Richard Ellmann Writing Styles in James Joyce

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Richard Ellmann, the author of "James Joyce," is one of the foremost literary biographers of the twentieth century and his books win many awards and much praise. In fact, "James Joyce," originally published in 1959, wins the National Book Award in 1960. Although he is American, he works extensively on biographies of Irish authors, including Joyce, but also W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde. The influence of his work on Yeats is evident in "James Joyce," as he has tracked down extensive correspondence between the two authors, discussing the influence the older Yeats has on Joyce's career, especially at the beginning stages. In fact, the book itself is dedicated to George Yeats, the wife of the poet, who ostensibly helps Ellmann in gathering this information and who certainly aids him with writing works on Yeats (published in 1948 and 1954).

The second important note on perspective in "James Joyce" is that contemporary editions (those available today) are almost without exception the 1982 revision of Ellmann's 1959 work. In this book, he is able to add details that are not initially available, situate Joyce within the canon of the later twentieth century and have a broader perspective on the author's works which is perhaps not possible for the first edition. Biographers must be sensitive to the feelings and wishes of the family while members still survive (and particularly the Joyce estate, which is notoriously litigious); thus, readers can see that the revised edition has given the author slightly more leeway to discuss Joyce's failings, as well as his genius.


In "James Joyce," Ellmann takes a complex and nuanced tone towards his subject. This tone is perhaps one of the reasons the biography is so celebrated, as it presents an overall unbiased view of the author while showing both his good and bad qualities. Ellmann obviously has a great deal of respect and even affection for Joyce, as shown by the anecdotes that he chooses to include. While writing about his early life, for instance, Ellmann tells not only of Joyce's early success in school in great deal, giving dates and amounts of exhibitions he won, but also about his later detachment from academics and his flip attitude towards his studies. He tells endearing anecdotes about the writer, including his fear of thunder, while also making it clear that Joyce could be a detached and difficult man (for example, requesting money from his family when they could ill afford it, or taking his brother's wages without even asking).

Ellmann's ability to provide such a balanced picture of Joyce owes a lot to his extensive research, reading of Joyce's correspondence and the interviews he conducted with those close to him. In his preface to the 1959 edition, he writes that the book is born from conversations with Mrs. W. B. Yeats (George Yeats, to whom "James Joyce" is dedicated); he has extensive conversations with Joyce's family members, publishers, family friends, and members of his literary circles as well. Since Joyce has a complex relationship with Yeats, by turns asking for favors and dismissing the older poet's works, the reader might imagine that the balanced tone of this book originates in the double-sided relationship between the two Irish authors.


The structure of "James Joyce" appears deceptively straightforward. Ellmann divides the book into five sections, each corresponding to particular geographic locations where Joyce lives throughout his life. The first section, Dublin, describes Joyce's early years. The second, Pola, Rome, Trieste, describes Joyce's early career and his travels with Nora. The third section, Zurich, shows the writer nearing the height of his creative talents, which continues into the fourth section, Paris. The fifth and final section, Return to Zurich, is briefer than the others and describes the Joyce family's travels to Zurich during the war, where they settle and live until Joyce's death in 1941.

However, although the chronological layout of the book seems relatively straightforward and normal for a biography (chapters are divided by year, for the most part, or by groups of years), the biography has several interesting diversions. Ellmann is an excellent literary critic in his own right and in the second section (which describes the period during which Joyce comes up with ideas for many of his most celebrated works), he takes chapters to describe the origins of these books. There is a chapter on the background of "The Dead," one of the short stories in The Dubliners, and one on the background of Ulysses. Interestingly, Ellmann also includes a chapter on "The Growth of Imagination," describing Joyce's creative development. In these chapters, Ellmann not only explores literal inspirations for Joyce's writings—the names of characters who correspond to neighbors of the Joyces, or lines from the work that originate in popular songs—but also sheds light on their interpretation (for example, his reading of the symbol of snow in "The Dead.")

Finally, the biography is notable in that Ellmann gives a quote from Joyce's work at the beginning of each chapter. Most of these quotes correspond chronologically with the time period Ellmann discusses, but they all have thematic or symbolic connections to the activities and events of each chapter.

This section contains 856 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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