Sunday, December 05, 2010


We had our turkey with my mother-in-law in Utica and then came back down to Jersey with the carcass. I boiled it down to make stock and used that for a turkey soup. The wishbone has been drying on our sill since last Saturday.

Tonight, I let the children break it, explaining the principle of the wishbone to them. They wanted to know if they had to make a wish before or after breaking. Before, I said.

“I can make a quick wish!” boasts Izzy (4½). “I make the princess wish, the pony, and the unicorn. And that’s it. That’s three wishes. I can do ‘em quick.”

And off she scampers to brush her teeth.

Still holding the wishbone, I am joined by Livie (nearly 8). “Can I tell you my wish? That everything goes all right with moving in to our house and that I have a nice birthday. ‘Cause I don’t really need anything, right?”

And in comes the little one, teeth brushed. They grab the bone and pull.

To everyone’s surprise, the big girl won.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Oh, Charles

The errands continue to proliferate. Between the move and an unusually busy semester, I find myself swimming upstream in turbid waters at all times.

My husband and I have been working as hard as we can to make our new house into a home. Still, each box unpacked is mitigated by a new surprise. A bit of water damage at my little one’s new daycare led a mommy to call the city with a worry about mold. Suddenly, the daycare was shut down for a week and, desperate, we had to ship the little one off to my in-law’s. Then, the former owners left us with a filthy oven and, in cleaning it, I put the racks into the sink to soak. Alas, the weight of the racks and the water caused the under-mounted sink to break free of the counter, so now it sits, ¾ of an inch below the marble, on its plywood frame. You can imagine three or four more of these and you’ll have a sense of the domestic side of our lives lately. Add to that a similar set of comic mishaps, all leading to more work for each of us, at our respective jobs, never forgetting, of course, that there are two young children to feed and bathe on occasion, and you’ll have a snapshot of our life in November.

At the moment, my stamina is on low, and, though my mouth runs on as ever, I find myself wanting to channel Ma on “Little House on the Prairie.” As my beloved continues to find the energy to unpack, as I just really want to curl up in a corner and read, I need to talk less and express more. What I remember most of Karen Grassle’s Ma was the many, many inflections of “Oh, Charles.”

“Oh, Charles” could mean “thank you so much for replacing the waxed paper in the windows with real glass.” It could mean “I’m both pleased and embarrassed that you’re flirting with me in front of the children.” It could mean “I’m so grateful that you brought home four new chickens, but where are we going to put them?” Or it could mean “I’m so proud and happy that you’re willing to make this run into town in the blizzard, as we have neither food nor fuel, and yet, it’s terrifying to me that you propose to leave me alone here in the prairie with three young children and no food or fuel.”

Oh, Charles.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Julia Briggs Essay Prize for 2011

The Woolf Society of Great Britain is holding another essay competition in honor of the late, great, dearly missed Woolf scholar and feminist Julia Briggs. Here are the details: 

The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain (VWSGB) is holding an essay competition in memory of acclaimed Virginia Woolf scholar and VWSGB Executive Council member Julia Briggs, who died in August 2007.
The competition is open to members and non-members (except for the Executive Council and Editorial Committee of the VWSGB, the judges, and families of the above). Entries should be sent to Ruth Webb, 15 Southcote Road, London SE25 4RG, to arrive by 10 January 2011.
Entrants should read these carefully and return the signed form with the entry. If you have any queries or would like an entry form, please email Sarah M. Hall on
Please note that student membership of the VWSGB costs only £10 for those at UK addresses and £15 for those at overseas addresses, per calendar year.
Competition Rules
The essay, on the topic ‘Why is reading Virginia Woolf still so crucial today?’, but with a title of the entrant’s choosing, should be between 2,000 and 2,500 words in length. It should be the original work of the named entrant, and previously unpublished in print or any other medium. Student coursework is acceptable. 
Entrants should supply THREE typed copies of the essay on A4 paper, printed on one side only, double-spaced (or 1.5) and in a font size no smaller than 10-point. The VWSGB regrets that no emailed entries will be accepted, because of printing costs.
The competition will be judged by acclaimed Woolf scholars Lyndall Gordon and Maggie Humm, and VWSGB Vice-Chair and Woolf biographer Ruth Webb. The decision of the judges is final. The VWSGB reserves the right not to award the prize if, in the judges’ opinion, none of the entries attains the required standard. Otherwise the winner will be contacted in mid-March.
The winner will receive a cheque for £250, presented at the VWSGB’s AGM in central London on 2 April 2011, and the winning essay will be published in the Virginia Woolf Bulletin. If the winner is unable to attend the AGM, the prize will be sent by secure mail.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Praise of Libraries

It's been a long time. There have been highs and lows. But that's for another day. For now, some Wyndham Lewis. This quotation, about a curmudgeon's private library, comes courtesy of John Whittier-Ferguson's paper at MSA12 (the Modernist Studies Association Conference) in Victoria, B.C.:
This was 1939, the last year, or as good as, in which such a life as this one was to be lived. Parkinson was the last of a species. Here he was in a large room, which was a private, a functional library. Such a literary workshop belonged to the ages of individualism. Its three or four thousand volumes were all book-plated Parkinson. It was really a fragment of paradise where one of our species lived embedded in books, decently fed, moderately taxed, snug and unmolested.--Self Condemned (79)
Wonderful. I love the Lewisian misanthropic soupcon of paranoia added on to the praise of the library: the library in 1939 as a tiny little paradise, under siege from all sides. Wonderful.

Monday, October 11, 2010

T-16 days and counting

Gentle readers, I know that posting has been light. I am writing--more than ever--but the work I'm pouring into my lecture (just eleven days away!) on Mrs. Dalloway is sufficiently consuming that I'm finding it hard to digest it into little blog-friendly tidbits.

On top of that, we have bought a house--or are buying one--and will close on the sale the very day after my lecture!

I pack a box. I write a paragraph. I lie awake at night worrying about where the couch will fit, what the new daycare will be like, and whether I really should include that anecdote about Lytton Strachey in my lecture.

All of this makes for a rather manic interior life, but not one that I want to blog about.

Never fear. In November, I'll be unpacking at my leisure in our new home (with my very own study) in the melodiously named and lovely town of South Orange, New Jersey (where, yes, the middle school does have a giant orange on a pole out front!) and blogging should resume at its usual sporadic pace.

Until then, I hope to see you--in reality or in spirit--on 10/21 at 4:00!

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Art of Captivity

My friend and colleague Lenny Cassuto has curated a wonderful small exhibit on the idea of captivity. In American literature, captivity narratives have a very particular connotation: a subgenre of stories of whites who were kidnapped by (or ran off with) Native Americans and then wrote of their experiences. And, of course, in American history, the word captivity always recollects the sorry fact of slavery. This exhibit keeps its focus on the political while opening that category up, for us to think about mythology (Demeter and Persephone).  As I walk past the show up to work each morning, I find myself particularly drawn to the play on celebrity wives, looking on in poses of “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” by Karen Yama.

But that is not the only amazing image. Kara Walker never disappoints, and four of her gorgeous and disturbing silhouettes are on display. As is an amazing, Jasper Johns or Glenn Ligon-like print of the lyrics of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” And then, anchoring the gallery with a stunning pop of color is Anne Sherwood Pundyk’s painting.

If you’re around Lincoln Center, pop your head into Lowenstein and ask the security guard to let you see the art. Or better, pop by tomorrow.

The show will have a formal opening receptions and artists’ panel discussion tomorrow, Tuesday, October 5th. Reception is 5:00-6:30; panel discussion is 6:30-8:00. The gallery is located on the street level of Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus, 113 W 60th St., just west of Columbus Circle.

Part two of the exhibition will be held at Susan Eley Fine Art (46 W 90th), beginning on October 26, 2010.

Friday, October 01, 2010

More on Sissinghurst, elsewhere

My review of Adam Nicolson's Sissinghurst is now live at Open Letters Monthly.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Opening Doors: Girls Write Now Party!

You have heard me rave and rave and rave about Girls Write Now. If you are in New York and want to see for yourself why it's such an amazing organization, why it continually inspires me, and why I'm taking a quick break from writing to celebrate with them, why not stop by their new space next Tuesday, October 5th? I'll be there!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Community Soccer, Jersey Style

My seven-year-old is playing community soccer for the first time this year. Her team is sponsored by the Friendly Son’s of St. Patrick. I both love and cringe at the apostrophe error on the back of her uniform. With her blue eyes and freckles, she certainly has the map of Ireland on her face much more than I do and that makes her very cute indeed in that dark green jersey. 

So, last night, I sat on the aluminum bleachers and watched her first practice. Two men, looking like extras from central casting for “Jersey dad/Sopranos extra” called out “Hey, kick the ball at the goal!” to their son, and I began to fear a season of coaching from the sidelines. (It’s actually decent advice, of course, and not very aggressive, but I am a timid mommy when it comes to sports.) Still stereotyping all these strangers, I glanced at the Patagonia-clad, athletic-professional dad for support, but he didn’t look at me. A few minutes later, his beautiful daughter came to him in tears. She had been hit in the face with a ball. He gave her a sip of water and a hug and then, confirming she was o.k., sent her back on the field, “all right now, go out there and kick someone else in the face.”

Jersey is as Jersey does.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Room of Her Own Foundation: Kenny Fries Scholarship

If you would like to support a woman writer with disabilities or if you ARE (or know) such a woman whose writing would benefit from a retreat, here is a great opportunity:

In honor of my friend, the writer and disabilities advocate Kenny Fries' 50th birthday, A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) is sponsoring a scholarship for a disabled writer who without financial support could not attend the AROHO 2011 Retreat for Women Writers. Kenny will choose the recipient in an open application process.

AROHO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that champions women writers. The suggested donation is $45. But any amount, even $5 or $10, will help us come closer to a fully funded scholarship. Donations to AROHO are tax-deductible. You can give online by choosing "Kenny Fries Scholarship" from the drop-down menu here, which will take you to PayPal. If you prefer you can mail a check to AROHO, PO Box 778, Placitas, NM 87043, mentioning that the check is for the Kenny Fries Scholarship for a Writer with a Disability.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Flu at Sissinghurst

Vita Sackville-West to Leonard Woolf, January, 1940: 
“Dear Leonard, I ought to have answered your letter long ago, but both the boys came home fro 24 hours leave and immediately took to their beds with ‘flu. You may imagine that Sissinghurst is at no time an ideal place for invalids, but when it means carrying trays, hot water bottles and other requirements through snowdrifts some sixteen times a day it is really hell….Pipes froze; lavatories ceased to function; snow came through the roof and dripped on to my bed. So perhaps you will forgive the delay.”
From Adam Nicolson's Sissinghurst.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

And one in URUGUAY!

I was interested to see that the University of Montevideo in Uruguay was dedicating its 7th annual literature conference to Virginia Woolf this coming June, 2011. The call for papers (due February 28th, 2011) makes lovely use of the South American setting of The Voyage Out to explain the thinking behind the focus.

But I cannot remember a more exciting email ever than the one I got a few weeks later inviting me to give one of the talks there. I am still gobsmacked and very excited.

All my fantasies of Tobermory are on hold as I imagine the reality of a few days in Montevideo next June. Wow. In honor of the trip, my student sent me the song "Skipping Down the Street" by My Little Pony which includes the lyric If I'd fallen in love in Montevideo....

I’ll be speaking about The Common Reader and eating a chivito, the national sandwich.

From the CFP:
These South American places imagined by Woolf are an invitation to the possibility of reflecting on her work from a transatlantic perspective, as Victoria Ocampo did in 1929 when she first read A Room of One´s Own. The essay confirmed many of Ocampo´s ideas on the woman-writer, and inspired her to promote critical readings and translations of Virginia Woolf´s work in the River Plate, especially through Sur, the literary journal she founded in Buenos Aires in 1931.
Seventy years after Virginia Woolf´s death, Montevideana VII calls for papers presenting innovative readings, translations, and exchanges in connection with the multiple dialogues which her work continues to establish, either directly or indirectly, with this part of the world.
Abstracts should be submitted by February 28th 2011.
For further information click or email.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Two New York Appearances

Part of the quiet around here comes from the overwhelming wave of adminstration that crashed upon my head at the end of my sabbatical. Part of it comes from my need to prepare for two upcoming public events. If you're in New York--or inclined to visit--please come to one or both--and say hello!

On Tuesday, October 16th, I’ll be participating in the post-matinee talk-back of Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Woolf’s novel. It’s in previews now. 

Then, on Thursday, October 21st at 4:00, I’ll be giving a free, public lecture on my ongoing work as the editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Mrs. Dalloway at the New York Public Library on 42nd & 5th. My lecture will be the third in a 3-day festival of lectures on Woolf: Jean Mills will speak on Woolf and Jane Harrison on Tuesday at 4:00 and Isaac Gewirtz will speak on the proofs of A Room of One's Own on Wednesday at 4:00. 

Barbara Holland, RIP

Why do I not know her work? She is my new hero. From the Times obit, via the Woolf listserv:
Her fight for ground to stand on as a young woman remained central to her reading of the world. A steady paycheck and self-respect were the keys to her brand of feminism, not the allowance and room of one’s own proposed by Virginia Woolf. “No, Mrs. Woolf,” she wrote in her memoir. “A job, Mrs. Woolf.”
Holland was the author of the essay collection “Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences” (1995) which has risen to the top of my TBR pile. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sissinghurst, again

Having loved the op-ed on Sissinghurst earlier this summer, I’m writing a review-essay on Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst, a very engaging book about his life as a donor-tenant on the NT site. How engaging is it? As an aristocrat who doesn’t use his title and who lives as a tenant in his grandma’s castle, Nicolson has a wonderfully wry sense of humor about other lords, as here, in a description of a National Trust committee meeting:
When a man called John Smith was proposed as a member, the chairman, Viscount Esher, said ‘I suppose it is a good thing to have a proletarian name on the Committee—anyone know him?’ ‘Yes,’ said the earl of Euston, ‘he is my brother-in-law.’
As the descendant of a long, long line of New Hampshire Smiths (I have the forehead to show it), I loved this.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Almanzo Wilder's Farm

Blogging is light because sabbatical is over and administration is heavy. Still, you can get one last taste of summer by clicking on over to Writer's Houses to read my guest post on our visit to Almanzo Wilder's farm.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Little Magazine Fail

Back in January, 2009, I wrote an essay about Virginia Woolf and my grandmother. It’s a good essay. My parents think it’s good. Some pretty famous Woolf scholars have read and enjoyed it. I hope, one day, to publish it in a little magazine.

I entered it in a contest. It came in second. I was disappointed but still hopeful that it would find a home.

I sent it to the Yale Review. I got my PhD at Yale. Woolf published some essays in The Yale Review in the 1930s. I thought an old-fashioned personal essay that was about the love of reading and a mean Yankee grandmother written by a Yalie might find a home in the Yale Review. It was a longshot, but not utterly insane. The essay had, after all, come in second in a contest.

I called the Yale Review late in the spring of 2009 to check on the status of my essay. “Oh, my goodness!” was the flustered reaction. Profuse apologies for the lack of acknowledgment (not to mention reading or decision) ensued.

In the fall of 2009, eager to move on, I left a voicemail: I am submitting the essay elsewhere. It's still elsewhere. I still hope for news, dimly.

And now, awaiting me in my mail at work, is a note, dated July 28, 2010, from the Yale Review. It’s not a rejection. It’s an apology that, given the intense preparations for the 100th anniversary issue, they won’t be able to get to my essay until June of 2011.

Shame on them.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


My new obsession is Tobermory, Ontario, a small town on the Bruce Peninsula in Lake Huron, about 7 hours north of Clayton, NY.

Why, you ask, does a woman who spends her summers 7 hours north of New York City dream of spending a week 7 hours further north?

Because she can, dear reader, because she can.

It began with The Wind in the Willows, which accompanied us up to the River for the third year in a row. This year, however, we actually read a couple chapters aloud.

Then, one day, during 30 seconds of the 30 or 40 minutes of television the children watched all summer, there was an ad on t.v. for a new musical based on Kenneth Grahame’s book, set on the St. Lawrence River, and coming to the stage in Gananoque in August.

I was sold. I got tickets. The girls and I got our passports and went. The girls loved it—just adored the show. I thought it was about as good as you might guess good regional theater in Ontario would be: the first act was terrific, the second relied a little too heavily on very rusty jokes (from Grahame’s book, but that was 1933) about a Toad in an Irish woman’s pink dress. It might have been 1950.

I was disappointed, too, to be sitting seven rows back with my little girls, behind a busload of old age pensioners. Why did the 80-year-olds get all the good seats? And it does spoil my time a little to be a good 40 years younger than the average audience member.

Nonetheless, the opening moments were fantastic. The opening scene takes place on the dock—Gananoque’s Singer Theater is the old Canoe Club—and we were treated to a few songs from David Archibald, the play’s co-author and composer.

“Up the River” opens with the actors singing and dancing on the dock. Mole comes on stage, welcomes spring, notices the River in wonder, and then Ratty (who, in the true Canadian spirit, keeps insisting he’s a Beaver. The Canada jokes were pretty tired but this one was funny.) actually rows up to the dock. Mole climbs on board and they row out to a little grass-covered float anchored near the dock. As they picnic, a wet-suited and flippered otter swims up and joins them. That was great summer family theater: witty and funny and worth the price of the ticket. (You can read a review here.)

I also liked David Archibald’s singing: very old school folk with a British Isles/Canadian/Great Lakes tinge (sincere, story-telling, sentimental about a park-like vision of wilderness). His song, “The Rocks of Tobermory” was haunting, so I looked him up.

Then I looked up Tobermory. There is nothing like a map to inflame my dreams of travel. Just look at that peninsula! And then listen to this:
Fathom Five is Canada's first National Marine Park, with over 20 shipwrecks and 19 islands within it's boundaries. The deep clear water and the numerous shipwrecks attract over 8,000 divers each year. Glass bottom boat tours leave Tobermory several times each day to take visitors over the shipwrecks and to Flower Pot Island. The best known island in the Park features two 60 foot high 'flower pots', a lighthouse and walking trails.

When I lie awake worrying about the coming semester and all that I will have to do, I soothe myself back to sleep with promises of a trip to Tobermory next summer…

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Call it macaroni

I flew through Elizabeth Bowen’s wonderful novel The House in Paris so fast that I had no time to note it here. Instead, I dove into another Bowen, her first novel, The Hotel. From there, I give you this gem of biting British comedy. Poor Miss Pym has had a fight with her friend and she enters the dining room of the hotel with a tear-stained face, too late for luncheon:
Miss Pym looked diffidently at the waiter. She had cut herself off from the omelette, so he shrugged his shoulders and brought her up a plate of macaroni from the servants’ lunch. This the bruised creature pitifully but with evidence of hunger bagan to eat; the traditional British struggle with macaroni brought her down sharply from tragedy to farce.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Woolf’s Reading Notebooks

I mean no disrespect to Brenda Silver in saying that her guide, Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks makes for pretty dull reading. How could it be otherwise? A book that summarizes over forty volumes of Woolf’s notes can only offer the barest indications of the books and subjects noted. For the book to be produced at a reasonable length, it had to be what it is: a dated list of the contents of each of the notebooks.

Having looked at the notebooks from the early 20s, when Woolf was writing Mrs. Dalloway, I marvel anew at her perseverance in dating these very sketchy and various volumes.

I wonder, too, how it might be possible to convey what makes them such amazing documents.

Woolf kept a diary. She also kept draft notebooks for her novels and the essays she wrote alongside them. The reading notebooks are a third kind of notebook, more casual than either of these. Volume 19 is a notebook with cardboard covers, reinforced inside and out on the spine with cloth. Two pairs of metal grommets on the front and back permit it to be bound with laces (and there is a very heavy shoelace attached here, though no longer binding the pages). Inside, are over 100 loose pages, each with two holes. This permitted Woolf to unbind pages from old notebooks and pull old notes as she was revising and expanding essays—for her Common Readers, say. As Silver points out, this can make dating notebooks extraordinarily difficult, as a single notebook (like notebook 26) may contain pages from 1919, 1920 or 21, 1926, 1928, 1935, and 1938.

And in these notebooks, you find Woolf at her most personal, her most uncertain. In the midst of notetaking on a critical book on the novel, she pauses: “(one feels out of one’s depth)”. Of Oedipus Coloneus, read in French, she writes “I did not much enjoy it & found the complexity of the plot annoying.”

It is so rare to hear Woolf speaking in this voice—the voice of a reader in the process of making a judgment. Equally rare, if less vivid, is the chance to leaf through the pages and see how she took notes, what quotations stood out for her. Just seeing that she used the left margin to note page numbers is of interest to me, and, in reading through the notebooks back in June, I found that I had some answers to the kinds of questions readers always want to ask writers—how do you take notes? what kind of pen do you use? when you’re working on a review, how much research do you do? what books influenced you most when writing this one?

Having perused a few of these volumes for my edition of Mrs. Dalloway, I remain grateful to Silver and staunch in my admiration for what she achieved, but I wish her book offered readers more of the romance of reading that I found while working with the actual documents in the Berg Collection.

Friday, August 20, 2010

More on that cheese

We were gone for seven weeks. Six of them we spent, as we have come to do, down the road from my mother-in-law about six miles outside Clayton, New York. It’s incredibly beautiful there, but the gourmet/organic/locavore culture has yet to arrive.

In the middle of our time, we dropped down to Amherst, MA for a week.

The Farmer’s Market there could make you weep for joy: artfully displayed berries, lettuces, sunflowers. Every booth staffed by a thin, tanned New Englander, some liberal arts graduate turned farmer.

I bought a little container of goat cheese for us to take on a picnic. The label said “Healing the earth through organic farming.” That took it a bit too far even for me and I had to laugh. I mean, I know we were in the Happy Valley—I love the happy valley—but the outrageous navel-gazing arrogance of suggesting that a tiny little goat cheese operation was “healing the earth”!

Then, two days later, we pulled out of town and headed back up to Clayton.  On the way to the highway, we passed farmstand after farmstand. We planned to get some corn to bring back for dinner but, with a long drive ahead, it seemed better to wait until we got closer to the River.

It was too late before we remembered that Central New York just doesn’t have that farmstand culture. We had missed our shot at corn. There would certainly be no more organic goat cheese until our next visit to the Happy Valley (or the Union Square Greenmarket). Suddenly, the farm’s slogan didn’t seem so inflated. We laughed at ourselves, wishing a few more people upstate were interested in healing the earth.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tallying Summer

After seven weeks away, seven hours from home, six of them spent in our customary little rented cottage just four doors down from my mother-in-law’s, on the shores of the mighty St. Lawrence River, I am surprised by what I missed and what I did not miss about city living:

I did not miss:
  • podcasts
  • NPR
  • television
  • the news in any form
  • running errands
  • calculating the commute time
  • a feeling of constant hurry and competition 

I missed
  • really good cheese
  • fresh produce (up there, it’s a private culture: people have gardens, not farmer’s markets, and the tomatoes were only just arriving as we left)
  • music at dinnertime (somehow, not a habit of my mother-in-law’s at the River, though she listens to it in her home in winter)
  • seeing people on the street who look interesting, look like people I’d like to meet

I am fond of traffic, of street noise, of the subway. I am fond of waking at 4 AM to the sound of an owl, of the sound of waves hitting the shore. I like going for a run and checking on the osprey nest. I like going on a run and smiling at the nervous tourists in line for the Statue of Liberty Cruise. I have beloved friends and family in both spots and, in both spots, I am delighted to run into them. I feel profoundly at home in both places.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why didn’t I like that book?

I love reading bad reviews—really delicious, mean, pointed reviews, that get at the heart of what a book has gotten wrong—but I don’t like to write them. When I read a book that I don’t like, I’m much more likely to let it passed unremarked than I am to publicly excoriate it and its author. I appreciate—all too well—how hard writing is, so I don’t really want to add pain or disappointment to the world.

Still, I finished a book this week that I just thought was poor and I’m trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Let me, without naming the book, take a crack at the gap between what it was trying to do and what it did.

I’ll start by saying that everything about it should have made me like it: a friend in the book business sent it my way (hoping for publicity, sure, but this friend is judicious and knows my taste), the author and I have a lot in common (same kind of college, love of the same great American lyricist, one of us currently lives in the other’s home town, etc.), and it’s a comic novel, a middlebrow book by a lover of James and Wharton.

So, this is a fast-paced novel, the kind of novel that would make a really good ensemble-cast movie. I read fifty pages, fell asleep, and woke up from a nightmare at 3 AM and, unable to shake the dream, turned on the light and finished the book. But, doing so made me feel a little sad: the writer is clearly so smart and the book is sloppy, unfocused, and unsure of its genre. I can see the hilarious book behind it but this book is not it.

Here are two examples of scenes that misfire: There is a big wedding at the heart of the book. The bride and groom are ill-matched, the wedding is beyond expensive, and the groom has cold feet. As things begin to go wrong, there is an avalanche of the cupcake tower wedding cake. Slapstick is hard to write, but this should be a slapstick scene: full of frosting wrecking expensive shoes, tears, dogs getting sick, laughter, recriminations. To work, it needs to be big and hilarious. But the writer can’t forget that she also likes her characters, cares about them; I can sense her liking them, but we haven’t seen a nice moment from the bride in so many pages that I don’t like her anymore and am not sorry that “her day” is getting spoiled. Thus, the scene neither has enough action nor enough poignance to work.

There is also an injured child. Here, the author does a very very bad writer’s workshop thing: she shows us the child, motionless after a fall, then switches perspective to another character for three pages, then shows us the child, safe and sound with a few stitches in her scalp. Only then, in flashback, does she explain the accident.

Writers: do not do this. This is a very lazy way to create suspense.

There are some icky things going on with race in this lily white book where comic relief comes from the non-whites.

Finally, although there are metaphors and descriptive set pieces in the book, there is no motif—of images, of habits—to let us know the characters and their minds. In fact, the images are so underdeveloped that, in the next paragraph when the author refers back to “the crabwalker” or “the Flatlander,” I always had to slow down and re-read the set up for the reference.

Mark Sarvas does such a good job with the silly but consistent recurrence of the Monte Cristo sandwich in his book. Marcy Dermansky, too, gives Marie a real love of food that remains a touchstone in almost every scene--she is hungry, loving or hating the food and drink, over and over again. 

This book should have been a comic masterpiece, a funny book by a smart person about silly rich people. I would have been better off reading two brilliant examples of the genre: Mark Sarvas’ Harry, Revised and Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie. For now, I’m choosing between Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Eloisa James’ bodice-ripping retelling of Cinderella: A Kiss at Midnight.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Sample footnote

Hugh Whitbread has given me some of the best ones for my edition of Mrs. Dalloway. Still, I spend my days with a mix of pride and shame, reducing five volumes of Woolf diaries down to twenty pages of notes and then reducing those twenty pages down to three pages of footnotes.
It’s like making demi-glace: so much work for something so unimpressive looking. Still, if the footnotes are good, then the edition will be a feast.
12.17-18 When his old mother wanted him to give up shooting Clive Bell proffered a similar promise to Vanessa during their engagement: “Bell had confessed that he could even give up hunting if necessary in order to marry” (L 1.206; 27 Aug. 1905; to Violet)
Clarissa is weighing the good and the bad of “the admirable Hugh”: so overly proud of his “little job at the Palace,” but also a kind man, a man who gives up shooting if his mother wishes him to. But, then again, it’s hardly saintly to give up hunting. And fat men who visit dowagers and compliment their cake are, in general, not adding a lot of good to the world.

I love all the moral calculations that go into the assessments and reassessments of Hugh and finding this little connection to Clive Bell, Woolf’s brother-in-law, only sweetens the complexities. From the first, Clive was a little outside Bloomsbury for his gentleman-sportsman ways, just as this quotation shows.

So, that’s one footnote.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I've been taking Woolf's advice and kayaking and reading a lot:
“The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life…--one must become externalized; very, very concentrated” (D 2.193; 22 August 1922)
Blogging will resume in due time, no doubt.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

TBR Pile, Virginia Woolf edition

On my table are: Yeats poems. Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel. (which I think very interesting); Susanne et le Pacifique: (also interesting); the Adelphi; Chaucer; Lord Willoughby de Broke’s autobiography (sporting); a good many Elizabthans plays which I’m going to write about and—mere daily trash: Joan of Arc [Saint Joan]: I can’t see why people are moved by this: interested, instructed—yes; but I cant squeeze a tear. I like Shaw as a figure: he seems to be lean, lively, destructive and combative. But Lord! leave me on a desert island with his lays, and I’d rather scale monkey puzzles.” (L 3.130; 4 September 1924; to Jacques Raverat)

Monday, August 02, 2010

Those Crazy Visual Artists, 1918 edition

“They are going to live on top of one of the Wiltshire downs, so that Will can see nothing but the sky, which is the only thing he likes to paint though a certain amount of green is admitted very low down on the edge of the canvas.”(L 2.284; 19 October 1918; to Vanessa)

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Dangers of Smoking, 1917 edition

We were talking with a young friend about the dangers of smoking just last night. 

Here is Woolf, during WWI, thanking a friend for cigarettes and joking about the difficulty of getting them and the nosy tobacconist who worries over selling them to a young friend:
“I ought to have thanked you for your efforts about the cigarettes, I hear that its almost impossible to get them, and it says much for Barbara [Hiles], and rehabilitates (in part) the intellect of the younger generation, that in spite of this she found out the last 2 packets in England and ran them to earth; but I was pleased to hear how the tobacconist spotted her youth and innocence and warned her against such strong smokes. Its really no good wearing corduroy trousers when even a tobacconist sees through one.” (L 2.181; 18 September 1917; to Saxon)
Let's cast our minds back to that day when women rarely wore pants and have that lovely last line again: "Its really no good wearing corduroy trousers when even a tobacconist sees through one."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Keri and Sylvia around the web

All week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

To wrap up, in case you’re still hungry for more, you can find reviews and interviews all around the web:
Enjoy. I hope you agree that there is little more diverting than spending a summer week thinking about Paris in the 1920s.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Conversation with Keri Walsh, Part Four: Common Readers and Bookstores

In honor of the publication of her edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham. As part of Sylvia Beach Week, Keri Walsh and I “interviewed” each other over email. We continued the conversation we began at her reading at Bluestockings books in May, touching on the challenges of editing, on women modernists, on bookstores, archives, and common readers. We could barely stop talking, so the conversation is in four parts. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it!

Anne: Anyone who loves Sylvia Beach must also love bookstores.  Can you tell me about one or two of your favorites and what they offer?

Keri: Some bookstores have such intellectual energy that they make you feel smarter.  Blackwell’s in Oxford is one of them.  You can take your notebook in there and emerge three hours later having done all the research for your latest piece of writing. Blackwell’s has every book you could ever want, at least in the Humanities, and you never know who’ll be sitting beside you in the second-floor café.  There’s a certain jetset element, a Hello magazine blend of Rhodes Scholars and children of foreign potentates.  It makes for glamorous people-watching: you can try to pick out the next Bill Clinton. The main Blackwell’s shop, which opened in 1879, is located in an old house right across the street from the Bodleian, and from the café you can see across the street to the dreaming spires and the Sheldonian theatre. 

I think I grew to love Blackwell’s because it gave me what the Bodleian couldn’t.  Some days I didn’t have the patience for Old Boddy: the books are locked away, can only be called up in small quantities, and you can’t wander in the stacks or take things home, and you certainly can’t drink Diet Coke in there.  All of this leads me back across the street to Blackwell’s. There’s a huge floor in the basement called the Norrington Room (a friend of mine used to call this area the TARDIS, after Dr. Who’s police box).  The store had to excavate beneath Trinity College’s gardens to accommodate it.  The TARDIS holds the philosophy, religion, feminism, film, and cultural studies books.  That’s where I would disappear to read things that weren’t quite approved of by my tutors— French feminism, American cultural studies, and anything else that seemed too jargony or flighty.  And then, if you hike up about five flights of stairs, you get to the second-hand section.  That’s a great place to find out-of-print women’s novels published by Virago in those gorgeous green-backed books—books like Rosamund Lehman’s Dusty Answer, my favorite best-seller of 1927.

Meanwhile, in London: last summer I discovered Samuel French’s Theatre Bookstore.  It caters to an entirely different clientele: the city’s actors.  It’s tucked away on a very quiet corner of Fitzrovia, and the walls are full of notices of auditions and ads for plays.  They carry every thespian thing you could ever want, and then some things you didn’t even know existed.  In that second category, I picked up a script for Mindy Kaling’s spoof of Good Will Hunting called “Matt and Ben.” 

Keri: Please tell me about your favorite bookstores, and what they offer.

Anne: I grew up going to Seattle’s University Bookstore with my family on the weekends. The children’s section and the magazines were on a balcony overlooking the main floor. My father would browse history while my mom, sister, and I picked out books for ourselves. I remember presenting him with a stack of two or three and having him assess my choices, and substitute one book for two others he deemed better. Those were golden hours.

The summer before graduate school, when I was 21, I worked at Bek’s Books in Seattle. It was an ordinary independent bookstore in an underground mall in a bank building: precisely the kind of bookstore I had scorned before the owner, a family friend, offered me a much-needed job. It had New York Times bestsellers near the door, travel books, a romance section, cookbooks, and a small children’s section. It was a place for bank tellers and lawyers to pass through on their lunch break. My snobbery faded pretty quickly. I loved the other clerks there and I grew to love the passionate reading tastes of people who then looked to me very ordinary, very middle-aged. I was working my way through the “recommended reading” from Yale that summer and driving everyone—myself included—crazy by answering customer’s queries about what I was reading with “Oh, The Aeneid.”

Now, I dream daily of Greenwich Village’s Three Lives Books. I feel smarter just going in. That’s a reader’s store: a store to discover great fiction. The staff is wonderful and friendly and though I don’t go nearly as often as I like, they are kind and so knowledgeable and genuinely interested in reading. It’s a lovely little space: just big enough to linger in, but small enough not to be overwhelming. The perfect stop on the way to the PATH train & back home to Jersey. And, of course, in London, I have to go to Hatchard’s, the shop Clarissa browses and still a great browsing store in an old townhouse off Piccadilly (though it’s a chain now).

I wish New York had a good academic bookstore: I miss having a place to browse through the books that I see advertised in The New York Review of Books (on those rare occasions when I get to it). Bluestockings comes close, but I want a broader political range, not only radical books. My husband tells me that NYU has just redone its bookstore and made it into a flagship. I have high hopes for that. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Oxford, but I know just what you mean about the Blackwell’s there: it’s certainly a pilgrimage spot for me. Seminary Books in Chicago is the only American bookstore I know that comes close to giving you that incredible feeling of stretching your brain, making you long to read serious, important books, new and old.

New York’s Drama Bookshop is a space like the one you describe in London. Do you know it? Kris Lundberg of the very Woolfian Shakespeare’s Sister Theater Company did a staged reading there on Woolf’s birthday one year and invited me to speak. They have a small black box performance space in the basement. If you haven’t been, treat yourself!

Keri: When describing Sylvia Beach’s taste in books and her reading practices, I often end up borrowing Virginia Woolf’s idea of the “common reader.”  Making books available to a wide range of people in every walk of life was important to both Woolf and Beach.  And they both liked to make fun of academics who took themselves too seriously (I love Woolf’s academic satires in To the Lighthouse).  Can you say something about Woolf’s fondness for “common reading,” why the concept is so important to her, and also perhaps what role it plays in your own editorial practices, teaching, or reading? 

Anne: The notion of the common reader is really important to me. Woolf writes about reading what one likes and never pretending otherwise. She wasn’t always so confident, but by the time she was in her forties—my age now—she was. Her confidence, her refusal to let others turn her away from Euripides or a Countess’ memoirs, gives me confidence when I feel others challenging my choices.

One of the things I love about blogging is the happy randomness of it, the way it allows you to graze around the web until, suddenly, you hit an unexpected pocket of intensity—some blogging community where everyone is writing fan fiction about Harry Potter or interacting with their favorite romance novelist or enjoining a group of friends to work their way through Don Quixote as I did with Bud Parr a few years back. My friend Lizzie Skurnick (who blogs over at the Old Hag and wrote Shelf Discovery) is my 21st century model for common reading: she can rattle off the plots of great forgotten bestsellers from the 70s and then, in the same paragraph, she’ll tell you about what she’s getting from this rereading of Thackeray.

Although I never read as much as I want to read, reading is the great pleasure in my life and I love peopling my life and my imagination with—well, just everything I can gobble.

When I teach, though, I want to communicate enthusiasm, but I don’t teach a lot of pop. The fun of pop and light fare is discovering it for oneself. I am happy to refer to Lady Gaga in the classroom, but I don’t teach her or Nora Roberts or Eat, Pray Love. My sense is that you want a teacher for those texts that are so intimidating or difficult that you wouldn’t tackle them on your own.

Conversation With Keri Walsh, Part Three: Editing the Modernists

In honor of the publication of her edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham. As part of Sylvia Beach Week, Keri Walsh and I “interviewed” each other over email. We continued the conversation we began at her reading at Bluestockings books in May, touching on the challenges of editing, on women modernists, on bookstores, archives, and common readers. We could barely stop talking, so the conversation is in four parts. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it!

Keri: As I mentioned to you after the Bluestockings reading, I would find the task of editing Mrs. Dalloway intimidating because of the venerable editors who have come before.  Can you say a little bit about your relationship to past editions of the novel, and perhaps tell me about one or two interesting decisions you’ve had to make that depart from decisions made by past editors?  Or can you say something more generally about how these earlier editors appear in your mind as you work—as friends, supporters, rivals, buddies?

Anne: After four years of working on this project (off and on, often in the margins), I have finally reached the stage where my excitement about it is slightly greater than my intimidation. It’s been really hard.

There are three important editions of Mrs. Dalloway that come before me. I was really grateful that the Cambridge general editors made it their policy that we don’t pick fights with prior editions or go out of our way to mention their errors. I don’t know G. Patton Wright at all, but his edition has a really strong sense of the novel’s textual history. That has been a big help. I have a longstanding and friendly email correspondence with Murray Beja and his very funny essay on coming to love textual editing after being skeptical was immensely reassuring to me when I was most bored and intimidated by the tedium of collating editions. He is like a kind uncle to me and I’m deeply grateful for that. David Bradshaw worked off Wright’s edition in preparing a paperback student edition for Oxford. When I finally realized I could just use his historical research as a source in itself, I stopped feeling even the least bit rivalrous. Besides, I know David and like him immensely. He’s editing another of Woolf’s novels for Cambridge and I think it’s a stroke of luck that I get to follow along after him. That is not to say that these three are among the readers whose opinions I most dread.

One of the changes that editors often make regards Elizabeth Dalloway’s dress at the party: it’s referred to three times as pink and once as red. Editors often see that red as a mistake and it’s true that Woolf could be careless at the proof stage. But the person who perceives the dress as red is Sally. Of course, if a dress could flicker between pink and red, Sally Seton would be the one who would see it as red. I’m sticking with it as written, I’ll flag it for the readers, and let them write their own interpretations. I don’t think that’s a mistake.

Keri: When I was working on Beach’s letters, whenever I was in doubt about an editorial decision, I turned to Bonnie Kime Scott’s edition of Rebecca West’s letters.  They were my model.  Do you find inspiration in any particularly exemplary volumes?  What editions of modernist novel do you admire?

Anne: I love Bonnie and she edited Dalloway for Harcourt, but that’s not a model edition for me—it’s too friendly and too close. It’s great for students, but it’s not the work I’m doing here. The edition that I admire most is my friend Jeri Johnson’s Oxford edition of Ulysses. It created all kinds of textual controversies—as such things always do—and that’s not going to be an issue for any book but Ulysses. The inspiration for me is how Jeri is equally interested in chasing down historical and literary allusions and that’s one of my chief aims: to have footnotes about the demolition of Devonshire House (which Clarissa remembers going to parties at and which was torn down between when Woolf submitted the proofs and the novel’s publication date) and footnotes about allusions to the Bible.

The CUP general editors, Jane Goldman and Susan Sellers, have been incredibly generous, sending us all computer files of their notes and apparatus along the way. They are each working on a novel, too (To the Lighthouse and The Waves, respectively) and I’m really lucky that the wonderful Woolf scholar Mark Hussey is doing Between the Acts for CUP, lives in New York, and is a friend. When I get really desperate, I ask him to have lunch with me. He always cheers me up and spurs me on.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Conversation with Keri Walsh, Part Two: Beach & Joyce & Paris & Woolf

In honor of the publication of her edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham. As part of Sylvia Beach Week, Keri Walsh and I “interviewed” each other over email. We continued the conversation we began at her reading at Bluestockings books in May, touching on the challenges of editing, on women modernists, on bookstores, archives, and common readers. We could barely stop talking, so the conversation is in four parts. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it!

Anne: You’ve said that Beach’s willingness to work with and for Joyce (a notoriously difficult character) is the central mystery to her life.  I find myself hoping that you’re secretly at work on the script for that drama.  Are you?  More immediately, you must have some hypotheses to the mystery.  Can you share any of them here?

Keri: Beach shared Joyce’s love for language, and she took pleasure in playing around with words.  Her earliest letters show her punning with advertisements, just as Joyce would do in the Aeolus section of Ulysses.  And they both liked to kid around with Shakespeare.  Ulysses includes some funny burlesques of Hamlet, and Stephen Dedalus is a bit of a comic Hamlet.  The first thing that bonded them when they met at a Paris party was Joyce’s amusement at the name of her bookstore, Shakespeare and Company.  He took out a pen to write down the name of the shop, and he came by to visit the next day. 

In addition to their shared comic sensibility and her tremendous admiration for his writing, Beach did understand that there were professional advantages in being associated with Joyce: “Ulysses is going to make my place famous,” she predicted in a letter, and it did.  The daily presence of Joyce at Shakespeare and Company created an aura around the shop, and that aura drew other writers and creative people.  His faith in Beach consolidated her status as a taste-maker and champion of the avant-garde. 

So there were some idealistic and some practical reasons why Beach went out of her way for Joyce: her earnest desire to help an artist she believed in, one who was having difficulty getting his work to print, and the status he conferred on her business.  But ultimately, it’s still difficult to explain just why she handed over her life to Joyce for ten years, putting herself in constant financial risk and exacerbating her migraines with all the demands attendant upon publishing Ulysses: the huge, constantly-changing manuscript; the fact that to fund the book she needed to get subscribers in advance; the lack of copyright protection in England and America which meant that she also had to fight against the piracy of the book; Joyce’s poor health; the needs of his family.  She never put herself on the line for any other writer in this way.  Many biographers and memoirists have mentioned Joyce’s personal charisma—his manner of speaking, his beautiful eyes, his good manners and his slightly antique formality (they always called each other “Mr. Joyce” and “Miss Beach”) and the reputation that preceded him as the author of Dubliners and Portrait—and so maybe, at a certain point, we have to appeal to that “Joyce Effect.”  Sylvia Beach wasn’t the only person to go out of her way for him.  He inspired loyalty and love, in spite of his many trying qualities. 

Anne: I know that in high school I grew enamored of Paris in the 1920s because it seemed to offer all kinds of things that Seattle in the 1980s could not.  We read Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school, and, through them, I learned for the first time about this idea of a literary circle, a literary city.  What drew you to this place and time?

Keri: How funny, because Seattle was about to explode as a creative capital in its own right, with a musical scene that could rival 1920s Paris. It just goes to show that Paris has no special privilege in the arts, but it does have a lot of creative history accumulated over the centuries, so it’s easy to see why it’s still magnetic.  I grew up in the city that Leonard Cohen (with his usual hint of irony, I’m sure), called “the Paris of the Prairies.”  But there’s something to his assessment.  After all, Joni Mitchell got her start in Saskatoon.  I spent most of my childhood in a dance studio, and I especially loved tap and musical theatre.  So it was imitating Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire that pulled me into the ex-pat period of the 20s.  I remember once shocking my dance teacher, when I was about fourteen and we were rehearsing a can-can, and kicking our legs madly in the air from all angles, by announcing that originally the can-can was done in Paris without underwear.  I fell for Paris through MGM musicals, especially Gigi and An American in Paris.  I loved the blend of romantic idealism and world-weariness in Gene Kelly’s character Gerry Mulligan in An American in Paris.  He was an ex-G.I., and the film was set after the Second World War, in a new wave of ex-pats.  Richard Wright was in Paris then, soaking up Sartre, and Julia Child was studying at the Cordon Bleu.  Here’s the slightly mixed-up answer Gerry Mulligan gave about why he came to Paris, and it works for me too:

“…for a painter, the Mecca of the world for study, for inspiration, and for living is here on this star called Paris. Just look at it. No wonder so many artists have come here and called it home. Brother, if you can't paint in Paris, you'd better give up and marry the boss's daughter. Back home everyone said I didn't have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French.”

Keri:  I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time when I was 23.  It was recommended to me by the friend who was my own Sally Seton, who in those days was exactly the kind of person who would pawn a brooch to come and see you.  I discovered the book through her eyes, and I wasn’t the least bit interested in Richard Dalloway or Peter Walsh: to me, it was Sally and Clarissa’s book.  Do you remember your first reading of the novel, and what it meant to you? 

Anne: It’s funny, I don’t remember my first reading of the novel at all, though Woolf had a profound effect on me from the moment I first read her. At my women’s college, all the English professors were allergic to Woolf, having overdosed on her in the 1970s, so I arrived at graduate school barely knowing who she was. I took Harriet Chessman’s seminar on Woolf and Stein and fell in love with the first word.

This was awkward for a couple reasons. Harriet admired French feminism, which, for all my continuing love of Harriet, is an intellectual taste I cannot acquire. In her class and in that atmosphere—a kind of rogue feminist space amidst the overwhelming phallic patriarchy of Yale—meant that Stein kept winning the day. She had paired Woolf and Stein week by week and each time I would prefer Woolf only to go to class and find that the coolest grad students found Stein more theoretically rigorous: a better lesbian—an admitted lesbian, a richer experimenter, expressing a deeper sexuality. I marked myself as a hopelessly bourgeois girl in continually plumping for Woolf. But there it was. You cannot choose your loves.

I was one of five grad students who declared they were going to write their dissertations on Woolf. Two of the women dropped out of grad school altogether; the two men included chapters on Woolf in their longer projects; I am the only one who wrote on Woolf alone. I just held on the longest. I was stubborn.

But I fell in love with Woolf for words and phrases not for story, so what moved me were the words—the match in the crocus, the green dress in a square, the fire as burns only once in a lifetime—I was greedy for little nuggets of intensity and Woolf fed me.

I started a Happy Hour at a local bar in New Haven that same year. It was unheard of, in that competitive and hierarchical atmosphere, to suggest a gathering without purpose. I just wanted to make friends. Someone said to me “you really are a Mrs. Dalloway, aren’t you?” I still have mixed feelings about that judgment.

Conversation with Keri Walsh, Part One: Who Was Sylvia Beach and How Did you Find Her?

In honor of the publication of her edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham. As part of Sylvia Beach Week, Keri Walsh and I “interviewed” each other over email. We continued the conversation we began at her reading at Bluestockings books in May, touching on the challenges of editing, on women modernists, on bookstores, archives, and common readers. We could barely stop talking, so the conversation is in four parts. I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it!
Anne: For people who don’t know her, tell me a little about Sylvia Beach.  And for all of us, what draws you to her story?

Keri: In introducing Sylvia Beach, I’ll start by naming the two achievements that made her proudest: “publishing Ulysses, and steering a little bookshop for 22 years between the wars.”  Her bookshop was Shakespeare and Company, and it would become legendary as the spiritual homeroom of expatriate Paris.  Writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.D., and James Joyce wiled away the hours there and Beach provided them with books, a mailing address, places to live, introductions, French tutors, advice on publishing, and anything else they might need in Paris.   With the help of the French printer Darantière and a committed bunch of typists, she brought out Ulysses in 1922 when it was banned in England and America. 

Beach was born in 1887 and she grew up in Princeton, New Jersey where her father was minister at the local Presbyterian church.  She was taken to France as a child and she adored it.  She returned during the First World War and spent time doing agricultural work near Tours, and then working for the American Red Cross forces in Belgrade.  When she returned to Paris at the war’s end, she fell in love with Adrienne Monnier, the owner of a French-language bookstore called La Maison des Amies des Livres.  It would become an inspiration for Sylvia’s own shop.  With Monnier’s help and a gift of $3000 from her mother, she opened Shakespeare and Company in 1919.  Little did she know that American writers would soon start flocking to Paris to take advantage of the exchange rate and the reprieve from Prohibition at home.  She was the right person in the right place at the right time, and for any American writer abroad, her bookstore felt like home.  Beach is described affectionately in so many memoirs—most famously, in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.   Hemingway was moved by the trust she showed him on his first visit:  he couldn’t pay the lending library fee, but Beach let him walk off with a bunch of books and a promise that he’d come back to pay the bill someday.  In a time before English books were readily available in Paris, he and his wife Hadley were so excited by the prospect of all the reading they could do thanks to Shakespeare and Company.  Hemingway describes coming home to Hadley with the good news, telling her, “we’re going to have all the books in the world to read and when we go on trips we can take them.”  Hadley was delighted and amazed by Beach’s unusual business practices:
“Would that be honest?”
“Does she have Henry James too?”
“My,” she said, “We’re lucky that you found the place.”  (38)

Anne: How did you come to discover her letters?  And how did you come to see that they could be a book?

Keri: Maria DiBattista, one of my professors at Princeton, was the first to show me what a rich deposit of Sylvia Beach’s letters and belongings we were lucky to have at Firestone library.   While I was reading Ulysses in Maria’s class, she asked me to come with her to give a presentation on Sylvia Beach to a group called The Friends of the Princeton University Library.  She asked me to pick out one of Beach’s letters to present to the group, and I chose one that is still among my favorites— a letter that Beach wrote to Adrienne Monnier in 1940.  It was written in French, and it provided a lovely sketch of her relationship with her customers in the bookshop, and then a list of some of her latest recommendations. 

Then, again through Maria’s mentorship, I helped to curate an exhibition at the Princeton University Library.  It was called “Portraits of the Lost Generation,” and it featured Man Ray’s photographs and other Surrealist materials mostly drawn from the Sylvia Beach Papers

I loved all the time I spent in Sylvia Beach’s company.  Her letters were significant for modernist literary history, to be sure, but they were also so charming in their own right.  And they told the story one American woman’s life in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.  In all my reading about women’s role in the First World War, I had never read such a detailed first-person account of what it was like to work in Serbia with the Red Cross.  And it was even more fascinating to learn that though she was expected to get married and live a conventional life, Beach was wearing pants and swooning over women.  With a sense of humor and a kind heart and a romantic spirit, she had managed to carve out a life that worked for her in Paris, to live in accordance with her own desires while also serving others. 

I couldn’t help but marvel over the fact that her letters had never been published.  Many scholars had looked through the collection while writing biographies of Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Stein, H.D., but the only person who had made thorough use of the archive with an interest in Sylvia Beach herself was Noel Riley Fitch, Beach’s biographer (Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, Norton).  It was really my enjoyment of Beach’s letters that made me think they would be a good book.  I thought that others might like to spend time with her too.

Anne: I have an obsession with the particularities of working in archives: it’s, for me, tedious work, always punctuated by elation and discovery.  I love and hate all the rules and the various ways in which each archive has a distinct personality.  Do you have any favorite anecdotes from your work in the Beach archive?

Keri: Archivists and researchers have curious, often endearing relationships.  Ideally, they both love the archive and feel protective towards it.  Your question calls to mind two very different archival experiences I’ve had, one with a well-known resource, another with a found treasure.

For my Sylvia Beach project I was lucky to work with amazing research librarians at Princeton.  They knew the archive better than anyone, certainly better than I did.  I depended on them daily, and learned how to accommodate myself to the rhythms of the archive.  You can’t just barge in ten minutes before the library closes and ask for a bunch of manuscripts.  You need to build goodwill.  There’s a Jane Goodall effect: if you are simply physically present in an archive long enough, and follow its regulations, you end up becoming a familiar and trusted presence.  That’s when you get to go backstage and bend the rules a bit.  This process works best when you get to inhabit a particular archive over a long period of time.  I was fortunately able to work on Sylvia Beach’s letters during my time as a graduate student at Princeton, meaning I had daily access to her papers over the course of four years.  I spent many summer days hanging out in the Rare Books and Special Collections room, often bringing along research assistants or friends I had roped into helping me. 

Since the Sylvia Beach project, I’ve been working mainly in theatre archives, and that’s even more exciting because they are so much less well-trodden than literary archives: there’s more potential for making big discoveries: you don’t have to satisfy yourself with finding an overlooked comma – it’s more like an overlooked box of letters. At the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection, I was able to look at programs, scripts, photographs, and notes from a 1946 Broadway production of Antigone that wasn’t even catalogued by the library or listed in the Finding Aid.  No one had seen this material since 1946, and bibliographically speaking, it didn’t exist.  To get access to those papers took a lot of coaxing, some cajoling, and some begging. But the high of making contact with that archive, and discovering the missing pieces of a story I was trying to tell, were well worth it.