Sylvia Beach and Company Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sylvia Beach and Company

The following entry discusses how Beach owned and operated Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookshop in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s.

Owner and operator of the only English-language bookshop in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, during the 1920s and 1930s, Sylvia Beach made a significant contribution to the field of literature by providing a venue for the exchange of ideas and writings between French and Anglo-American authors of her time. Beach's bookshop began as a lending library, and featured many American and English authors that had not been available in France prior to her bookstore opening. She operated the business across the street from her friend and fellow-bookshop owner, Adrienne Monnier, who ran a French bookstore during the years that Beach was proprietor of Shakespeare and Company. Beach had personal connections with many English and American expatriate authors living in France at the time, chief among them a friendship with Irish-born writer James Joyce. It was Beach who provided the means for Joyce to publish his masterpiece, Ulysses (1922) at a time when none of the traditional publishers he worked with were willing to issue his work. The decision by Beach to serve as publisher for Joyce's book is now acknowledged as one of the most significant publishing events in modern literature.

Beach was born in the United States, a daughter of a Protestant clergyman. She came to Paris, France, around 1914, and planned to return to the United States and open a bookstore featuring the works of French authors. When lack of financial backing made this venture impossible, Beach decided to stay in France and opened her bookstore in Paris instead. During her years as a student, Beach had met and become friends with Adrienne Monnier, who herself owned a bookstore, named La Maison des Amis des Livres. It was frequented by many major figures in the French literary world, including André Gide, Valéry Larbaud, and Paul Valéry, among others. When Beach was unable to procure sufficient funds for her bookshop in New York City, Monnier encouraged her to open a store in Paris instead, selling authors of English-language works. Beach did just that, modeling her shop on Monnier's and opening across the street from her mentor and friend, in 1919. Part bookstore, and part lending library, the store became a haven for the large number of expatriate American and English authors living in Paris at the time. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Kay Boyle, and many others were among those who frequented Beach's shop regularly. Beach herself edited the work of many authors, publishing literary reviews of their works, helping them publish their works, and generally providing new and experimental authors with a venue for presentation. She also translated several English-language works into French and vice versa.

In time, Shakespeare and Company became an integral part of the expatriate literary life in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, with many authors even using the store for their mailing address. Inspired by previous expatriates such as Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, many Americans chose to move to Paris, and Shakespeare and Company provided them with a perfect venue to interact with other authors, both French and English. As a business, the bookshop never really made a huge profit, with most of its revenues derived from the subscriptions people paid to use the premises and its contents as a lending library. The most significant literary event in the history of Shakespeare and Company occurred in 1922, when Beach, who had been friends with Joyce for some years and was familiar with the difficulties he was encountering in finding a publisher for his new book, offered to publish it herself. Thus, Beach became a publisher, and Ulysses was published in 1922. It is widely documented that Beach herself made numerous sacrifices in the process of urging Joyce to complete and eventually print his book. Had he not been working with Beach, Joyce would not have been given the allowances he had when working with her. To raise money for the printing, Beach used her own money and found a printer who would publish the work with a promise of future payment. She also wrote letters to her many acquaintances, soliciting subscriptions for the first edition copy of Ulysses, eventually succeeding in issuing the work. The publication of the book jolted both Joyce and Beach into instant fame, although Joyce used another publisher for the second and subsequent printings of his work. Beach continued as proprietor of Shakespeare and Company until the 1940s, but eventually shut it down. Following the start of World War II, many Americans found it hard to support themselves in France, and they moved back home. And while Beach's shop had never made a huge amount of money, these years were especially rough on the business. Ultimately, she was interned by the occupying German army, and by the time she returned in 1944, the war was almost over. She did not open Shakespeare and Company again, but in 1959, she did publish a memoir about her shop and her years in Paris, titled Shakespeare and Company. Beach died in 1962 in her sleep.