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Richard David Ellmann (March 15, 1918 – May 13, 1987) was a prominent American literary critic and biographer of the Irish writers James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats. Ellmann's James Joyce (1959), for which he won the National Book Award in 1960, is considered one of the most acclaimed literary biographies of the 20th century and the 1982 revised edition of the work was similarly recognised with the award of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. A liberal humanist, Ellmann's academic work generally focused on the major modernist writers of the twentieth century.



Ellmann was born at Highland Park, Michigan, the second of the three sons (there were no daughters) 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 during WWII. He studied at Yale University, where he later taught, and where with Charles Feidelson, Jr., he edited the extraordinarily important anthology, The Modern Tradition. He earlier taught at Northwestern, and later at Oxford, before serving (for a considerable stipend) as Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Professor from 1980 till his death. In 1947 he was awarded a B.Litt degree (an earlier form of the M.Litt degree) from the University of Dublin (Trinity College), where he was resident while researching his biography of Yeats. [1]

In Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Ellmann drew on conversations with George Yeats along with thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts to write a critical examination of the poet's life. His Pulitzer Prize winning (1989) biography Oscar Wilde is still standard [2] Capturing the warmhearted and generous spirit of the legendary wit, he examines Wilde's ascent to literary prominence and his public downfall. Ray Monk, a philosopher and biograher, described Ellman's Oscar Wilde a "rich, fascinating biography that succeeds in understanding another person" and [3] The book was the basis for the 1997 movie Wilde, directed by Brian Gilbert.

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." Edna O'Brien, the Irish novelist, remarked:

"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." [4]

Ellman quotes extensively from Finnegan's Wake, in epigrams in James Joyce.

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

He was Goldsmiths' professor of English literature at Oxford University, 1970-1984, then Professor Emeritus, and a fellow at New College, Oxford, 1970-1987.

Ellmann died in Oxford, aged 69. His wife, Mary (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 being academics and the third a novelist and writing teacher.

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.


As Author

  • Yeats: The Man And The Masks (1948; revised edition in 1979)
  • James Joyce (1959; revised edition in 1982)
  • Ulysses on the Liffey (1972)
  • Oscar Wilde (1987)
  • Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett (1987)

As Editor

  • The Critical Writings of James Joyce (Eds. Ellsworth Mason and Richard Ellman, 1959)
  • Letters of James Joyce Vol. 2 (Ed. Ricard Ellman, 1966)
  • Letters of James Joyce Vol. 3 (Ed. Ricard Ellman, 1966)
  • Giacomo Joyce (written 1907, published 1968)


  1. ^ 1970 TCD Association Register
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Interview, The Art of Fiction No. 82, The Paris Review, Issue 92, Summer 1984

External links



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