Robinson’s History: Fifty Years Later

Over the last few weeks, North Dakota Quarterly has reprinted 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. You can check them out here, here, and here, and introduction to this series is here.

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

Michael J. Lansing

Fifty years on, Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota stands out. Unlike other histories of its kind, it remains the starting point for students of the state’s past. Universally acclaimed upon its release, the book’s erudition and breadth impressed reviewers. One called the work “engrossing” (Larson 1089-90). Another noted its “astonishingly comprehensive” approach (Schlebecker 420). Yet another rightly called it “fascinating” and “valuable” (Athearn 86-87). From the vantage of 2016, many of these assertions remain true.

But these days, the History of North Dakota’s many strengths actually weaken the field of North Dakota history. Beyond inescapable oversights (illuminated by fifty years of scholarship since its publication), the book looms too large over our understanding of the state. Importantly, that’s not Robinson’s fault. In fact, given his commitment to clear-eyed analysis in service to the broader public, he would likely agree.

Robinson’s biography reveals much about the book’s orientation. Hired at the University of North Dakota in 1935, the Ohioan disliked large cities and appreciated North Dakota’s rural culture and people. He also represented a generation of professional historians deeply committed to carefully-defined norms for teaching and scholarship. Finally, as historian Gilbert Fite intimated many years later, Robinson was “low-key, solid, sensitive, thorough” and embodied “sound scholarship and common sense” (195).

History of North Dakota sports those qualities as well as four others that ensured it a long life. First, it represents prodigious research and careful writing conducted over a long span of time. Indeed, the draft manuscript resulted from five years of research before ten years of writing. After Robinson sent it to his editors at the University of Nebraska Press, at least a year of intense revisions followed. He examined a broad range of sources and left few topics unexamined. Every word, every characterization, and every generalization in the book displays crisp thinking and precise prose.

Second, the author revealed his powerful commitment to the citizens of the state through his willingness to critique important aspects of its culture and orientation. Unafraid of pointing out limitations and missteps to a population known for its prickliness and insecurity, Robinson treated North Dakota’s past in a fair-minded way. He used his status as a well-liked authority to bring an outside perspective to bear on the state’s trajectory. Robinson rejected simple boosterism and tried to explain why some aspects of the state’s history deserved celebration, while others did not. This not only ensured evenhandedness, but also earned him a great deal of respect from readers of every ilk.

Third, Robinson did his best to produce a usable past. He believed that “adequate knowledge of North Dakota’s” history provided “the best foundation for making public decisions which will determine its future.” This stemmed from his work in what we would today call public history. Besides teaching the state’s history to two generations of undergraduates and dozens of graduate students, Robinson’s public engagement included his syndicated radio series “Heroes of North Dakota” (1947-1949) and his acclaimed public lecture on the six themes of the state’s history in 1957.

Fourth, those six themes—“remoteness, dependence, economic disadvantage, agrarian radicalism, the ‘Too Much Mistake’ . . . and adaptation to environment”—are general enough to be difficult to refute, but specific enough to be recognizable.

To be sure, fifty years on, there is much one would change about the History of North Dakota. Historians today ask different questions of the past. Robinson’s characterization of the Nonpartisan League as socialist, for instance, reflects the Cold War moment he wrote in more than the reality on the ground. Few women grace its pages. The stories of Native peoples in twentieth-century North Dakota garner almost no attention. Attention to geography precludes stories of environmental degradation. These omissions—and many others—proved typical of histories written in the 1950s and 1960s.

Even so, the most significant problem with the book is its stature in the field. Alone among state histories produced in the mid-twentieth-century, History of North Dakota continues to be the standard reference. Robinson likely would have been stunned by this. No doubt he hoped his book would open up the field of North Dakota history, not limit it. Upon publication, one of his former students suggested that the History of North Dakota provided the foundation “from which study of the subsequent history of the state can begin.” At least two others have tried. They offered little more in the way of insight. Even today, historians tend to examine North Dakota’s history through Robinson’s lens.(1)

Yet instead of wondering what Robinson would make of the conservative turn in the 1970s, the 1980s farm crisis, the rapid growth of the state’s cities—at rural North Dakota’s expense—in the 1990s, and the oil boom (and bust) in the 2000s, historians need to look at the entirety of the state’s past anew. No one will ever write a book like the History of North Dakota again. Nor should they.

We need new interpretations of North Dakota’s past, interpretations that emulate Robinson’s erudition and commitment to “view North Dakota’s history in broad perspective” yet move beyond his six themes. Only by escaping from his long shadow will historians of the state honor his legacy. They must give North Dakotans what Robinson showed scholars the people of the state deserve—a new vision of their past that helps them navigate a complicated future.

Note

(1) Robert P. Wilkins and Wynona Hughette Wilkins, North Dakota: A Bicentennial History (New York: Norton, 1977) largely reiterates and amplifies Robinson’s claims, albeit in a more concise (and perhaps negative) form. Norman K. Risjord’s Dakota: Story of the Northern Plains (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2012), is riddled with basic errors and problematic assumptions.

Works Cited

Athearn, Robert G. Review of History of North Dakota by Elwyn B. Robinson, Arizona and the West 9.1 (Spring 1967): 86-87.

Fite, Gilbert C. “Essays on Western History in Honor of Elwyn B. Robinson,” Journal of American History 58.1 (June 1971): 195.

Larsen, Arthur J. Review of History of North Dakota by Elwyn B. Robinson. American Historical Review. 72.3 (April 1967): 1089-1090.

Robinson, Elwyn B. History of North Dakota. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. viii.

Schlebecker, John T. Review of History of North Dakota by Elwyn B. Robinson. Journal of Economic History 27, no. 3 (September 1967): 420.

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Michael J. Lansing is associate professor of history at Augsburg College and the author of Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2015). 

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

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