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Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare and Company, where "Ulysses lay stacked like dynamite in a revolutionary cellar"

Born as Nancy Woodbridge Beach on March 14, 1887, in Baltimore, Maryland, Sylvia would later choose her name — a name that would resonate through literary history. Her life unfolded against the backdrop of two world wars, and Paris became her canvas.

In 1901, Sylvia’s family moved to France, where her father served as an assistant minister. Paris, with its cobblestone streets and whispered secrets, captured her heart. She immersed herself in contemporary French literature. While researching at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Sylvia stumbled upon a literary oasis — the La Maison des Amis des Livres at 7 rue de l’Odéon. The owner, Adrienne Monnier, welcomed her warmly. Monnier, with her fair hair and unconventional attire, recognized Sylvia as American. Their connection blossomed into love, and they became life partners. Monnier’s lending library hosted readings by luminaries like André Gide and Paul Valéry.

Inspired by Monnier’s bookstore, Sylvia dreamed of opening a branch in New York City. Financial constraints altered her course. In 1919, Sylvia founded her own English-language bookstore in Paris — Shakespeare and Company. Its name paid homage to her literary aspirations. Shakespeare and Company became a haven for expatriate writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and James Joyce.

Joyce's woes inspired Sylvia Beach, to publish Ulysses when everyone else (including Virginia Woolf) refused. When it appeared in 1922, dozens of critics praised and vilified Joyce's long-anticipated novel in unambiguous terms. Government authorities on both sides of the Atlantic confiscated and burned more than a thousand copies of Ulysses (the exact number will never be known) because Joyce's "big blue book" was banned on British and American shores almost immediately.

Other countries soon followed. Over the course of a decade Ulysses became an underground sensation. It was literary contraband, a novel you could read only if you found a copy counterfeited by literary pirates or if you smuggled it past customs agents. Most copies came from Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Paris bookstore, where, as one writer remembered, "Ulysses lay stacked like dynamite in a revolutionary cellar." It was the archetype of a modernist revolution — it is, in fact, the primary reason why we think of modernism as revolutionary at all.

Modernism's discordant, contrarian and sometimes violent aspects weren't entirely new. What was new was that this cultural discord became a sustained movement, and it was Joyce who had taken modernism's assorted experiments and turned them into a masterpiece, and it was Sylvia Beach who enabled him to do so.


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