Literature, North American Mennonite (1950-1985)
This article on Mennonite literature (fiction or creative writing) will focus on Canadian and American writers, ca. 1950-1985, as Mennonites in these countries have been leading in this endeavor since the articles on literature appeared in Mennonite Encylopedia, vol. 3. Only the most important authors will be mentioned by name and only representative titles of their works will be included. For a more complete list of references the reader is referred to the bibliography.
Canadian Mennonite creative writing owes much to the storytellers and poets who came to Canada from Russia in the 1920s. These writers prepared the literary soil among Mennonites by writing and publishing--often at their own expense--their novels, plays, and poems, and by educating the Mennonite reading public through the yearbooks and journals. These writers wrote in High (standard) German and in the Low German dialect about the tragic experiences of Mennonites and the loss of their Russian homeland after World War I.
Arnold Dyck (1889-1970), arguably the greatest Mennonite literary figure writing in German in Canada, established the basis for Canadian Mennonite writing by encouraging other writers and by helping them to publish their works. His most ambitious novel, written in High German, is the five-part Verloren in der Steppe (Lost in the Steppe, 1944-48), while his most successful literary creation is the comic Koop enn Bua series, written in Low German, the language closest to Dyck's heart. The Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society began publishing the collected works of Arnold Dyck in 1985.
The finest lyrical poet to emerge from among the Russian Mennonites was Fritz Senn (Gerhard Friesen) (1894-1983). Publishing his poems in such periodicals as Mennonitische Warte and Der Bote, Fritz Senn, more than any other Mennonite writer of the older generation, expressed his love and longing for the forever-lost Mennonite world in Russia. His poetry, however, is not just nostalgia for the past but also deals with timeless human issues and values as well as with the Mennonite experience. Thus the plowman motif in his "Hinterm Pflug/Stimmungen" (Behind the Plow/Moods) cycle, written in the 1930s, not only describes the faith and life of Mennonite farmers but also symbolizes Mennonite suffering throughout history.
There are other Canadian-Mennonite writers who continue writing in the Mennonite-German tradition. Valentin Sawatzky of Ontario has published several volumes of poems both in Canada and in Austria. Jacob Warkentin Goerzen of Alberta has published poems in German, Low German, and English. Continuing the Low German literary tradition are such storytellers and poets as Elisabeth Peters, Reuben Epp, Gerhard Ens, and Jack Thiessen. Much of their work has appeared in such magazines as Mennonite Mirror and Der Bote and in anthologies such as Harvest (1974), Unter dem Nordlicht (Under the Northern Lights, 1977), both edited by George K. Epp and others, and A Sackful of Plautdietsch (1983), edited by Al Reimer, Anne Reimer, and Jack Thiessen.
Surprisingly flexible and adaptable, Low German shows a close affinity with such near relatives as High German and English and can be combined with either of them to produce a hybrid style that works well for both serious and comic writing. Two recent works of fiction, one in English and the other in German, brilliantly exploit this kind of stylistic and linguistic mixture for comic purposes. Armin Wiebe's comic novel The Salvation of Yasch Siemens (1984) mixes Low German with English, and Jack Thiessen's Predicht fier haite (1984) (Sermon for Today) mixes Low with High German to good effect. Both works have been highly popular with readers, including non-Mennonites. One of the most distinguished Canadian novelists, Rudy Wiebe, explores issues related to Mennonite faith and life, but also extends his concerns to those in Canadian society--mostly Indians and Métis--who have suffered (and continue to suffer) at the hands of white society. For his novel Temptations of Big Bear (1973) Wiebe won the national Governor-General's Award for fiction in 1974. Wiebe's specifically "Mennonite" novels include Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), The Blue Mountains of China (1970), and My Lovely Enemy (1983), for which latter novel the author was severely criticized by some Mennonite leaders because of its unorthodox treatment of adultery and reinterpretation of Christian sexuality. Another Western Canadian writer, Andreas Schroeder, has received critical acclaim, especially for his novel Dustship Glory (1986) which is based on the life of a legendary Canadian eccentric.
Barbara Smucker of Ontario is a reputable writer of juvenile fiction. She writes with a compassion and understanding about the problems of young Indians and black children and with a desire to give Mennonite children a sense of their heritage. Days of Terror (1979), for which Smucker received the Canada Council Award for children's literature, tells the story of a pacifist Mennonite family leaving their Russian village during the upheavals after 1917. Her reputation was first established while living in the United States with the appearance of Henry's Red Sea (1955), the story of the exodus of Mennonite refugees from Berlin. Some of Smucker's stories have been translated into other languages, including Japanese.
There are several promising young poets who are publishing their work with such reputable publishers as Turnstone Press in Winnipeg. With four published collections of poems to his name, Patrick Friesen has firmly established his reputation as a Canadian poet. His narrative poem The Shunning (1980), which deals with the traditional Mennonite practice of avoidance, was adapted into a successful stage play in Winnipeg. Similarly, David Waltner-Toews of Ontario has several published collections of poems to his credit, including The Earth is One Body (1979) and Good Housekeeping (1983). Waltner-Toews addresses issues that concern Mennonites and other Western societies as they wrestle with problems related to wealth, poverty and questions of social justice.
The Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg and the Mennonite Literary Society of Winnipeg have sponsored translations and publications of Mennonite literature. With their support Al Reimer has translated and published Dietrich Neufeld's A Russian Dance of Death (1977) and Hans Harder's No Strangers in Exile (1979), both dealing with Russian-Mennonite suffering after World War I. Reimer has also written a successful Mennonite historical novel, My Harp is Turned to Mourning (1985), which deals with the same turbulent period. Other publications sponsored by the above-mentioned institutions include Mennonite Images (1980), edited by Harry Loewen, and Visions and Realities (1985), edited by Harry Loewen and Al Reimer. Both collections include poems and literary prose written by Mennonite authors.
Mennonite writers in the United States have also made notable contributions to creative literature within the last half century. Peter G. Epp (1888-1954), who emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1924 taught Russian and German at Bluffton College and at Ohio State University and in his leisure time wrote novels and short stories about life in the Russian colonies, including a fine novel Eine Mutter (A Mother, 1932). Gordon Friesen, another Russian-Mennonite, wrote Flamethrowers (1936), set in Kansas. It is a powerful novel in the psychological realism tradition, but it seems to suffer from exaggeration and improbable characters and situations.
Writing out of the Swiss Mennonite tradition, Merle Good of Pennsylvania portrays in his novel Happy as the Grass was Green (1971) the clash between old Mennonite values and the modern American world. The novel was also made into a successful film, Hazel's People. Merle and Phyllis Good edit a literary and cultural magazine, Festival Quarterly, which carries poems and prose by Mennonite writers. Joseph W. Yoder in his novel Rosanna of the Amish (1973) has painted an idyllic picture of Amish life. Historian, writer, and filmmaker John L. Ruth has written among other things a fictionalized biography of the Anabaptist leader, Conrad Grebel, Son of Zurich (1975), and promotes creative writing among Mennonites through lectures and articles, e.g., Mennonite Identity and Literary Art (1978). Kenneth Reed, in his novel, Mennonite Soldier (1974), tells the story of two brothers, one who joins the army during World War I and the other who refuses to join and consequently. has to suffer for his pacifist stance. Sara Stambaugh's novel, I Hear the Reaper's Song (1984), tells the story of a Lancaster County community so well that the reader can "almost smell the arbutus and feel the crackle of ice underfoot," in the words of one reviewer.
Born in the Soviet Union, Ingrid Rimland came to the United States after World War II via Germany, Paraguay, and Canada Her first novel, The Wanderers: A Saga of Three Women Who Survived (1977), caused a sensation among Mennonites when it first appeared. Drawn from vivid personal experiences and historical research, the novel takes the reader into the grinding jaws of a modern struggle between those who want only to live in peace and those who will not let them. Rimland continues to write, her latest story being The Furies and the Flame (1984), a moving account of her handicapped son's educational progress and her own development from a stifling background to personal identity and freedom Another writer from the Russian Mennonite tradition is Wilfred Martens of California whose first novel River of Glass (1980) tells the story of how fleeing Mennonites from the Soviet Union crossed the Amur River into China in the early 1930s. Warren Kliewer's The Violaters (1964), a novel set in Manitoba, shows what happens when a body of people concerned only with purity of self allows no new thinking to infiltrate its midst. Kliewer has also published his poems in such periodicals as Mennonite Life.
Of the more established American Mennonite poets is Elmer F. Suderman who is well-known for his poetry published in Mennonite magazines and journals, notably in Mennonite Life. In his poems Suderman wrestles with issues and problems related to Mennonite identity in modern society. He has also translated poems and stories from German into English. Of the younger American Mennonite poets the following have had their poems published in various Mennonite and non-Mennonite publications: Keith Ratzlaff, Eric Rensberger, and Jeff Gundy. All three have done graduate work at Indiana University. Other Mennonite poets and dramatists in the United States include David Rensberger in Georgia, Lauren Friesen at Goshen College, Shari Miller Wagner at Indiana University, Anne Ruth Ediger Boehr, whose poem "I am Dancing With My Mennonite Father" appeared in 1985, and Jean Janzen of California who published a slender volume of poems, Words for the Silence (1984).
Mennonites have produced a wealth of devotional verse and stories in a popular vein. Outstanding among the popularizers of Mennonite life and history was Gerhard Lohrenz (1899-1986) of Winnipeg, whose many publications, while not of great literary value, are much appreciated by young and older readers alike. Some of this popular literature, especially that which comes from prisons and exile, not only carries much emotional intensity but comes close to being literary art. Mennonite poets and storytellers in the Soviet Union continue to publish their work in such publications as Neues Leben (New Life), a Communist paper, and in anthologies.
A well-known Mennonite author in Germany, Johannes Harder, who wrote several novels before World War II, also published short stories and articles of a historical, sociological, and theological nature after the war. His short story Die Nacht am Jakotiner See (A Night at the Jakotin Lake, 1960) deals with the Nazi past and issues related to the post-1945 period. Harder has also translated stories of Russian authors into German. His projected series of novels about Mennonites throughout history never materialized. Art historian Abram Enns of Lübeck, Germany, who wrote and published poems and at least one short story, Der Tod der Turteltauben (Death of the Turtledoves, 1924) before World War II, continues to write poems, although not many of them have been published.
Much could be said about the reception of Mennonite creative writing by Mennonites and non-Mennonites. Space limitations do not allow for elaboration in this regard. It suffices to say that Mennonite authors such as Rudy Wiebe and Patrick Friesen are increasingly taken seriously by literary critics, as the bibliography at the end of this article indicates. Mennonite poetry and creative prose are coming of age, making significant contributions to the literary arts, especially in Canada and the United States.
Canadian and American Mennonite writings:
Shenk, Stanley C. "American Mennonite Fiction" [a bibliography]. Mennonite Life 23 (July 1968): 119-20.
Suderman, Elmer. "American Mennonite Fiction: A Contribution Toward a Bibliography." Mennonite Life 22 (July 1967): 131-33.
Epp, G. K. and Heinrich Wiebe, eds. Unter dem Nordlicht: Anthology of German-Canadian Writing in Canada. Winnipeg: Mennonite German Society of Canada, 1977.
Epp, George K., Heinrich Wiebe, and others, eds. Harvest: Anthology of Mennonite Writing in Canada. Winnipeg: Mennonite Historical Society of Manitoba, 1974.
Epp, Peter G. Eine Mutter, excerpts transl. by Peter Pauls in Journal of Mennonite Studies 4 (1966): 208-17.
Friesen, Anna. The Mulberry Tree. Winnipeg: Queenstone House Pub., 1985.
Friesen, Patrick. Bluebottle. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1978.
Friesen, Patrick. The Lands I Am. 1976
Friesen, Patrick. The Shunning. 1980.
Friesen, Patrick. Unearthly Horses. 1984.
Good, Merle. Happy as the Grass Was Green. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971.
Janzen, Jean, David Waltner-Toews, Yorifumi Yaguchi. Three Mennonite Poets. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1986.
Konrad, Anne. The Blue Jar. Winnipeg: Queenstone House Pub., 1985.
Martens, Wilfred Martens. River of Glass. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.
Neufeld, Dietrich. A Russian Dance of Death, transl. by Al Reimer. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1977.
Peters, Elisabeth. Dee Tjoaschenhatja--The Cherryhedge. Steinbach, MB: Derksen Printers, 1984.
Ratzlaff, Keith. Out Here. Pitchford, NY: State St. Press, 1984.
Reed, Kenneth. Mennonite Soldier. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1974.
Rensberger, Eric. Standing Where Something Did. Bloomington, IN: Ink Press, 1984.
Rimland, Ingrid. The Wanderers: A Saga of Three Women Who Survived. St. Louis: Concordia, 1977.
Rimland, Ingrid. The Fury and the Flame. Novato, CA: Arena Press, 1984.
Ruth, John L. Conrad Grebel, Son of Zurich. Scottdale, PA Herald Press, 1975.
Ruth, John L. Mennonite Identity and Literary Art. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983.
Reimer, Al, Anne Reimer, and Jack Thiessen, eds. A Sackful of Plautdietsch: A Collection of Mennonite Low German Stories and Poems. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1983.
Reimer, Al. My Harp is Turned to Mourning. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1985.
Swatazky, Valentin. Glockenläuten. St. Michael: Gläschke Verlag, 1983.
Smucker, Barbara. Amish Adventure. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Co., 1983.
Smucker, Barbara. Cherokee Run. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1957.
Smucker, Barbara. Days Of Terror. Penguin, 1979.
Smucker, Barbara. Henry's Red Sea. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1955.
Smucker, Barbara. Underground to Canada. Penguin, 1977.
Smucker, Barbara. White Mist. Richmond Hill, ON: Irwin, 1985.
Schroeder, Andreas. Dust-Ship Glory. Toronto: Doubleday, 1986.
Stambaugh, Sara. I Hear the Reaper's Song. Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 1984.
Waltner-Toews, David. The Earth is One Body. Winnipeg: Turnstone, Press, 1979.
Waltner-Toews, David. Good Housekeeping. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1983.
Goerzen, Jakob Warkentin. Germanic Heritage: Canadian Lyrics in Three Languages. Edmonton: the author, 1962.
Wiebe, Armin. The Salvation of Yasch Siemens. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1984.
Wiebe, Rudy. The Blue Mountains of China. 1970.
Wiebe, Rudy, First and Vital Candle. 1966.
Wiebe, Rudy. My Lovely Enemy. 1983.
Wiebe, Rudy. Peace Shall Destroy Many. 1962.
Wiebe, Rudy. The Scorched-Wood People. 1977.
Wiebe, Rudy. The Temptations of Big Bear. 1973.
Wiebe, Rudy. Where is the Voice Coming From? 1974, all published in Toronto by McClelland and Stewart, and
Wiebe, Rudy. "Chinook Christmas," in Alberta: A Celebration. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1979.
Critical studies of Mennonite literature:
Gürtler, Karin G. and Friedhelm Lach, eds. Annals 4 German Canadian Studies. Vancouver: Canadian Association of University Teachers of German, 1983.
Loewen, Harry, ed. Mennonite Images: Historical, Cultural and Literary Essay Dealing With Mennonite Issues. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1980.
Loewen, Harry and Al Reimer, eds. Visions and Realities: Essays, Poems and Fiction Dealing with Mennonite Issues. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1985; and numerous articles in Journal of Mennonite Studies.
Bender, Mary E. "Truth in Fiction." Mennonite Life (October 1963): 184-87.
Dill, Vicky Schreiber. "Land Relatedness in the Mennonite Novels of Rudy Wiebe." Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1984): 50-69.
Doerksen, Victor G. "The Anabaptist Martyr Ballad." Mennonite Quarterly Review 51 (1977): 5-21.
Hadley, Michael. "Education and Alienation in Dyck's Verloren in der Steppe: A Novel of Cultural Crisis." German Canadian Yearbook 3 (1976).
Hancock, Maxine. "Wiebe: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness." Christianity Today, (16 February 1979).
Juhnke, Jim, review of Robert Hostetter, Cheyenne Jesus Buffalo Dream. Mennonite World Conference Drama, 1978 in Mennonite Life 33 (September 1978): 239-41.
Keith, W. J., ed. A Voice in the Land: Essays by and About Rudy Wiebe. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981, and "Sex and the Dead." Canadian Forum (May 1983).
Krahn, Cornelius. "Hans Harder--A Mennonite Novelist." Mennonite Life 8 (April 1953): 78-79.
Lenoski, Daniel. "The Sandbox Holds Civilization: Pat Friesen and the Mennonite Past." Essays on Canadian Writing, Prairie Poetry issue, ed. by Jack David: 131-42.
Loewen, Harry. "Canadian Mennonite Literature: Longing for a Lost Homeland," in The Old and the New World: Literary Perspectives of German-Speaking Canadians, ed. by Walter Riedel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Loewen, Harry and Al Reimer. "Origins and Literary Development of Canadian-Mennonite Low German." Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985): 279-86.
Maust, Miriam, review of Barbara Smucker's White Mist in Conrad Grebel Review 4 (1986): 177-78.
Redekop, Magdalene. "For the Love of God." Books in Canada (June-July 1983): 11-132.
Reimer, Al, review of My Lovely Enemy in Mennonite Mirror (June 1983).
Ruth, John L. Mennonite Identity and Literary Art, Focal Pamphlet 29. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978.
Scobie, Stephen. "Rudy Wiebe: Where the Voice is Coming From." Books in Canada 9, no. 2 (February 1980): 3-5.
Solecki, Sam. "Giant Fiction and Large Meanings: The Novels of Rudy Wiebe." The Canadian Forum 60 (March 1981): no. 707.
Suderman, Elmer. "Universal Values in Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many." Mennonite Life 24 (October 1969): 172-76, "The Comic Spirit of Arnold Dyck." Mennonite Life 24 (October 1969): 169-70, and "A Study of the Mennonite Character in American Fiction." Mennonite Life 22 (July 1967): 123-30.
Wiebe, Katie Funk, review of Rudy Wiebe's My Lovely Enemy in Conrad Grebel Review 2 (1984): 752-80.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 523-525. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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