Archive for the ‘Elwyn Robinson’s Autobiography’ Category

The Merrifield Move

It’s finally happening.  After all the bluster and delays, the department is finally moving from its long-held place in Merrifield Hall to O’Kelly Hall.  As my colleagues are slowly being moved out of their offices, I’ve been able to sneak in and get some final pictures of the offices before they are lost to us forever (how’s that for dramatic?).

It will also give me a chance to add some little odds and ends that I had meant to include in other posts about Merrifield, but had not for various reasons.

First, this note greeted me on my return from Europe:


As the days past the “faculty still in Merrifield” became less and less true as they moved, one by one.

One of the great offices on campus has been until recently occupied by Han Broedel our Early Modernist.  It has a bathroom, for one thing:

It is also, almost certainly, Orin G. Libby’s former office from the day that Merrifield opened in 1928 until his retirement in 1944.  I am basing this idea, Pausanias like, on a passage from Elwyn B. Robinson’s autobiography:

“Dr. Libby had two rooms for his office, side by side at Merrifield #221 and #223, with a door connecting them. The first was larger than the other with a toilet, important to me [Elywn B. Robinson] because of the frequent, urgent bowel movements [Robinson had serious problems with his digestive track nearly his entire adult life. ed.]. It had Dr. Libby’s desk, a worktable, and a lot of bookcases. The other room, #223, had bookshelves to the ceiling and a worktable. Its door to the hallway was not used. From the books on the shelves, I believed it was a workroom connected with Dr. Libby’s editorship of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly. That publication of the State Historical Society was suspended for lack of funds in the Thirties, so the room was not much used. A folding army cot was set up there, and I would lie down and rest between classes.”

The door linking the two offices was not used in recent times, but was still there, to the left of the tall bookshelf:

Dr. Iseminger, the most outspoken opponent of the move from Merrifield, has vacated his office.  He had been in his office since the mid-1960s.  His office was famous for a number of reasons.  First, he still pounds out missives on an old manual typewriter, so the office had a particular sound.  He also had a massive philodendron plant that crept around the top of the overflowing bookshelves.

Finally, the office preserved some of the original flooring in Merrifield Hall. The local rumor is that this was the surplus battleship decking installed as cost cutting measure (and perhaps salvaged from the 15 odd battleships scrapped at the end of World War I in accordance with the Washington Treaty including, ironically, the USS North Dakota (which wasn’t officially scrapped until 1931)).  Whether the floors were actually old battleship decking or not is relatively unimportant.  They are funky:

The move from Merrifield Hall is pretty sad.  The building was tied to the Department of History since its inception.  Moreover, by moving our department we will be separated from the departments most closely allied with the study of the past: English, Philosophy and Religion, and Languages.  But we’ve been promised a better future in our new digs in O’Kelly Hall including upgraded office space, better classrooms, and easier access to the Memorial Union food court. 


It’s still hard not to think that this isn’t an end of an era.  For more of my tribute to Merrifield Hall see: Check out Room 215, Room 217, Room 209Room 300, the hallways of Merrifield, and even Merrifield Graffiti.


Charles Morley, Ohio State, and the University of North Dakota

When Charles Morley died in 2005, his status was secure as one of the leading figures in the study of Eastern Europe and Poland.  The most recent issue of Making History at the Ohio State University, the newsletter of the Department of History at Ohio State, reported that his widow has donated Prof. Morley’s significant collection of books on Eastern Europe to Ohio State.  Morley did his undergraduate work at Ohio State before going on to receive his Ph.D. from Wisconsin.

Morley is interesting to me on this blog because he taught at the University of North Dakota from around 1939 to, perhaps, 1942.  From 1943-1944 he served alongside many well-known scholars in the Office of Strategic Services.

At UND, he was part of a group of scholars who taught for a year or so in the department of history in the 1930s including Reginald Lovell, Clarence Matterson, John Pritchett Charles Centner.  Matterson would serve as Department Head at Iowa State University, Centner would publish numerous works on European/South American relations, Lovell published an important work on economic imperialism in South Africa.

Elwyn B. Robinson provides, in his customary way, a brief description of Morley during his time at UND:

“An unmarried young man of Polish origins from Cleveland, Morley was teaching in the European History Department.  I do not remember how long he was at the university, but I know he was later on the history faculty of Ohio State University.  That was a typical experience.  Generally faculty members who stayed only a few years at the University of North Dakota moved on to an institution of greater prestige.  North Dakota was a place where young men of good quality gained valuable experience or seasoning.  That in a sense was a recommendation for the quality of the faculty of the university.  In our early years at the university I was struck by the rapid turnover among the younger members of the faculty and their expectation of not staying long.  I used to say to Eva that so-and-so was “only camping,” meaning they would soon move on.”

History at the University of North Dakota

February 25, 2009 Leave a comment

I have finally produced a “final” copy of my pamphlet History at the University of North Dakota 1885-1970.  Those of you who read this blog regularly have read bits and pieces of this history over the past few year and know that my interest in the history of our department and the university more generally will persist.  Various observations on the history of history at the University of North Dakota appear here and here.

I include here part of the introduction:   

     The plan for each department to write a departmental history first emerged in conjunction with the Centennial Celebration at the University of North Dakota.  The result was a series of departmental histories which ranged widely in quality and length.  The Department of History, however, did not produce a formal history at that time.  It may have been that the production of a volume celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the University occupied their collective efforts.   While work began on such a publication, it never advanced beyond a rather ramshackle document without any author listed and entitled: “A Centennial Newsletter.”   When President Charles Kupchella requested that departments and divisions bring their histories up to date in the run-up to the 125th Anniversary of the founding of the University, I undertook to write a basic history of the department from the first historian on campus until today.  I quickly decided, however, that the task of writing the entire history of the department in a way that would do justice to the methods of our discipline was simply not possible in the time allowed.  Moreover, the material for the most recent history continues in regular use by the department’s officers and, consequently, has not been committed to the University Archives.  In other cases, the faculty did not preserve documents, which at the time appeared to be inconsequently.  Finally, delving into the recent past always runs to risk of re-awakening tensions between members of the department, and it seemed an unwise course for a junior, untenured faculty member.  Consequently, I chose to end my history around 1970.  The significant changes that took place in the department during the 1960s carried the department through the following decade.

     This document follows in the tradition of institutional history.  This largely derives from the reality that I am not an expert on history of the University, the state, or the developments within academia or the discipline over the course of the 20th century.  Numerous names, events, and historical developments sent me scrambling for my copy of Robinson’s, History of North Dakota,  L. Veysey’s, The Emergence of the American University,  P. Novick’s,  That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession,  and above all, L. Geiger’s History of the University of the Northern Plains.   The shadow of this last work, a fine example of institutional history, looms large behind these three chapters. 

     All things being equal, I would have liked to capture more of the experience of studying at the University during the first half of the 20th century.  At the same time, I have also neglected to follow the example of the best kind of modern history which captures the personalities of the main characters in the narrative; for long stretches this history reads like the worst kind of prosopography, where individuals fade away behind an endless litany of credentials, accomplishments, and dissertation advisors. 

The complete text can be downloaded here.  It text ends around 1970 without a conclusion.  I hope that I can pick it up again in a few years and bring it closer to today.  My ongoing work on Elwyn B. Robinson‘s Memoirs (or Autobiography) will undoubtedly add to this work as well.

Elwyn Robinson in the Grand Forks Herald

November 18, 2008 Leave a comment

It didn’t take much prompting for Mike Jacobs, the editor of the Grand Forks Hearald, to offer a few words on the 50th Anniversary of Elwyn B. Robinson’s “Themes of North Dakota History” speech.  In his usual plain-spoken style, Jacobs contrasted the experience of watching the Space Shuttle Endeavor (which may or may not have carried a satellite built by the University of North Dakota into space) blast off and his father’s experiences living in the state 100 years ago.  This kind of reflection seems common here in North Dakota.  In fact, my experience has been that North Dakotans think more about their varied pasts than any place where I have lived.  This interest in the past of the state (always tied in some ways to the future) has occasionally been shared by the national media. National Geographic’s article on the abandoned landscape of North Dakota, for example, received some attention.  Closer to home, the recent opposition surrounding the move of the Department of History from Merrifield Hall has been articulated at least in part is an affront to the history of the Department and the University (see here, here, here, here).  Knee-jerk appeals to history can be depressing and pointless.  Jacobs avoid this in the final paragraphs of his editorial where he critiques Robinson’s six themes going forward:

“Here is a vivid challenge to Robinson’s themes. The remoteness that he identified, and that North Dakotans of my generation grew up with, has largely vanished, though distance remains a major challenge.

North Dakota is no longer so dependent as it was. The economy is more diverse, and hence more stable. Still, the vagaries of weather and world markets exert an enormous influence.

Similarly, the state’s position has shifted away from economic disadvantage, and that has moderated the radicalism that so characterized the political history of the state during most of my father’s life.

The remaining themes are paired. North Dakotans built too many of almost everything, and we’ve been paring back ever since.

Adjustment meant the loss of thousands of farms and businesses and hundreds of towns and villages. These adjustments took thousands of citizens with them.

But history has made a turn. The 20th century was a time of constant challenge and frequent failure, as Robinson saw, but the new century has brought unprecedented opportunity.

Nothing demonstrates that so clearly, for me, as Friday’s launch.

Robinson’s themes help us to understand the past, and they help to define the present.

But they don’t determine the future. They are admonitions, not axioms, and it was clear Friday that North Dakota will live with them, and not by them.”

It’s nice to see the history of the department invoked in a positive way.

Themes of North Dakota History: Looking Back Over 50 Years

November 6, 2008 Leave a comment

50 years ago today the University of North Dakota celebrated its 75th Anniversary with an elaborate Convocation.  The President of the University, George Startcher, invited Elwyn B. Robinson to give the Convocation Address that day.  He delivered a paper entitled “Themes of North Dakota History”, and this paper was destined to become one of the most influential statement on the history of the state.  The Themes that Robinson identified echoed through his major work, The History of North Dakota, and continue to appear even today in the way in which the public, the media, and scholars think about the development of the state over time.

A link to a version of this speech is here.  I’ve also included an excerpt from Robinson’s Autobiography that places this important text is a more personal context.

“In 1957 or early in 1958, I believe, the committee planning the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Convocation to celebrate the university’s seventy-fifth birthday, invited me to give an address at the convocation in November 1958.  Dr. Christopher Hamre,  dean of the Graduate School, and Dr. William Koenher, then chairman of the Department of Economics, were on the committee. They suggested my topic, “The Themes of North Dakota History”.  Because of the early invitation, I had a long time to think about the topic.  The invitation was one of the great good fortunes of my life because it made me think for a long time about the meaning of North Dakota history.  As a result I worked out six themes that ran through the state’s history.  I talked a great deal with Robert P. Wilkins about the themes as I was working on my essay.  He may or probably did suggest some of the ideas as we talked as well as confirming my ideas.    I wanted to give names to the six themes.  The most happy invention was the name the “Too-Much Mistake” for the persistent tendency to over expand.  I read my essay on the evening of November 6 in the Field House to a great concourse of people.  Before Robert Wilkins introduced me there was special music, “The Towering Vision”, composed for the anniversary.  That evening was the first event of the three-day convocation with many leaders in higher education from throughout the nation.  I believe that there were several university presidents.  I remember especially the president of Columbia University. 

    For a month or so before the event, I was concerned that I should not be understood.  Very frequently speakers in the Field House were not heard very clearly.    I talked to John Penn of the Speech Department and possibly to Myron Curry, seeking ways of avoiding the common problem.  They told me that the problem arose from the fact that the speaker did not keep his mouth close to the microphone, but would sometimes turn away.  So as I read my essay I took great pains to keep close to the microphone and to enunciate very clearly.  I expect that it took me forty-five minutes to an hour to read my essay.

    I worked hard on it.  On October 2 I wrote to my mother that I was busy with it.  On November 14 I wrote her that my lecture had gone extremely well – “a triumph of the first magnitude”.  The audience had given me prolonged applause, and a great many people came to the platform to congratulate me.  Later, some people told me that my address was the best one at the convocation.  Dean Theodore Harwood said that it was a “classic”.  President Starcher sent me “a letter of warm praise”.  A reporter for the Fargo Forum, Roy Johnson, called it “a great document”.  The comments at the time I read the essay and later showed that many people believed that my themes were true and significant ones, that I had illuminated the history of the state.  My interpretation has become the accepted interpretation of North Dakota history.  The Forum  for November 16 carried a report on my essay and an editorial that day said that it “should be required for every resident of North Dakota”.  The editorial continued:

“Dr. Robinson’s observations about the ‘typical’ North Dakotan make interesting reading but there is far deeper significance in his ‘six great themes’ which he says have been the primary influences on the state.
    “Of particular import is his conclusion that one of the main influences upon our economy has been what he calls the ‘too much mistake’ of our pioneers.  He outlines these as too many farms, railroads, roads, towns, banks, schools, churches, and governmental institutions, ‘a supply that history has shown has been far beyond the ability of the state to maintain’ with its sparse population.
    “Accepting this premise requires a different approach to the changes that are taking place in North Dakota today.  If Dr. Robinson’s conclusions are correct, the declining numbers of farmers mean only that steps are being taken to correct an original mistake. 
    “Likewise, efforts of railroads to abandon uneconomical facilities are only an attempt to adjust to changing times.  Extended branch line trackage once was necessary when grain was hauled by team and wagon, when passenger trains were the only fast means of travel, but trucks, passenger cars, and highways have made much of the trackage and other facilities obsolete.
    “Dr. Robinson cites many thought-provoking arguments to prove his point, and he offers many startling statistics such as “in 1958 government work on all levels is the second largest class of non-agricultural employment, standing just behind retail.”
    “Full judgment of Dr. Robinson’s research and conclusions must await publication of his book, but even the brief report in today’s edition heralds his work as an important contribution to North Dakota history.
    “Whether North Dakotans today will profit from the study of the past remains for future historians to record, but at the very least Dr. Robinson should inspire searching thinking in us all.”

   On November 30 I wrote to my mother that President Starcher wanted my essay published so that he could send copies to every member of the legislature.    I went to work on revision which was mostly a matter of putting in footnotes.  I had not had time for them before I read it to the convocation on November 6.  I wrote to Russell Reid, superintendent of the State Historical Society and editor of its quarterly North Dakota History about its publication.  As I remember his reply, he was critical of my interpretation of North Dakota history and hesitant about publishing it.”

In the end, North Dakota History did publish a version of the speech appeared in the Winter 1959 volume of the journal.  It was republished in the Centennial Anthology of the North Dakota History which can be downloaded for free here.

More Merrifield Memories

September 30, 2008 Leave a comment

Elwyn B. Robinson carried out much of his life work in Merrifield Hall.  In fact, if the Department of History has to move, one of the greatest disappointments will be the separation from the space consecrated by the work of our predecessors in the Department.

Robinson’s first memories are worth quoting:

“While we were getting settled in our apartment, we were also exploring the campus of the university.  The lawns, large trees, and shrubbery were attractive in the late summer, and with no classes there were few people about.  We gradually came to identify the buildings. My office was in the basement of Merrifield Hall, the newest and largest building on the campus.  It had been completed in about 1928 [actually it was completed in 1929 ed.] and housed the College of Science, Literature and Arts, headed by Dean William Bek, a professor of German.  Just to the south of Merrifield Hall was Old Main, the first building of the university.  In it were the administrative offices – the business office, the president, the registrar, the extension division, buildings and grounds, and the stenographic bureau.”

The rooms Robinson and Libby used in Merrifield are more or less the same as we use today: “The American history classes then met in Rooms 217 and 215 of Merrifield Hall.  Room 217 had 66 seats and Room 215 had 40.  Libby’s classes all met in room 215.”

Robinson experienced sometimes prolonged periods of ill health and the proximity (or as our administrators on campus here say “adjacency”) of classes to the Department’s offices benefited him greatly:

“I missed teaching all of January, the rest of semester, but went back with the start of the second semester in February.  I was still very weak, and since my office was in the basement and my classes on the second floor of Merrifield Hall, arrangements were made so that I did not go back to the basement after my first class.  Dr. Libby had two rooms for his office, side by side at Merrifield #221 and #223, with a door connecting them… It had Dr. Libby’s desk, a worktable, and a lot of bookcases.  The other room, #223, had bookshelves to the ceiling and a worktable.  Its door to the hallway was not used.  From the books on the shelves, I believed it was a workroom connected with Dr. Libby’s editorship of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly.  That publication of the State Historical Society was suspended for lack of funds in the Thirties, so the room was not much used.  A folding army cot was set up there, and I would lie down and rest between classes.”

In fact, the adjacency of the offices of History and those of Sociology, particularly the office of John Gillette, reinforced the strong ties between those two department.  Libby and Gillette served on a number of dissertation committees together and produced some of the most successful early Ph.D.s from the University.  The most famous of these, George R. Davies, completed the first Ph.D. from the University, albeit in 1914 — over a decade before Merrifield Hall was built.

Stephen Robinson in the window of Merrifield Hall where the Department of History is located on the campus of UND.
Photo by Elwyn Robinson

Orin G. Libby and Elwyn Robinson

September 24, 2008 Leave a comment

I have been editing chapter six of Elwyn Robinon’s autobiography.  This chapter describes his arrival in Grand Forks and first years at the University of North Dakota. Robinson works hard to bring to life many of the important figures in the history of the University and the Department of History.  None of these figures is more important than Orin G. Libby, the first professional historian at the University.

While the tendency has been to eulogized Libby as the unwavering and clear-eyes proponent of all things right, Robinson provides a more balanced picture on Libby’s scholarship, teaching, and character.

Robinson, of course, brought to fruiting Libby’s work on the history of the state.  Robinson traced some awareness of this back to his first days in Grand Forks:

“On the first Sunday we were in Grand Forks, Dr. and Mrs. Libby had us for dinner at their home on South 6th Street… Soon after joining the faculty of the University of North Dakota in 1902 (at age 38), [Libby] revived the defunct State Historical Society and served as its secretary and editor until October 1944, shortly before retirement.  His work with the Society was an invaluable contribution to the people of North Dakota and made him a widely known and respected person in the state.  He was a person of very considerable force of character, a strong personality.  That day Mrs. Libby told us that he was going to write a history of North Dakota.”

He saw in Libby’s sometimes stern demeanor an underlying kindness:

“Dr. Libby, of course, played a very important role in my life during my early years at the university.  During the school year I saw him almost daily except for the weekends. By the end of the 1938-39 school year, Dr. Libby was seventy-five and still energetic and vigorous, a strong and alert, white-haired individual.  A courteous, kindly man, he tended to be formal and not given to any personal confidences.  He addressed his close personal friends with their titles, thus the head of the sociology department whose office had been across the hall from Libby’s for years was not “John” but “Dr. Gillette.”  I believe he called me “Mr.” or “Dr.” and Felix the other young member of his department the same way.  He was not in the least given to gossip.  And he was a stern, forbidding figure to his students.  In later years, a returning alumnae would tell me that she had been afraid of him”

Robinson’s respect for Libby and his standing in the community and university did not, however, extend to his teaching:

     Dr. Libby wanted Felix [Vondracek] and me to use a question-and-answer method in our survey sections.  He believed that if the students had to recite, they would study the text more diligently.  Perhaps he was right, but it made for dull, uninteresting classes.
    The text in the survey, Dr. Libby’s choice, was a thick book by John Spencer Basset, A Short History of the United States.  Bassett, a North Carolinian who had a teaching career at Smith College, had been a distinguished scholar.  He had died in 1928, age 61, after writing a fine biography of Andrew Jackson and a volume in the American Nation series and editing many important historical documents for publication.  I believe his Short History, originally published about 1913 [actually in 1921 ed.], was for a time the leading college text for American survey course, but in 1935 was hopelessly out of date even though chapters had been added on the history of the years since its original publication….

There was more wrong with the survey as it was taught at the University of North Dakota than an out-dated text and a recitation method more suited to high school.  There was no reserve reading program to introduce the students to a variety of source and secondary materials.  At [Western] Reserve [University] in the survey, students were assigned excerpts in American History As Told by Contemporaries edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, a star of the Harvard history faculty, in American History as Seen by British Travelers, edited by the famous Allan Nevins, and in a large volume of secondary accounts of economic developments edited by Felix Flügel and Harold U. Faulkner, the well-known economic historian [Readings in the economic and social history of the United States – ed.].  These were great materials, but they were ignored at the University of North Dakota.  Moreover, no effort was being made to introduce the students to a rich body of historical biographies and the writings on particular subject.  It was a sad state of affairs.”

Such balanced and perspective views are typical of Robinson’s autobiography (and many would say his scholarship).