Yesterday’s New York Times had a glowing review of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, edited by Keri Walsh. Beach was of course the founder and owner of the legendary Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company and the original publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses.
Here is an excerpt from the review. (You can also read Beach’s letters, including those to James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, H.D., and others here.)
Many of the early letters here deal with her tireless work on behalf of Joyce and “Ulysses.” Joyce was an early patron of her store, and already well known as the author of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916). But publishers were wary of “Ulysses”; after being published in a periodical, portions were declared obscene in 1921 in the United States….
Beach was scalding about the censorship of “Ulysses.” “What a dark age we 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!” she wrote a friend. She deeply admired Joyce’s work, but as a businesswomen she was not stupid. “ ‘Ulysses’ is going to make my place famous,” she wrote to her older sister in 1921.
“The Letters of Sylvia Beach” is a small, excellent primer on bookselling and its discontents. When world events get interesting, she complains, people buy newspapers, not books. She scrambles, during the early war years, to find fuel to keep the store habitable. And she dispels some of the profession’s romance. “A bookshop is mostly tiresome details all day long and you have to have a passion for it,” she writes, “to grub and grub in it. I have always loved books and their authors, and for the sake of them swallowed the rest of it, but you can’t expect everyone to do the same.”