OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

David M. Wrobel

Portrait of David M. Wrobel
Image Credit: Travis Caperton, University of Oklahoma photographer

David M. Wrobel is a historian of American thought and culture and the American West. Dean of arts and sciences and at the University of Oklahoma, he also holds the Merrick Chair in Western History and the David L. Boren Professorship there and has been engaged in a wide range of partnerships with K-12 educators over the years. He is the author of The West and America, 1890–1950: A History (2017), Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism, from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression (2013), winner of the Western Heritage Award; Promised Lands: Promotion, Memory, and the Creation of the American West (2002); and The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal (1993). He is currently working on "John Steinbeck's America: From the Great Depression to the Great Society." He is a past president of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association as well as of Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honor society, and current president of the Western History Association.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Writing to a friend in 1938 about the novel he was writing, Steinbeck proclaimed "I'm trying to write history while it is happening and I don't want to be wrong." This image-rich PowerPoint lecture examines Steinbeck's journey from his initial "strike novel," In Dubious Battle (1936) to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and the controversies that surrounded the novel and John Ford's 1940 film adaptation. The talk includes coverage of Steinbeck's fieldwork, and the photographers (including Dorothea Lange, Horace Bristol, and Russell Lee) who helped inform the public of the plight of migrant families in California. "John Steinbeck's America" emphasizes the conviction of a writer in drawing the nation's attention to the plight of migrant families and the contemporary lessons we can learn from his impassioned advocacy.
John Steinbeck was the first American writer of note to speak out against the policy of internment and relocation of Japanese and Japanese Americans on the West Coast. He served as a propagandist for the U.S government during World War II (while simultaneously begin investigated by the government for his presumed radicalism during the Depression years), and as a war correspondent, in London, North Africa, and Italy in 1943. He wrote memorable accounts of the soldier and civilian experiences that were syndicated across the country. In 1947, he traveled to the Soviet Union and wrote about the lives of ordinary people in the aftermath of war and destruction. A generation later, in the winter of 1966-67, Steinbeck traveled to Vietnam as a war correspondent and offered a controversial series of articles about the conflict. This image-heavy PowerPoint lecture examines this lesser known, yet highly influential phase of Steinbeck's life and career, when he worked hard to uphold both the "ancient commission of the writer" and his commitment to his country during wartime.
The West and America addresses politics, economics, demography, culture, and race relations during the Progressive Era, 1920s, Great Depression and New Deal, World War II, and early Cold War years. In addition, the talk examines immigration and deportation policy (especially during the 1930s, the so-called "repatriation" initiatives), populism, civil liberties, working class and labor history, and environment and natural resources. The focus is on the tension between the central role that the federal government played in building the modern West and the celebration of unbridled individualism that has nonetheless continued to define the region.
During the 19th-Century, the trans-Mississippi West was often presented not as a mythic, exceptional, and quintessentially American space, but, rather, as a global West, as one developing frontier, one colonial enterprise, among many around the globe. This lecture examines the role that practitioners of the enormously popular and influential travel narrative genre played in presenting the global West of the 19th century, and the role that their 20th-century counterparts played in constructing a mythic frontier West.
This lecture begins with the question, "why, if the conditions for so many people were so poor in late 19th-century America did it take so long for American society to address those problems in any systematic way? The talk examines the clashing conservative and progressive ideas of the late nineteenth century and how understanding that context and those ideas can inform our understanding of contemporary political/economic/cultural divides. The lecture contrasts the Social Darwinist William Graham Sumner with the Reform Darwinist Lester Frank Ward; the Popular Calvinist Russell Conwell with Social Gospel proponent Walter Rauschenbusch; and Constitutional Conservative Stephen J. Field with Legal Pragmatist Louis Brandeis.