Occupying Elwyn: Contemporary Metaphors to Live By

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.

Sheryl ODonnell

Elwyn B. Robinson’s famous themes of North Dakota history—remoteness, dependence, radicalism, economic dependence, the Too-Much Mistake, and adjustment—are much like psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s themes of death and dying. Both lists offer an implicit chronology of grief and loss: a secret narrative demanding ultimate resignation to forces beyond our control. Short version of both themes: deny it, get angry, try to bargain, get depressed, get adjusted. “Life is Hard and Then We Die,” read the wooden sign over the desk of NDQ editor and Hemingway scholar Robert W. Lewis. The ironies of such a sign escaped most readers, They usually tried to “cheer Bob up,” much to his wordless delight.

North Dakota writers and artists have readily understood the grim hilarity of human greed and narcissism in the face of a blizzard or plague of grasshoppers, and their works have pleased readers all over the world: O. E. Rølvaag, Louise Erdrich, Thomas McGrath, Lois Phillips Hudson, Robert Kroetch, Dale Jacobson, Denise Lajimodiere, Gretel Erlich, and Meridel LeSueur, to name a few. McGrath’s claim that North Dakota is everywhere appears in countless essays and poems bent on making local conditions of human mortality global.(1)

As far as I know, none of these writers are aware of Robinson’s autobiographical writings or those of his wife, Eva. Their letters, dairies, financial records, and family papers make careful, daily accounts of failed efforts and firm resolutions to keep at it as they both, in their own ways and often “alone together,” link private lives to public good. Together, they consciously created a life of study and teaching, research and debate, gardening and music and photography, cooking and cleaning, and ironing and raising children on the grounds of the University of North Dakota which served as a hub for their ever-expanding circles of community life.

Elwyn, ashamed of his family and chronically ill, courted the daughter of a relatively famous Presbyterian poet, musician, and minister whom he consciously sought out. And he never got over the wondrous fact that she married him after he graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. Eva, a

French and mathematics major from the Women’s College of Western Reserve, loved pretty clothes and dancing and classical literature. They were engaged for five and a half years, camping in unheated pantries and store rooms in their parents’ houses. “Sometimes it seemed as though I could never get my Ph.D., never get a college teaching job, and never get married,” Elwyn wrote of his wife. But an offer came through in 1935, from the University of North Dakota. “Delighted, we looked up North Dakota in the Britannica” (3).

They were married in Cleveland at 8 a.m. on September 2, 1935, and by 10 a.m. were on the Greyhound Bus to North Dakota. Eva rented a typewriter, learned how to type and grade papers and proofread, enjoyed concerts and plays and dozens of club meetings, where she often surprised and amused the company with her imitation of a “naughty little girl in Sunday school,” or a wry quip about guest lecturer Tyrone Guthrie. Her diaries reflect much of the emotional life of the family, especially what would be scandalous for Elwyn to include (son Steven’s divorce, their opposition to the Vietnam war), though he hints at his constant anxiety, fearfulness, calculating, and distrusting nature, as well as his sexual squeamishness which he consciously tried to overcome. Eva’s warmth and spontaneity helped him immensely. She records his gifts to her: a cherry red slip, a heart-shaped box of Valentine candy, two records for dancing. Chronic rheumatoid arthritis didn’t keep her from typing the 1000-page manuscript which became History of North Dakota in 1966, but it gradually drove her from the garden and her multitude of clubs and concerts (Robinson, Papers).

The radio broadcasts, visits to churches and bookstores and schools, teachers’ conventions, libraries, and town halls recorded in Eva’s diaries document their concerted efforts to publicize and market the History of North Dakota to citizens all over the state. Farmers and shop girls, teachers and pharmacists, bankers and mechanics gathered at Elwyn’s lectures and autograph parties. In the first year of its publication, Eva writes, over 4,500 copies of the History of North Dakota had been sold. The geography of the state had been shaped to collectively imagine the famous six themes. Artists and writers still celebrate the Big Questions these themes invite: what is the purpose of human suffering? How are we to treat each other? What role does education play in a democracy? What is the good life?

An inheritor of these wide-sweeping themes is Kathleen Norris, whose book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, shifts Robinson’s narrative of barren landscape pushed beyond its limits and its people to humiliating colonization. She includes these desolating experiences, writing of her life as a small-town resident, a visiting poet in the schools, a Presbyterian pastor, a Benedictine oblate in a monastery. Telling the truth in a small town is almost impossible, even as out-migration and depopulation make it easy to use the land as a dumping ground for nuclear waste, garbage, and missile installations. North Dakotans entertain entirely contradictory notions of themselves: they have high self-regard with hidden feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem, a perfect description of Elwyn Robinson’s self-reflections which link the North Dakota themes to his own notions of self.

Norris explains what happens when North Dakotans resist change: “It is the community that suffers when it refuses to validate any outside standards and won’t allow even the legitimate exercises of authority by the professionals it hired” (Dakota).

Norris compares this stunted reaction to fourth-century Desert Mystics, who defined sin as “refusal to grow.” In her latest book Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (2015), she returns to this theme, explaining that acedia is a medieval term for the cardinal sin of sloth. A refusal to recognize others. A refusal to care. An indifference which chokes off possibility for communal living or collective action on behalf of mutual welfare and civic life.

Another contemporary example of imaginative response to Robinson’s six themes of North Dakota history is the work of geographers Deborah E. and Frank J. Popper, whose article, “The Buffalo Commons as Regional Metaphor and Geographic Method” (1987), stunned and offended an entire region as it sought to understand and create an alternative future for the Great Plains. The Poppers explained the method they used in language which recalls the work of Elwyn and Eva Robinson, who sought, often vainly, to use common language for public understanding:

Many contemporary geographic techniques—for instance, GIS, deconstruction, or statistical inference—frequently distance the discipline from important lay regional audiences. Thus we urge geographers to make more use of regional metaphor. The terms of the metaphor must connect with the region, but at the same time it has to be open-ended, multifaceted, ambiguous. To show how regional metaphor can work, our argument first draws on our participant-observer experience in devising the Buffalo Commons metaphor for the Great Plains. We then suggest the implications of the metaphor for other U.S. regions and for the practice of geography. (Dreiling 1)

The Poppers were reviled, attacked, satirized, and loudly denounced, but they kept returning to North Dakota over the 20 years since their first suggestions for what might be done to reclaim the Great Plains to what is now called a “sustainable” condition. They good-naturedly viewed a community play and parade portraying them as clueless East-Coast Snobs. They showed up for hotdish casserole suppers and small-town town halls to discuss their notions of sustainable agriculture and farmers’ markets, happy to discuss the accuracy of what Robinson called the “Too Much Mistake” of industrial agriculture and wasteful irrigation and monocultural planting of  wheat, sugarbeets, corn, and alfalfa, and the beef feed lots, hog warehouses, and turkey factories.

“The only thing we got wrong was that it was going to be primarily a federal project,” said Frank Popper.

We were wrong, but we saw the Buffalo Commons as a sort of environmental end state to which the Plains were moving and that it would be a place where traditional agriculture would become more environmental, where ecotourism would become more important, and where the land would be treated more lightly, more gingerly, than in the past. Settlement on the Plains would exist in an altered form. The word sustainable has been overused but it applies. (Drilling).(2)

The latest boom and bust cycle in North Dakota involves another extractive industry which has ravaged the landscape and poisoned pastures and people, in a Big Oil frenzy that has run its course for a while.

Will we take its measure and ask Big Questions? The Heritage Center in Bismarck has just dismantled the travelling Smithsonian exhibit on Green Revolution, at the request of the oil industry (Grand Forks Herald, 1). Public schools in North Dakota are required to teach what is called the “Berg Curriculum,” which forbids any information about the effects of fracking or questions of human activity (burn-offs of natural gas) on climate change (“Content”). (3)

How can we repair connections between higher education and the public good, which the Robinsons, Kathleen Norris, and the Poppers worked so hard to create? We live here. We should not refuse to grow in this place.


(1) See Heidi Czerweic, ed. North Dakota is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. Fargo: North Dakota State UP, 2015.

(2) See also “A Buffalo Commons Bibliography, High Country News. http://www. hcn.org/issues/194/10204/print_view

(3) For additional work on this topic see Jennifer Heth, “Revisiting Elwyn’s History of North Dakota: How the State History Created a Community.” James A. Rawley Graduate Conference in the Humanities, Lincoln, Nebraska, Digital Commons @University of Nebraska, 2008.

Works Cited

“Content Curriculum-Backed Oil Groups Does Not Address Climate Change, Inforum.” Grand Forks Herald, 2 Nov. 2014.

Dreiling, Larry. “Geographers Revisit Buffalo Commons,” High Plains Journal, 10 Jan 2011, quoting Deborah E. Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Buffalo Commons as Regional Metaphor and Geographic Method,” [accepted by Geographic Review], Great Plains Restoration Council, http://gprc.org/research/buffalo-commons-as-regional-metaphor-and-geographic-method.

Guerin, Emily. “Emails Show Museum Closed Green Energy Exhibit after Complaints from Fossil Fuel Industry.” Grand Forks Herald. 11 Apr. 2016.

Norris, Kathleen. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1991.

—. Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. New York: Riverhead, 2015.

Robinson, Elwyn B. Remembrances of Eva Foster Robinson, 1903-1984. Grand Forks: Century Creations, 1984.

—. Papers. Collection #198, Series 2, Robinson Family, Sub Series 3, Eva Robinson, Box 12, folders 12 and 13, Box 13, folders 1-6, Box 14, Chester Fritz Library, U of North Dakota, Grand Forks.


Sheryl O’Donnell teaches English at the University of North Dakota. Her interest in Elwyn B. Robinson began in 1979 when she took a class from Dan Rylance and read History of North Dakota.

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