Richard Elman

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Richard Elman
Brooklyn, New York
OccupationNovelist, poet, journalist, teacher
Known forNovels and journalism

Richard M. Elman (April 23, 1934 – December 31, 1997) was a novelist, poet, journalist, and teacher. He was born in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Yiddish-speaking and came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century from Russo-Poland. His boyhood is captured in his comic novel Fredi & Shirl & The Kids: An Autobiography In Fables.[1]

At Syracuse University (B. A., 1955), Elman's teachers, Daniel Curley and Donald Dike, encouraged his writing.[2] At Syracuse, Elman met Emily Schorr, who became a painter. They married in 1955, and in 1964 their daughter Margaret was born. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1979, Elman married Alice (Neufeld) Goode, a teacher, who was his wife until his death. Their daughter Lila was born in 1981.[3]

Elman thought of himself as a socialist[4] and his journalism reflected his concerns about social and political injustice.

Stanford University and its later influence[edit]

Elman studied English and creative writing at Stanford University (M.A. 1957) where he came under the influence of poet and critic Yvor Winters who taught there.[5]

In the 1930s, Winters had been a friend of David Lamson[6] who had worked at Stanford University Press. Winters defended his friend when Lamson was accused and convicted of killing his wife; after serving time on death row, Lamson's case was re-tried and he was freed after two more trials and hung juries. Elman became familiar with the events, and the crime became the springboard for his novel, An Education In Blood.[7] Winters was portrayed in the novel through the character of Jim Hill.[8]

Elman describes Winters as well as others he met and befriended at Stanford, such as the poet Thom Gunn[9] and the writer, Tillie Olsen,[10] in his memoir, Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs.

New York and the 1960s[edit]

Elman returned to New York and worked for the Pacifica Foundation, WBAI, as a public affairs director from 1961-64. He helped Bob Fass, a boyhood friend, get work there. At WBAI, Elman produced radio documentaries, such as a sound montage "The Last Days of Hart Crane", which featured tape-recorded interviews of people who had been close to the poet during his lifetime. The poet Robert Lowell, came to the studio to listen to the montage, and later Lowell contributed to a second montage on Ford Madox Ford's American years.[11]

In 1965, Elman worked as a research associate for the School of Social Work Research Center at Columbia University. His work of non-fiction, The Poorhouse State: The American Way of Life On Public Assistance evolved from those experiences where he spent two years interviewing people on relief in New York's Lower East Side.[12]

In 1967, Elman published another book of reportage Ill-at-Ease in Compton about the mechanisms of discrimination at work in Compton, California, a city with a large lower-middle class population.

Between 1963 and 1966 much of Elman's income was derived from writing freelance pieces for magazines, including Cavalier, Commonweal, The Nation, and The New Republic.[13] He also reviewed books for The New York Times.

In 1968, Elman published The 28th Day of Elul, the first of a trilogy of novels, followed by Lilo's Diary (1968) and The Reckoning (1969). Each of the novels tells the same story from a different point of view about the fate of the Yagodahs, a Hungarian family at the end of World War II. Elie Wiesel said of The 28th Day of Elul in his review for The New York Times: "Born and raised in New York City, Richard M. Elman was barely 10 when the nightmare ended in Europe. Yet he evokes some of its living fragmentary images as though his voice came from within."[14]

In 1968, he signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.[15]

Nicaragua and the 1970s and 1980s[edit]

Elman worked as a journalist in Central America, covering the war in Nicaragua against the Somoza regime. He traveled on assignment for GEO (magazine) with the photojournalist Susan Meiselas and his text accompanied her photos of the Sandinistan rebels.[16] Elman's account of that trip and succeeding visits to Nicaragua are told in his book, Cocktails at Somoza's: A Reporter's Sketchbook.

Throughout the 1980s, Nicaragua colored Elman's imaginative life. His book of poems, In Chontales, his comic novel, The Menu Cypher, and his collection of stories, Disco Frito, are all set in Nicaragua.

His dark and hilarious book, Little Lives, written in 1978, was turned into a musical in 2004 with Words and Music by Rhett DeVelay. The songs were recorded in 2012.


In his novel Tar Beach, Elman returned to the subject of family life in Brooklyn after World War II. In John Domini's review of the novel, he wrote, "rarely has a slice of life been cut so thin, so elegantly."[17]

His book of poems, Cathedral-Tree-Train (1992) is a brooding, unsentimental but loving elegy for a friend, abstract-expressionist painter Keith Sanzenbach.

Elman died shortly before the publication of his memoir, Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs. The book consists of brief portraits of people he met, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, Faye Dunaway, Little Richard Penniman, and Louise Varèse.[18]

At various times over the course of his career, he taught creative writing: at Bennington College (1967–68), Bennington College Summer Writing Workshop (1974-), Columbia University (1968-1976), Sarah Lawrence (1970), The University of Pennsylvania (1981–83), University of Arizona (Fall 1985)Notre Dame, and Stony Brook University.



  • A Coat for the Tsar (1958)
  • The 28th Day of Elul (1967)
  • Lilo's Diary (1968)
  • The Reckoning (1969)
  • An Education In Blood (1971)
  • Fredi & Shirl & The Kids (1972)
  • Crossing Over and Other Tales (1973)
  • Taxi Driver (based on screenplay by Paul Schrader) (1976)
  • Little Lives (under the pseudonym John Howland Spyker) (1978)
  • The Breadfruit Lotteries (1980)
  • The Menu Cyper (1982)
  • Disco Frito (1988)
  • Tar Beach (1991)


  • The Poorhouse State: The American Way of Life on Public Assistance (1966)
  • Ill-at-Ease in Compton (1967)
  • Charles Booth's London: A Portrait of the Poor at the Turn of the Century, Drawn from His 'Life and Labor of the People in London' by Albert Fried and Richard M. Elman, editors (1968)
  • Uptight with the Stones: A Novelist's Report (1973)
  • Cocktails at Somoza's: A Reporter's Sketchbook of Events in Revolutionary Nicaragua (1981)
  • Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs (1998)


  • The Man Who Ate New York (1975)
  • Homage to Fats Navarro (1978)
  • In Chontales (1980)
  • Cathedral-Tree-Train and Other Poems (1992)
  • The Phoenician Women (translation) in Euripides, 3: Alcestis, Daughters of Troy, The Phoenician Women, Iphigenia at Aulis, and Rhesus eds. David Slavitt and Palmer Bovie (1998)
  • The Girl from Samos (translation) in Menander: The Grouch, Desperately Seeking Justice, Closely Cropped Locks, The Girl from Samos, and The Shield eds. David Slavitt and Palmer Bovie (1998) ISBN 0-8122-1652-0 (paper)

Further reading[edit]

Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 3, ed. Adele Sarkissisan, Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1986.


  1. ^ Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, pp.69-70
  2. ^ CAAS, Vol 3., p. 73
  3. ^ Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, p. 79
  4. ^ The New York Times, Obituaries, January 2, 1998 by Wolfgang Saxon
  5. ^ Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, and Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs pp. 15-22
  6. ^ Namedropping, "David Lamson," pp. 38-45
  7. ^ Namedropping. p. 44
  8. ^ CAAS, vol. 3, p. 75.
  9. ^ Namedropping, pp. 16-22
  10. ^ Namedropping, pp.26-37
  11. ^ Namedropping, p. 127
  12. ^ See also, "Poverty, Injustice and the Welfare State," by Richard A. Cloward and Richard Elman, The Nation, February 28 and March 7, 1966, and Saturday Review, "If You Were On Welfare," May 23, 1970.
  13. ^ CAAS volume 3, p. 74.
  14. ^ "Legacy of Evil, The New York Times Book Review, May 28, 1967.
  15. ^ "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" January 30, 1968 New York Post
  16. ^ Das Drama von Managua, GEO (German edition) December 1978
  17. ^ New York Times, December 15, 1991
  18. ^ Namedropping: Mostly Literary Memoirs, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1999 pp. 47, 219, 203.

External links[edit]