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.
Kimberly K. Porter
On November 6, 1958, Elwyn B. Robinson, Professor of History at the University of North Dakota, stood before his colleagues on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the institution. Regarding his audience of “thoughtful people,” he challenged: “What are the great themes of North Dakota history? How are they related to each other? How are they tied to the fundamental facts about the state?” Undoubtedly hearing no response, he provided a carefully crafted argument. It focused upon six themes which he believed essential to understanding the past as well as the future of the state: remoteness, economic disadvantage, radicalism, dependence, adjustment and the “Too-Much Mistake.” (1) A year had not passed when Robinson refined his thematic conceptualization of North Dakota history with an essay simply titled: “Six Themes of North Dakota History.” Little had changed since his presentation, excepting his assuredness in his thematic guideposts to the history of his adopted state. (2) All was in prelude to the book he had spent the majority of his career contemplating, researching, and writing.
At its appearance in 1966, History of North Dakota met with rave reviews. Assorted readers described the volume as “absorbing,” “fascinating,” “astonishingly comprehensive,” “first rate,” blessed with “outstanding virtues,” and “balanced.” More adept reviewers noted one additional factor: Robinson’s work moved the concept of state history to new heights. Previously, state history had oft times met with derision in academic circles, perceived as shallow antiquarian boosterism. However, upon a close reading of the text, reviewers observed that Robinson’s work could be considered little less than a breakthrough in the genre.
Reviewers from such diverse publications as Agricultural History, Arizona and the West, the Journal of American History, the American Historical Review, and the Journal of Economic History, noted that Robinson had broken the boundaries of traditional state history, not only by expanding his lens to the region as well as to the nation, but also by including material more traditionally considered as anthropology, geography, economics, political science, ethnology, theology, nature study, and sociology. Rather than simply a narrative of events and individuals, Robinson worked from his interpretive framework of the six themes, grounded in the geographical realities of the state.
Perhaps John Schlebecker most clearly articulated the true significance of Robinson’s achievement. Writing for the Journal of Economic History, he observed: “This history could well be used as a model for other state histories. Practitioners of this art have produced some excellent work of late, but this is it, I think, the best so far.” Nearly as effusive was an unsigned “book note” in Agricultural History. To that reviewer, Robinson’s work stood as “one of the few first-rate histories of states” distinguished by its “breadth, selectivity, and authority; and by the sharp insights and sympathetic understanding of its author” (Schlebecker 385). Clearly for close-eyed readers, Robinson’s work was far more than the history of a specific state; rather, it was a new way of perceiving state history by placing it in the larger context of the region, the nation, and, perhaps, the world.
Moreover, the view of the state provided by Robinson was not one of simply dates and places with a focus on politicians and farmers. The text pulled into consideration alternate views of the region by the inclusion of materials that might more clearly be considered social sciences. And to make it all the more valuable, the text had not been sponsored by the state or a booster seeking to draw attention and dollars to the state. That Robinson was a professional historian immersed in the labor to explicate his state allowed the book all the more radiance in the eyes of his reviewers.
Declaring the History of North Dakota to be path breaking in the 1960s is one thing, to have it remain so in the second decade of the new millennium is quite another. Clearly Robinson has served the test of time, particularly if measured in the homage paid to him by those who have written in his aftermath. For, following Robinson’s new interpretive framework, no historian of the North Dakota experience—at least in its entirety—could afford to ignore the by now infamous “six themes.” And, to date, none has with absolute assuredness.
This is not to suggest, however, that those who have followed in Robinson’s wake—as scholar or reader—have not found reason to complain. The work was written 50 years ago and much has taken place, much that Robinson could not have forecast with the clearest of crystal balls: the rise of an oil culture and the boom of population, the increased productivity of farmers and ranchers, the expanding roles for women, the expansive role claimed by government at all levels, the ethnic diversification of the state, our expanding appreciation of the natural environment, the arrival of the electronic age, the alleged brain drain, etc. Simply put, the work needs to be updated in light of fifty years of history. Of course, beyond the timeframe that confined Robinson’s endeavor, subjects abound that historians of his gender and generation did not necessarily find worthy of lengthy inclusion, if included at all: tribal Americans as anything beyond hindrances, women, the natural environment, non-Christian religious adherence, etc.
Topics worthy of further consideration are legion, and lifetimes of scholarship remains to be tackled, informed but not constrained by the infamous six themes. As a professional historian, Robinson would undoubtedly enjoy the ensuing discussions and wonder at his long shadow.
(1), (2) See, for example, John T. Schlebecker, Journal of Economic History 27.3 (September 1967): 420; Arthur J. Larsen, American Historical Review 72.3 (April 1967): 1089-90; Hiram M. Drache, Journal of American History 54.1 (June 1967): 169-70; Agricultural History 42.4 (October 1968): 385. See as well, D. Jerome Tweton, “Preface to the North Dakota Edition: Elwyn Robinson and the Themes of North Dakota History,” Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota (Fargo: Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 1994).
Robinson, Elwyn B. “The Themes of North Dakota History,” revision of 75th Anniversary address,
www.und.nodak.edu/dept/library/Collections/Robinson/themes.html, retrieved July 23, 2007.
—. “Six Themes of North Dakota History,” North Dakota History 20.1 (Winter 1959): 5–24.
Schlebecker, John T. Journal of Economic History 27.3 (September 1967): 420.
—. Agricultural History 42.4 (October 1968): 385.
Kimberly Porter is a professor of history at the University of North Dakota. She specializes in American history, particularly that of the Midwest and Great Plains.
These review essays appeared in NDQ 83.2/3 (Spring/Summer 2016), 8-24.