Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Writing out from the Mennonite Family Farm: Gordon Friesen's Homegrown Grapes of Wrath

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Writing out from the Mennonite Family Farm: Gordon Friesen's Homegrown Grapes of Wrath

Article excerpt

Abstract: Authored in the mid-1930s in an Oklahoma farmhouse near Route 66, two novels by Gordon Friesen illustrate this Depression-era novelist's struggle to write from within--and to write out from--a Mennonite identity fraught with family dysfunction and mental illness. Flamethrowers (1936), a fictionalized account of an immigrant Mennonite family's experience in Kansas, marks Friesen's ambivalence over Mennonite community, romanticized as a beautiful communitarian ideal even while denounced for its violent pieties. In Unrest (1937) Friesen broadens his scope from a small Mennonite village to the entire American nation, launching against it a social protest fueled by his newfound Marxist ideology. And yet despite the novel's apparent departure from Mennonite subject matter, its authorship dramatizes Friesen's personal struggle to escape from a homebound identity of failure, shame and anxiety.

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The publication of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 thrust into American consciousness the plight of so-called Okies forced off their farms and onto Route 66 for survival. But two years before, in an Oklahoma farmhouse two miles south of Route 66, novelist and then-Mennonite Gordon Friesen completed his own protest novel about impoverished farmers, which he titled Unrest. Perhaps due to the poor sales of Friesen's first novel, Flamethrowers (1936), Caxton Press of Idaho chose not to publish a second novel by Friesen. Unrest was also apparently rejected by Covici-Friede, (1) which would two years later publish Steinbeck's novel to popular acclaim. In the end, Friesen's Unrest was never published; it remains in obscurity, boxed up in the Mennonite Library and Archives of North Newton, Kansas. But the manuscript and its history tell a fascinating story about a Mennonite novelist's departure from his Mennonite home--a story marked by shame, guilt and anger; a story of farm failure, family dysfunction and mental illness. And yet, paradoxically, Unrest is a success story of sorts--albeit an ironic one--for it tells of a Mennonite novelist writing himself out of his western Oklahoma farmhouse and away from his Mennonite family and community.

In the introduction to the 1998 special issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review devoted to Mennonite literature, editor John D. Roth observed that scholars had largely ignored Mennonite literature prior to the 1960s, and he suggested that critical studies should engage in an "anthropological" recovery of earlier literary production. (2) The following essay responds to that call, for it certainly aims to remove Friesen from obscurity and restore him to the attention of readers. But the story of Friesen's life and authorship should not be mistaken for a dead artifact to be archived on the dusty shelves of old Mennonite literature. His novels and life story have an ongoing relevance to the issues of identity that continue to engage Mennonite authors and readers, and continue to enliven the critical debates about contemporary Mennonite literature.

Indeed, the story of Friesen's life and authorship vividly enacts a critical issue that has long characterized contemporary Mennonite literature, namely the persistent binary tension between writing from the center of the Mennonite community or from its edges--from a perspective emerging comfortably within a Mennonite "home" or uneasily from the margins of the Mennonite community, or even from a state of exile outside that community. This binary opposition, framed most clearly by John Ruth in the mid-1970s and Al Reimer in 1993, was eventually deconstructed by Hildi Froese Tiessen, who recommended in a 1998 essay a poststructuralist move beyond the binary structure of inside versus outside, home versus exile, and center versus margin. (3) Such conventional categories, Froese Tiessen argued, tend to impose a fixed, and ultimately false, duality rather than recognize the diverse, dynamic cultural locations within which Mennonite artists actually live and create. …

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