Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties
The generation of English-speaking writers who congregated in Paris just after the First World War, if they were “lost” at the time, have since been more than adequately “found.” Since the Second World War, literary critics, biographers, historians, and writers of memoirs have been gleaning the fields. Joyce (who never was lost in the first place), Pound, Ford, Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, Fitzgerald, Stein, and Beckett have been the subjects, sometimes the objects, of investigations galore. Their deeds and misdeeds, their writings formal and informal, their feuds, innuendoes, and affairs have been thoroughly chronicled; their dozens of epigones, enemies, intimates, admirers, and associates have been studied down to the minute particulars. So too have the many artists and musicians who were their influential contemporaries, not to mention the French writers—Gide, Valéry, Cocteau, Claudel, Colette—who shared the city with them.
Archibald MacLeish called this complex “the greatest period of literary and artistic innovation since the Renaissance”; since he took part in it, one might reflect that it wasn’t really for him to say. Still, the time and place have clearly proved magnetic. By now one can readily learn more about Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, and without leaving the public library in Peoria, than the participants themselves in those movable feasts ever knew.
Sylvia Beach occupied a central position in the expatriate literary community; indeed, her position takes some explaining, for she was a person of scant financial resources, quiet (not to say discreet) personal habits, and few outspoken intellectual pretensions, who for more than two decades exercised gentle yet decisive prestige within a shifting quasi community consisting in good part of egomaniacs, drunks, fornicators, and libertarian artistic cutups. The unlikely instrument of her dominance was a bookstore.
Considering their importance to the literary world, retailers of books have not as a rule enjoyed a very good press. One or two novels come to mind with booksellers as central figures, but not many; and we don’t very often see literary life through the eyes of the person who buys a stack of books, sets them out on a shelf, and waits hopefully for a customer. Miss Beach became an exception to that rule when in 1959, at the age of seventy-two, she published her first and only volume, Shakespeare and Company. It was a title deriving directly from the name of the English-language bookstore which she founded and managed in the Odéon district of Paris’s Left Bank. In fact the humdrum business of renting or selling books was the least part of her story. Having overcome tremendous odds, she courageously and all but single-handedly arranged for the publication and distribution of Joyce’s Ulysses; for many years, she remained a friend, business agent, factotum, supporter, and defender of that demanding, difficile genius.
In addition, certain traits of intangible character—a combination, perhaps, of warmth, dignity, and integrity—led her to a position almost equivalent to literary adviser to her generation. No doubt she would be embarrassed …