In a recent article in The Irish Times, Keri Walsh, editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, examines the difficult relationship between Beach and James Joyce. Beach, of course, was the publisher of Ulysses but became estranged from Joyce after he sold the rights to the novel to Random House. Beach’s difficulties were exacerbated as the Depression and World War II took its toll on her and her famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company.
However, in 1962, as Walsh explains, Walsh’s connection with Joyce was reaffirmed when she was the guest of honor for the opening of the Martello Tower, where Joyce lived. In describing the impact of the visit and Beach’s influence on modernism, Walsh writes:
The visit of the sprightly 85-year-old Beach allowed her to give her blessing to this new Joycean generation before returning to Paris for the final months of her life. She had devoted herself to a writer, a book and an ideal of artistic community. For a time, she was viewed merely as a handmaiden and secretary, but recent studies have shown her in a fuller light, as a key taste-maker and producer of modernism; as a lesbian; as a feminist; and as the hub of many different modernist circles.
Her own story as a publisher, encourager, connector and framer included many chapters. Along with Joyce, she supported and promoted a wide roster of writers including HD, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Walter Benjamin, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, and many others. But Joyce was at the core of her commitment to literature, and her commitment to him was the chief enigma of her personality.
What drew them together and what broke them apart? Partly war, partly new friendships, partly Joyce’s health and pecuniary difficulties, partly time, but whatever had severed them in those days, Beach’s trip to Dublin in 1962 served partially to restore the bond, returning her one last time to the energy and promise of their 1922 partnership, and also to that oceanic setting-out of 1904 and the first pages of the book she loved best, Ulysses.