Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Beach standing with author Stephen Vincent Benét in the doorway of the Shakespeare and Company store.

PU Digital Project Explores the Iconic Bookstore’s Influence in Literary History

By Wendy Greenberg| Images courtesy of Shakespeare and Company Project, Princeton University shakespeareandcompany.princeton.edu

It was a place where writers and artists — many of whom were expatriate Americans — met and formed a community of their own. The Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s was a home to many, a place to replenish the intellect and refresh the spirit, and even a place where mail was delivered. It was where literary luminaries such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Archibald MacLeish may have crossed paths.

Shakespeare and Company was the creation of Sylvia Beach, who in 1919 arrived in Paris via Princeton, recognized a market for English language books, and offered encouragement and support to the writers who bought, browsed, and borrowed.

The bookstore closed in 1941, but Princeton University’s digital humanities venture, the Shakespeare and Company Project (shakespeareandcompany.princeton.edu), has brought the iconic shop to life once again.

A meticulous record-keeper, Beach kept addresses, logbooks, and lending cards that show what her lively community was reading between the two World Wars: James Joyce was reading about Oscar Wilde; Simone de Beauvoir was reading Ernest Hemingway; and Hemingway himself was reading about bullfighting. The information originated in the Sylvia Beach papers — 180 boxes in the Department of Special Collections, Manuscripts Division, Princeton University Library.

Besides running a bookstore and lending library for more than a thousand members (the lending library has cards for 653 individuals, but the logbooks reveal many, many more), Beach gained celebrity by publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, when it was banned in the United States and England. In tribute to her, the road behind the Princeton Public Library is named Sylvia Beach Way. When she lived in Princeton, Beach resided on Library Place.

Hemingway — lending library card, annotated.

The Princeton Years

Beach writes in her own book, Shakespeare and Company (University of Nebraska Press 1959), that her father was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church (the forerunner of Nassau Presbyterian Church). Beach herself is buried in Princeton Cemetery. The Rev. Sylvester Woodbridge Beach was a Princeton University (Class of 1876) and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate. His Princeton congregation included the Woodrow Wilson family — Beach officiated at the weddings of two Wilson daughters and at Wilson’s funeral — and Grover Cleveland. The Beach family (Sylvia, born Nancy, was one of three daughters) first lived in Bridgeton, and then Princeton in 1906 after spending three years in Paris when Sylvia was a teen, and her father was pastor to a student group (Students’ Atelier Reunions).

“Princeton, with its trees and birds, is more a leafy, flowery park than a town,” she wrote in her book, “and the Beach family considered itself lucky.” She writes about her Princeton friend, Annis Stockton, and the fun they had. But by 1917, the restless Beach was back in Paris.

The bookstore, which opened in 1919 with savings sent by her mother, filled a need for English-language books, and complemented the French language bookstore across the street, run by Adrienne Monnier, Beach’s partner and business mentor. Beach’s first American customer was George Antheil, a composer from Trenton. Gertrude Stein gave the bookshop several of her rare works, and Beach displayed some art — no less than drawings by William Blake, photographs of Oscar Wilde, and letters of Walt Whitman — collected from family and friends, as described in her book.

When Beach died at age 75, in 1962, according to Princeton University Manuscripts news blogs, the then-head of Princeton’s Department of Special Collections, Howard C. Rice, traveled to Paris and packed up Beach’s archives, paintings, and other materials, and the library purchased them from Beach’s estate.

Lending library flyer.

The Digital Project Idea

But there they sat. That is, until 2012, when Princeton University Associate Professor of English Joshua Kotin, then in his second year of teaching at Princeton, took his graduate students studying Ezra Pound to the archives and the idea of digitizing the papers in the boxes took hold.

“A student who had grown up in Paris (Jesse McCarthy, now on the English faculty at Harvard) noticed the addresses on the cards, and they came alive for him,” said Kotin. “He said this would make a great mapping project, which was an amazing idea. I kept urging him to do the project, but we ended up doing it together. It became clear the maps of the residences were not even the most interesting part.”

And so they founded Mapping Expatriate Paris: The Shakespeare and Company Lending Library Project — now the Shakespeare and Company Project — a digital humanities project that examines the reading habits of the writers known as the Lost Generation. It was developed with a team that eventually grew to 30 undergraduate and graduate students and staff, including lead technical director Rebecca S. Koeser. They worked, transcribing materials and building a database, from 2014 until the site was launched in May 2020. Their efforts allow us to explore the activities of the bookstore, sort results by demographics or publication dates, and see how often books circulated.

“I was fascinated with Beach from the very beginning,” said Kotin, whose research and teaching focus is on modernism, poetry and poetics, and American literature. He is the author of Utopias of One (Princeton University Press 2018).

The Ulysses Publication

Kotin noted that it took “bravery” to publish Ulysses, not only because it was banned in the U.S. and elsewhere, but because “Joyce was a handful.” Beach, in her own book, describes the arduous process of working with the exacting Joyce. As an understanding friend, she allowed him to make edits on the proofs, which complicated the process.

Ulysses had first been published between 1918 and 1920 in serial form by The Little Review, an American literary magazine. But all copies were confiscated after it was ruled obscene, and it remained banned in the United States for the next 14 years. Beach, who admired Joyce’s literary skill, offered to publish it. She spent a great deal of money on the publication and overcame challenges, such as a manuscript thrown in the fireplace and an attempt to get replacement pages from a New York lawyer to whom Joyce had sent the manuscript. But the book was published on time for Beach to give Joyce the first copies on his birthday, February 2.

This past February 2, the Irish Literary Times posted this tweet: “First edition of Ulysses — published on this day in Paris in 1922 (on Joyce’s 40th birthday), thanks to Sylvia Beach, owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company.”

The Beach Legacy

“She wanted to live a life in literature and invented a new way of doing it,” said Kotin. “She did not write at the time but found another way to become a vital part of that life. Her support of the arts made a huge impact on literary history.”

Beach was influential to literary history in different ways, describes Keri Walsh, who earned her Ph.D. at Princeton, is director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University, and is author of The Letters of Sylvia Beach (Columbia University Press 2010). Walsh presented a talk last fall with Kotin, which was sponsored by the Princeton Public Library and Princeton Historical Society.

“Sylvia Beach supported writers like Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, H.D., Bryher, Gertrude Stein, Robert McAlmon, and others in so many ways,” Walsh commented by email recently. “She made space available for people like Robert McAlmon to run experimental presses like Contact, allowing them to work and store stock at Shakespeare and Company, as well as selling their journals out of her store. She also helped her writers to navigate some of the complexities of French bureaucracy.”

She helped arriving writers settle in Paris, connected them to housing and other writers, and helped them understand local norms and get their bearings, according to Walsh. “She writes in her memoir about hosting a dinner with Adrienne Monnier to introduce F. Scott Fitzgerald to James Joyce. Beach offered various kinds of logistical support — for instance, she was Joyce’s banker, delivering to him the funds from his patron Harriet Weaver. She received mail for anyone who needed a steady address in Paris. She also supplied writers with the books they needed for their projects and sometimes gave comments on manuscripts. Her support took many forms — social, intellectual, logistical, and emotional.”

Added Kotin, “Beach was amazing. She was an obsessive record-keeper and kept logs too — of what happened in the bookshop, food bought at the grocery store, hairdresser appointments — writing all that in her notebooks. She kept every receipt.

“For my project, we knew these cards existed, and my team and I transcribed them all. Each card is a story. Everyone using the web archive will see something different.”

There were endless surprises, he said, such as how many English speakers lived in Paris and which writers could have crossed paths. “It’s like peeking into someone’s Amazon cart or Netflix queue, the artifacts for the future. We want to know what was going on in the writers’ lives.”

The Beach archives are more than papers — there are inscribed books, correspondence, and the sign which hung outside the bookstore door. This was the third sign, explained Kotin, and was painted by a Monnier’s sister, Marie Monnier-Becat.

What were the members reading? Many were reading each other. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was the most popular book, according to a post by the Princeton Public Library. Other in the most-checked-out-books category included Joyce’s The Dubliners; Dorothy Richardson’s Painted Roofs, (Pilgrimage 1); Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party; and Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Other widely selected books were E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India; D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love; Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway; Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint; and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.

Membership card collage.

The Beach Project

The digitized project offers a different picture than the cards in the library’s boxes. Camey VanSant, project manager until recently, explained, “On first consideration, people might think of the Shakespeare and Company Project primarily as a digitization project. And, indeed, it is a digitization project. There is something exciting about seeing images of the lending library cards of James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield and so many other important figures. It brings the archive to life – something that is all the more important at a time when physical archives are so difficult to access.

“It is also important to recognize that the project allows researchers to explore questions that would be extremely difficult and time-consuming to pursue with hard copies alone.”

The Center for Digital Humanities team has developed tools allowing users to search by book, for example, “so that they can see all the cards that mention a particular title with just a few clicks. Imagine how long it would take to go through all the lending library cards for mentions of Mrs. Dalloway. The Project also provides tools to learn more about Shakespeare and Company members. For example, you can sort by nationality or neighborhood to see what people are reading. Are Americans more likely to read American literature? Are neighbors reading the same books? I can’t wait to see what researchers — whether scholars, students, or enthusiastic readers — find out!”

Overdue card with Shakespeare tearing out his hair.

The Lost Generation

What does the project tell us about the cadre of writers from that time, living abroad and known as the Lost Generation, the disillusioned generation, often compared to millennials of the 2000s? Hemingway, in his book A Moveable Feast, credits the term to Gertrude Stein. But Beach countered in her book that “I can’t think of a generation less deserving of this name.”

Kotin added that those referred to “had a real commitment to each other in a positive sense. “This may be too optimistic, but they were consoling to each other.”

The project also tells us, said Kotin, “how large and diverse and varied the community was, not the small cast of characters we usually hear about.

“Paris was ready for this bookshop. Beach turned her bookshop into a unique place. Her patience in her commitment to Joyce, no one else could have done that.”

The bookstore closed in 1941. As Beach herself described, a Nazi officer came in and wanted her last copy of Finnegan’s Wake. She would not oblige. The officer threatened to confiscate the contents of the shop, and she quickly hid books, and even shelves, in an empty apartment upstairs. She spent six months in an internment camp and was released.

Sylvia Beach never did reopen the bookstore in Paris. Until, in a sense, the Princeton University Shakespeare and Company Project reopened it for everyone.