A first edition of “Ulysses,” published by Shakespeare and Co., 1922, is part of the exhibit “The Cracked Lookingglass: Highlights from the Leonard L. Milberg Collection of Irish Prose Writers,” on view through Sunday, July 10, in the main gallery and in the Milberg Gallery at Princeton University’s Firestone Library.
“I think those celebrating Bloomsday will want to see this exhibition,” says Don C. Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the department of rare books and special collections at Firestone, where the Sylvia Beach Collection of Shakespeare and Company papers is part of the 9,500 linear feet of manuscripts and documents that have been collected since the late 19th century.
In the last two years of her life, Beach’s chief concern was finding a home for what she called her “Joyce-less collection.” Having sold off the most valuable Joyceana to SUNY-Buffalo and to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, and given away lots of manuscript pages, Beach wanted to find a safe haven for the thousands of photographs, manuscripts, documents, and letters that remained.
The entire collection, 200 boxes of documents as well Beach’s personal library with its inscribed first edition of Ulysses and items of furniture, were acquired by Princeton University’s department of rare books and special collections for an undisclosed price in 1962. This was a good fit, says Skemer, especially because of the links between Shakespeare and Company and Princeton alumnus F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“The Sylvia Beach Papers are one of most important manuscript collections in the department,” says Skemer. “They contain a rich collection of material relating to the Lost Generation.” The term Lost Generation was coined by Gertrude Stein and used to describe the generation of American artists and writers living in Paris between the wars. Beach decorated the walls of Shakespeare and Company with photographs of her many friends. Her letters reveal the goings-on in Paris from about 1910 onward.
Skemer finds it fitting that the Beach collection came to Princeton to join those of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. This was material that Beach was careful to preserve. During World War II, before she was arrested and interned for six months as an enemy alien by the Germans in 1943, she removed the contents of Shakespeare and Company hurriedly over a weekend to the apartment on the fourth floor above the shop, just in case of a raid by the Nazis during their occupation of Paris.
Skemer drew from some 2,500 photographs to re-create the walls of Shakespeare and Company for an exhibit that ran for five months in 2004-’05. “Portraits of the Lost Generation” featured photographs by Man Ray and others.
Skemer has juggled the twin responsibilities of preservation and access since he came to the university in 1991. From time to time he curates temporary exhibits: the department has no permanent exhibits and has no plans as yet for another based on the Beach collection.
With about 2,000 collections, ranging from ancient papyri to Renaissance writings to modern literary manuscripts, Skemer’s department is a busy place. It is well used by scholars and students of literary history. “There’s a lot of interest in the letters and especially photographs in the Beach collection, so much so in fact that we now have notebooks of reproductions for people to look at in order to protect the originals,” Skemer says. Noel Riley Fitch spent hours poring over the collection when researching “Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties.”
Skemer, whose father repaired motors and generators, and whose mother was a homemaker, studied history and languages at Queen’s College, City University of New York, and then earned a Ph.D. in Medieval history from Brown University and a master’s degree in library science from Columbia. Besides being in charge of acquisitions, gifts, and well as purchases, Skemer writes scholarly papers and sits on the editorial board of the Princeton University Library Chronicle, the autumn, 2010, issue of which is devoted to Irish writers.
If asked, Skemer will share the pleasure of seeing the library cards used for the Shakespeare and Company Lending Library: “The cards reveal the reading habits of the likes of Joyce, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, and it’s great to see who was reading what and when. Hemingway was a great reader. Fitzgerald not so much. Perhaps,” says Skemer, “he could afford to buy his own books and so didn’t rely on the lending library as much as some of the less well-off writers of the day.”
Asked about the origin of his name, Skemer says it comes from Belarus, somewhere near the Ukraine, and that its spelling was changed at Ellis Island when his father immigrated to the United States during World War I. Skemer’s
At the time, the department was headed by Skemer’s predecessor, Howard Rice. Rice was building up the university’s collections of modern literature. So
The exhibition catalog includes chapters on Irish subjects (The Irish Gothic, Irish Fairy Tales, The Blasket Island Writers) by contemporary Irish poets and writers such as Paul Muldoon and Colm Toibin.