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The Writer’s Almanac for March 15, 2017: Home

Mar. 15, 2017: birthday: Richard Ellmann

It’s the birthday of literary critic and biographer Richard Ellmann (books by this author), born in Highland Park, Michigan (1918). His parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. He went to Yale and decided to do his dissertation on W.B. Yeats, who had just died and who, as Ellmann put it, “seemed at that time a subject suspiciously and brazenly modern.” But he chose Yeats anyway, and was partway through his dissertation when World War II began, and he left to join the Army. While he was stationed in London, he took a vacation and went to visit George Yeats, the poet’s wife, who greeted him warmly and happily shared stories of her husband, and granted Ellmann numerous interviews. He published Yeats: The Man and the Masks in 1948 and went on to write biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde (1989) won the Pulitzer Prize, and Anthony Burgess called James Joyce (1959) “the greatest literary biography of the century.”