North Dakota’s freelance public intellectual, Clay Jenkinson, has been busy. He’s published three books so far this year, and he’s promised another.
Jenkinson is a freelancer in that he’s not affiliated with any of the state’s colleges or universities, although he has connections with the University of Mary and Dickinson State University, and did have with Bismarck State College. But these are incidental to his bigger undertakings, which involved interpretation of a broad swathe of American history. That’s what makes him a public intellectual. His work keeps showing up, notably on "The Thomas Jefferson Hour" on public radio, but in a variety of enterprises that Jenkinson has founded, including instructional travel, seminar and online classes.
Actually, I thought Saturday that Grand Forks Herald columnist Chuck Haga might have beaten me to a column about Jenkinson. In the June 27 edition, Haga quoted Jenkinson discussing the American Museum of Natural History’s decision to remove a statue of Theodore Roosevelt. The statue is a famous one, depicting Roosevelt astride a horse while a Plains Indian walks on his right and a black gunbearer on his left, as if Teddy Roosevelt were leading them somewhere. It’s probably not quite fair to say that Roosevelt was either an Indian hater or a white supremacist, but he left plenty of evidence of both tendencies in the enormous number of books he published in his lifetime.
Haga’s column only buttresses my point. Jenkinson seems to be everywhere. Last week, he was in Oregon working as the “talking head” in a discussion of the Oregon Trail. For most of this year, he’s been at Meridian House, his home in north Bismarck. The “stay-at-home” protocol during the pandemic kept him off airplanes for the longest period in his adult life, Jenkinson said, resulting in more time for writing.
The latest of his books, “Bring Out Your Dead,” is an especially timely one. It discusses epidemics in literature and history. This follows an online course that Jenkinson offered through his business, “Dakotaskye.” A second course is underway examining the Enlightenment. There’s no end to the challenges this presents, not least because Thomas Jefferson, the embodiment of enlightenment thinking in America, was both a slave holder and a misogynist.
Jefferson is the subject of another of Jenkinson’s books, “Repairing Jefferson’s America.” This one is subtitled “A guide to civility and enlightened citizenship.” The goal here, Jenkinson has written, is to get the book into the hands of every state legislator in the land.
The third of Jenkinson’s books published this year – so far – was actually the first. Jenkinson is the co-editor, with Char Miller, of “Theodore Roosevelt Naturalist in the Arena.” Miller teaches at Pomona College in California.
Jenkinson wrote two of the book’s 11 essays. One of these is about Roosevelt and William Hornaday. Both killed buffalo on the Great Plains, Hornaday in the interest of science and Roosevelt mostly in the interest of sport, although the animal – actually shot a few yards west North Dakota’s present boundary – was mounted and presented to the American Museum, which holds quite a few others of Roosevelt’s hunting trophies.
The second essay is even timelier, given the controversies about Roosevelt and other historic figures whose actions and beliefs now seem inappropriate, embarrassing and unsupportable. This essay is titled “Memorializing Roosevelt” – relevant indeed given the current effort to build a presidential library and museum honoring Roosevelt on federal land near Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota’s Badlands, where Roosevelt “spent the better part of four years,” Jenkinson writes. The park itself is a memorial; it is the only national park named for a person. Jenkinson argues that much of the public land in the United States could be counted as memorializing Roosevelt, who created wildlife refuges, national forests and game ranges.
Jenkinson is “writing hard” on the fourth of his book output this year, he told me last week. This is “his great North Dakota book,” a collection of essays about the state. He conceded he may miss deadline; the book might not be published until after the first of the year.
I’ve known Jenkinson for nearly 50 years. He was a high school student and an enthusiastic photographer when I moved to Dickinson to work for the Dickinson Press. His pictures accompanied many of my stories. He mentions the experience in “Bring Out Your Dead,” though not in the part about pandemics but rather in a collection of essays about reading during quarantine.
“Bring Out Your Dead” is due out soon. I have an advance copy that inexplicably left out publication details. The Jefferson book is published by Koehler Books of Virginia Beach, Va., and the Roosevelt book by the University of Nebraska Press.
I’ll let you know when my copy of the North Dakota book, as yet untitled, shows up.
By the way, these four make a total of 16 for Jenkinson.
Wrong again: North Dakota Auditor Josh Gallion's term of office was incorrect in a recent column. Gallion will be on the statewide ballot in November.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.