Sylvia Beach and Company Criticism: Shakespeare And Company - Essay

E. Morrill Cody (essay date 12 April 1924)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cody, E. Morrill. “Shakespeare and Company—Paris: Successfully Selling English Books on a French Side Street.” Publishers Weekly 12 (12 April 1924): 1261-63.

[In the following essay, Cody outlines the arrangement and operation of Shakespeare and Company, the bookshop owned and operated by Sylvia Beach in Paris.]

Tucked away in a little narrow street leading up to the Odeon in Paris, hangs a sign on which is painted the head of one Shakespeare, poet and dramatist. Behind the sign is a small American bookshop whose influence on the book-loving people of the Latin quarter and on the English and American writers of Paris, is yearly becoming greater.

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(The entire section is 1765 words.)

Sylvia Beach and Jackson Mathews (interview date winter 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Beach, Sylvia, and Jackson Mathews. “Conversation with Sylvia Beach & Company.” Kenyon Review 22, no. 1 (winter 1960): 137-50.

[In the following interview with Beach, Mathews discusses both her memoir Shakespeare and Company as well as other events and literary personalities that had a connection with Beach's bookshop in Paris.]

Shakespeare and Company is a record of the people and their doings that made Miss Beach's bookshop in Paris the literary headquarters of the twenties. Above all, it is a personal record. When you have read it, you will find a sensitive and moving image of James Joyce in your memory. Adrienne Monnier will be there...

(The entire section is 5160 words.)

Janet Flanner (essay date 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Flanner, Janet. “The Great Amateur Publisher.” In Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), pp. 46-51. Paris: Mercvre de France, 1963.

[In the following essay, Flanner examines Beach's contributions as a publisher as well as her own acquaintance with Beach as she worked to publish Ulysses.]

In the evolution of literature the book publisher has undeniably been the second main essential. Yet individually he has rarely been famed as this necessary major element connected with the appearance of a new great book or even much thanked by its readers. He has been literature's common carrier, like a donkey, with the authors and occasionally their weight of genius loaded on his...

(The entire section is 1981 words.)

Noel Fitch (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fitch, Noel. “Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company: Port of Call for American Expatriates.” Research Studies 33 (1965): 197-207.

[In the following essay, Fitch describes the importance of Sylvia's bookshop, which spanned 22 years between two world wars, and how it enriched the art and writers of three nations.]

On the Left Bank of the Seine in a bookish neighborhood in the oldest part of Paris, a book lover or a James Joyce admirer of the 1920's and 1930's could find Sylvia Beach's bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. He could either cross the Luxembourg Gardens from Montparnasse or walk the three blocks west from the Sorbonne to the rue de l'Odéon. This...

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Nancy Barrineau (essay date 2002)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barrineau, Nancy. “Shakespeare and Company.” Pembroke Magazine 34 (2002): 108-14.

[In the following essay, Barrineau recounts a visit to a newly-reopened Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, founded this time by George Whitman.]

When you enter Shakespeare and Company, the most famous English-language bookstore in Paris, you may see just about anything or anyone. Books spill off the shelves and onto the floor, then from the shop's floor outside onto the front sidewalk. A sleek black cat named Kitty wanders about as if he owns the place. (He is only the latest in a series with the same name, feline replacements for Baskerville, the owner's beloved German Shepherd, who, along with an English tramp named Henry who once stayed here, disappeared suddenly one day.) Photo shoots for movies and advertisements, including one for Christian Dior, are so commonplace that the regular help hardly seem to notice. When I visited in June 2001 with an English class from UNC Pembroke, in fact, camera crews and two actors who could have stepped out of The Great Gatsby blocked the front door, virtually shutting down the store for several hours, but no one blinked an eye. Meanwhile, up in his third-floor study, more microphones were in place to interview George Whitman, the bookshop's celebrity owner, another event the staff regards as commonplace. Documentaries have been produced here at least twice, one for British and another for Swedish t.v.

Regular Monday night readings—they've taken place for decades—may feature famous poets, student writers, or whoever happens to be there for the open-mic events. (Two UNCP students, Karen Dial and James Bass, read with well-published poets and novelists the week we were there.1) Upstairs, the Blue Oyster Tea Room (an appropriately whimsical name for a room both as musty and as full of intrigue and untold stories as any you've ever known) hosts a tea every Sunday afternoon with the same odd assortment of people. The top floor rooms always house young—or not so young—visitors who “flop” here for a week, a month, or half a year (among them Anais Nin, Allen Ginsberg, and Langston Hughes), including the helpers Whitman has employed since the fifties who, in return for a place to stay in Paris, perform duties as varied as cash register attendant, book “cataloguer” (if one can call it that, given the collection's charmed disarray), archive keeper, even website designer.2 Visitors should be prepared to stumble upon a young man sleeping on one of the couches or beds scattered throughout the fourth floor or a woman just out of the shower toweling off wet hair, all the while greeted by the smell of one of George's concoctions being heated on the primitive stove that feeds residents and visitors alike.

The helper in residence this summer, when I visited the bookstore for the second time, was Stephen Pain, son of a British rector, a self-described “quasi-writer” of many genres with four academic degrees and a penchant for travel. At Whitman's request, Pain offered generous amounts of his time and attention to take me on a trip through Shakespeare and Company's extensive archive of press clippings. The scholarly community has by and large ignored the place, at least in journals, but periodicals galore have run articles about Whitman and his bookshop, some more than once. It's an illustrious list that includes the Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Boston Sunday Globe, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, New Republic, Chicago Tribune, AB Bookman's Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, to name only a handful. The names of Shakespeare and Company's famous visitors are equally legendary. Lawrence Durrell. Gregory Corso. Allen Sillitoe. Allen Ginsberg. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Anais Nin. Henry Miller. Bernard Malamud. Vladimir Nabokov. George Plimpton. William Saroyan. James Baldwin. Graham Greene. Sartre. Jacques Lacan. Langston Hughes. Two Hemingway daughters and his sister Joan. The list goes on and on, a veritable Who's Who of Literary Visitors in Paris. And then there are, of course, the thousands upon thousands without literary pedigrees who cross the threshold each year, as well as odder characters from time to time, including just recently, I was told, a fugitive hiding out from the Mafia.

Whitman has always been an inveterate storyteller. He has woven tales and built a larger-than-life mythology about himself until it is impossible to know for sure who he really is or exactly what the bookstore can claim for itself. But the salient facts I've been able to glean from the archives and from Stephen Pain, who had been in residence for six months when I met him, seem to be these. The building, located across from Notre Dame at 37 rue de la Bucherie in the academic center of the city, dates back some 400 years (hard even to imagine for an American like me, raised in a country that has yet to live past adolescence in comparison), when it was the lamplighter's house for a Parisian monastery. When Whitman bought it in 1951, the ground floor level housed restaurants and an Algerian grocery store. Over the years the store swallowed up what were originally three different apartments and three stores. How he financed the original purchase or its expansion is less clear. One story has it that he used the $500. proceeds from a bookstore he sold near Boston, another that the money came from a small inheritance.

Whitman earned degrees in journalism from Boston University and Latin American studies from Harvard before the GI Bill landed him at the Sorbonne. That's where he met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a fellow ex-GI who was there for the same purpose. When Ferlinghetti returned to San Francisco in 1953, he opened City Lights Booksellers, and the two stores have considered each other “sister” stores ever since. (Ferlinghetti was on hand to read his poetry at the 50th anniversary of Shakespeare and Company this past July.) Whitman says he traveled in Greenland and lived for two years with the Eskimos, trekked across Mexico to Panama, lived in China, saw India. True or not, the tales add to the legend. Other “facts” are easier to establish. He married a British woman and produced a child whom he named Sylvia Beach Whitman, a name that once served as Whitman's nom de plume for The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, the pamphlet he wrote about the store.3 Twelve years after her birth, her parents separated and she moved with her mother to Wales but recently made an extended visit to see her father in Paris.

Sylvia's name is a reminder of the heritage her father claimed for his store. In Shakespeare and Company's first decade, one of its famous visitors was Sylvia Beach, an American woman from Princeton, New Jersey, who had made a name for herself as founder of the first Shakespeare & Company, Paris' most famous English-language bookstore of its own day. Beach opened the shop at 8 rue du Dupuytren in November 1921, where it lived for two and a half years, before moving to its more famous location, 12 rue de l'Odeon, where it would stay until December 1941, when veiled threats from an officer of the occupying Nazi regime to seize a copy of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (and perhaps the rest of Beach's voluminous stock) caused her to hide her books and close the shop. Beach was, in fact, interred soon after by the Nazis for eighteen months, and after she was released, she did not reopen it.4

Before her death in 1959, Beach visited Whitman's bookshop from time to time, buying books and attending readings by writers like Laurence Durrell and Richard Wright. After she died, Whitman renamed the bookstore (he had opened it as Le Librarie Mistral, in tribute to a woman with whom he had fallen in love) with, he said, Beach's blessing. (I can't say whether he intentionally changed the name a slight bit or whether he was unaware of Beach's orthography.) The story that Beach somehow passed the mantle to Whitman crops up periodically, like the rumor (which he himself has encouraged from time to time) that he is a descendant—direct or otherwise—of Walt, whose huge likeness hangs on a wall outside the store. No corroboration exists for either of the two legends, which I would hazard to say are true, if at all, only figuratively.

In the twenties and thirties, Beach's Shakespeare & Company defined what an English-language bookstore in Paris could be. It harbored and supported American writers, some already famous and some living in Europe on cheap dollars and struggling for recognition that they had not yet managed to achieve at home. The most famous of that second group, Ernest Hemingway, paid tribute to Beach decades later in A Moveable Feast, his famous memoir, where he wrote, “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me” (35). It was especially high praise scattered as it was among scathing indictments of the other American expatriates, including notables like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, who were a bit more established than he and offered him literary advice. Years later, when Hemingway was famous, those offers seem to have been the unforgivable sin. But Beach never fancied herself a writer and so perhaps failed to threaten him.

Beach might have been lost to literary history (which has, at any rate, still not given her the credit she deserves) had she not turned her bookstore into the publishing house for James Joyce's Ulysses and transformed herself into its one-woman publicist, apologist, promoter, and, after the novel was ruled obscene in the U.S., its smuggler. She was, in addition, the constant supporter of Joyce's considerable ego and the supplier of funds he needed for the luxuries forever denied Beach herself as a consequence of the relationship. (When Noel Riley Fitch's Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation told the full story, it earned Joyce the title of “most incredible literary leech of all time” from reviewer Leon Edel.5) But even more important, I think, was her bookstore's function as the gathering place for conversation about books, the sale of English-language books—many of them American, including all the newest titles in modernist fiction and poetry—to both the French and English-speaking expatriates, and their loan to those who, like Hemingway, could ill afford to buy everything they wanted to read. Without Sylvia Beach and her bookstore, many a writer would have failed to thrive in Europe, and modernism would have lacked one of its most crucial stimulants.

But back to George Whitman. Whether or not Sylvia Beach gave him her blessing and her bookstore's name, there is no question that his Shakespeare and Company has also had an illustrious history, for many of the same reasons. In addition to being a gathering place for English speaking expatriates who love books and disseminating the work of new writers like the Beat poets in the 1940s and 1950s, it, like Beach's enterprise, also tried its hand at literary publishing, though the results were less auspicious (and of shorter note) than Ulysses. In the summer of 1989, Whitman published what was intended to be the first issue of Paris Magazine out of the bookstore. In it appeared, among other pieces, a caricature of the Sunday afternoon teas, an interview with Ferlinghetti, an article by Noel Riley Fitch on the literary attractions of Paris, an expose of the situation of contemporary expatriates in Paris, a memento of Henry Miller, a selection of two of the autobiographies that Whitman requires of all the visitors who come to stay at the bookstore, a piece about Gertrude Stein's walks around Paris, and Whitman's own article, “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart” (later the title of his pamphlet about the store), in which he admits that the shop “sometimes seems a preposterous mixture of Hell's kitchen and Shangrila [sic].” As interesting as this issue was, it never led to any others, probably because of the cost of production, but just this fall the first issue of Kilometer Zero, a similar venture of the bookstore staff (though not of Whitman himself) has appeared.

Sadly, despite Shakespeare and Company's legacy, it is clear that today it is in decline. New books are in short supply because only one or two distributors will fill his orders; the rest have given up on his ability to pay his bills (an irony given the fact that the store is situated on prime Paris real estate). Most of the books spilling out of boxes on the street, in fact, are copies of the paperbacks that Penguin regularly remainders to worthy “causes.” One source even told me that George is reduced to paying cash for stacks of books at another English-language bookstore in order to have something to sell. Repairs and renovations to the store would cost a fortune. And Whitman is 88 (89? 90? reports vary, like every other story here); who will take over the business upon his death is uncertain. Ferlinghetti and Whitman's daughter have been mentioned as literary “heirs,” but no one seems to know for sure. When I asked Stephen Pain about the store's future prospects, he became elusive and vague for the first time during our conversation.

Regardless of its current situation, Shakespeare and Company remains a stimulating place. If it closes, as it seems almost inevitable it will, pilgrims from all over the world who love books and writing will lose an important sanctuary they have relied on for fifty years.

Notes

  1. To see pictures of Shakespeare & Company, as well as of UNCP students Karen Dial and James Bass reading their poetry, go to the pages from the site produced by ENG 465/565. Thanks to Karen Dial's efforts, the store's permanent collection now holds a copy of the first issue of Aurochs, the UNCP student literary magazine inaugurated in 2001.

  2. The website for Shakespeare and Company itself can be found at http://www.shakespeareandco.org/.

  3. The first time I met George Whitman, in March of 1999, I asked him who Sylvia Beach Whitman was and he replied that she was once a patron of the store. Since then, inexplicably, he has excised Sylvia's name and replaced it with his own.

  4. The best source for information about Beach is Noel Riley Fitch's Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation and Beach's own memoir, Shakespeare & Company.

  5. The review appears on the paperback edition's back cover.

Works Cited

Beach, Sylvia. Shakespeare & Company. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959. Rpt. 1991 U of Nebraska P.

Fitch, Noel Riley. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties & Thirties. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1983.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.

Whitman, George. The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. (Pamphlet) Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 2000.