Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Lovers of literature have a large appetite for intimate portraits of writers. To many, the literary life seems ideal, marked by qualities such as freedom, creativity, fame, intensity, and friendship. In recent years, critics have supplemented the individual focus of the traditional biography with works which explore the broader interrelationship of several writers, or even of many creative people, at the same time. In Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, Noel Riley Fitch does exactly this for one of the periods and places richest in human creativity.

The modern movement in literature and the arts was made largely in a handful of cultural capitals. It was an international movement of cities, and none was as important as Paris. Long a center for the arts, Paris became the synonym for international avant-garde creativity for several reasons. Its central location, between Northern and Southern Europe on the one hand, and between Eastern Europe and Great Britain and the United States on the other, made it accessible to many who wanted, for whatever reason, to find a place to create away from home.

Paris also had a history of tolerance for unusual behavior and ideas, especially from foreigners who were not themselves a threat to conservative French culture. Coupled with this was the psychological and economic impact of World War I. A climate was created for new ideas and ways of seeing, and the devastation of the European economy made Paris a very inexpensive place to live, especially for Americans.

Of the many Americans who came to Paris, none made a bigger contribution to this pivotal epoch in modern literature than Sylvia Beach. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, Beach’s life had been linked to France even before she moved to Paris permanently in 1916. With the opening of her bookshop and lending library, Shakespeare and Company, in 1919, she began two decades of influence on the shape of modern literature.

One of the clearest features of Fitch’s rendering of this story is the importance of women, particularly unmarried women, to the literary life of avant-garde Paris. The two most important were Beach and Gertrude Stein. A large supporting cast, however, included Adrienne Monnier, Winifred Ellerman (Bryher), Margaret Anderson, Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Kay Boyle, Mary Butts, Janet Flanner (Genêt), and Sisley Huddleston. Among these were writers, publishers, editors, critics, patrons, personalities, and encouraging friends. Without them, the history of modern literature would be very different—and poorer.

The most important person in Beach’s life, Adrienne Monnier, served French literature in much the same way that Beach contributed to literature in English. Proprietor of La Maison des Amis des Livres, she, on one side of rue de l’Odéon, and Beach, with Shakespeare and Company on the other, led what Richard Ellmann called “this little renaissance in a French street. . . .” Living together for many years, the two sustained each other in their varied and often arduous labors for modern literature.

Beach’s most arduous labor, and her greatest single contribution, came in service of James Joyce. In 1922, she courageously took on the task of publishing Ulysses, a decision that shaped, for better and for worse, the rest of her life. “To assist Joyce . . .,” Fitch observes, “was to have one’s life taken over by him,” and until he found someone years later who could make more money for him, he leaned on Beach to be his publisher, agent, promoter, avenger, banker, financier, patron, lawyer, friend, translator, and postal clerk, to name only her major duties.

It is in tracing Beach’s relationship with Joyce that Fitch shows most clearly her defining traits: personal loyalty, devotion to literature, wit, intelligence, efficiency, and endurance. Joyce believed that genius should be served, and Beach, for the sake of literature, agreed to be his most important servant. Fitch’s account of the publication and subsequent history of Ulysses conveys simultaneously the excitement surrounding that landmark event and the years of very unglamorous labor and hassles that followed.

The best known of the others whom Beach helped in one way or another was Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Choice. XXI, November, 1983, p. 422.

Library Journal. CVIII, August, 1983, p. 1483.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 10, 1983, p. 1.

Ms. XII, December, 1983, p. 30.

National Review. XXXV, August 19, 1983, p. 1027.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, August 18, 1983, p. 34.

The New Yorker. LIX, July 25, 1983, p. 87.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, April 22, 1983, p. 90.