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James C. Malin: An Appreciation

by Robert W. Johanssen

Winter 1972 (Vol. 38, No. 4), pages 457 to 466
Transcribed by John K. Matthews; digitized with
permission of the Kansas State Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets are links to footnotes for this text.

Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 1972The 1972 conference of the Western History Association meeting in New Haven, Conn., on October 12 featured a session entitled "Historiography of James C. Malin." Under the chairmanship of Merle W. Wells, director of the Idaho Historical Society of Boise, papers were presented on Professor Malin and the significance of his work by Gould P. Colman of Cornell University, Ithaca, N. Y., Thomas LeDuc of Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, and Robert W. Johannsen of the University of Illinois, Urbana.

The latter's paper as here published is representative of the tone of the session and reflects the esteem in which Kansas' James C. Malin is regarded in the scholarly world.

Professor Malin, who lives in Lawrence, has long been associated with the history department of the University of Kansas, where he is now Professor Emeritus, and with the Kansas State Historical Society as a director, past president, and associate editor of the Kansas Historical Quarterly.

PROF. ROBERT WALTER JOHANNSEN, a native of Portland, Ore., received his M. A. and Ph. D. degrees from the University of Washington, Seattle. He was an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas before becoming a member of the history department at the University of Illinois in 1959. He is author of several books and articles on American history.

JAMES C. MALIN is one of the most prolific, and yet one of the least known, historians in the United States today. A lifelong Kansan -- reared, educated, and employed throughout his professional career in the state -- he has developed a view of man's past that is as broad and wide and all-encompassing as the prairies and plains of his native region. He may be classified as a Kansas and Western historian but he is also much more. His work bears a universality of purpose and meaning that few historians have even tried to achieve. One is reminded of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant who, it has been said, never journeyed far beyond the environs of his native Koenigsberg. Malin has traveled beyond the borders of Kansas but such excursions have been few. His historical vision has always been sharply focused on the experience of his native area but Kansas to him has always been a microcosm of developments on a larger scale. Although fixed initially on the locality, his outlook has been expansive, transcending the limits of locality. Still he bears many of the traits that have come to be identified with Kansas and the Plains: a fierce independence and resentment against restraints on freedom, a healthy skepticism toward innovation, a deep loyalty to the local community and a defensive sensitivity to the image cast by his state in the rest of the nation. (That these traits should be identified with Kansas and Kansans would, I am sure, be dismissed by Malin as just another myth to which some historians have been captive.)

Malin's publications have been remarkably diverse in their subject matter, as well as unbelievably numerous. His first book was published over a half-century ago: his doctoral dissertation at the University of Kansas on Indian Policy and Westward Expansion. Since that time he has published almost a dozen and a half books over a wide range of subjects. Among them are an interpretation of recent American history (when recent American history ended in 1917), his monumental study of John Brown and the Legend of Fifty-Six, the story of the adaptation of wheat culture to the Plains environment in Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas, two volumes on the Grasslands in which he probes the relationship between ecology and history, the Nebraska Question, 1852-1854, and several collections of essays on historiography, urban history, reform, the cultural beginnings, and development of Plains America, the impact of technology on history and one book with the bizarre and descriptive title, Confounded Rot About Napoleon: Reflections Upon Science and Technology, Nationalism, World Depression of the 1890's and Afterwards. His latest book, a study of Kansas' poet-politician Eugene F. Ware, has just been announced. I have not seen all of these books for rarely is a complete collection of them found in one place. His works are not listed in Books in Print, except for the few that have been reprinted, although most of them must still be in print. That his work should not be readily available is indicative of the neglect which it has suffered, a neglect for which Malin himself must bear some of the responsibility. [1]

Malin's publications in such scholarly journals as Agricultural History, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Scientific Monthly, Nebraska History, Mid-America, and especially the Kansas Historical Quarterly, are too numerous to cite individually. Among them, however, are his critique of the Turner thesis, a history of dust storms on the Plains, studies of man's adaptation the Plains environment and of the ecology of the Great Plains (and, incidentally, Malin was studying ecology long before it became a magic word in our vocabulary), and articles on the history territorial Kansas, the early beginnings of theatre in Kansas, Kansas politics in the late 19th century (especially as they related to the emergence of farmer protest groups and the Populist party) and a valuable series on the writing of general histories of Kansas. One informative article, entitled "At What Age Did Men Become Reformers?", not only presented data on the ages of the men who sat in the Kansas state legislature during the 1880's and 1890's but also analyzed their whiskers. A table on the distribution of beards, mustaches, and clean-shaven faces among the legislators reveals something of Malin's ingenuity and thoroughness and is not as whimsical as some might think.

Two characteristics of Malin's work, among many others, might be mentioned here. First, Malin is an iconoclast, tearing down myths, legends, and the favorite ideas of scholars and tilting against historical fads and faddists. The legendary John Brown, the myths of "bleeding Kansas," of the "sod-house frontier" (Malin prefers to call it the "sawed-house frontier"), of Kansas' Puritan and New England origins, of the background and motivation of the Kansas-Nebraska act, of the belief that the Dust Bowl of the 1930's was caused by "the plow that broke the plains," have all been targets of Malin's often caustic pen. Among his villains are the subjectivists-relativists, the frame of reference historians who would bend history to fit contemporary needs and desires, New Deal propagandists and administrators who introduced a new totalitarianism to American life and publishers and editors who "brainwash" the reading public by controlling the kind of history that will or will not be printed. Although Malin insists that the study of history be impartial and objective and although he regards himself as treading the straight and narrow path of historical objectivity, one never remains in doubt for long where his feelings and opinions lie.

A second characteristic of his work, already hinted at, is his use of the study of local phenomena to suggest broader and more general patterns, meanings, and movements. Thus, a close study of Edwards county in western Kansas suggested shortcomings in Turner's hypothesis and resulted in his critique of the frontier thesis. The study of his own native grasslands suggested wider relationships between man and nature and led to observations on the importance of ecological concepts to the story of man's behavior in the past, his analysis of the thought and writings of a Wichita newspaper editor in the latter 19th century was followed by a study of elements of Swedenborg's philosophy and of Swedenborg's influence on Thomas Carlyle (with the conclusion that not all of Carlyle's ideas were as original as he claimed them to be) and his discussion of the writing of Kansas history produced reflections on trends not only in American historiography but also in the role of the states in the nation. Malin's study of the reorientation of Kansas as railroads replaced water transportation in the Mississippi-Missouri valley inspired larger studies of the significance of technological development, and particularly the advent of steam power, to 19th century American history. This is at best only a sampling but it is sufficient, perhaps, to suggest one characteristic of Malin's methodology.

Some hint of Malin's view of history may be derived from the foregoing summary. He scornfully rejects what has been called "frame of reference history" which, by reflecting "the ideological fashions of the hour," oversimplifies the past and perverts history for a purpose. He also rejects all forms of determinism and single-factor interpretations. The latter represented the fragmentation of knowledge and hence resulted in the distortion of facts. In 1946, in one of his Essays on Historiography, Malin proposed four "principles in history." They were "1) change and variation in time and space; 2) recognition of an element of organization in all things; 3) continuity as a general principle, but subject to a partial interruption in varying degrees according to an unpredictable element of uncertainty arising out of the behavior of the particular; 4) individualism."

History, Malin contends, must be studied "as a whole"; the historian must examine his topic "in relation to the cultural totality to which it belongs." When he urges "history as a whole," he really means it -- for example, his book on The Nebraska Question opens with a section that places northwestern Missouri not solely in its national setting but in its global setting.

To do his job effectively, Malin continues, the historian must place himself within the period he selects for study, "to develop the story, to recreate its unfolding as it appeared to the actors of that era." What people believed to be true is as important to the historian as what in fact actually happened. The historian's task is not to prove something but simply to enlarge the limits of knowledge. Moreover, history is not functional. To assign a function to it is to risk its distortion. "Any usefulness that it may possess in a functional sense," Malin suggests, "is coincidental -- a byproduct." Somewhat earlier, he went further. "Not only is history useless," he stated, "but the historian should take pride in its uselessness." Even if extreme, a refreshing statement during these days when so many scholars and University administrators are engaged in a desperate search for "relevance."

Generalization about history, Malin believes, must be undertaken with extreme caution. Each event in history is unique, the product of many factors, and can be neither duplicated nor reversed. Being unique, historical events cannot be predicted. By the same token, no historical work is ever definitive. Historical subjects are never exhausted, he writes, only the minds of the historians.

Of his four "principles in history," it is the last, individualism, that stands out in his work. History is made by individuals and on the role of the individual in history Malin waxes eloquent. "The individual is the ultimate creative force in civilization," he insists. An emphasis on man's "creative intelligence" runs like a theme throughout Malin's work and forms a basis for much of his thought. By individual, Malin does not mean hero. Few of history's heroes, maintains, can pass the test of creativity. Those who argue the hero theory" are those who know little history and Malin tosses them aside as presentists, totalitarians, and dictators. Instead, Malin elevates the common people. "The creative work of the world," he has written, "is primarily the achievement of little people, each of whom makes his contribution, usually unheralded, in line of duty, as part of the task of daily living." This Malin calls the "folk process." What history often calls new discoveries are in reality the "culminations or syntheses of the folk process." No history can be sound that does not recognize the contributions made by the "little people." And from this, Malin concludes, "The history of the United States, or of any other nation, cannot be written adequately or be understood in all its uniqueness except as it is written from the bottom up" (and this long before Jesse Lemisch and the New Left!).

Like each historical event, each individual is unique, biologically, genetically unique. Individuals and individual behavior cannot be stereotyped or forced into a mold; they are not predictable. "The unique historical person is not to be measured or analyzed by application of a formula," according to Malin. To do so is to ignore, deny or destroy the individual's "singularity." Stereotypes, he notes in one place, are like sociological abstractions -- no one ever met one in real life. One is reminded of the Thoreauvian comment that historians strive in vain to make the masses memorable -- they should remember that it is individuals that populate the world. In one of his articles, Malin objected to the stereotyped behavior that had become identified with Dodge City. "Instead," he wrote, "Dodge City was inhabited by people, each of whom was a unique person, different from every other individual. The best history is that which most effectively identifies by name, differentiates, describes, and explains these individuals, their hopes and performances."

It is obvious from this that Malin places a high value on local history. "Local history," he has stated, "is the foundation of all history." It is in the locality, on the local level, that "outside" ideas mix with the "primary folk heritage" and it is from this blending that "new virility and originality" springs. The study of history must always begin with the individual in his locality.

Malin's emphasis on the role of man's creative intelligence does not lie solely in his view of the past. It is also very much a part of his own creed for today. He bristles at every threat, real or imagined, against the free and unrestrained search for truth, at any suggestion of restraint on men s minds, whether those restraints come from foundations, editors and publishers, government or University administrators or simply from a stultifying servitude to a rigid conformity. He summed up his position in this way:

The essence of democracy must be found in something more than the forms of government, it is an order of society and a way of life that permits individuals the freedom to live creatively More universal and timeless for the individual is the right ... of difference in contrast with the imposition of equality and uniformity. The urge to create is a characteristic of life. So long as truth has not been found, man demands the right of freedom in his continued search, and for those who have within them the capacity to act creatively, there is no alternative to individual liberty. [2]

Malin, as an historian, defies categorization. He is that same unique individual that he extolls in his writings. He is sui generis. But, I would suggest, there are some elements in his approach to the past that are reminiscent of Romanticism and the great Romantic Historians of the early 19th century: his emphasis on the individual and his hostility to restraints on the free scope of man's intelligence, his tendency to find the universal in the particular, his belief that there is some order "in all things" and his belief in continuity, his insistence that past events be studied in relation to their cultural totality. There are, of course, some very significant differences and this is not a point I would want to push very far. For example, Malin disdains literary style in the writing of history. History, Malin contends, has been victimized by an emphasis on literary form and one of the charges he levels against the "subjective-relativists" is that they have degraded history by trying to popularize it.

Malin's work is a treasure house of information and provocative ideas, from which all historians might benefit. Students of Western American history, especially, can find riches in the pages of his publications.

I have already alluded briefly to Malin's critique of the Turner thesis. Malin objected to Turner's suggestions because they were based on the limited "closed-space" concept, or "closed-frontier formula." Turner was, Malin charged, the captive of a "geographical space theory of history" and this led him into "a closed world determinism." It was a fatalistic, pessimistic outlook and because Malin felt it ignored man's creative intelligence and denied his free will, he rejected it. For Malin, there was no end of the frontier, no closed space. If opportunity was thought to be gone, it was not a limitation imposed by the environment but rather one caused by man's own failure to appreciate and exercise what Malin calls "the potentialities of the contriving brain and the skillful hand." Closed-space determinism, as suggested by Turner but as represented more fully by Turner's disciples (with whom Malin has the greater quarrel), led directly to the totalitarian concept of the planned society which Malin identifies with the 1930's. People, convinced by various propagandists that with the disappearance of the frontier opportunity had also disappeared, were persuaded to accept social security in lieu of freedom. A practical consequence of Malin's objections to the Turner thesis has been his hostility toward courses in Western history that emphasize the march of the frontier across the continent and which invariably terminate at the end of the 19th century. Instead Malin would focus (as he did in his own course at the University of Kansas) on both the natural and human history of the Trans-Mississippi West, in an effort to discover the relationships and interactions that characterized the area.

Malin's objections to the Turner thesis also stem in part from his views on ecology and history and on man-earth relationships. To Malin, both ecology and history "may be defined as the study of organisms in all their relations, living together." Differences between plant, animal, and human ecology or history become "primarily a matter of emphasis." When Turner wrote about the "frontier" and "new land," Malin asks -- frontier of what? New to whom? It was not "new" land but land that had been exploited for countless generations; as Europeans moved across the continent, the land simply became subject "to a mode of exploitation different from that under a previous culture."

When Europeans penetrated the New World, he wrote, they did not find a finished "State of Nature," occupied by primitive men but virtually uninfluenced by them. Instead they found "an expanding horizon of knowledge, of technology, and of geography." Malin maintained that

no ecological climax formations . . . existed, . . . primitive man throughout the 10,000 or more years of occupance had been contributory, in a major fashion, along with forces of nature, to ecological instability of vegetation, animals, and soils. Thus Europeans were not destroying a State of Nature which was biologically unreplaceable. Repeated replacements have occurred of forests, grasses, and soils over major parts if not all of it. There were areas where conflicts of cultures occurred, but there was no vacant land, no frontier in a State of Nature in the Turner sense, and therefore no end of the frontier, and no closed space as posited by Turner. . . . [3]

The danger, as Malin saw it, was not that the earth would fail to supply its population with food, fuel or other requirements, but "that men will fail themselves." He urged that man's tendency to think pessimistically in terms of a "Finished World" he replaced by a faith "in creativeness in an Unfinished Universe." In 1950 he concluded that "there can be no such thing as the exhaustion of the natural resources of any area of the earth" unless it could be proved that "no possible technological 'discovery' can ever bring to the horizon of utilization any remaining property of the area."

As might have already been deduced, some of Malin's views concerning man's relations to his environment, written 20 or so years ago, would be regarded as highly unpopular today. One of the great barriers to an analysis of man-earth relations, he wrote, is the assumption that "man's relations [especially those of civilized man] with the earth and all its properties are always destructive." "How much has man modified the ecological setting of history in America?" Malin asks. His answer is that there has been "less fundamental change than is usually assumed by conservation propagandists."

Malin strongly objects to the popular notion that aboriginal man was a superior being to civilized man in this regard. He even has the temerity to suggest that the Indians did not enjoy a stabilized culture in equilibrium with their environment. "The question [he argued,] does not appear to occur to historians that the Indian culture might have been headed for a major crisis, possibly disaster, even if displacement by white culture had not intervened." Malin proposed that these Indian cultures were already off-balance. In order to maintain perspective on the question of man-earth relations, he urges that the time-scale of the geologist and anthropologist be kept in mind. With respect to his own native grassland, destruction renewal was a constant characteristic, both before and after man entered the picture. His important study of dust storms on the Plains provides a clarification of these views.

Photograph of James C. Malin, smiling and in shirt-sleeves; high forehead, black-rimmed glasses and a strong but warm face

JAMES CLAUDE MALIN, teacher, scholar, author and professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, as photographed in 1964. Although born in North Dakota in 1893 he soon became a Kansan, and "developed a view of man's past that is as broad and wide and all-encompassing as the prairies and plains of his native region."

Finally, I would like to refer briefly to Malin's contributions in another area from which Western historians might profit. From the early years of his career, Malin has been concerned with the story of territorial Kansas, and no historian has been more effective in cutting away the tangled threads of myth, emotion, and prejudice that have influenced the narrative of Kansas' beginnings. In the early 1920's, he published one of his first studies, "The Proslavery Background of the Kansas Struggle," in which he presented students of history with the startling conclusion that there had been in fact two sides to the Kansas Question. Since that time, he has struggled with marked success to place the chaos and turbulence that has popularly been labelled "Bleeding Kansas" in meaningful historical perspective, challenging the antislavery or abolitionist myths about Kansas even to the extent of jeopardizing his own professional career. "Kansas territorial history," he wrote in one article, "has been written upon a premise that vitiates most conclusions about it -- the overriding assumption that Kansas would have been made a slave state but for the antislavery crusade." Malin's efforts to cut through that assumption have not only been of inestimable value to historians of the pre-Civil War decade who would measure the impact of the Kansas issue on national affairs but they are significant also for the light they throw on the workings of frontier and territorial government under some of the most adverse conditions. Students of territorial government and of the impact of the territorial system on frontier populations would do well to acquaint themselves with Malin's many published books and articles on these subjects.

Malin's work is not easy -- in fact much of it is downright difficult. But then Malin would have it no other way. "By sound history," he has written, "is meant neither a popularized and emasculated product that acts like a sedative, nor a patronizing one dressed up in artificial 'literary' forms. Sound history at any level challenges the intellectual capacity of the author and the reader, both in form and substance. It recognizes that the reader as well as the author can think." The suggestion has been made that Malin is probably better known to students of other disciplines than to students of history and I think this may be correct. As long ago as 1950, 22 years ago, Thomas LeDuc concluded a review-essay on some of Malin's works with the speculation, "One wonders how long it will be until James C. Malin is a fully appreciated by the historians as by the scientists and economists." Although some progress has been made (witness this very session), I don't believe that moment has yet arrived. It is high time that historians, and in the context of this meeting Western historians especially, discovered Malin and recognized the ground-breaking contributions he has made to the study of man's past.


1. Distribution of most of Malin's privately published books still in print has been taken over by the Coronado Press, Box 3232, Lawrence, Kansas 66044. Malin's latest book on Eugene Ware was published by Coronado Press, and reprints of other works are also being considered by the Press.
2. James C. Malin, "Space and History: Reflections on the Closed-Space Doctrines of Turner and Mackinder and the Challenge of Those Ideas by the Air Age." Agricultural History, Baltimore, v. 18 (July, 1944), p. 126.
3. James C. Malin, "The Contriving Brain as the Pivot of History; Sea, Landmass, and Air Power: Some Bearings of Cultural Technology Upon the Geography of International Relation,." in George L. Anderson. ed., Issues and Conflicts: Studies in Twentieth Century American Diplomacy (Lawrence, 1959), p. 360.