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  • Joyce’s EllmannThe Beginnings of James Joyce
  • Amanda Sigler (bio)

Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce biography began unwittingly, during a conversation with W. B. Yeats’s widow in the aftermath of World War II. At her house in Dublin, Ellmann inquired about the fabled Joyce-Yeats meeting of October 1902. “I began this biography of Joyce in perhaps the happiest way, without knowing that I was beginning it,” Ellmann relates in his notes.1 At the time, Ellmann was writing a life of Yeats and had only a marginal interest in Joyce, but this meeting with the poet’s widow, like Joyce’s earlier meeting with Yeats, would prove the starting point of one of modern literature’s most significant literary relationships.

Ellmann’s meeting with Mrs. Yeats was itself a stroke of luck, the first of many “gold mines” he would strike in his research excursions. Ellmann possessed an “intuitive knack for being in the right place to benefit from fortuitous discoveries,”2 and his meeting with Yeats’s widow proved especially fortuitous. Stationed in England during World War II, Ellmann took advantage of his proximity to Ireland to write the poet’s widow. The neutral Irish government had relaxed restrictions on American servicemen after the Allied victory, and Ellmann was hopeful of a possible visit to Mrs. Yeats. “Fortunately I knew nothing of her well-earned reputation for never replying to letters,” Ellmann later wrote in his 1979 preface to Yeats: The Man and the Masks.3 Despite her reputation, Mrs. Yeats replied to Ellmann’s letter, encouraging him to see her. With this good news, Ellmann approached the head of his O.S.S. section, Norman Holmes Pearson, and requested a week’s leave. “Take two,” he replied (Yeats: The Man and the Masks xi).

Ellmann then made the journey to 46 Palmerston Road, Rathmines, and viewed Yeats’s former study for the first time. “I asked his widow if [End Page 3] there was any truth to the story that when Joyce, then 20 years old, met Yeats, who was an established writer in his late thirties, Joyce said to him, ‘You are too old for me to help you.’ Mrs. Yeats said, it’s true that in later life both men denied that it happened, but look at this.”4 Mrs. Yeats then proceeded to show Ellmann her husband’s unpublished preface to Ideas of Good and Evil, wherein Yeats had recorded the incident. The young Joyce’s rebellious declaration caught Ellmann’s eye: “As all mild men must [be], I was delighted by this arrogance; it made me look further into the several meetings that Joyce and Yeats had after that.”5 Joyce’s meeting with Yeats, to which Ellmann accorded a symbolic significance for the literary world, also had a personal significance for Ellmann. It served as the starting point for his biography, it shaped the way he viewed Joyce, and it led Ellmann to dismiss all subsequent recollections of the meeting that did not coincide with the arrogant Joyce of Yeats’s unpublished preface. For Ellmann, Joyce would always be rebellious, fascinating for the open challenges he posed to his literary predecessors.

Ellmann still did not consider Joyce an ideal biographical subject, however. Just a few months earlier, in November 1946, he had advised his colleague Ellsworth Mason not to write his dissertation on Joyce, cautioning him that it would be “impossible to work on him outside of Dublin, Paris and Zürich” and that “[e]xegesis with Joyce,” only in its earliest stages, would present innumerable obstacles to such a project.6 Joyce, Ellmann wrote, was “fine as a hobby but not dissertation material” (Mason 10). Herbert Gorman’s 1939 “authorized” biography had been difficult enough to write, with Joyce alternately dictating to Gorman and refusing to cooperate. The fact that Joyce had since passed away would not change matters much: “You can’t work on a man so recently dead without being a constant prey of his friends’ misconceptions,” Ellmann wrote to Mason on November 11, 1946 (10). But Mason proceeded with his dissertation on Joyce, and Ellmann proceeded with his own dissertation on Yeats. During the next five...


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