Saturday, March 14, 2009

Today in Gay History

Happy Birthday
March 14th

Sylvia Beach (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. Sylvia left the parsonage in Princeton for a career in Paris, where she had lived during her impressionable teenage years, when her father had been an assistant pastor at the American Church.

Beach opened an 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. 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.

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.


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