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Shakespeare and Company

May 24, 1927 — Institut Radiophonique d’Extension Universitaire, France


The invitation of the Radio Institute has given me an opportunity to express my love for France and my gratitude for her hospitality. It was a French woman, Mlle. Adrienne Monnier, founder of the first literary bookshop in Paris, who gave me the idea of opening a library where French readers might become acquainted with the modern literature of England, and particularly of America. Such a library was completely lacking in Paris at that time. During the War I discovered Mlle. Monnier’s “Maison des Amis des Livres” where writers and readers met, undisturbed by the bombs. M. Paul Lauder expressed the sentiment of those who frequented the shop when he inscribed in one of his books: “a Adrienne Monnier, notre camaraderie a tous.” She advised me to start a library similar to hers, but of English and American books, which I did with her help, in 1919. Americans are supposed to be capable in business matters; in this case an American girl would have been lost in her first attempts to run a bookshop, had she not been guided by the experience and wisdom of her French friend. I called my shop “Shakespeare and Company”. Side by side on the shelves were Sherwood Anderson and Charlotte Brontë, Beowulf and Bennett, James Joyce and Ben Jonson, Macaulay and McAlmon, Hardy and Hemingway, Samuel Richardson and Dorothy Richardson. There was a great deal of Poetry. A large number of French people came to the shop as soon as it as opened. One of the great French writers, M. Valery Larbaud, accepted the post of godfather to Shakespeare and Company. An English writer, Mr. Arnold Bennett, I think, said of M. Larbaud that his knowledge of English literature would put to shame any Englishman. Walt Whitman, Walter Savage Landor, Coleridge, Samuel Butler, and James Joyce are some of our writers with whom he has made French readers familiar. I received much encouragement also from M. André Gide and M. Paul Valéry, and from the leading authorities on English letters: MM. Legouis, Cazamian, Charles Du Bos and Abel Chevalley. At least half of the members of my library are French. Some of them are Professors at the Lycées, who read all our modern books up to the very latest American ones, slang and all. Students generally borrow the Classics, which are too expensive for their purses, and difficult to obtain from the Sorbonne Library, many needing the same book at the same moment.

Shakespeare and Company immediately became a center for young American writers who had had to flee from persecution in our country. Their post-War need of freedom of expression had come in contact with American post-War restrictions, and the spirit of independence inherited from their ancestors, drove them to take refuge in France. One of them, Robert McAlmon, founded the Contact Publishing Co., which brought out books by Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Bryher, Mina Loy, Emmanuel Carnevalli, Gertrude Stein, McAlmon, and others. Another publishing house, The Three Mountains Press, was founded by William Bird, a young American, the author of a book on French Wines that met with the approval of even the most learned French specialists on the subject.

The most important event in the life of Shakespeare and Company was the publishing of ULYSSES. One evening at the house of the well-known poet, M. André Spire, I met the great Irish writer, James Joyce. After years of wandering, he had come to France to finish his book, ULYSSES. It was appearing as a serial in the Little Review in New York. Now we have an organization in American called “The Society for the Suppression of Vice,” founded by a man named [Anthony] Comstock. This Society removes paintings of the nude from art gallery windows, and forbids the circulation of Rabelais, though, for some reason, passing over the Bible, Shakespeare, and Swift. The attention of the Society was called to ULYSSES. In James Joyce’s book life is expressed with perfect frankness, as for example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. So the Editress of the Little Review, Miss Margaret Anderson, was brought up for trial, and condemned for publishing an immoral book, and her review was suspended. Mr. Joyce then consented to let Shakespeare and Company bring out ULYSSES. The importance of this work in our literature is so great, and its suppression in America was of such universal interest that as soon as a complete edition in Paris was announced, letters enquiring about it came pouring in from all over the world. My shop was besieged by impatient subscribers. After many months passed and all the difficulties has been overcome, ULYSSES appeared on Mr. Joyce’s birthday, February, 1922, and, as everyone knows, was a tremendous success. The first edition was immediately swallowed up. It is now in its 9th edition. It is still forbidden in America and in England as well. M. Valery Larbaud introduced James Joyce to the French public in a lecture at the “Maison des Amis des Livres” in December, 1921. The lecture appeared in the Nouvelle Revue Français and was the first article on ULYSSES. The English and American critics soon followed suit, and have been writing about it ever since. The young writer, M. August Morel, aided by M. Laurbaud, is engaged in a French translation of ULYSSES.

A year ago a Whitman Exposition was opened at Shakespeare and Company. The committee that organized it was presided over by Mr. Viele-Griffin. Many interesting manuscripts, early editions, photographs, etc., were loaned, particularly by M. Leon Bazalgette, the translator of Walt Whitman. The first person who came to do honour to our American Poet, was the great French Poet, M. Paul Valery.

A new point of contact between French and Americans is the review, Transition recently founded here by Mr. Eugene Jolas and Mr. Elliott Paul, both Americans. In every number of Transition there are, besides the works of our writers, translations by Mr. Jolas from the French. He is devoting himself to making the best French writers known in America. On the other hand, French reviews and publishing houses are becoming more and more hospitable to American writers. I hope that Shakespeare and Company has contributed its share in the work of bringing the French and American people to a better understanding of one another. 



Source: Sylvia Beach Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, SBP, Box 179. folder 2.


Also: The Letters of Sylvia Beach, ed. Keri Walsh (New York: Columbia University Press) 2010, pp. 321-323.