In Memoriam: Langdon Elsbree, longtime CMC professor of literature

Longtime Claremont McKenna Professor Langdon Elsbree, who continued teaching part-time at the College beyond his official 34 years on the faculty, died early Saturday morning, June 21, at the age of 84, two days before his 85th birthday.

A public memorial service honoring Elsbree ("A Celebration of Life") has been set for 1 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 23 in Manor Hall at Claremont Manor, 650 Harrison Ave., Claremont. Parking is available at The Claremont Friends Meetinghouse, across the street: 727 Harrison Ave.

Elsbree was born June 23, 1929, and would earn his bachelor’s degree at Earlham College. During his undergraduate years there, he held an assortment of jobs: night watchman and grounds crew member for the college, psychiatric attendant at Philadelphia General Hospital, and book store clerk in Ithaca, N.Y. While earning his master’s at Cornell University, he also worked as a field hand for the school’s agronomy department.

In 1957, Elsbree moved to Claremont at the age of 28 to earn his doctorate at then Claremont Graduate School (now University). Two years later he would be hired to teach at Scripps College, and the following year in 1960, would transition from an all-women’s institution to teaching English courses for the young men enrolled at Claremont Men’s College.

In those early years of a then nascent College, Elsbree was among the newest hires brought in to build its faculty in the humanities. In his history of Claremont McKenna College, Kevin Starr refers to Elsbree and this “new generation of history and humanities scholars” as being "destined to bring national distinction to CMC.”

“Professor Elsbree was a very respected member of the literature department, and kept in touch with many of his students, who greatly benefited from his classes on D.H. Lawrence and English and American literature,” recalls CMC’s third President, Jack Stark ’57 GP ’11.

Respected, yes, but with his unusual name followed comical, butchered misspellings that got him and best friend David Levering laughing. “With a name like his,” said Levering, who knew Elsbree for 59 years, “the delivery of mail everyday was late-night comedy. What was done to that name is hard to relate. He got letters delivered with names like ‘Elm Tree’ –– the best of which was ‘Long Gone Frisbee.’ " "He was one of the good ones. He was a dear, dear friend.”

During his three-plus decades at the College, Elsbree taught Literature 10, philosophy/literature, the American novel since World War II, British fiction, ritual and narrative, and science fiction. When naming his areas of expertise, Elsbree listed anthropology and literature, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, 19th and 20th century British fiction, literature and power, Thomas Hardy, and the American novel.

In the sphere of literary criticism, he devoted his teaching and research to examining the power of milestones and rites of initiation in major works of 19th and 20th century literature, which he referred to as “liminal experiences.” When such moments take place in a story, Elsbree told generations of students, characters are changed forever by their experiences as they cross a threshold (or “liminal space”) into a new moral universe. He wrote two books on the subject, The Rituals of Life: Patterns in Narratives and Ritual Passages and Narrative Structures. The first book was completed with a National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend. In his words, he described his basic argument for the book in this way:

We live by stories: the purest derive much of their power from their ritualistic qualities, which find their equivalents in our lives and customs. We need fresh ways of looking at the stories we tell about our experience and the experience itself.

Through the lens of great works of world literature, ranging from Faulkner to V.S. Naipaul's novel A House for Mr. Biswas, Elsbree also posed the Big Questions about life and the search for meaning and purpose — powerful, highly relevant questions for his undergraduates, who faced the same questions as they prepared for life after graduation.

This search for meaning in literature extended to the social art of dance. For Elsbree, he was interested in how writers Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D.H. Lawrence each “show historical change and the limits it imposes on personal fulfillment in work, love, and marriage” by the use of “the dance.” In 1968, the CMC professor typed up a request for summer research funds just over $1,500 so he could return to London and continue his research on the topic. This time, he would study English dance forms, and make room for two weeks in Dorcester in Dorset, (the lifelong home of Thomas Hardy), as well as a visit to the Midlands.

In 1966, Elsbree went abroad to Egypt on a Fulbright lectureship. But apart from a later trip in 1987 as visiting professor at Carleton College in Minnesota, he mostly was a familiar face in Claremont.

Along with his interpretive vision of literature, Elsbree also contributed decisively to the College's offerings on the practical mechanics of writing. Under his guidance, many CMCers closely studied Strunk & White's The Elements of Style or Heath's College Handbook of Composition, which he co-edited, to ensure that they would be effective communicators regardless of their career paths.

“One of the real pleasures of being at CMC has been the freedom the faculty have to explore ideas related to their research,” he said at the time of his retirement in 1994. “Students have been very important in my professional growth, as well. I have also enjoyed watching the college grow and become a better school.

Elsbree is survived by his wife, Aimee; daughter Anita and her husband, Paul Sylvan; a brother Sky, and a sister Mary, and their families; and grandson Eli Emigh.

In honor of Elsbree’s love of stories, CMC shares these memories, in full, from longtime colleague and friend Ward Elliott, who retired in May as the Burnet C. Wolford Professor of American Political Institutions. Their telling by Elliott is better left in the narrative, providing a broader glimpse of his longtime friend and CMC scholar:

Langdon was a full professor of English when I arrived in Claremont in 1968, and the picture of a central-casting college professor: pipe, tweeds, handsome, and with a reflective demeanor. Though we were seldom on the same side when faculty votes were taken on anti-war and social protest issues, he made me feel welcome as an entry-level assistant professor.   My most vivid memory of him was hiking with him the full 16-mile length of the Narrows of the Virgin River in Utah in October 1970.  The Narrows are a spectacular natural slot, 50 feet wide at the bottom, high as a skyscraper straight up on both sides, filled with a fine, sparkling river, and not easy to reach from the top.  In those days there were two seasonal windows, one in May and June, when winter cold and spring floods were over, but the July-September cloudburst season not yet arrived, and days were long.  The second was October – cloudburst season over, autumn leaves at their best, but days getting too short to make it all the way in the daylight.

We chose October, drove to the site during CMC’s fall break, with a lightweight motorcycle suspended from the rear bumper, and equipped with our oldest throwaway work boots since two-thirds of the trip was wading through fast-moving, knee-deep water.  The boots were expected to be worn-out by the end of the trip, and they were. We left the motorcycle at the bottom at dusk, and drove over miles of dirt road to the trailhead very early the next day.  On the way I took a picture of him, sitting puffing his pipe on a defunct 1930’s-vintage Farmall tractor. The hike was glorious, the leaves and canyon walls spectacular, the weather perfect, and Langdon an affable companion.  It also took twelve hours, so we waded the last two miles in the dark and struggled to put off exhaustion till we could get back to the starting point, load the car, and head to a motel.    Our motorcycle was waiting for us at the bottom, as planned. We climbed on, Langdon on the back, and puttered our way many uphill miles back to the dirt road. Not so well planned was the nighttime cold of the Utah plateau in October. Both of us got colder and colder till Langdon had to get off to walk to warm up in the dark. Teeth chattering, I continued to the trailhead where we had left the car with a magnetized hide-a-key in a crevice under the hood. But my clumsy, cold fingers couldn’t manage to extract it, but instead pushed it deeper into the crevice. It took many fruitless tries with a variety of tools, to get it out, but motivation was strong, and eventually I retrieved it, got my backpack and the motorcycle stowed, and drove back to pick up Langdon. He was still very, very cold, but warmed up a bit from trudging up the road, and stoic as ever. We made it to the motel fully exhausted, woke up the next morning aching in every bone, and made our way home with a very, very full day to look back on, most of it glorious, some of it less so. I resolved, if I were to try it again, to do it in June, with two or three more hours of daylight, but I never got around to it, and I’m afraid it’s too late now for both of us. Too bad.

But it’s not too late to remember with fondness our long day together in the Narrows, and to say that Langdon was a fine companion who will be much missed.