Not surprisingly, Ellmann, biographer of Joyce and Oscar Wilde, approaches most of his subjects biographically, chiding the structuralists for their death-of-the-author notice as he goes. Joyce, Wilde, and William Butler Yeats are well represented, but the majority of the essays deal with related writers and movements: Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Frank O’Connor, George Eliot, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, and Henri Michaux, the Edwardian and Decadent periods. Admittedly, the earliest essays, from the 1950’s--more indebted to the New Criticism than to biography--appear rather dated in approach; they serve, however, to make even clearer the excellence of all the others.
Ellmann is perhaps most illuminating when he uses his formidable knowledge of modernist writers and their immediate predecessors to trace either a single idea or the complex ways in which writers respond to one another. Still more fascinating are the chapters in which Ellmann takes to task two fellow biographers, Carlos Baker (on Ernest Hemingway) and Deidre Bair (on Samuel Beckett), noting the former’s lack of discrimination and the latter’s almost willful distortion of her subject and his work. More than mere reviews, these two chapters provide an aesthetics of the art of biography. The key to that art therefore to
Ellmann’s own work is, as he says in an essay on Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” that the literary work (and, one assumes, the literary life) demands and deserves to be approached “less as an object than as a convergence of energies.” A LONG THE RIVER RUN makes good that claim and is itself just such a convergence: various, stimulating, exemplary.