The Letters of Sylvia Beach

All week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

Sylvia Beach might have been a James heroine. She might have been, except that she had the gumption to make a life for herself rather than wallow in an early and ill-considered error.

I’ll admit to finding the opening letters in this edition slow going. It was hard to get my mind accustomed to the rhythms of Sylvia Beach’s mind. They are the ordinary letters of a confident, happy, privileged young woman. Beach’s family was upper-middle class. Her father was a Presbyterian minister in Princeton, New Jersey. The privilege comes not so much out of money—in fact, though she traveled extensively and seems not to suffer from want, many, many letters express the same kinds of small worries and gratitudes about relatively small sums that will be familiar to anyone who has enough—thank you for the $5 for Christmas; can I possibly borrow $1,000 to start my bookstore?

In the early letters, before the U.S. entered WWI, Beach seems to be constantly making elaborate plans for sending gifts of lace and books, giving effusive thanks for receiving pens and nightgowns.

Even when the war begins and the U.S. enters it and Beach goes to Serbia to volunteer with the Red Cross, there remains a spirit of a schoolgirl on holiday. When she plays with words, giving fake Slavic endings to words, it struck a wrong note to my ear: too silly, too goofy, too much of an in-joke of a family.

But, then, too, you hear the intelligence of a woman who could get Joyce’s multilingual play, the joy in being smart. And she writes explicitly about her frustration with the men who mismanage the Red Cross and her own lack of power as a woman volunteer.

Then, the war ends, she decides to stay in Paris, open a bookstore, and falls in love with Adrienne Monnier and, in the course of a couple pages, she is Sylvia Beach: a professional woman, confident and sure of her life.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote extensively about how the lack of a profession infantilizes women. Sylvia Beach’s letters demonstrate the blossoming of a girl (born in 1887, she was already 30 when writing those girlish letters in 1917) into a powerful, funny woman, negotiating royalties, worrying about James Joyce’s eyesight, and asking permission to bring someone around to meet Gertrude Stein.