One of the American Library in Paris’ biggest unexplored treasures is the assortment of novels, poems, journal articles, and other works of literature that make up its special collections. These books were donated to the library upon the death of their owners, many of whom were twentieth-century Parisian authors, musicians, and other notables. Though these individual personal collections constitute a unique part of both the library’s catalog and its archives, the majority of their contents have not been thoroughly examined.
The creation of archival finding aids for these special collections is an important future project at the Library. These documents would serve as a guide to researchers and other visitors searching for detailed records on these books or their famous owners. A brief introduction to the collections’ contents can be found below:
1. The American publisher and founder of Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach, was an avid reader and early patron of American and other expatriate writers. She also published important works by modernist writers, including James Joyce’s Ulysses. Beach opened her bookstore in 1919 and ran it until German Occupation of Paris began in 1941. The ALP owns 25 biographies, letters, and works of now-classic literature from Beach’s personal collection, which are housed in the ALP Special Collection. Some books outside of this collection were presented to the library by Beach herself, yet others found their way to the library after Shakespeare and Company closed. There is a record of Beach giving the library five thousand books in 1951.
2. Poet Stephen Vincent Benét and his sister, Laura, were both poets and admirers of Paris. Though much of their poetry focuses on American history, the brother-sister duo traveled to the French capital frequently. Stephen Vincent even lived there during the 1920s. Eight books of poetry and novels from their collections now reside at the ALP.
3. French poet and literary critic Alain Bosquet wrote for newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro, eventually becoming a well-established expert on French literature. After having served in WWII, he settled in Paris in the 1950s. 28 books owned by Bosquet, mainly of poetry, are housed in the Library’s special collections.
4. The American Library in Paris also owns a small collection of eight books by notable American novelist Willa Cather. Her novels primarily concentrate on the United States and its frontier, although she traveled to Europe, including Paris, during her lifetime.
5. 167 novels, historical volumes, and poems in English, German, and French make up the largest single part of the ALP’s Special Collections. This personal library was owned by German-American actress Marlene Dietrich, who became a film icon in the 1930s and 1940s. Dietrich spent most of her time in Paris during and after WWII, and she strongly opposed Nazi doctrine. This collection is described in The New Yorker.
6. The smallest section of the ALP’s special collections— seven novels and poetry books owned by the Seeger family— has one of the most historic connections to the institution. While Alan, a poet and soldier in the French Foreign Legion, died in 1916, his father, Charles, stayed in France as an early leader and patron of the Library. Alan’s brother, Charles, and nephew, Pete, shared the Seeger family devotion to the arts; both father and son studied music as a composer and folk-singer, respectively.
8. Although he traveled all over Europe, Irwin Shaw was certainly fond of France. The American novelist and playwright had an apartment in Paris, where he was an frequent visitor to the Library. Today, it owns eight historical volumes and novels from Shaw’s personal collection and counts him as one of its most active Cold War members.