Elwyn Robinson's Six Themes

Elwyn Robinson's Six Themes

The material on this page comes from an address delivered by Dr. Robinson at the University of North Dakota in 1958, published in North Dakota History in 1959, and reprinted in The Centennial Anthology of North Dakota History (Bismarck: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1996). Robinson's address laid out six interpretive themes that he would develop in his classic History of North Dakota, which was first published in 1964 and was republished, by the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies, in 1995.

Robinson's six themes derived both from his study of North Dakota history and from his familiarity with main currents of Western American historiography. While his interpretations of the state's past have been criticized by some, they have been adopted as standard wisdom by most. Indeed, they are good lenses for viewing the history not only of North Dakota but also of any other state or province in the North American plains.

Robinson's 6 Themes
#1: Remoteness"By remoteness I mean the influence of the great distance between North Dakota and the chief centers of population, industry, finance, culture, and political decision in the nation and in the Western World."
#2: Dependence"The word dependence stands for North Dakota's status as a colonial hinterland."
#3: Radicalism"Radicalism is a term for the struggle against that status [as a colonial hinterland]."
#4: Economic Disadvantage"The position of economic disadvantage refers both to the wide fluctuations in North Dakota's income and to the lower-than-average per capita income that North Dakota as an agricultural state has generally received in good times and bad alike."
#5: The Too-Much Mistake"The Too-Much Mistake is my name for too many farms, too many miles of railroads and roads, too many towns, banks, schools, colleges, churches, and governmental institutions . . . beyond the ability of the state to maintain."
#6: Adjustment to the Imperatives of a Cool, Subhumid Grassland"Adjustment means both the painful cutting back of the oversupply of the Too-Much Mistake and the slow forging of more suitable ways of living in a subhumid grassland."

Images of a Scholar and Teacher

A visit to the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, reminded me how influential Elwyn Robinson was in the affairs, academic and public, of North Dakota. Many editors, scholars, attorneys, business people--people from all walks of life--have told me of studying North Dakota History with Robinson. It is particularly notable that Robinson wrought such memorable influence mainly by being a dedicated teacher. He did not write much, at least by the standards of the subsequent generation of scholars, although what he did publish was significant.

Steve Axtman was kind enough to reproduce for me a couple of images of Robinson from the collections. Credit both of these, with thanks, to the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, UND.

As a graduate student at Case Western University

The master teacher in Grand Forks (HIST 431 students: Note the key word Robinson has inscribed on the blackboard!)