Sylvia Beach, editor and letter-writer

Sylvia BeachThink about a book you’ve read over and over. You may have turned to it for advice, or chuckled at an inadvertent reference. You know that book backwards and forwards. Now stop and try to think of who the editor is. Odds are, you have no idea.

Occasionally we speak of Maxwell Perkins, or Gordon Lish, whose names are uttered in reverence alongside their famed authors, but for the most part editors are an underappreciated bunch. For one influential editor to the literary stars, that’s about the change thanks to Keri Walsh and her forthcoming collected The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

Sylvia Beach was one of the most well-connected and influential women of modern literature. When James Joyce wanted to invite Ernest Hemingway to a dinner party, he did it through Beach (in part because Hemingway didn’t have a phone!) Simultaneously a librarian, promoter, bookstore owner, banker, broker, and editor, Beach served as what Noel Riley Fitch calls in her preface to the letters “a literary midwife,” most notably to Joyce’s Ulysses, which she published, promoted and managed for over a decade.

In the face of widespread talk regarding the impending death of the publishing industry, New Yorker Book Bench blogger Macy Halford recently proclaimed, “every thinking person … needs to be reminded that great books are often the result of encounters between individuals—sometimes within a larger institutional framework, but sometimes not, meaning that they will continue to occur so long as there are writers and readers, however small the industry becomes,” and the first spot on her list of great individual encounters rightly belongs to Beach and Joyce.

Keep an eye out for The Letters of Sylvia Beach when it is released next month to learn more about how this spectacular woman influenced the books and writers you love. And don’t forget to thank an editor next time you see one.

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