Two Women’s Modern Odyssey

My friend Manan Ahmed, a professor at Freie Universität in Berlin, is giving a lecture called “Situating a Universal: Liminal Sindh in Medieval and Early Modern South Asia.” I am in the back, but my brain is in 1920s Paris, with Manan’s maps of the 11th-century Middle East layered in the background. I have been gorging on the letters of Sylvia Beach and the memoirs of Margaret Anderson so when Manan pauses and asks, “What does it mean to situate yourself in the frontier?,” instead of port cities and conquerors on horseback, I think of these two women, joined by a mad love for James Joyce’s Ulysses, exploring the world of modernism and bringing its treasure to the empire’s doorstep.

Because when Manan says “frontier,” he means in opposition to the empire. To be in the frontier means to be in exile from the kingdom’s purview, to hack through uncharted territory rather than walk the paved streets of the capital city. Both Beach and Anderson felt drawn to the world of letters, but lacking a smoldering desire to put pen to paper, and without an introductory letter that might lead to a publishing job, each planted her flag in her own plot of literary land. Anderson transformed herself from a small-town Indiana girl to founder and editor of the incomparable Little Review, the whole start-up funded by a friend’s pawned wedding ring. Beach flung herself into the arms of Paris, after realizing she could never afford to open a bookstore in New York; with a small storefront, the help of fellow bookstore owner Adrienne Monnier, and one telegram to her mother—”Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money”—Shakespeare & Company was born. Anderson wrote in her memoirs that there was “something cosmic in the air, a feeling of worlds in the making.”

Beach and Anderson are often referred to as two of the midwives of Modernism, although I prefer to think of them as its electrical infrastructure. What they did seems modest now—a little wiring, the construction of a transformer or two—but they changed the culture. Beach’s bookshop became the way station between English and French letters. She stocked her beloved Blake, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Joyce, and on her shelves they ran smack into Valéry, Artaud, and Genet. Neither language has yet recovered from the collision. Anderson recognized the period as a low point for American letters—all of America’s magic at the time was tied up in thought and speech, the Emma Goldman lectures, the rise of the workers’ movement, suffragists and journalists. Overseas the shake up was in language, and she brought Yeats, Pound, and yes, Joyce, to American shores. The influence spread thickly. As Christine Stansell puts it in American Moderns, “Theirs was a milieu where smart women could find power in the margins and then emerge at the center as authorities to be reckoned with.” Of course, power in the margins is not the same as power in the center: it’s more reputation than riches, swagger instead of respect. They will name a street after you when you’re dead, but they won’t do much to help you sustain your life.

In Manan’s map of South Asia, the margins of the kingdom sort of fade out into vagueness. The mapmakers live in the center, and it gets fuzzy too far past that. “The Empire has no sense of the frontier,” he says, and indeed, no one in the empire asked those who lived out there what their land looked like, or just what it took to live on it. Or what creatures it hid. Ulysses, the book that the lives of these two women would revolve around, certainly seems like it came from some lawless frontier, doesn’t it? Or maybe crawling out of the sea all scaly and be-gilled, from one of those cartographic regions marked Here Be Monsters.

Because while Sylvia Beach saw Ulysses and thought it was worth creating a wholly new publishing enterprise for, and Margaret Anderson thought, “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have. We’ll print it if it’s the last effort of our lives,” the authorities looked down from their imperial heights and yelled, “obscene.” When Anderson began serializing Ulysses, issues of Little Review were confiscated and destroyed. When Beach published Ulysses in her little bookshop and began exporting copies to the United States, they were seized at the border, and she had to develop new trade routes. She cleverly sent a man on a ferry between Canada and the United States, “a copy of Ulysses stuffed down inside his pants,” over and over and over again. Anderson was brought up on obscenity charges, accused of “being a danger to the minds of young girls,” but the American literary empire did not mount a protest or come to her aid. Stansell writes, “The trial provoked only mild interest in the press and brought no outcry whatsoever from New York literary critics.” They lost in court, they were fined and fingerprinted, and Little Review never recovered. Anderson moved to Paris. The kingdom didn’t know what it was missing, until, the groundwork laid, the market flooded with pirated copies and the reputation built, Random House came sweeping in to rescue Ulysses.

“As the empire expands, the frontier attracts the center towards it,” Manan says. In order to survive, the center of power must be “grafted,” in the words of Walt Whitman, “on newer, hardier, purely native stock.” In her final memoir, Margaret Anderson wrote of the “strange necessity” that art brings. A book that sets your toes on fire, a painting that peels off your skin, and suddenly you need to build your life around that feeling. It’s a power that can move you transatlantically. Makes you stage a coup against the empire that tells you your love is obscene or marginal or foolish.

Except the coup never really takes. The empire absorbs you, it takes your name and your property and it becomes what you once were, with all the fire and the bravery and the gunslinger attitude that it required stripped away. But the live wire that is Ulysses remains, and despite its seeming domesticity—fatly grazing on college syllabi, taught by people without a feel for the gutter of it—it can still shock you straight. It remains a danger to the minds of young girls, and thank heavens for that. But more than that, Ulysses is a monument to the resourcefulness of Sylvia Beach and Margaret Anderson, two women who found their place in the literary world—by building it from the ground up.