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Introduction




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April—the date of this travel issue—may have been the “cruelest month” for the depressive T. S. Eliot, but it was the beginning of restorative travel for the buoyant Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. All of his characters were headed for repentance at the tomb of St. Thomas a Becket, but he prefaced the announcement of that fact with 11 lines celebrating the beautiful regeneration of nature in the springtime. His “pilgrims” are motivated both by spiritual yearnings and by physical delight.

I’ll risk claiming that travel literature, especially classical fiction, is of two main types: the spiritual quest, or pilgrimage, as in Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress; and the travels of a rogue, as in picaresque tales like The Odyssey and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Chaucer’s characters have various personal motivations for their travel, beyond recreation and renewal—including the Wife of Bath, who is searching for her next husband—but Chaucer gives us classic examples of the spiritual pilgrim in the Parson and the Plowman and of the rogue in the Pardoner and the Summoner.

Is it any surprise that two of the three narratives in this issue are explicitly by Mennonite pilgrims, John L. Ruth and Anna Dintaman? Anna literally discusses three walking routes intended to recover the experiences of Old Testament (Abraham), New Testament (Jesus) and medieval (St. James) saints. By walking their presumed trails, the modern pilgrim honors and becomes spiritually like them. The humanistic benefit is that one discovers generous hospitality along the way, which itself is in the spirit of Christian saints.

John Ruth even alludes to a familiar Mennonite song book, in Singing the Journey, as the title of his essay. The pilgrimages he has offered are to sites of importance in Anabaptist history. His many anecdotes, however, are less concerned with the shrines and more concerned with the people he leads and the people he encounters. On his pilgrimages, he relishes—for himself and his pilgrims--encounters that connect with the home culture from which he and they come. His style of mixing prose with evocative photographs imitates the style found in his most recent book, Branch (Tourmagination 2013), a memoir that also celebrates his ancestral community in Pennsylvania.

The poems by Barbara Nickel and Mary Roth are personal, lyrical responses to single experiences in foreign cultures—of Barbara in the Netherlands Caribbean and of Mary in Nicaragua. Each one shows the expatriate meditating on a scene or person and connecting empathetically, in some way, with The Other. For Barbara, it is slaves in the New World. For Mary it is humble individuals and their sterling humanity.

The personal essay by John Liechty is the closest one gets in this issue to the rogue character and the picaresque narrative. He writes a gently satiric character sketch of his restless father, who is always on the go, even to the extent of not wanting to leave the car. The people his family encounter on their travels with Dad—the carnie, the lot attendant—are not hospitable saints, but tricksters.

All of the contributions to this issue are memoirs or personal essays, although any genre was welcomed. The lack of fiction led me to notice the general lack of travel fiction in recent Mennonite literature. (Of course, the creative nonfiction in this issue might very well contain fictions, since travelers in classic literature are suspected of stretching the truth.)

As Rob Zacharias points out in his new book, Rewriting the Break Event (U. Manitoba 2013), the migration of Mennonite communities from Ukraine/Russia to the New World is perhaps the archetypal narrative for Russian Mennonite literature in Canada. Yet, the fiction he cites does not emphasize travel as such. Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China (McClellan/Stewart 1970) and Sweeter than All the World (Knopf 2001) perhaps come the closest to doing so, the former in its varied settings between Ukraine and the New World and the latter in Adam Peter Wiebe’s worldwide quest. In being set in Southeast Asia, novels by David Bergen and David Waltner-Toews also contribute to this kind of literature.

The most travel-oriented fiction might be Dallas Wiebe’s fictionalizing of Klaus Epp and The Great Trek of Mennonites into Central Asia, in his novel Our Asian Journey (MLR 1997). Is Klaus a saintly pilgrim on his way to meet Jesus? Or is he a rogue who manipulates his unfortunate travelers to his own selfish ends? Pilgrimage or Picaresque? Another travel novel by a Mennonite writer is The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews, definitely picaresque.

In Menno Simons himself we find justification for developing the Mennonite picaresque. Remember, in the best known story/legend about him, he is a traveler (in a stagecoach) and a rogue/trickster (via the “Mennonite lie”) when police stop the coach and ask if Menno is inside. Sitting on the outside, he says, no, Menno is not in the coach, and by that trick saves his life. We need a Mennonite “on the road,” perhaps titled Mennonite-Your-Way and starring a Yasch Siemens hero.

In time, perhaps Mennonite memoirs and personal essays will blossom into travel fiction. Meanwhile, we can embrace the motto of Patriarch Abraham and Anna Dintaman: “Go” or “You go” or “Go to yourself.” And then write!



About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.