A Study of Space
A Short Introduction to Shakespeare and Company
Paris music of 1924 was by no means confined to formal concert halls. Salles, café-concerts, music halls, cabarets, balls publics, and jazz clubs all presented varying environments to participate in the music scene. These venues narrowed the space between musician and audience and created spaces where social interaction was a key component of the musical experience.
Literature also benefited from the social, interactive art-culture of 1920s Paris. Literary salons had already experienced a long history, but the 1920s brought not only a renewed interest in salon life but another venue: the quintessential literary bookshop.
Sylvia Beech, an American-born literary enthusiast residing in Paris, was inspired by a small bookshop and lending library owned by Adrienne Monnier, a French writer. Beach decided in 1919 to open her own shop, which would end up gaining much more fame from Monnier’s, one of the first of its kind.
When many people think of the 1920s Paris literary scene, they think of Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway sharing and discussing their latest fiction in the artistic haven of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and lending library.
There is an overwhelming amount of information and writing already in existence about Shakespeare and Company, but for the sake of this project, let’s think about it in terms of another casual artistic meeting place and crossroads. What did the physical space look like, and how did that space contribute to a certain atmosphere? Or in the words of one visitor, what made it the “quintessence of the literary bookshop” (Fitch 43)?
According to Noel Finch’s description in his book, the shop had “black and white woollen Serbian rugs on the hardwood floor,” “racks on one wall” for literary reviews, and pictures on the other wall relating to literary greats—“Blake drawings and Whitman manuscripts” and “pictures of Whitman, Poe, and Oscar Wilde” (42-43). The sign on the front said Shakespeare and Company with a picture of Shakespeare painted by Beach’s friend Charles Winzer.
In this space, people met and mingled; no one needed an invitation. It was an informal space for creativity, discussion, and networking. The pictures on the walls did not signify wealth or prestige but rather role models and a shared culture between literary enthusiasts. Because everyone was surrounded by pictures of the greats and the books they had written, everyone was also on the same level. It was a level of encouragement and confidence—anyone can gain inspiration from and write like these idols—and it was also one of equality.
The owner herself most certainly added to the environment with her warm personality and knack for bringing people together. Hemingway writes in A Movable Feast about his first visit that “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me” (Hemingway 35) than Sylvia Beach. Hemingway explains that she trustingly gave him a library card, even though he did not yet have the money to pay the deposit. She made aspiring American writers feel at home while also catering to the every need of more established and demanding figures as James Joyce, publishing Ulysses in 1922 when no one else would after personally transcribing his handwritten manuscripts. Possibly more important than each of these individual actions was Beach’s ability to introduce all of these different writers to each other and create an environment where they all met, mingled, and enriched each other’s work and thought processes.
Although this only skims the surface of the happenings at Shakespeare and Company in the 1920s, we can see, even from a quick examination of the bookstore, that it was one of many informal spaces that enriched art by means of collaboration. The 1920s were a time when high art and avant-garde art were coming together in casual spaces in ways they hadn’t before, and both music and literature benefited from this.
Fitch, Noel Riley. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. New York: Norton, 1983. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Movable Feast. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964. Print.