Born in Chicago, he received his J.D. from the University of Chicago in 1926, but switched to literature in 1930, earning a MA in English in 1931. In 1933-1937 he practiced law in Chicago. In 1937 to 1939 he was an English instructor at Washington State University. In 1942 he completed a PhD in English with a dissertation on “The Early Career of Henry Adams” at the University of Chicago, after which he began teaching English at Northwestern University, becoming department chair in 1964 before retiring in 1971.
Samuels is best known for his 3-volume biography of Henry Adams (1948, 1958, 1964), for which he received the Bancroft Prize and the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography His 2-volume biography of Bernard Berenson (1979, 1987) is considered the most well-researched and important study of its subject.
Samuels died in Evanston, Illinois.
- Samuels, Ernest, The Young Henry Adams (Harvard University Press, 1948)
- Samuels, Ernest, Henry Adams: The Middle Years (Harvard University Press, 1958)
- Samuels, Ernest, Henry Adams: The Major Phase (Harvard University Press, 1964)
- Samuels, Ernest, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur (Harvard University Press, 1979)
- Samuels, Ernest, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend (Harvard University Press, 1987)
- Adams, Henry, The Letters of Henry Adams (3 vols.) (Belknap Press, 1982) (eds.: J.C. Levenson, Ernest Samuels, Charles Vandersee, Viola Winner)
- Adams, Henry, Henry Adams: Selected Letters (Harvard University Press, 1992) (ed. Ernest Samuels)
- Bittner, David Professor Ernest Samuels: Pioneering Jewish Educator who "Broke the Back" of Academic Elitism (Western States Jewish History, Fall 2013, Vol. 46 Issue 1)
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