Keri Walsh to Discuss Sylvia Beach's Letters at Bluestockings

Sylvia Beach

The great NYC bookstore Bluestockings will be hosting an event tonight at 7 pm with Keri Walsh the editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

Walsh’s appearance to talk about the legendary Parisian bookstore owner and publisher of James Joyce, among others, follows a spate of recent attention to the book. Most recently there was a review in The Constant Conversation and one from none other than Jeanette Winterson in the Times of London. Winterson writes that the letters are

“a pleasure to read in the way that letters are, perhaps especially now, when so few are written, and when collected e-mails and texts and tweets face us as a future. For anyone who loves books, and who mourns the loss of so many independent bookshops, and must now mourn the loss of the book itself and wonder at its ghostly reincarnation as an electronically disembodied text, the Sylvia Beach legacy has hope in it.”

Winterson also comments on the current state of Shakespeare which is still thriving decades after it was first started by Beach. For more on the book there is a great interview with Keri Walsh at Biblioklept. Here’s an excerpt from the excellent interview focusing on how Beach smuggled copies of Ulysses into the United States as well as her relationship with other modernist writers:

B: Can you tell us a bit about Beach’s involvement in smuggling copies of Ulysses into the States?

KW: As for the smuggling of Ulysses, Beach tells us in her memoir Shakespeare and Company that some of Hemingway’s friends in Toronto smuggled copies to the Ulysses subscribers underneath their clothes. The original edition of Ulysses was paid for by subscribers in advance, so when Ulysses was banned in the US, it wasn’t a matter of getting copies into bookstores, it was a matter of getting them to the people who’d already bought them. Beach’s letters show us that she relied on her old friend Marion Peter to do some of the smuggling, receiving the books in non-descript looking parcels and forwarding them on to the subscribers in America. “You were such an angel to take all that trouble bootlegging for me!” she wrote to Marion Peter in 1923, a characteristically Sylvia-esque joke at the height of Prohibition to her eminently respectable friend.

B: In Beach’s letters, she comes across as both a friend and a fan to many of the authors to whom she writes. At times, there seems to be a tension there–there’s a late letter to Ezra Pound (#188), for example, where she seems almost ironically deferential; there’s a letter to Hemingway (#211) where she apologizes ahead of time for early “references to [his] domestic life” in her memoir Shakespeare and Company that “should be deleted.” How important was Beach to these writers, and how important were they to her? What was the response to her memoir?

KW: It must have been hard to know what to say to Pound in the years after the Second World War. His politics during the conflict had been abominable, and his mental health was precarious to say the least. Beach was a tactful person who disliked turning her back on anyone, so I think she struck a compromise, holding Pound at a distance but remaining polite. Beginning in the early 1930s her letters register her discomfort with his attraction to Italian fascism. In 1931 Beach wrote to Hemingway that “Ezra Pound is making us a visit, and an Italian tried to stick a stiletto into him during a soiree given in his honor at the Brasserie de l’Odeon. I think people should control themselves better” (134-5). You’re right to pick up on that ironic deference in the later letters. Perhaps it was her way of “handling” Pound: “Do tell me what the “factual error” was in my piece. Not the color of your shirt, I hope. I could swear it was blue. But I know how inaccurate I am. Adrienne is in despair over it” (214).

Her relationships varied, but as a general pattern her relationships with women like Bryher, H.D., and Adrienne Monnier were deep and mutual. One gets the sense that Joyce was more important to her than she was to him. Beach and Hemingway were genuine kindred spirits in the 1920s, and they retained a fond regard for each other throughout their lives. I think that by the 1950s Beach felt less certain about her friendship with Hemingway, wondering whether this cultural icon and Nobel Prize-winning writer still had time for her. But it was a gesture of thoughtfulness on her part to write to him wondering how much of his private story she could share in her memoir. And he responded with implicit trust in her judgment, telling her that anything she wrote would be OK.

One of my favorite Hemingway moments to come out of the Sylvia Beach archives nicely demonstrates their mutual understanding. Beach recorded on Hemingway’s Shakespeare and Company bill of 1934 that “Hemingway read Wyndham Lewis’s article ‘The Dumb Ox in Life and Letters’ and punched a vase of tulips on the table. Paid SB 1500 fr damages. SB returned 500 fr.” (“The Dumb Ox” was, of course, Lewis’s famously unflattering study of Hemingway’s writing).

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