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Laurence Cossu-Beaumont, Deux agents littéraires dans le siècle américain : William et Jenny Bradley passeurs culturels transatlantiques

Lyon : ENS éditions, Institut d’Histoire du Livre, 2023. 290 p. ISBN : 979-10-362-0628-3. 25 €
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Laurence Cossu-Beaumont, Deux agents littéraires dans le siècle américain : William et Jenny Bradley passeurs culturels transatlantiques. Lyon : ENS éditions, Institut d’Histoire du Livre, 2023. 290 p. ISBN : 979-10-362-0628-3. 25 €

Texte intégral

1Most won’t have heard of the Bradleys, Jenny and William, but, as Laurence Cossu-Beaumont’s detailed and meticulously researched new book reveals, the literary agency work of this Paris-based Franco-Belgian-American couple, whom Cossu-Beaumont calls “artisans invisibles,” was foundational in the making of modernism and early twentieth-century literature on both sides of the Atlantic (22).

2Cossu-Beaumont finds a trove of fascinating materials in 245 boxes at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, a key US repository for materials related to literary modernism, this collection up until now just cherrypicked by author specialists. The book includes an appendix of images, including photographs and images of some of the documents Cossu-Beaumont used allowing the reader to participate in her archival journey. Cossu-Beaumont combines the HRC materials with more from French publishers’ archive IMEC, L’Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (papers of the Bradleys’ fellow agent Michel Hoffman), and from archives at Columbia University, the Knopf archives, as well as various newspaper archives, to tell a rich story of cross-cultural exchange. Few stones are left unturned and few mysteries unsolved: except the puzzling end to William’s first marriage; Jenny’s prior romance ended with death on the battlefield.

3Cossu-Beaumont focuses on the interwar years which saw the founding of the agency at a moment when the profession of literary agent was quite new to France. The Bradleys were pioneers, shaping the job as they went in a transatlantic context with its unique set of challenges (20). Cossu-Beaumont captures the human side of the business—this was a life as well as work for both Bradleys—in terms of the variety of terms, always evolving, used to describe the Bradleys’ work: they were scouts, head-hunters, advisors and representatives, before becoming “agents” when they opened their own agency in 1923. Even after assuming the official title, the human, unofficial part of the job persisted. Cossu-Beaumont cites Gertrude Stein’s dubbing of the agent “‘ami et consolateur’” of writers settled in Paris (73). The Bradleys were hand-holders, diplomats who could turn “contacts mondains” into “collaborations professionelles” (81), “accompagnateurs” and “médiateurs” (85) and “les artisans de maintes rencontres, collaborations, parutions” (88). Janet Flanner declared William Bradley a “prophet” and the role of agent, as Cossu-Beaumont demonstrates, sometimes even extended to the conception of a work and participation in its execution, as was the case with Jamaican-born poet Claude Mckay.

4What makes the Bradleys’ story so compelling, Cossu-Beaumont suggests, and I would fully agree, is the diversity of the voices involved in their partnership and the length of time the agency was in operation. Both aspects allow for a nuanced portrait of transatlantic cultural exchange spanning the interwar years through 1960. The Bradleys were pivotal figures in creating and sustaining an elaborate network of twentieth-century Francophone and Anglophone writers and promoters from their cosmopolitan Paris base, a major vector being Paris--New York City. As Cossu-Beaumont suggests, the Bradleys’ story is “a portrait of a generation ‘at work’” as opposed to the usual portrait of a generation at play, an alternative history to that recorded, for example, in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, according to Cossu-Beaumont (93). Her book history lens on the interwar period pushes back against narrower myths about the Lost Generation of mostly white men to re-center and celebrate the contributions of women, and she mentions Maria Jolas, Sylvia Beach, Jane Heap, and Margaret Anderson, among others, and black writers, such as Claude McKay.

5Cossu-Beaumont’s study begins in 1919 when William Bradley arrived in Paris with the army and subsequently decided to stay on and work as a translator and scout. William Bradley’s US credentials, including graduation from Columbia University alongside Joel Spingarn of New York-based publisher Harcourt, Brace and Howe, publishing house experience at McClure, Phillips and Company and at Yale University Press before arriving in Paris, and his own publications on book illustration and collections of poetry, were formative. William’s important contribution as a translator, another way in which he brought French literature to the US, is another aspect brought to light in Cossu-Beaumont’s study.

6While William’s U.S. prestige and experience was key, as Cossu-Beaumont illustrates, his meeting with Jenny Serruys, whom he married in 1921, via a program which matched American soldiers with French families for a meal, would change everything. Together, bilingual and bicultural, they were quintessential networkers, adept at negotiating the personal and the professional. The building of their relationship with the Knopfs, Blanche and Alfred A., another husband-wife team, was foundational, as was their connecting of Knopf to major French publisher Gallimard. The Bradleys created a sprawling network of passeurs and writers encompassing not just the French and the American, but English, German and other European authors also. Their client list included André Malraux, Philippe Soupault, Boris Vian, André Maurois, Paul Valéry, and Colette, William Faulkner, Ford Madox Ford and Thomas Mann, among many, many others. Together they created their own salon, on Friday evenings, in their privileged île Saint-Louis apartment, adjacent to Gertrude Stein’s and Natalie Barney’s better-known salons which they also frequented. Indicating the Bradleys’ racial, social, and cultural inclusiveness, they hosted among others, writer and NAACP activist Walter White, Indigenous American dancer and writer Molly Spotted Elk, Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen, as well as American-born dancer Isadora Duncan and African-American Renaissance man Paul Robeson who performed together. These encounters might not have been possible in the US at the time, even in New York City.

7The uncovering of Jenny Bradley’s role by Cossu-Beaumont, with whom she opens and closes her book, is of particular value. This is a timely study in light of a lot of recent work to recuperate the work of passeurs, women in particular, in their roles in the publishing industry (digital initiatives such as Cécile Cottenet’s “Dictionnaire des passeurs de la littérature des États-Unis” (​) and Claire Battershill et al.’s The Edinburgh Companion to Women in Publishing 1900-2020, to cite just a few). Like William, Jenny came equipped with her own cultural capital. Her connections with the upper middle-class intelligentsia in Paris, her early introduction to the world of artistic salons with her parents and through her sculptor-sister, Yvonne Serruys and her husband Pierre Mille, her own credentials as a literary translator meant that she was a perfect business partner for William. According to Cossu-Beaumont, it was Jenny’s “lively personality” and her intelligent conversation which others remembered (67). Jenny was socially adept, an essential skill for a career which “repose à la fois sur le jeu des relations à déployer et la confiance à nouer” (93). Her collaboration with Blanche Knopf highlights the degree to which both women were key to their husbands’ successes. Jenny’s role in a city where women were building their own networks, her immersion in Parisian salon society and her many friendships, were essential to the Bradleys’ mission.

8While her early contributions were not perhaps registered as they might have been in the professional record, her first translation, a novel by Israel Zangwill, was signed by her brother-in-law, Jenny Bradley’s work following her husband’s death shows how immersed she was in the business. And Cossu-Beaumont opens her book with the irony that while Jenny is barely mentioned, she did in fact help make possible one of the best-known novels of the twentieth century, Joyce’s Ulysses, by providing him with a desk and other necessities for his family as well as moral support, although she turned down Ezra Pound’s proposal that she translate Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. After being widowed at 53 in 1939, Jenny reemerged from the second world war to broker important deals for writers, often alongside her friend and business associate Blanche Knopf, including Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Patricia Highsmith, and Truman Capote. As this list of names demonstrates, the Bradleys’ service to twentieth-century Anglophone and Francophone literary cultures cannot be overstated, and Cossu-Beaumont’s excellent study does full justice to their life’s work.

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Helen SOUTHWORTH, « Laurence Cossu-Beaumont, Deux agents littéraires dans le siècle américain : William et Jenny Bradley passeurs culturels transatlantiques »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Oregon

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