Mennonite Literature in Canadian and American Mennonite Historiography: An Introduction

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article is a survey of how Mennonite historians have dealt with twentieth-century American and Canadian Mennonite creative writing. Mennonite writers on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border have produced a wealth of literature that draws its inspiration from their cultural and religious communities, allowing it to be called "Mennonite literature." This same literature, however, is also a part of larger Canadian and American literary traditions. Mennonite historians have come to recognize that Mennonite creative writing reflects and influences the life and thinking of North American Mennonite society. An analysis of the views of John L. Ruth and Al Reimer suggests that, while Mennonite writers on both sides of the border address relevant Mennonite issues, American writers are more church and community oriented, whereas Canadian writers tend to be more individualistic and secular.

**********

Ted Regehr's Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970, the third volume in the Mennonites in Canada historical series, devotes a whole chapter to Mennonite art and literature entitled "Artistic and Literary Voices." The chapter concludes: "In the three decades following the end of the Second World War there was a remarkable flowering of interest, participation, and appreciation of music, literature, and other fine arts by Canadian Mennonites.'" By contrast, Paul Toews' Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970, the fourth volume of the Mennonite Experience in America series, that deals more or less with the same historical period, hardly refers at all to the arts. This is not to say that there were no Mennonite poets and novelists in the United States; there has indeed been a flowering of Mennonite literature among American Mennonites as well. For some reason, however, Toews decided not to highlight the arts and literature.

Literature among Mennonites is arguably as integral to their communal life as are their religious, cultural and economic institutions; it deserves to be treated seriously in Mennonite historiography. It is thus important to know how Mennonite historians have treated or commented on Mennonite creative writing. In this article I propose to examine briefly major Mennonite historical publications with a view to how they deal with Mennonite writing. In my survey I restrict myself to Canadian and American Mennonite historical writing in the twentieth century, including major historical texts, the five volumes of the Mennonite Encyclopedia and some Mennonite journals. I shall refer to representative writers and their works only.

Much could be said about whether there is a "Mennonite" literature at all. Indeed, some writers are uncomfortable with the label "Mennonite writer." They see themselves as poets or novelists who happen to be Mennonites and writing within a larger literary tradition, be it American or Canadian. Their themes and the issues they address may be Mennonite, but the world and the characters they portray have, or should have, universal appeal. For the purpose of this article I simply assume that there is a "Mennonite" literature in North America and that a literary work may be considered "Mennonite" if it derives from the Mennonite tradition or if its themes, characters or issues are authentically Mennonite. A Mennonite author may be a practicing Christian, or he or she may stand outside or on the periphery of the church. Indeed, Al Reimer argues that "some of the most exciting and challenging 'Mennonite' writing is coming from the writers who are most disenchanted with their Mennonite world, whose motives are anger and outrage, who write to expose it, [or] to reject it...." (2)

MENNONITE HISTORIANS ON MENNONITE WRITERS

In 1924, D. M. Hofer had an eclectic collection published by the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Publishing House in Chicago, titled Die Hungersnot in Russland und Unsere Reise um die Welt (The Famine in Russia and Our Journey Around the World). …