On 15 March 1918 Richard Ellmann was born.
Best known among Joyceans for his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann was a literary critic and biographer who wrote substantial biographical and critical works on Yeats and Wilde, as well as Joyce.
Born in Michigan, Ellmann studied at Yale and took his PhD in 1947. He claimed that his interest in Joyce was stimulated by reading Yeats’ account of his first meeting with Joyce. Ellmann spent twelve years researching and writing his Joyce biography which was published in 1959 and won its author an American National Book Award for Non-fiction in 1960.
In his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in 1960, Ellmann described the biographer as being “the uninvited ambassador to a strange country whose language and customs he must struggle to understand and report. His embassy concluded, he comes back changed, if indeed he may be said to come back at all.”
Ellmann was fortunate to undertake his biography at a time when so many people who knew Joyce were still alive and could provide first-hand accounts. As with his work on WB Yeats, he also benefited from close relations with family members, particularly Joyce’s brother Stanislaus. A revised edition of the Joyce biography was published in 1982, the centenary of Joyce’s birth. Apart from the published biography, Ellmann’s notes and correspondence and other materials held at the University of Tulsa and at Northwestern University are now available to scholars who continue benefit from Ellmann’s meticulous research.
Ellmann edited Joyce’s critical writings with Ellsworth Mason, and followed this by editing large two volumes of Joyce’s correspondence, published in 1966. He also edited Giacomo Joyce, a notebook kept by Joyce in Trieste before the First World War, and My Brother’s Keeper, Stanislaus Joyce’s recollections of his brother’s early life in Dublin.
Whilst many have acclaimed Ellmann’s biography as being ‘definitive,’ it has not been without critics. Some pointed out errors of fact in the 1959 edition, and some of these errors were repeated in the 1982 edition, leading Joyce scholar Hugh Kenner to title his review of it “The Impertinence of Being Definitive.” In particular, there has been much criticism of the way in which Ellmann attributes to Joyce the experiences of Stephen Dedalus or other characters in Joyce’s works, thus reading Joyce’s life through his writing.
In his later years, Ellmann turned from Yeats and Joyce to Oscar Wilde. His biography of Wilde was published in 1987, the year of Ellmann’s death, and was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1989.
Sources & Further Reading:
Brooker, Joseph: Joyce’s Critics – Transitions in Reading and Culture, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Dunleavy, Janet Egleson (ed.): Re-Viewing Classics of Joyce Criticism, Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Read Ellmann’s 1960 National Book Award acceptance speech here.