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Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Blues

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 117, Number 2, Spring 2009
pp. 268-291 | 10.1353/sew.0.0132

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Explorers come to a new land full of dreams of their private Cathays,” Richard Ellmann once wrote, “and their first reactions to it depend upon how well it can be accommodated to their hopes. Only gradually do they begin to separate what is there from what is not, and to chart the true country.” Ellmann was referring to his explorations of William Butler Yeats’s poetry, but he could have been referring to his forays into modern literature as a whole. What is generally forgotten today is that Ellmann was one of the first scholars to map the true country of modernism and to make modernist writers legitimate subjects for academic study.

When Ellmann entered Yale as a freshman in 1935, modernist texts were conspicuously absent from course syllabi. No professors taught Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, Faulkner, Hemingway, Pound, Stevens, Williams, or Woolf, even though these authors had been publishing for years. One of Ellmann’s undergraduate friends, Ellsworth Mason, recalled: “At Yale, a half-year course in the contemporary British novel was first offered in 1937, taught by Arnold Whitridge, a grandson of Matthew Arnold. The first seminar in 20th century literature ever offered in the Yale graduate school was given by Cleanth Brooks in September 1947.” With little professorial encouragement, Ellmann studied the modernists on his own and in a group of like-minded students that he organized. According to Mason, “Ellmann had no formal instruction in 20th century literature during his study for three degrees at Yale.”

Ellmann’s doctoral dissertation, “Triton among the Streams: A Study of the Life and Writings of William Butler Yeats” (1947), which was later published as Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was the first thesis at Yale ever accepted on a twentieth-century subject. Undaunted as the “weather-worn, marble triton / Among the streams” in Yeats’s poem “Men Improve with the Years,” Ellmann stood up for modern writers in a curriculum that largely ignored them. For the rest of his career he remained steadfast in his commitment, publishing highly esteemed essays, biographies, and anthologies that helped shape our understanding of modernism and postmodernism.

When I first met Ellmann at Oxford University on a warm summer day in 1976, I wasn’t aware that Oxford was almost as stodgy as Yale in the 1930s and that Ellmann once again felt like an embattled “triton among the streams.” I also wasn’t aware that he wanted to put the battles he’d fought on behalf of some of the modernists behind him. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, I had become fascinated by Joyce (I wrote a long honors thesis on the mythical structure of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker’s dream in Finnegans Wake), and I hoped to continue my Joyce studies as a graduate student. In my Joycean zeal I had applied to only one college—New College, Oxford—because I wanted to do graduate work with only one person—Richard Ellmann—on only one subject—Joyce.

While traveling around Europe on a Eurail pass after being graduated in 1976, I paid homage to Joyce by visiting his grave in Zurich’s Fluntern cemetery, by browsing in Sylvia Beach’s Paris bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, where Joyce had held court, and by rereading Ulysses. When I got to England, I continued my literary pilgrimage by taking a train to Oxford to visit Ellmann.

Having found his narrow three-storey house near the center of the city, I had second thoughts about disturbing the scholar I revered. The limestone façade—its original honey color blackened by years of car and bus exhaust—looked forbidding. What would I say to the man who knew so much about the subject I had just begun to explore? I nervously walked down the path at 38 St. Giles and gave the door a few hard raps. A plump, slightly bald man wearing black-rimmed glasses, baggy pants, and running shoes opened the door. He didn’t seem startled to see me, even though I hadn’t called in advance. Afraid he might shoo me away, I quickly told him that our mutual friend Jay Parini had suggested I talk to him about my graduate-study plans...



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