Letter from DuBose Lindsay (1997) to Ann Hostetler

DuBose’s letter came out of a lively correspondence with Nick that began back in August 1997. I was still living in Wisconsin and in the early stages of researching poetry by Mennonite writers. In preparation for the upcoming Mennonite/s Writing Conference to be held at Goshen College that October, I had asked Nick whether, in addition to sending me some samples of his poetry, he might consider submitting an essay on the topic of what it was like to teach poetry at a Mennonite institution of higher learning. He responded positively to the challenge, but the generous packet of poems with a makeshift table of contents and a few news clippings attached did not include an essay. Rather, an essay arrived from DuBose, with a note of affirmation from Nick. – Ann Hostetler

Edisto Island, S.C.


Dear Ann,

The thing which was to us most astonishing in the Mennonite community at Goshen College was their vulnerability to and reverence for words, their certainty that words matter and touch the sacred at all times. When we came to Goshen College in 1969, it seems the purpose we set ourselves was to challenge the Christian community there, which in the past had been closed to strangers, to speak to the world outside about family, peace, community, church, and all these values no longer cherished by secular culture.

We didn’t write it down as notes to a master plan but it’s what we had in mind. I suppose we wished to challenge them to use the mainstream language at least as powerfully and gracefully as the children of despair, the Robert Lowells and Sylvia Plaths and so forth.

Our purposes have included these things: to encourage students to speak to their community with their ­­living voice so that their tradition not be kept as quaint only, but as witness from a vibrant body of believers, not saying what they “should” say, or are expected to say, but reaching within themselves for living language in the Biblical tradition in the way our western literature has always done: to encourage students to speak to the Mennonite community praising (or condemning) “my people (Who is my people?) my land (What has become of my land?), “my language.” As the Russian poet Pushkin said, “The task of the poet is to heal the earth, to terrify tyrants, and to bring courage to the oppressed.”

We, the Mennonite writers and teachers, are in a boundary situation, as are any other writers who speak for and to a people separated from the mainstream. What’s called “The South” is another separated culture. Josephine Humphries of Charleston, S.C., currently speaks for and to this community, as have others before her, notably Wm. Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. When we asked her how her community had received her after she had been praised and feted by the mainstream, she said they (we) had showered her with praise and respect and she loved it. In contrast, Julia Kasdorf’s community has mixed praise for her, some calling her a liar when she uses metaphor and fiction to reach closer to the truth than mere facts can go.

The communication with Goshen students has been swift because of their knowledge of the Bible and our shared concept of The Holy. Of the various goals and approaches we have used in class, here are four:

  1. Show the value of analogical thinking over analytical in certain settings, especially since this is the Biblical mode.
  2. Show the value in the distancing which form provides.
  3. Help these people to know the grace and even sacrament of play. Play is difficult for Mennonites, even perhaps serious business.
  4. Maintain a climate in class that is non-judgemental.

The traditional Grail story underlines the value of the right question over the self-serving question. Not, “Whom does it (the grail) serve?” Whom it may serve is not our business, but, “What is it?” This is the artist’s question.


About the Author

Frances DuBose Lindsay (1925-2016) was the wife of Nick Lindsay