Richard Ellmann

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Richard Ellmann

Richard David Ellmann (March 15, 1918 – May 13, 1987) was an American literary critic and biographer of the Irish writers James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats. He won the U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction for James Joyce (1959), [1] which is one of the most acclaimed literary biographies of the 20th century. Its 1982 revised edition was similarly recognised with the award of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Ellmann was a liberal humanist, and his academic work focused on the major modernist writers of the twentieth century.

James Joyce Irish writer, poet, teacher, and literary critic

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, teacher, and literary critic. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century. Joyce is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer's Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, most famously stream of consciousness. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, his published letters and occasional journalism.

Oscar Wilde 19th-century Irish poet, playwright and aesthete

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, the early 1890s saw him become one of the most popular playwrights in London. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the circumstances of his criminal conviction for "gross indecency", imprisonment, and early death at age 46.

The National Book Award for Nonfiction is one of four annual National Book Awards, which are given by the National Book Foundation to recognize outstanding literary work by U.S. citizens. They are awards "by writers to writers". The panelists are five "writers who are known to be doing great work in their genre or field".



Ellmann was born at Highland Park, Michigan, the second of three children (all sons) of James Isaac Ellmann, lawyer, a Jewish Romanian immigrant, and his wife, Jeanette Barsook, an immigrant from Kiev. He served in the United States Navy and Office of Strategic Services during World War II. [2] He studied at Yale University, receiving his B.A. (1939), his M.A. (1941) and his PhD. (1947) for which he won the John Addison Porter Prize. [3] In 1947 he was awarded a B.Litt degree (an earlier form of the M.Litt) from the University of Dublin (Trinity College), where he was resident while researching his biography of Yeats. [4] As a Yale undergraduate (Jonathan Edwards College), Ellmann was a member of Phi Beta Kappa (scholastic honor society); Chi Delta Theta (literary honor society); and, with James Jesus Angleton, the Yale Literary Magazine (Executive Editorial Board). He achieved "Scholar of the Second Rank" (current equivalent: Magna Cum Laude). The 1939 Yale Banner (undergraduate yearbook) published an untitled Ellmann account (similar in concept and style to Oscar Wilde's parables which Ellmann later cited in his 1987 biography Oscar Wilde) of a chagrined Joseph, husband of Mary, and Jesus Christ's custodial father:

Highland Park, Michigan City in Michigan

Highland Park is a city in Wayne County in the State of Michigan, within Metro Detroit. The population was 11,776 at the 2010 census. The city is completely surrounded by Detroit except for a small portion that touches the city of Hamtramck, which is also surrounded by Detroit.

Kiev Capital of Ukraine

Kiev or Kyiv is the capital and most populous city of Ukraine, located in the north-central part of the country on the Dnieper. The population in July 2015 was 2,887,974, making Kiev the 7th most populous city in Europe.

United States Navy Naval warfare branch of US Armed Forces

The United States Navy (USN) is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. It is the largest and most capable navy in the world and it has been estimated that in terms of tonnage of its active battle fleet alone, it is larger than the next 13 navies combined, which includes 11 U.S. allies or partner nations. It has the highest combined battle fleet tonnage and the world's largest aircraft carrier fleet, with eleven in service, and two new carriers under construction. With 336,978 personnel on active duty and 101,583 in the Ready Reserve, the U.S. Navy is the third largest of the U.S. military service branches in terms of personnel. It has 290 deployable combat vessels and more than 3,700 operational aircraft as of June 2019, making it the third-largest air force in the world, after the United States Air Force and the United States Army.

Joseph was no match for the angel and for Mary's flattering tears. He felt a wince of disappointment at the idea that she had had a vision too, but then she was his wife, and perhaps the whole family now had the prophetic gift. He would have to try it out, on the harvest. Meanwhile he would seek to forget his jealousy, despite the fact that the story sounded a bit fantastic to a reasonable man, which he guessed he was, and it would be well not to talk about it much outside. It was better to leave things the way they were. Not much of a wedding night, but one could tell white lies about that to one's friends. [5]

Ellman later returned to teach at Yale, and there with Charles Feidelson Jr. He edited the important anthology, The Modern Tradition. He earlier taught at Northwestern, and at the University of Oxford, before serving as Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Professor from 1980 until his death.

University of Oxford university in Oxford, United Kingdom

The University of Oxford is a collegiate research university in Oxford, England. There is evidence of teaching as early as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world's second-oldest university in continuous operation after the University of Bologna. It grew rapidly from 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. After disputes between students and Oxford townsfolk in 1209, some academics fled north-east to Cambridge where they established what became the University of Cambridge. The two 'ancient universities' are frequently jointly called 'Oxbridge'. The history and influence of the University of Oxford has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Emory University private research university in Druid Hills, Georgia, United States

Emory University is a private research university in Atlanta, in the U.S. state of Georgia. The university was founded as Emory College in 1836 in Oxford, Georgia, by the Methodist Episcopal Church and was named in honor of Methodist bishop John Emory. In 1915, Emory College moved to its present location in Druid Hills and was rechartered as Emory University. Emory maintained a presence in Oxford that eventually became Oxford College, a residential liberal arts college for the first two years of the Emory baccalaureate degree. The university is the second-oldest private institution of higher education in Georgia and among the fifty oldest private universities in the United States.

He was Goldsmiths' Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, 1970–1984, then professor emeritus, a fellow at New College, Oxford, 1970–1987, and an extraordinary fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, from 1984 until his death.

New College, Oxford constituent college of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom

New College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, the full name of the college is St Mary's College of Winchester in Oxford. The name "New College", however, soon came to be used following its completion in 1386 to distinguish it from the older existing college of St. Mary, now known as Oriel College.

Wolfson College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

Wolfson College is a constituent college of the University of Oxford in England. Located in north Oxford along the River Cherwell, Wolfson is an all-graduate college with over sixty governing body fellows, in addition to both research and junior research fellows. It caters to a wide range of subjects, from the humanities to the social and natural sciences. Like the majority of Oxford's newer colleges, it has been coeducational since its foundation in 1965.

Ellmann used his knowledge of the Irish milieu to bring together four literary luminaries in Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett (1987), a collection of essays first delivered at the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress (de facto) national library of the United States of America

The Library of Congress (LOC) is the research library that officially serves the United States Congress and is the de facto national library of the United States. It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. The library is housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; it also maintains the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. The library's functions are overseen by the librarian of Congress, and its buildings are maintained by the architect of the Capitol. The Library of Congress claims to be the largest library in the world. Its "collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages."

His wife, Mary Ellmann (c. 1921 – 1989), whom he married in 1949, was an essayist. The couple had three children: Stephen (b. 1951), Maud (b. 1954), and Lucy (b. 1956), the first two became academics and the third a novelist and teacher of writing.

Ellmann died of motor neurone disease in Oxford at the age of 69.

Many of his collected papers, artifacts, and ephemera were acquired by the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections and University Archives. Other manuscripts are housed in the Northwestern University's Library special collections department.



In Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Ellmann drew on conversations with George Yeats along with thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts to write a critical examination of the poet's life.


Ellmann is perhaps most well known for his literary biography of James Joyce, a revealing account of the life of one of the 20th century's most influential literary figures. Anthony Burgess called James Joyce "the greatest literary biography of the century." [6] Edna O'Brien, the Irish novelist, remarked that "H. G. Wells said that Finnegans Wake was an immense riddle, and people find it too difficult to read. I have yet to meet anyone who has read and digested the whole of it—except perhaps my friend Richard Ellmann." [7] Ellmann quotes extensively from Finnegans Wake as epigraphs in his biography of Joyce.


Ellman's biography Oscar Wilde won a Pulitzer Prize. [8] [9] In it he examined Wilde's ascent to literary prominence and his public downfall. Posthumously Ellmann won both a U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988 [10] and the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. [11] The book was the basis for the 1997 film Wilde , directed by Brian Gilbert.

It is considered to be the definitive work on the subject. [12] Ray Monk, a philosopher and biographer, described Ellmann's Oscar Wilde as a "rich, fascinating biography that succeeds in understanding another person". [13]

The Richard Ellmann Lectures

The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University were established in his honor. [14]

Richard Ellmann Lecturers


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  1. "National Book Awards – 1960". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 19 March 2012. It contains Ellman's acceptance speech.
  2. Richard Ellmann: A Chronology, The University of Tulsa.
  3. Historical Register of Yale University, 1937-1951 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), p. 80.
  4. 1970 TCD Association Register.
  5. Yale Banner 1939
  6. Menand, Louis, "Silence, Exile, Punning: James Joyce's chance encounters". The New Yorker , 2 July 2012, pp. 71–75.
  7. Interview, The Art of Fiction No. 82, The Paris Review, Issue 92, Summer 1984.
  8. Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellmann, The 1989 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Biography or Autobiography.
  9. "The 10 most popular misconceptions about Oscar Wilde". The Guardian. London. 22 July 2008.
  10. "All Past National Book Critics Circle Award Winners and Finalists". National Book Critics Circle. Retrieved 22 February 2010.
  11. "Autobiography or Biography". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 22 February 2010.
  12. Holland, Merlin (7 May 2003). "The 10 most popular misconceptions about Oscar Wilde". London: Guardian. Retrieved 22 February 2010.
  13. "Ray Monk on Philosophy and Biography" (audio). philosophy bites. 31 August 2008. Retrieved 22 February 2010.
  14. "History". The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature. Emory University. Retrieved 2018-10-21.