Richard Ellmann: American literary critic and biographer (1918 - 1987) | Biography
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Richard Ellmann
American literary critic and biographer

Richard Ellmann

Richard Ellmann
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American literary critic and biographer
Was Critic Writer Literary critic Biographer
From United States of America
Field Literature Science
Gender male
Birth 15 March 1918, Highland Park, Wayne County, Michigan, U.S.A.
Death 13 May 1987, Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire, South East England (aged 69 years)
Star sign Pisces
The details (from wikipedia)


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. He won the U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction for James Joyce (1959), 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. 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 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 during World War II. 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. 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. 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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 being 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." 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." Ellmann quotes extensively from Finnegans Wake, as epigraphs in James Joyce.


Ellman's biography Oscar Wilde won a Pulitzer Prize. Capturing the warmhearted and generous spirit of the legendary wit, he examined Wilde's ascent to literary prominence and his public downfall. Posthumously he won both a U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988 and the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. 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. Ray Monk, a philosopher and biographer, described Ellmann's Oscar Wilde as a "rich, fascinating biography that succeeds in understanding another person".

The Richard Ellmann Lectures

The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, now among the most prominent in North America, were established in his honor. He had served Emory University as the first Robert W. Woodruff Professor from 1980 to 1987. For more than forty years, Ellmann's writing set the highest standards of critical inquiry and humanistic scholarship.

Richard Ellmann Lecturers

  • 1988 Seamus Heaney
  • 1990 Denis Donoghue
  • 1992 Anthony Burgess (resigned; deceased)
  • 1994 Helen Vendler
  • 1996 Henry Louis Gates Jr.
  • 1999 A. S. Byatt
  • 2001 David Lodge
  • 2004 Salman Rushdie
  • 2006 Mario Vargas Llosa
  • 2008 Umberto Eco
  • 2010 Margaret Atwood
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