Books: Robinson’s History Revisited

Over the next few weeks, North Dakota Quarterly will reprint a series of short reviews that explore the legacy of Elwyn B. Robinson’s History of North Dakota on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. Far from being a local book on a local place, Robinson’s History of North Dakota was ambitious in scope and elegant in execution. It provides a mid-century perspective on both the state of North Dakota, but also on the culture and history of the Northern Plains. The book is available from our friends at the North Dakota State University Press.

Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
1966. Line drawings by Jack Brodie. Pp. xi + 599. 

Jim Mochoruk

History, or perhaps the accidents of history, has provided the near perfect context for this 50th anniversary appreciation and reappraisal of Elwyn B. Robinson’s work and career. Not only is the half century mark the sort of time period that we all like to celebrate, but also given the recent collapse of the oil boom, the fall in agricultural commodity prices, the related drop in state revenues and the attendant gloom and doom in the state, one can see why discussions of what Robinson dubbed the “too much mistake” have a new currency in North Dakota. Indeed, as this edition of North Dakota Quarterly was being prepared, the campus that Robinson called home for his entire academic career—the University of North Dakota—is being cited as perhaps the perfect example of the too much mistake, as legislators claw back millions of dollars’ worth of funding in the face of dramatically lowered state revenues.

There are, however, reasons other than timeliness for reconsidering Robinson. To begin with, very few scholars have had quite as lasting an impact upon the historiography of their chosen topic as Elwyn B. Robinson. True, historians still cite some venerable works in their studies: Herodotus and Thucydides still get a nod or two from classicists; Tacitus, Bede, Mathew Paris, Otto of Freising and a smattering of Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars are trotted out from time to time—and on occasion are even treated with a modicum of respect; but as we come closer to the present and to practitioners of modern, “professional” history, when we cite Leopold Von Ranke, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, Carl Becker, or more contemporaneous with Robinson, Richard Hofstadter or E. P. Thompson, we do so largely to subject them to the “ritual slaughter” that is part of any good “lit review.”

Those who work in the field of North Dakota and Northern Great Plains history—and even in the broader fields of western and American history—have responded to Robinson in a very different fashion; respect, even deference, have been the more typical treatment accorded to Robinson and his famous six themes of North Dakota history. As the contributions of Michael Lansing and Kimberly Porter indicate, from the moment the History of North Dakota came out in 1966, the accolades were immediate and virtually universal. Even more to the point, those who followed Robinson, and even those who would challenge him in certain particulars, did so with care and respect—a phenomenon to be observed in the work of legions of graduate students who have plowed the field of North Dakota history over the past 50 years, as well as in the work of more mature scholars such as Robert and Wynona Wilkins, Jerry Tweton, and David Danbom. Even 50 years on, many scholars still take Robinson as their logical starting point, something which cannot be said of any other state or regional history produced during this era. Indeed, it is perhaps noteworthy that two of the contributors to this mini collection—Lansing and Porter—have both made extensive references to Robinson’s History of North Dakota in their own works.

As all of the following essays indicate, there is good reason for such positive treatment and much to still admire in the History of North Dakota. Still, as Lansing and Porter make equally clear, the time has definitely come to move on both from Robinson’s schematic framework and perhaps especially to move on from the worldview that informed that framework: a worldview shaped in the interwar period and which came to maturity in the years of the Cold War.

What we hope readers will find most interesting about the four brief essays presented here is that they seek to interrogate Robinson’s life and work from several different perspectives. Because these essays quite properly focus upon Robinson’s life and work after his arrival in North Dakota, it is worthwhile to briefly consider his pre-1935 biography. Born in Ohio in 1905, Robinson started life on a farmstead, but from age nine onwards was brought up in the suburbs of Cleveland. In many regards his was an unorthodox intellectual path for a man who was destined to become the pre-eminent historian of North Dakota. After graduating from high school he enrolled at Oberlin College where he majored not in history, but in English. In fact, although he took some history courses as part of his degree work, he never studied American history at the undergraduate level. Upon graduation from Oberlin in 1928 he immediately took up teaching English at the high school level, but by 1930-31 he had decided to enroll at Western Reserve University and study U.S. history. Interestingly, his work at both the Master’s and PhD level was not related to the history of North Dakota, Ohio, the West, or even the mid-West; rather he studied Philadelphia’s newspapers, particularly during the Civil War era—work that saw publication in a fine series of articles published between 1937 and 1941 in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. It is also of some note that by 1930 he had become engaged to Eva—but would not marry her until he was assured of a teaching position, which he obtained at UND in 1935; indeed, their “honeymoon” was essentially their Greyhound bus trip to Grand Forks while en route to take up that position.

From this point onwards the life of this transplanted Ohioan is given careful, albeit brief consideration, in two of the following pieces. In Sheryl O’Donnell’s essay, which is based largely on the diaries and private journals of both Elwyn and Eva Robinson, readers get a fascinating glimpse of the personal life and anxieties of this couple—an intellectual and economic, as well as a romantic partnership, if ever there was one. Readers also get an accounting of how “the book,” over twenty years in the making, was marketed and promoted by the two of them and how it went on to influence more than just historians. Another contribution, this one by Bill Caraher, is also based upon sources housed in the “Elwyn Robinson Special Collection” division of UND’s Chester Fritz Library. Caraher’s essay focuses upon Robinson’s place in the History Department that he did so much to redefine—and to elevate. It, too, reminds readers of how much personal economic anxieties shaped Robinson’s life but, even more to the point, it details how relationships with various figures of authority at UND affected Robinson’s academic life and progress in the thirty-one years he was at UND prior to the publication of his magnum opus. The other two contributions engage Robinson’s work in a direct and engaging fashion, parsing his six themes and their impact upon our understanding of the state’s history. Perhaps not too surprisingly, both of these scholars make reference to the not entirely beneficial effect of Robinson’s unduly “long shadow.”

The contributors to this 50th anniversary appreciation and reappraisal of Robinson’s work and career are themselves an interesting group. Caraher is a true polymath: a classicist and archeologist by training, a widely respected practitioner and innovator in the field of digital humanities, the historian of the contemporary oil boom in western North Dakota, an acknowledged expert in the field of Byzantine history and archeology, and the historian of the UND History Department by default—that is to say, he was the most junior member of the Department when it was tasked with researching and writing a new history of the Department. For his part, Michael Lansing is one of the most exciting young scholars in the field of western U.S. history, specializing in environmental and gender history. He serves as the Chair of the History Department at Augsburg College and is the author of Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics and coauthor of The American West: A Concise History. Kimberly Porter, UND’s premier teacher and scholar of North Dakota history, in many regards stands in the shoes of Elwyn Robinson. Hired specifically to teach and further develop the field of North Dakota studies at UND—in a direct line of descent from Robinson—she has not only become the chronicler of modern North Dakota history, but has emerged as a leader in the field of oral history research and—like Robinson—as a crucial advocate of public history within North Dakota. And last, but definitely not least, there is Sheryl O’Donnell. The longtime Chair of UND’s English Department (16 years in two separate rounds of service), O’Donnell has been a pioneer in the field of feminist literary scholarship, a passionate advocate of the humanities in North Dakota and Minnesota, and, much like Robinson, a tireless advocate for the rights of faculty at UND.

Jim Mochoruk earned his BA from the University of Winnipeg and his MA and PhD from the University of Manitoba. While at UND, he has developed a series of courses in Canadian, Canadian-U.S., British, and British Imperial History. He has also been heavily involved in the creation of the Canadian Studies Program at UND. He developed a strong interest in First Nations history on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border and works closely with UND’s Department of Indian Studies. He has published a number of books, the latest of which is Reimagining Ukrainian-Canadians: History, Politics and Identity (University of Toronto, 2011), and is at work on two more.

These review essays appeared in NDQ 83.2/3 (Spring/Summer 2016), 8-24.