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James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, 1920

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, 1920


Sylvia Beach was one of those fantastic Lost Generation figures who worked diligently in the spaces between literary figures like Hemingway and Fitzgerald but doesn’t get remembered nearly as often. Likely that’s because booksellers —she ran Paris’ famous Left Band expat hangout Shakespeare and Company—never quite get the same attention that book authors do.

Beach was also a smart businesswoman. Trying to drum up some sales for in James Joyce’s forthcoming Ulysses, she wrote to George Bernard Shaw in 1921, asking whether he as a fellow Irishman, would be interested in pre-ordering a copy. Shaw’s negative response was swift, definite, and for the ages:

To you possibly [Ulysses] may appeal as art … but to me it is all hideously real: I have walked those streets and know those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870. It is however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it….

I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for such a book, you little know my countrymen.

(Hat-tip: Steve King)