Mennonite Literature at Goshen College

In the fall semester of 1995, the first course in the U.S. devoted to the college level study of Mennonite Literature was taught at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania by Anna Kreider Juhnke, professor of English at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, while she and her husband James were fellows at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

Anna's course, emerging during the late 20th century production of excellent literature by North American Mennonite writers, included these major works in the syllabus: Merle Good's film Hazel's People, Julia Kasdorf's Sleeping Preacher, Sara Stambaugh's I Hear the Reaper's Song, Armin Wiebe's The Salvation of Jasch Siemens, short stories by Rudy Wiebe and poems by Jean Janzen, Di Brandt and Patrick Friesen. Anna's long illness and untimely death in 2005 cut short an academic career of teaching and research that would have contributed much to our understanding and appreciation of Mennonite literature.

In 1993 I announced a course in Mennonite Literature at Goshen College, although too few pre-enrolled to launch it. But in the spring semester of 1996 enough students did enroll and the course became the only one that I know of that continues to be offered in the U.S. I repeated the course in 1997, 2001 and 2002, and it has been taught several times following my retirement in 2003 by Prof. Ann Hostetler. The subject is subsumed under our course title "Interdisciplinary Literature" and is occasionally offered, especially just prior to international conferences on "Mennonite/s Writing."

The course emerged, logically, from a cluster of influences: our use in general education courses of Peace Shall Destroy Many, The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, Sleeping Preacher and Three Mennonite Poets; the first Mennonite/s Writing conference in Ontario in 1990; our planning for the second conference at Goshen College in 1997; the fact that about two-thirds of students at Goshen College were of Mennonite legacy; and the longstanding presence of Mennonite studies at Goshen College, including not only courses in history and sociology but also the Mennonite Historical Society, The Mennonite Quarterly Review, the Mennonite Historical Library, and the Archives of the (Old) Mennonite Church.

I always taught the course from an interdisciplinary Mennonite studies perspective, i.e., literary analysis enhanced with history, biography, sociology, folklore, films, and a good dose of personal experience and observation from students. The ultimate goal was for students to understand themselves in light of the literary and broader inheritance that is theirs. Yes, Mennonite identity. The course was light on literary theory, although entrée to the literary works usually depended on identifying archetypal patterns and explicating structure and details that created more specific meanings. Because we intended the course as an elective for all students, we offered it on both 200- and 300-levels of credit, to accommodate the youngest and oldest students.

The first assignment was always to fashion a family tree diagram that depicted at least four generations of a student's family line and to present interesting aspects of it to the class. An early follow up assignment was to write a personal essay on the theme of "Why/How I Am a Mennonite." Ten of these always interesting and insightful statements were published in a 2001 Pinchpenny Press chapbook, "How Julia Kasdorf Changed My Life: Reflections on Mennonite Identity." It was edited by class member Daniel Shank Cruz, who in 2016, with a PhD in English, has become an important critic of literature by and about the Mennonite LGBTQ community. I still get choked up while reading those wonderful essays.

As illustrated by the 2001 syllabus, I usually organized the course in two parts, the first half studying literature by and about Swiss-Alsatian, mostly U.S., Mennonites; the second half studying literature by and about Russian-Canadian Mennonites.

Major works in the first half of the course in 2001 included Jeff Gundy's A Community of Memory, Janet Kauffman's Collaborators, Merle Good's film Hazel's People, the Buller-Ruth documentary The Amish, and Julia Spicher Kasdorf's Sleeping Preacher, as well as miscellaneous poems and short prose selections. The second half included Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China, Armin Wiebe's The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, Sandra Birdsell's Night Travellers, David Bergen's Sitting Opposite My Brother, as well as the David Dueck film And When They Shall Ask and poems by Sara Klassen, Di Brandt, Patrick Friesen, David Waltner-Toews and Jean Janzen.

A one-week mini-unit consisted of a study of Amish literature, beginning with fiction and poems by unnamed Amish authors in the periodical Family Life, a selection from the novel Rosanna of the Amish by once-Amish Joseph Yoder and poems from Sleeping Preacher by Julia Kasdorf, close kin of Amish. Then followed depictions of Amish by non-Anabaptist writers, in stories like Vance Bourjaily's "The Amish Farmer" and Tarlton Weber's "Plain, Plain" and in poems by Catholic, Jewish and Presbyterian authors.

It is hard to imagine nowadays that the burgeoning of Amish serial romance novels was barely underway in 2001. Were I to teach the course today, I could not avoid teaching one of them, or perhaps one of P. L. Gaus's Amish detective novels.

Another interesting unit formed around Martyrs' Mirror narratives. We first studied the martyrs poems by Sarah Klassen and then chose other narratives with Luyken images from John Oyer and Robert Kreider's excerpted selection in Mirror of the Martyrs (Good Books 1990). Each student wrote a poem about a martyr and presented it to the class. Rachel Beth Miller Moreland's "Communion, Poem" was published in Kirsten Beachy's anthology, Tongue Screws and Testimonies.

Another offering of the course coincided with "Mennonite/s Writing: An International Conference" in October 2002, which brought a large contingent of authors and critics from Canada to Goshen College. Not only were students able to help with and participate fully in the conference, but each student was also able to interview one-on-one a writer who would otherwise have been inaccessible.

The existence of the Mennonite Literature course has had many beneficial side effects for students and the college as a whole. It led to sponsoring the two conferences held at Goshen College, "Mennonite/s Writing in the U.S." in 1997 and "Mennonite/s Writing: An International Conference" in 2002. Both were very well attended by professional and lay writers and readers, which validated for our students the importance of what they had been studying. Both conferences led to Pinchenny Press publications, as in the conference anthology Greeting the Dawn in 1997 and many Broadsides in our series of autographed poems.

In addition to writers who came to campus for the conferences, our sustained interest in Mennonite Literature led to visits by other Mennonite writers at other times, as S. A. Yoder Lecturers, as teachers of our one-week Poetry Workshop course, and whenever else possible.

Student writings for the course sometimes were published in off-campus venues. The conferences encouraged all GC English faculty to prepare academic papers for conference sessions and later publication. Teaching the course multiple times led me personally into continued publication of essays on Mennonite writers, at first three essays on Rudy Wiebe, continuing through 2016 on other authors and broader topics.

All of this interest culminated in 2009 in development of the online Center for Mennonite Writing and its quarterly Journal, co-edited by Prof. Ann Hostetler and me and sponsored by the English Department of Goshen College. That shared task requires long-range planning, recruiting of writers, editing of copy, writing of introductions and other contributions, and promoting the site. The home page contains the annually updated, rather complete bibliographies of Canadian and U.S. Mennonite writing that I began while teaching the earliest offerings of the course.

Does a course in Mennonite Literature serve only Mennonite legacy students? Unfortunately, despite my intentions, that has mostly been the case at Goshen College. One notable exception is an adult non-Mennonite woman who took the course mainly because it was at a convenient time and filled a degree requirement.She found the universal experiences in the literature and, as an "outsider" gadfly, kept us honest. Oddly, she also found a family connection in Jeff Gundy's A Community of Memory. She is now my accountant and good friend.

I have been told that a course in Mennonite Literature cannot be taught in a state university, and not even at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart--"because we have a lot of Methodist students." Those are political considerations. Mennonite Literature can and should be regarded as one of many different ethnic literary studies sponsored in the North American academy, like African-American, Asian-American, and Native American Literatures. If those seem more "politically" justifiable than Mennonite Literature, hence more vital to national discussions, then a more parallel ethnic course to Mennonite Literature would be Jewish-American Literature, often offered in universities, which involves the same complex mix of religious, historical and cultural issues.

The course as I taught it grew partly out of a personal mission—one that also sustained my academic work with Mennonite folklore and my 30-odd years as copy editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. That mission is to understand, develop and promote Mennonite culture, at a time when the Mennonite community seems rather embarrassed about it and too willing to ignore or abandon elements of it. On the theological level, that neglect is evident, to me, in the recent "missional" definition of the church, leading to such developments as advocating the abandonment of four-part a cappella singing in favor of praise songs "off-the-wall."

On the secular level, it is evident in our community's rather blinkered embrace of multiculturalism and pursuit of "diversity." One clear example of that is the ambitious International Ethnic Fair that Goshen College sponsored for the local community for a number of years. The smallest identifiable ethnic communities were represented in the food and performances at the fair, but never anything designated "Amish" or "Mennonite."

Yes, Mennonites have never been happy about being identified as an "ethnic" group, but that is because they do not understand the term. This glaring omission at the fair also implied that our community regards diversity and multiculturalism as something "other" than ourselves. That is, a project to which we have no contribution to make. Unfortunately, the same movement away from ethnic identity is currently being advocated by Mennonite literary critics who advocate that Mennonite writing and criticism move "beyond" identity.

Anabaptist groups have always been part of the colorful ethnic mix in America. That ethnicity springs from their deepest commitments, which is a reality that I hope my work with Mennonite culture, from many different angles, has helped support.


NOTE: As a supplement to primary sources for a Mennonite Literature course syllabus, I recommend the 227-page book, Migrant Muses: Mennonite/s Writing in the U.S., which contains 17 papers from the 1997 conference as well as reviews of 7 books, in a mix of still relevant theoretical and critical resources. The book is a re-publication of the October 1998 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. Because there are many remainder copies of the book, the Mennonite Historical Society is selling them for a token amount plus postage. For one or a classroom of copies, contact Joe Springer at the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College. joeas@goshen.edu

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.