Elwyn B. Robinson in Context

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. The introduction to this series is here

William Caraher

Elwyn B. Robinson did not compose his History of North Dakota in a vacuum. He worked in his  office, in a department and at a university, and the interactions with his colleagues as well as the book itself both reflected and shaped university culture over Robinson’s 30 years on campus. He spent his first decade on campus under the watchful eye of Orin G. Libby and endured two decades in a department chaired by his nemesis, Felix Vondracek. He finally received recognition from a transformed university on the publication of the History of North Dakota.

When he hired Robinson, Libby was 77 and the longtime chair of the schismatic American History Department at the University of North Dakota. Libby was cantankerous, inflexible, and more respected than liked. He was the first professional historian to teach at the University of North Dakota, had worked to develop the state archives and the State Historical Society, and had produced as fine a crop of graduate students as the history department had ever seen. He had also clashed so fiercely with UND’s President Thomas Kane that he found himself isolated in a department that saw a revolving door of faculty members who rarely stayed more than a few years. Robinson, however, stayed and continued the process of professionalizing the university and the discipline of history that Libby started.

In 1935, Libby was searching to replace John Pritchett who had decamped to Vassar College. Robinson had graduated from Oberlin College and was at Western Reserve University in Cleveland for graduate work in history. He had not finished his dissertation, but Libby hired him anyway based on a recommendation from Robinson’s advisor Arthur C. Cole. Cole edited the Mississippi Valley Historical Review and knew Libby through his work with that association. As with many of Libby’s hires, and the practice both at UND and across the country, there was no formal interview outside of some correspondence. The first time the two men met was when Libby picked up Elwyn and Eva Robinson at the bus station in Grand Forks on September 5, 1935.

Robinson’s first years at UND were profoundly shaped by his relationship with Libby. Libby introduced the history seminar to the university in the early years of the twentieth century, but by the 1930s, Robinson considered Libby’s teaching style antiquated and ineffective. This pushed Robinson to innovate by introducing new textbooks, reserving library readings in primary and secondary sources, and adopting a new, less formal teaching style. Breaking away from a more traditional and severe standard of faculty demeanor, Robinson spent particular effort to learn students’ names and addressed them as Miss or Mr. when he saw them on campus. On Libby’s stern demeanor, Robinson once quipped: “I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe he had any gift for encouraging or stimulating his students except as fear was a stimulus” (139).

In 1945 Libby retired and Robinson began seriously to consider writing a history of North Dakota. Apparently, Libby’s wife had intimated that he was working on such a book when Robinson had first come to Grand Forks (Robinson 124), but Robinson had not heard Libby talk about this work at all during their time together. After Libby’s retirement, he concluded that the field was open to him. The writing of the History of North Dakota would occupy the next 20 years of Robinson’s academic life.

The post-war University and the Department of History offered a dynamic context for the writing of the History of North Dakota. The University of North Dakota grew quickly in the 1950s and 1960s and the Department of History saw the departure of many of the stalwart faculty of the pre-war period. At the same time, faculty ranks professionalized steadily under the leadership of University President George Starcher. In many ways, Robinson’s publication of the History of North Dakota anticipated the new professional expectations for faculty publishing at UND that further developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The change in professional attitudes certainly contributed to how Robinson and his colleagues responded to the reign of Felix Vondracek as department head from 1945-1962. Libby hired both Vondracek and Robinson, but they represented a study in contrasts. Vondracek exuded a stentorian confidence fortified with photographic memory, although he struggled to complete his dissertation at Columbia. Robinson was quiet, retiring, and diligent. Vondracek was imperious in his leadership of the department, substituted bluster for hard work, and leveraged his seniority to advance his salary. Robinson led by example and sought advancement through his teaching and scholarship. 

Vondracek’s style led to significant anxiety in the department, and Robinson blamed him for pushing several scholars to leave the university. The rapid growth of higher education during the post-war decades, of course, provided opportunities for mobility among the faculty ranks and accomplished or ambitious scholars like Louis Geiger, John Parker, and George Lemmer, who all left UND after clashing with Vondracek. For Robinson, the failure of various administrators to rein in Vondracek revealed the persistent power of conservative faculty hired before the war and led to the rise of a group of “young turks” who pushed the university to respect professional accomplishments more than seniority. While Robinson was hardly a “young turk,” he nevertheless felt the departures of colleagues and friends intensely and rued the reluctance of the deans and administrators to tame Vondracek’s tyranny (Robinson 194-95, 248-49). 

Robinson’s awareness of the changing professional standards across campus came home in his constant concern for his salary and domestic expenses. His memoirs are rife with minute financial details that reveals both personal anxiety and an instinct for stretching every last dollar to its fullest. Robinson was hired in 1935 for the princely sum of $1400 per year. At his promotion to associate professor in 1948, he earned $4229 and later $5000 per year at his promotion to full in 1950. In terms of buying power, his salary nearly doubled during his first 15 years at the university, but his family grew as well as did his expenses. He regularly complained privately, however, that others, first Libby, and then Vondracek earned more than he did or appropriated lucrative summer teaching contracts unfairly. Even as his salary approached five figures in the mid-1960s, Robinson continued to live paycheck to paycheck. Publication of the History of North Dakota led to him being named a University Professor in 1967 and a $20,000 raise. This seems to have relieved some financial pressure.

Robinson arrived on campus through the informal patronage of Libby’s extended network of colleagues, and by the mid-1960s, Robinson had achieved professional status with a book, a substantial salary, and the title University Professor. Robinson wrote his History of North Dakota across the changing character of the University of North Dakota, the Department of History, and the discipline, and despite this uncertainty set a high standard for history in the state.

Work Cited

Robinson, Elwyn B. Papers. Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection, Collection #198, Box 14, file 1. Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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William Caraher earned his PhD from Ohio State in 2003. At the University of North Dakota, he teaches Western Civilization and The Historian’s Craft. His research interests include the Late Antique East, Byzantium, and Mediterranean archaeology. Caraher also is an NDQ editorial board member and the Digital Editor for NDQ.  

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