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Beach, Sylvia (1887-1962)  

Through her Parisian bookshop and her editorial work, American expatriate and lesbian Sylvia Beach did much to influence the course of modern literature.

Beach was born Nancy Woodbridge Beach to Sylvester Woodbridge Beach, a Presbyterian minister in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and his wife Eleanor Orbison. Nancy changed her name to Sylvia when she was a teenager. At the birth of a third daughter, her mother stopped sleeping with her father and devoted her life to art and to the interests of her three daughters. Eventually, Sylvia fled the parsonage in Princeton for a career in Paris, where she lived during her impressionable teenage years, when her father had been an assistant pastor at the American Church.

After traveling in Italy and Spain, and serving during World War I with the Red Cross in Serbia, she settled permanently in Paris and founded the bookshop, Shakespeare and Company (1919-1941), a literary center for American expatriates. As its proprietor, she first published James Joyce's controversial novel Ulysses, which had been banned elsewhere because it was considered obscene.

Beach opened this first English-language lending library and bookshop in Paris on the Left Bank with the encouragement of her friend and lover, Adrienne Monnier, who owned La Maison des Amis des Livres. In 1921, Beach moved from her tiny shop at 8, rue Dupuytren to 12, rue de l'Odéon, across the street from Monnier's French bookshop. For two decades, they dominated French-Anglo-Irish-American literary relations.

Shakespeare and Company distributed a dozen expatriate little reviews, found publishers and translators, and offered readings by such literary figures as T. S. Eliot, Paul Valery, André Gide, and André Maurois. It was a clubhouse, bank, library, post office, publishing company, and confessional for two decades between the world wars.

Beach's greatest achievement was to publish a score of editions of James Joyce's Ulysses when it was available nowhere else in the world. She also published his Pomes Penyeach (1927) and Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929), essays analyzing Finnegans Wake, which had not yet been published.

Although Beach's name is connected to Ernest Hemingway, whom she called "my best customer," Robert McAlmon, and Ezra Pound as well as Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney, her closest associations were with the French. And her most intimate relations were with women.

There is no evidence that she was ever romantically involved with men. She had long friendships with a number of women, including the writer Bryher (Winnifred Ellerman, Hilda Doolittle's friend), but the love of her life was Monnier, with whom she lived from 1920 until 1936, when Monnier began a brief affair with another woman. Although from that time on Beach lived alone, the two women continued a devoted friendship, dining together every evening until Monnier's death in 1955.

The loyalty of her women friends was prodigious. Bryher financed the operation of Shakespeare and Company in the 1930s when the shop doors would have closed for lack of money.

Monnier and Beach translated essays and poetry, including T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the first poem by Eliot completely translated into French. Beach assisted Monnier in editing her magazine Navire d'argent, and participated, with her, in editing Marguerite Caetani's Commerce, an international literary review.

Out of a sense of privacy bred in the parsonage, Beach did not talk openly of her love relationship with Monnier. In fact, both women were discreet, though not secretive, about their sexual relationship. Yet the example of their loyal and loving relationship speaks for itself. The strength of their union, their willingness to share difficult work, and the historical timing of their bookshops placed them in a position to influence the course of modern literature on two continents.

Noel Riley Fitch


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Sylvia Beach (center) with James Joyce and Adrienne Monnier at Shakespeare and Company in 1920.
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Beach, Sylvia. Shakespeare and Company. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959.

_____. Sylvia Beach Papers. Firestone Library. Princeton University, New Jersey.

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Fitch, Noel Riley. "The Elusive 'Seamless Whole': A Biography Treats (or Fails to Treat) Lesbianism." Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1990: 59-69.

_____. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Ford, Hugh. Published in Paris: American and British Writers, Printers, and Publishers in Paris, 1920-1939. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Joyce, James. James Joyce's Letters to Sylvia Beach. Melissa Banta and Oscar A. Silverman, eds. Bloomingdale: Indiana University Press, 1987.

"Memorial Edition to Sylvia Beach." Mercure 349 (Aug.-Sept. 1963).

Monnier, Adrienne. The Very Rich Hours of Adrienne Monnier. Trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Scribners, 1976.


    Citation Information
    Author: Fitch, Noel Riley  
    Entry Title: Beach, Sylvia  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated May 10, 2012  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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