Sept. 5, 2008

Literary scholar Robert Elias dies at 94

Robert Henry Elias, professor emeritus and a noted literary scholar, died Aug. 16 in Brookline, Mass. He was 94.

Elias was the Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature and American Studies at Cornell, and a respected scholar in the field of American literature for his work on later 19th and earlier 20th century writers and their cultural contexts. He retired in 1980.

Elias earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and came to Cornell as an instructor in 1945. He attained full professor status in 1959, when he was named the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and chair of the American Studies Committee. He also served as associate editor of the literary journal Epoch from 1947 to 1954, chair of the American studies department in 1966-67, and secretary of the University Faculty from 1965 to 1968. He was named Goldwin Smith professor in 1968. Elias also directed the graduate thesis of author Toni Morrison, who earned her M.A. at Cornell in 1955. He was a co-founder of the American Studies Association of New York in 1951 and was a member of the American Historical Association.

He published the landmark critical biography "Theodore Dreiser: Apostle of Nature" in 1948, three years after Dreiser's death, and edited the three-volume "Letters of Theodore Dreiser: A Selection," published in 1959. Elias was a graduate student in English at Columbia University when he became acquainted with Dreiser in the late 1930s.

"His passion for social justice showed itself in many ways, including his interest in the work of Dreiser and his support for minority student education at Cornell," professor of English Paul Sawyer said of Elias.

Elias' collected papers (1933-83) are in Cornell Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. They include Elias' correspondence with Dreiser and with e.e. cummings, Saul Bellow, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Jerome Kern, Huey Long, Henry Miller, James Thurber, H.L. Mencken, Richard Wilbur, Katherine Anne Porter and Lewis Mumford. Elias' correspondence with Dreiser and his research notes are also included in the library's Theodore Dreiser collection, which spans 1897-1983.

Notes of condolence can be sent to his widow, Helen Elias, at 20 Stearns Road, Apt. 31, Brookline, MA 02446, or to rhelias@gmail.com.