Richard Ellmann (1918–1987) was an American critic and biographer. He taught at Northwestern, Oxford and Emory, where he was named Robert W. Professor in 1980. He won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for James Joycein 1959; a revised edition was awarded the James Tate Black Memorial Prize in 1982.

Oscar Meets Walt

When Oscar Wilde arrived at the Aldine Hotel in Philadelphia on January 16, 1882, during his American lecture tour, he was asked by a batch of reporters which American poet he most admired. He replied without hesitation, “I think that Walt Whitman and Emerson have given the world more than …

Nayman of Noland

Samuel Beckett, who is eighty this month, is sui generis, a writer with his own stamp, assured and stylized. This said, he can still usefully be ranged against his Irish predecessors. Because of what he has written, they take on a different aspect. Because of their work, he may seem …

Yeats’s Second Puberty

W.B. Yeats, and not I, described his last years as a second puberty. He meant the term to express his renewed sexual vigor, though he thought of it as also a psychological recovery. Just after his marriage, when he was fifty-two, he had written in a poem, “I have as …

Heaney Agonistes

After the heavily accented melodies of Yeats, and that poet’s elegiac celebrations of imaginative glories, Seamus Heaney addresses his readers in a quite different key. He does not overwhelm his subjects; rather he allows them a certain freedom from him, and his sharp conjunctions with them leave their authority and …

The Big Word in ‘Ulysses’

No one reading Ulysses from 1922 to the present can have been unaware that the text was faulty. It was difficult to be sure whether a given extravagance was a flourish of genius or an aberration of the typist or typesetter. Those humble functionaries should not be derided, for Joyce …

Oscar at Oxford

Oscar Wilde—we have only to hear the name to anticipate that what will be quoted as his will change conventional solemnities to frivolous insights. So it was in his lifetime, and so it is years after his death.

The Ghost of Westerly Terrace

Instead of relieving the mystery of Wallace Stevens, Peter Brazeau’s book deepens it. We see Stevens shuffling insurance papers from his big desk to the floor in Hartford, refusing to ride or walk with colleagues to the office, stirring genealogical ashes, fighting with Ernest Hemingway, disliking poets such as Eliot, …

Murder in the Monastery?

Signs on a white field by Umberto Eco, the Italian semiotician and now novelist as well, bring us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to the year 1327. The preface would have us believe that in 1968 Eco was handed a translation, made in 1842 by a French abbé, …

Joyce at 100

James Joyce thought about his centenary long before it occurred to his readers to do so. He scrawled in a notebook on Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses, in 1924, “Today 16 of June twenty years after. Will anybody remember this date.” His Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses asks the same question …

Neither Here Nor There

In the world of Magritte and Michaux, which is also the world of Donald Barthelme, the familiar arrives without its usual credentials of expectations raised and satisfied. People and things either lack their usual outlines or else keep them in a frame against which they suddenly appear distorted. Clouds mingle …

O’Connor’s Crab-apple Jelly

The stories of Frank O’Connor refresh and delight long after they are first read. They pass into our experience like incidents we have ourselves known or almost known. Generous in spirit, acute in perception, they sum up a provincial culture in terms that are less provincial, but never cosmopolitan. Detachment …

Getting to Know You

“A shilling life will give you all the facts,” Auden said mockingly in one of his imaginary portraits. The facts could never encompass the workings of the impetuous heart. Mr. Osborne’s biography, the first in the field, offers chiefly facts; most are not new, unfortunately, and some, as Stephen Spender …

At the Yeatses

A book of mine, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was completed in 1947, eight years after the poet’s death, a time when many of his friends were alive, and above all, his wife. George Yeats has since died, on August 23, 1968, and it seems an appropriate moment to …

The Life of Sim Botchit

Of all modern writers, the one presumed to be least likely to permit a biography of himself to be written has been Samuel Beckett. Addicted to silences, prone to despair and panic, suffering Job-like boils on his neck and cysts in his anus, practicing what he calls “baroque solipsism,” no …

A Late Victorian Love Affair

The nineteenth century was a great period for both the closeting and the uncloseting of sexual themes. We like to suppose that the reaction against Victorianism was a phenomenon of this century, not of that one. But it was of course well under way before Victoria died. In those days …

The Politics of Joyce

“Consciousness” denotes the movement of the mind both in recognizing its own shape and in maintaining that shape in the face of attack or change. James Joyce’s consciousness declared itself in certain initial choices. The first came when, encountering pomp and pretense, he elected nakedness. At a point in early …

From Yeats to Yeats

Brave men, and women too, might quail before undertaking to describe the history of poetry in English during the last eighty-five years. It was a period during which poets changed from being smiths to being miners. The difficulties are manifold: so many poets born, and made, before and after and …

Love in the Catskills

During the last year of W. H. Auden’s life, I sometimes had the luck to meet him in Oxford. On these occasions he would gradually place me as someone associated with literary biography, and would then inform me kindly but firmly that literary biography was no use. For its only …

W.H. Auden (1907–1973) Under Tom Tower

The ceremonious unveiling of Auden’s memorial stone in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey on October 2 mantled the poet in an atmosphere of propriety that befitted his age and reputation at death. It might have been the serene conclusion of a life spent endorsing English culture. But, as Stephen Spender …

Warped Innocence

Behind the Door, the newest novel by one of the ablest of recent Italian novelists, corrects some possible misconceptions of his talent. Giorgio Bassani’s best-known work, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, aspired to portray an aristocratic Jewish family in Ferrara during the years before 1943, when its members were deported …

Why Molly Bloom Menstruates

The denouement of Ulysses has been much disputed. What seems to end the book is that Bloom, who nodded off at the end of the “Ithaca” episode, and his more wakeful wife Molly both snore away in the arms of Morpheus, or as Joyce puts it, in the arms of …

The First Waste Land—I

Lloyd’s most famous bank clerk revalued the poetic currency forty-nine years ago. As Joyce said, The Waste Land ended the idea of poetry for ladies. Whether admired or detested, it became, like Lyrical Ballads in 1798, a traffic signal. Hart Crane’s letters, for instance, testify to his prompt recognition that …

That’s Life

The relation of the literary biographer to his subject has perhaps never been easy, and as posthumous biographical scrutiny has grown more intense, a premonitory shiver has been felt by many writers. Every great man has his disciples, says Wilde, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography. Joyce …