasn’t that lucrative and more importantly, that interesting to her. She thought about how she was a voracious reader, and so she decided to open a book store that would appeal to all the English speaking people who were living in Paris.
- Sylvia Beach was not one to give up on her dreams.
Around the same time she decided to open a book store, a large library for the English had just opened. Rather than giving up, she realized that this library didn’t collect new fiction and non-fiction which became her focus.
- Sylvia was not afraid to non-conform.
Up till then bookstores all looked the same – rather dark inside with rows of bookcases. She decided to place her books only along the perimeter of the walls and covered the floors with rugs making the space welcoming and comfortable.
- Sylvia took risks when she believed in something passionately.
When James Joyce’ book Ulysses was being censored in United States, she boldly published it in Paris. She also smuggled copies back into the United States.
“You probably saw in the papers the uproar cased by the trial of the Editors of the Little Review for printing some of Ulysses in it, and how they were fined $100 and their thumb prints taken. Nine stenographers gave up the typing of the last episode here in Paris and a gentleman from the British Embassy burned a dozen pages . .. he threw ‘e, into the fire in a rage. Ulysses is a masterpiece and one day it will be ranked among the classics in English literature. Joyce is in Paris and I told him I would publish his book, after the publisher in New York threw up the job in a fright.
- Sylvia had a sense of humour.
“Have you, for example, ever read Les Miserables? I never have till now and am at Vol 2. It pays to read it, even if you wear out two or three pairs of glasses in doing so.”
(On a long air flight) In the morning, I stayed awhile in the bathroom to fascinate myself with the numerous comforts that were installed there – beautiful electric razors and all that – and the poop deck in the lavatory where one does not flush – because that is immediately absorbed by the septic tank, like they make you take note, when the hostess came to ask me politely if I thought of staying there much longer “it’s that it’s that of the men you’re in”, she told me. “That explains al those electric razors, I told her.” (1953)
Even though James Ulysse’s book was censored in United States, she believed that she was publishing the “greatest book and author of the age” !
- Sylvia had developed loyal friends who were prepared to take risks with her.
Marion, you were such an angel to take all that trouble bootlegging for me! As for the two copies that were confiscated, it was a miracle they were not all taken. 500 copies of the 2nd edition which appeared in ctober were seized in the States and the same number were destroyed in England about two mnths ago by the enlightened (?) authorities. What a dark age were are living in and what a privilege to behold the spectacle of ignorant men solemnly deciding whether the work of some great writer is suitable for the public to read or not!
- Sylvia was honest and forthright.
“I wish you would stop making those melodies thought, George. The more you put of them in your work the more it doesn’t suit it, and they do give me slightly a bellyache. Excuse me for being so frank dearest George, it’s for your good”.
- Sylvia was not afraid to apologize.
(An apology for not getting to the task of publishing an author’s work ): “It is quite unforgivable. Adrienne was ill at the time I got the MS, and since then we have had an unbroken series of what they would call “emmerdements” ranging from a felon on my thumb and a finger cut off in the door of the car to the dog nearly dying with typhus; and Adrienne after an abscess in her tooth is now being slowly cured of a “dilatation d’estomac” which we hope will wind up the series, but I know I should have attended to the MW. In spite of all thatYou do everything under far greater difficultiesI am sure.”
- Sylvia wrote many letters to friends and nurtured friendships.
Just before the war when most Americans and English had left Paris, her business was greatly suffering. Those same friends would often send her money or gifts to help her. She sent many letters expressing her gratitude.
- Sylvia did not give up very easily during tough circumstances.
(1932) My time and energy are entirely absorbed in the problem of keeping my shop going in these bad times. Since most of the English and Americans have gone away, the library terms have to be revised for the French who, I hope, will take their place. From morning till night I am busy cataloguing and arranging the books and attending to all the rest of the work that is always accumulating on account of my headaches so often laying me up.
- Sylvia was brave when she stayed in France during the German occupation
Rather than returning to the United States during the German occupation of France, Beach opted to stay in France. Therefore, the Germans sent Beach to an internment camp along with other American and Brits who made that same decision. Before she was captured, she closed her bookstore, painted over the Shakespeare and Company sign, and hid all of her books upstairs. (She never reopened the store).
- Sylvia accomplished so much even though she suffered from a lifetime of migraines.
(1937) “And then I’ve been in bed with a very bad headache which lays me down hard every week or so, in a way that would disgust anyone. That’s why the cables from two firms who seem to be expecting my memoirs never get an answer, and never will probably unless Sylvia (her friend’s daughter) hurries up and comes over to the rescue.
(1947) “Am working on my headaches and think have got somewhere at last. A friend took me to a doc who does massage and has you do exercises and its not Chinese nor Swedish nor Hindu but his own invention. I’ve had osteopathy, and napropathy and electro therapy, and pressure on the nerve centres and all the injections that have been discovered and this is the first time any one ever seemed to get anywhere near my headaches.”
- Sylvia knew what her life purpose was until her death.
The 1920’s were very significant years in Paris when authors like Earnest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce were all exploring their literary styles and interacting with other great authors. Throughout her life, Sylvia Beach was regarded as the guardian of the memory of 1920s in Paris. She wrote her book of memoirs, catalogued books from her store, and kept the memory of those exciting years alive until at 75, she died in Paris.
Initially, Sylvia Beach opened her bookstore on the rue Dupuytren, but in 1921 she moved it to the rue de l”Odeon. Currently, a small specialty shop called Moi Cani inhabits Shakespeare and Company’s premises at 12 rue de l’Odeon. Only a commemorative plaque remains on this building. However, On the rue de la Bucherie, Whitman opened a bookstore first called Le Mistral, in 1951. He later renamed the shop Shakespeare and Company in honour of Beach’s and presently, his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman runs the bookstore.