We begin with a mini-essay from the editors to offer an angle on previous publications of works by Dallas Wiebe. Introductions to the current issue follow.
Washington Irving published The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in 1820, using the title to set up a fictional point of view not the author’s. In the same book, he again posed as editor of yet someone else’s writings in one of the sketches, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820) with the following subtitle, including these coy parentheses: “(Found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker.)” This fictive Knickerbocker then went on to write a fiction posing as history, which also gained fame, but not always for its fictionality in Knickerbocker’s History of New York. His staging of fiction as edited versions of “real” documents places Irving among the first American authors that European audiences recognized for high literary technique. Twenty years later, Nathaniel Hawthorne then presented himself in a similar fictional pose in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter: “This, in fact, a desire to put myself in my true position as editor, or very little more, of the most prolix among the tales that make up my volume,this, and no other, is my true reason for assuming a personal relation with the public.”
In this tradition of American literature, three pieces of serial fiction by Dallas Wiebe were published in the December 2002, June 2004, and September 2004 issues of Mennonite Life. Some readers have reported perceiving the works as nonfiction. It is true that “The Sayings of Abraham Nofziger” I, II, and III, "edited" by Dallas Wiebe, had a fictional introduction describing “finding” the sayings and included a picture of young Dallas Wiebe labeled with the name of the fictional author, Abraham Nofziger, setting up a playful reading of Abraham as a pseudonym for Dallas.
Dallas Wiebe may be the postmodern Mennonite American most comparable to early American writers such as Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne. All are known for drollery and probing commentary upon cultures’ community-based perceptions of their realities.
Perhaps we should have marked the articles as fiction more clearly. Yet, the sayings gain poignancy in a realistic frame, because the aphorisms range from profound pithy manifesto to the humorous barks of a cranky individualist no longer amused by others’ theology. They thus carry a sense of what would be unsayable in a local community; the “found papers” are imagined as what might be lying around in people’s homes because the sayings need to be said but can’t be in many communities. The fictionality becomes more clear as the sayings stretch beyond realism. Our introduction to Wiebe’s works included the phrase “particularly literary form of archeology” to indicate that even fiction can do the archeological work of revealing how communities organize kinship patterns. For example, when most female characters were named in the piece, an insistent reference to their maiden names came up, revealing a Mennonite pedigree fetish at the extreme. At the least, a sense of genealogical index and historical weight as bearing upon lives came forward.
We encourage readers to continue to inquire into matters of fiction and nonfiction and appreciate all letters received. The flexibility and hybridity of both genres have a long history and both qualities seem to be increasing.
In this winter arts issue, we lead with four poems by Rhoda Janzen. A widely published poet, Janzen shares with an audience interested in Mennonite history two poems on historical grief over the Mennonite experience in the Russian Revolution. Themes of inner and external community conflict are developed through imagery of clothing, language, and foodways. Two poems are set in more recent memory. "Spin Cycle" is a sonnet that refers to the spin cycle of washing machines while also demonstrating how poetic forms put language into loving, churning motion like a spin cycle, and "cream" subtly presents some women's voices one might hear in a diner, perhaps at breakfast.
Our next poet in this edition, Jeremy Frey, employs free verse rather than metered verse, developing form from word play and natural phrasing. His subject matter appears to come from the intertextuality of scripture and life: the endless conversation between the Bible and many lived contexts: a violent society, wilderness, and, occasionally, a poolside dinner party that becomes a baptism.
With this issue we begin a new series of essays by Mennonite theologians and scholars, "How My Mind Has Changed." We expect the series to continue for several years. It will introduce readers to Mennonite leaders and the ways they made theological sense of the momentous changes in the last half of the twentieth century. The first essay in the series is by Erland Waltner, beloved Mennonite pastor (1938-49), professor of Bible at Bethel College (1949-58), and president of Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana (1958-78). Waltner's many roles of volunteer leadership in the church have included the presidency of the General Conference Mennonite Church, presidency of the Mennonite World Conference, and leadership of the Mennonite Medical Association.
When reading the essay "Mentors and Urban Mennonites: A Long Way from Home," watch for an evolving view of urban potential for Mennonite church ideals by following the travels of a sociologist's life and influences. Although Mennonite history is often perceived as centered in rural life and history, Leo Driedger suggests an interesting angle on urban history to Mennonite history: "Urbanism among Mennonites of the Low Countries is, thus, as old as Mennonitism itself." This essay interweaves personal and familial narrative with intellectual biography of mentors and religious history.
We assure readers who enjoyed the “Sayings of Abraham Nofziger III” that the following article in this new issue on a related subject is a guaranteed example of nonfiction. Phyllis Bixler also meditates upon the nature of Mennonite cultural customs and their weight and consequences in “Phillip Roth’s Novel The Human Stain and the Passing of Mennonites into the American Mainstream.”
Marion Deckert reveals in this essay the fundamental basis of his understanding of Anabaptism. He believes that Mennonites mistakenly assume they possess a higher morality and that if they manage it properly they will have been faithful to their heritage. It may be, Deckert admits, a "rather quirky" argument. But he is ready for dialogue with all comers.