The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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David Robinson Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

September 30, 2015


David Miller Robinson was born in 1947 in Odessa, Texas. A baseball fan growing up, Robinson became interested in speech and debate while at Odessa High School, an experience that instilled in him a love of language and the written word. After a year at Odessa Junior College, Robinson transferred to the University of Texas at Austin in 1967. Originally intending to pursue a career in law, Robinson made the switch to English literature after taking classes from a collection of influential professors. He studied speech and philosophy as well, and graduated from Texas in 1970.

After completing his bachelor's degree, Robinson moved on to Harvard Divinity School, studying theology and church history. He completed his master of theological studies degree in 1972, and then entered the English graduate program at the University of Wisconsin - Madison that fall. He completed his master of arts degree in 1973 and his Ph.D. in 1976, focusing on the work of Edgar Allen Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and writing a thesis titled "The Context and Development of Emerson's Philosophy."

Robinson began his long association with Oregon State University when he accepted a position as assistant professor of English in fall 1976. At the time, the English department was going through a major growth and transition period, hiring several new faculty and emphasizing research as a fundamental component of the department's mission. In 1979, Robinson received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to support his work on the history of American Transcendentalism and to develop courses for both the English department and the OSU Humanities Development Program. A year later, in 1980, he became the director of OSU's American Studies Program, an interdisciplinary major that focused on the history, culture, institutions, and values of the United States.

Robinson published his first book, Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer, in 1982. The following year, he received the Faculty Excellence Award for Teaching, and he spent the 1984-85 academic year as a Fulbright Guest Professor at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

Robinson's second book, The Unitarians and the Universalists, was published in 1985. Two years later, he received a research fellowship from the OSU Center for the Humanities as well as a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a summer seminar series for secondary teachers studying the American Transcendentalists. This series was led by Robinson and hosted at OSU, and it continued for nine years.

In 1991, Robinson was named the first Oregon Professor of English, which was also the first endowed professorship to be housed in OSU's College of Liberal Arts. Robinson published another book in 1993, Emerson and the Conduct of Life, was named an OSU Distinguished Professor in 1994, and received the Master Teacher designation three years later. He was elected president of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society in 1998 and also published World of Relations: The Achievement of Peter Taylor that year.

In 2001, Robinson was named director of Oregon State's Center for the Humanities, an interdisciplinary research institute intended to improve the vitality and quality of humanities teaching and scholarship at OSU. Over the next three years, Robinson wrote or edited three more books about Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, including the acclaimed Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism, published in 2004. In 2005 he was given the Distinguished Achievement Award by the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, and he published two more books near the end of the decade, including 2008's At Home and Abroad: The Transcendental Landscapes of Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892). Up to and following his retirement from OSU at the end of 2016, Robinson has pursued a variety of research interests including further exploration of American Transcendentalist authors as well as the early history of American Unitarianism, and the interplay between literature and environmental studies.