Biblioklept Interviews Keri Walsh about Her New Book, The Letters of Sylvia Beach

Keri Walsh’s new book The Letters of Sylvia Beach sheds light on one of modern literature’s most fascinating figures. Sylvia Beach was the nexus point for the ex-pat/Lost Generation/Modernist scene in the first half of the twentieth century. Along with her partner Adrienne Monnier, Beach ran the Left Bank bookstore Shakespeare & Company until the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1941. She was the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses, she translated Paul Valéry into English, and she was close friends to a good many great writers, including William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Ernest Hemingway. Walsh’s book compiles Beach’s letters, revealing a woman who cared deeply about literature and art, who was funny and sincere, and who loved her famous (and not so famous) friends dearly. Over a series of emails, we talked to Dr. Walsh about The Letters of Sylvia Beach, which is out now from Columbia UP. Keri Walsh teachers 20th Century British and Irish Literature at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles.

Biblioklept: How did you get interested in Sylvia Beach?

Keri Walsh: I got interested in Sylvia Beach in the same way that many English-speaking visitors to Paris do: when I stumbled upon the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris.  Of course, the current bookstore is its own entity: it’s not the direct descendant of Beach’s.  It was founded after the Second World War by George Whitman, and it’s been there so long that it’s now legendary in its own right.  Today it’s run by Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman.  The shop preserves many of the qualities of Beach’s original: the whimsicality, the friendliness, the sense of being a gathering place for expats. So it was easy to fall in love with it and to want to learn more about its origins.

Sylvia Beach grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. Beach’s father was minister of the Presbyterian Church just up the street from the university campus. I didn’t know that when I began my Ph.D. studies in the English department there.  I was delighted to learn that Firestone library, where I worked every day, owned a vast collection of Sylvia Beach’s letters, photographs, books, and belongings.  They even had the original “Shakespeare and Company” sign that had hung in front of her store.  I started to read through her letters, beginning with the ones she wrote as a teenager.  Even then she was always reading.  I was charmed by how funny she was, and how resourceful. She could talk her friends into just about anything– including smuggling illegal copies of Ulysses into the United States.

Her correspondents were so illustrious that I was surprised to learn that her letters had never been published. Because she wrote to Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, H.D. and others, I hoped that this volume might make a contribution to the study of modernist literary culture.  But I also wanted to share Beach’s story for its own sake, because she was so fascinating and endearing.  I had a hunch that there would be other readers like me who wanted to know more about Beach, and about the sensibility that informed Shakespeare and Company.  I thought about all the people who love modernist Paris and independent bookstores.  Beach is a kindred spirit for bookworms, expatriates, bohemians, bluestockings, francophiles and salonnieres of all stripes.

Keri Walsh at Shakespeare and Company, Paris

B: You mention Sylvia Beach Whitman. I’ve read that she’s an ancestor of Walt Whitman–is that true?

KW: About Sylvia Beach Whitman and the Whitman connection– I don’t know.  But I do know that the original Sylvia Beach had a Whitman connection, and she was proud of it.  An aunt of hers had visited Whitman and asked permission to dig some manuscripts out of his trash bin.  Sylvia had these on display in her shop. She writes in her memoir of “several little manuscripts of Walt Whitman scribbled on the backs of letters.  These were the gift of the poet to my Aunt Agnes Orbison.  Aunt Agnes, when she was a student at Bryn Mawr, had gone with her friend Alys Smith to Camden to visit Walt Whitman . . ..Manuscripts were strewn all over the floor, and some of them . . . were in the waste-paper basket.  She got up the courage to draw out a few of these scribblings, mostly on the backs of letters addressed to Walt Whitman, Esq., and asked if she might keep them.  “Certainly, my dear,” he replied.  And that’s how our family got its Whitman manuscripts” (20).

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).

B: You mention that “One gets the sense that Joyce was more important to her than she was to him.” There’s a letter published in the volume that Beach never actually sent to Joyce that is extremely angry and shows that, at least to some extent, she felt hurt by Joyce’s treatment of her–that she felt used. The letter also reveals the economic difficulties faced by writers and publishers alike, and perhaps hints that Joyce was more mercenary than he would have liked his public to know. To what extent was Beach merely a bank to Joyce?

KW: That letter is remarkable, isn’t it, because it shows the deep resentment Beach eventually felt toward Joyce. But more characteristically, especially in the early 1920s when they were working together on the publication of Ulysses, Beach was indulgent about the privileges of genius.  To an extent that amazes me, she welcomed his incursions on her goodwill.  She loved his writing, and she made a conscious decision to serve him and his art. This attitude was probably integral to her success.  A less devoted, tenacious, and flexible person would simply not have been able to get Ulysses into print.  But their intense and one-sided relationship proved unsustainable as his needs escalated and her resources diminished during the Depression.

Beach wasn’t the only one who put Joyce ahead of her own needs: Harriet Weaver, Paul Léon, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene Jolas were similarly devoted. Now, ideally, Joyce would have repaid these personal debts with magnanimity and grace.  Sometimes he did.  And sometimes he didn’t.  In her recent piece on Beach’s letters in the London Times, Jeanette Winterson expresses the frustration that Beach admirers often feel:

“Joyce’s gigantic ego nearly ruined her. He took her cash, let her take all the risks on his (at the time) unpublishable book, and later reneged on the letter and the spirit of their agreements, simply reselling to Random House when he was famous enough to do so.”

But whatever his weaknesses of character, we have to remember that Beach indulged them.  She was moved by Joyce’s work ethic in spite of his wretched health, the fact that he was terribly short of funds, and that he always seemed overmatched by circumstance.  Her letters give us a glimpse into the sufferings he endured with his eye surgeries, for instance, and it’s harrowing reading.  No, they never patched things up, but Beach remained loyal to Joyce’s family after his death, and she was a careful guardian of his legacy.

B: Beach lived with her partner Adrienne Monnier for years. To what extent were they “out” among Paris society, their literary friends, and their family?

KW: Most people who knew them accepted Beach and Monnier as a couple.  Paris in the 1920s was tolerant of alternative lifestyles.  As George Orwell put it in “Inside the Whale,” “for a time, the populace had grown so hardened to artists that gruff-voiced lesbians in corduroy breeches and young men in Grecian or medieval costume could walk the streets without attracting a glance.”

Beach was considered a member of the Monnier family and spent weekends and summers at Monnier’s parents’ home in Rocfoin.  In Women of the Left Bank, Shari Benstock offers an insightful analysis of their relationship.  She notes that Beach and Monnier’s relationship differed from Gertude Stein and Alice Toklas’s in its mutuality, and in its refusal of butch/femme roles or the model of heterosexual marriage.  “Perhaps because both partners were strong feminists,” says Benstock, their relationship was characterized by: “an egalitarianism unusual in either homosexual or heterosexual relationships of the period.  It was not marked by self-destructive behavior, neither was it given to self-indulgence.  Indeed, this union might well serve as an alternative model to the more popular view of Paris lesbian experience… (210-211).”

Of course, then, as now, intolerance could rear its head at any time.  I came across one patently homophobic response to Beach and Monnier’s relationship.  It came from William Carlos Williams’ Autobiography.  He wrote of Monnier: “She enjoyed the thought, she said, of pigs screaming as they were being slaughtered, a contempt for the animal—a woman toward whom it was strange to see the mannishly dressed Sylvia so violently drawn” (93).  I think he misunderstood Monnier’s sense of humor, and the fun she had shocking the sensibilities of Americans.

B: Have you ever stolen a book?

KW: Hmm . . . does picking up novels left behind on planes count?

This isn’t a theft, but it did feel like a piece of good luck: while editing Beach’s letters, I wanted a copy of her translation of Henri Michaux’s A Barbarian in Asia. I ordered one though a second-hand bookstore online, and when it arrived, I found that it was inscribed with the name of Sylvia Beach’s Ulysses-bootlegger friend Marion Peter.  It was the copy Beach had sent to her as a gift when it came out in 1949.