new Mennonite Life logo    June 2004     vol. 59 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Notes on the Author: Where are We? Who are We?

by Leonard Neufeldt

Leonard Neufeldt, Professor Emeritus of American Studies (New England literary and cultural history) and poet, was born in Yarrow, British Columbia. He has been a faculty member at the University of Washington, University of Texas in Odessa, Princeton, and Purdue. He and his wife, Mera, have retired to Gig Harbor, Washington.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
         William Stafford

Poets included in A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry are preceded in each case by a brief note on the author. Notes on contributors usually remind me of laparoscopic surgery: a white gown smiling down at you as it makes a small incision, takes a peek into some corner of you, and removes a little something.

Can a thumbnail note on an author locate her or him? The reticent voice in the opening sentence of Emerson's essay "Experience" asks, "Where do we find ourselves?" For each of us that question balances on a point cut keen by our relation to our world. So do our career, on-going work, and, yes, our very identity. Unfold Emerson's query and we find at least three questions: "Where am I?" Who am I?" and "How do I find myself?" The last of these might be rephrased, "How and where, in the endlessly diverse, unsorted world about me, do I define myself?" This direct linking of the "I" to place and relation is the topic of the paragraphs that follow, which offer a few reflections that, variously re-fashioned, might be substituted for the biographical notes on authors in an anthology of writings such as A Cappella except for the fact that they would claim most of the pages. "Place" as used here refers to time as much as to space and needs to be understood both as particular space and as transmitted, yet personalized, experience in time. We can be cut off from our space and time; we can become persons of plenty through them; we can be victimized, indeed imprisoned, by either.

My metaphors in the preceding paragraphs have been offered simply to underscore a fundamental issue for many writers, especially ethnic and regional ones. Emerson's question suggests that whoever I am is largely the direct and indirect return on how I have located myself or been placed in a world of immediate experience: nature, local geography, regional distinctives, family, neighborhood, community, nation, vocation, peers, national culture, global village, history, genealogy, cultural myths, cultural memory. Thus answers to the question of where we find ourselves may offer a range and mix of responses from local-color evocations to global considerations, and from the culturally unique to the culturally typical.

The Neufeldt genealogical "Green Book" begins its account in 1619, when my ancestors, Anabaptists of Groningen Holland, made exceedingly anxious by internal and external political developments, left the country with a band of equally worried Jews. Once again it was becoming difficult to continue a chosen way of life without benign and cruel interferences from authorities. Migration to land granted in protection by Friedrich III, Duke of Schleswig, and intermarriage with Jews and members of other groups notwithstanding, our story belongs to the history of Dutch Mennonites migrating farther and farther eastward until the swift consolidation of Stalinism in the new Soviet Union and a relatively liberal Canadian immigration policy turned them westward to a beckoning North America. Yet having confided this, I have hardly begun to answer the question of where we find ourselves. I could carry the story forward to the cultural assimilation of my Mennonite parents or their successes in the New World. None of this really answers Emerson's question.

I. Finding Ourselves Among Mennonite Writers

Without turning my head as I write this sentence, I know exactly where my three randomly ordered shelves of Mennonite writers are. And without getting up to run my eyes across them like fingers testing a keyboard, I know that many of these books have proffered something like answers to the question of where we find ourselves. I also realize that the range of responses makes classification nigh impossible, but I presume to do some classifying before offering a personal response, a habit of missing the obvious notwithstanding.

Several of my Mennonite books bear the name of a somewhat patrician uncle by marriage, Peter Dyck, who years ago was knighted by a European monarch for extraordinary humanitarian service during and after the Second World War. To those who familiar with him as writer, this is surely not what he is known for. He is known as an archivist and teller of personal experiences. Above all, he is an indefatigable collector of Mennonite experiences and dedicated apologist for Mennonitism. His books try to explain where Mennonites come from historically, ideologically, racially, geographically, and culturally, why they have migrated, how have they been different over time from other ethnic and religious traditions, and why this difference is praiseworthy. Other such celebratory Mennonite works stand on my shelves like genial acquaintances and would-be protectors—biographies, autobiographies, diaries, private journals, personal essays, memoirs, histories, tales, and sketches—most of them by writers of my grandparents' and parents' generations. Heroes (some of them parents, ancestors, or friends of the author), community and family ways, homeland, region, or homestead still there or lost long ago, losses more painful to describe, perseverance, and faith populate these books. My wife's mother has authored one such book and edited another. Surviving papers of my parents and the memoir of my father have been passed on unpublished to children or archives. Mother's reports are quite factual and forthright. Like Ben Franklin, Father used the author's advantage to turn his memoir into a second edition of his life, in which certain elements are cast in a more favorable light than was the case in the original version, and in which the principle of selection is much more controlled than his actual life permitted.

Several decades ago strong symptoms of a very different impulse began to reveal themselves in American and Canadian Mennonite writing, at least in works I have read. Poems, short stories, essays, and a few novels trained raw nerves of doubt, grievance, and anger on the cultural history or contemporary versions of Mennonitism to which the authors are linked. The language seems bent on waking the sleeping, disturbing the complacency of the satisfied, and pleading with those long cowed into silence. At times the anger serves no other purpose than to indict as benighted, hypocritical, and hazardous to one's health the Mennonitism with which an author is personally familiar. In other instances, however, the target of indictment and the literary treatment are thoroughly entertaining, especially if observation and memory work from a distance or in a humorous mode. And often there are quieter words, words that have struck a truce or made a peace of sorts with a beloved enemy, or have found peace and nuture elsewhere.

Among the familiar literary genres/conventions in works belonging to this body of literature, three in particular have caught my attention: the slave narrative, the frontier captivity narrative, and the conversion narrative. Works largely framed as a chronicle from slavery to freedom usually focus on representative moments of struggle against and flight from the oppression of authoritarianism, paternalism, sexism, various public and private violations and abuse, cruel doctrines, theology, and social codes, fiendish rationalizations of these, dangerous pretensions, and hypertrophic self-righteousness. Scattered throughout a number of these works as a kind of counter ballast are moments of grace, especially among women authors. Generally speaking, women's slave narratives register more poignantly with me than those by male authors, perhaps because I'm reminded of how the social codes of Mennonite communities in my childhood allowed boys almost total freedom while forcing the temperaments and desires of girls into a much narrower mold. Occasionally the defiance has a hollow sound, repudiation is boringly excessive, or the message of empowerment borders on a tiresome indulgence. As with some of their nineteenth-century generic prototypes, a number of contemporary Mennonite slave narratives reveal something less than liberation from the plantation.

Mennonite captivity narratives are somewhat trickier, since here the protagonist is capable of relatively free movement and self-governance but is often on the run because pursued by memory, habit, or by attitudes, ideas, individuals, groups, or institutions that would recapture him or her and, like Luther's devil, seek to reimpose an iron collar. To stay ahead of pursuers, and to escape if trapped or actually caught, requires luck, inner resources, and a Natty-Bumppo-like knowledge of friends and enemies. The narrative may also proceed through a harrowing captivity to the prospect or actual transaction of a free-and-clear ransom by a mentor, lover, new friends, new geography, new culture, a profound new self-understanding, a peace treaty, or some other large motion of grace.

Such new understanding brings to mind the conversion narrative. Conversion narratives sometimes depict growing up on the margin or drifting to the margin before eventually discovering life-giving meaning in the center. More often they present the familiar morphology of a story that starts as slave or captivity narrative, whose protagonist eventually gives his or her oppressors a Bronx cheer, runs far away intellectually, emotionally, and perhaps geographically, and, once out there in the big world, begins to suffer fits of nostalgia, regret, or loss. If these onsets are joined by sudden attacks of responsibility, the prodigal reconsiders her or his past and present, discovering in what was rejected much of the meaning sought far afield. In such a case the reorientation culminates in a return and restoration of relations, but usually on new terms, occasionally radically new ones.

It is interesting to watch what happens to history, ethnic myths, and cultural memory in works in which the accusatory mode is apparent. Let me cite one example to illustrate my point: oppression, persecution, and torture of an imagined foremother or forefather with whom the speaker in the work identifies. Often the condition of oppression or act of persecution fosters the impression that what occurred in the past happened to illuminate and address oppression and persecution in the present. Authoritarianism, cruel laws, sexual crimes, screws through a woman's tongue, burnings at the stake, and so forth are marshaled in a way that strips them of their historicity and turns them into searing images of a current state of affairs. Rudy Wiebe's fiction, in contrast, sounds the past for resonances through and across generations. These resonances can produce both familiar and strangely new reverberations in the present, especially in tellers of tales with words on their tongues, who seek to understand these words, confusing as they often are, and to negotiate the difficulties of the protagonist's love, given the enormity of history, myths, and cultural memories transmitted to him or her. Wiebe's body of work, considered as a whole, really does not belong to either of the two camps just discussed and transcends their categories. The same is true for a growing number of Mennonite writers today, both veterans and newcomers.

This observation on Wiebe's use of the past also reminds me that few works by Mennonite authors exemplify only one generic type, and many are really to be located somewhere between the celebratory and accusatory. Certainly much Mennonite local-color writing belongs to this middle ground. But these local colorists, too, represent various agendas. Memorialism, for example, exploits the opportunity for an important archival exhibit through documentation and commemoration of what is regarded as crucial and unique property of our past. If linked to self-knowledge and self image in the present, such commemoration presumes to help us explain ourselves. In its purest form, commemoration is museum-minded and emphasizes how different the world memorialized was from structures and force lines of the one in which we live. In other cases, nostalgia substitutes for history. Usually the world memorialized was a simpler one than ours, less modern, more rural, perhaps closer to the earth, to basic virtues, and to childhood and youth. I am struck by pervasive anti-modernist inclinations in much of this writing.

These inclinations are also evident in the most popular and prolific species of local-colorists, the sentimentalists—we might call them the borscht, vareniki, and shoofly pie collective. (If my mother had her way, blintzes would be added to the list.) These writers, too, belong to the middle ground, but they are closest to the celebrators since their art is heavily imbued with a treasured heritage, treasured because it's like a gallery of admired and irreplacable artifacts disappearing or already absent from our world. A general or specific Mennonite element is made to be as pleasantly distinctive as a long-lost friend, delightful dinner, or old hymn. Here descriptions of people, behavior, and events usually join hands with praise and lament around a highly desirable but threatened or vanished way of life. Jeff Gundy's "How to Write a Mennonite Poem" playfully spoofs many of the markers I have noted in this paragraph and the one that preceded it.

Praise and lament, of course, bring to mind the pastoral, not as literary form but as a state of mind or mode of thought. A lost past (actual or imagined) may be concentrated as a radiant place far removed, and what might have been had losses not intervened may assume the form of an idyll. More often country rusticity and integrity are placed in sharp contrast with urban confusion and excess on behalf of a myth of a simpler time still available as a symbol for an alternative cultural life today. Occasionally the pilgrim moments of the pastoral join hands with snippets of hymns or scriptures that serve as an earnest of the renovating virtue about which Wordsworth wrote. Among culturally alienated authors, pessimism about the viability of pastoral recovery can be strong. If the stakes are not high, however, pastoralism seems to offer recreational possibilities—momentary transcendence or inexpensive tours into the unusual to interrupt and change, however slightly, our quotidian lives.

Regardless of what the stakes are, we have emerging in the mid-world what by now appears to be a majority: authors writing from the margin. Safely distanced from the center, for example, are those writers who see Mennonitism as a goofy sideshow full of potential for entertainment, perhaps even center-stage fare. In such writing, conventions of the grotesque are common, but we can also expect both positive and negative exoticizing, ensembles of extraordinary comic bluster, a premium on the quaint, and, in Manitoba, infusions of Low German. If the circus sideshow becomes the main show and the writer is a natural comedian, the multiplier effect that sets in can produce prose worthy of the national "Stephen Leacock Award for Humour" (Paul Hiebert and Armin Wiebe).

A less safe distance is assumed by slave-narrative writers who desire not to locate themselves so as to keep the plantation from hurting them but simply to receive their manumission papers. Closer to both the center and the margin is the serious parodist offering an alternative path to what is viewed as the dominant Mennonite one (parody understood as Greek "para" + "hodos"—outside the road or main way). The alternative may be offered as a salvific step beyond or, perhaps, several steps outside without leaving anything of significance behind. It may also be proposed as the way back in, that is, a way that returns us to our true center, whatever that is imagined to be. Farther from the center is the withered acquaintanceship that leads to separation, repression, and total absence, as though Mennonites don't live here anymore. In some of our writers, however, the Mennonite acquaintanceship has been casual at best, and therefore no repression is evident in a body of writing that seems to lack a recognizable "Menno" element. It is hard to imagine several of the poets in A Cappella (and several others who might have been included) inwardly tempted, or even prompted, to engage the question that generates so much energy among Mennonite writers in Manitoba: "What is a Mennonite?" And whether the writer's ties to Mennonitism have been strong or slight, this move beyond a Menno world of historical, cultural, and ethical references and jangles, while not entirely banishing the references, takes the reader to what Richard Poirier called a world elsewhere. Keith Ratzlaff's remarkable Man Under a Pear Tree strikes me as a notable example of this kind of writing. But a number of younger writers, for that matter veterans as well, are heading in this direction.

For me, the most interesting Mennonite poetry today is not Mennonite per se and more often than not unrecognizable as ethnic or Mennonite. But it is a writing that locates identity and meaning in a mutuality whose relations offer evidence of rootedness in a distinctive past and powerful resistance to what we might call the generic self and generic citizen. The self that emerges from these works is a transpersonal self, but not a historically and culturally rootless one. Indeed, rootedness is the condition for the transpersonal. Of the poets anthologized in A Cappella, several have in their recent poetry borne witness to the qualities just mentioned, all the while turning on its many sides Emerson's question of where we find ourselves. I think, for instance, of Di Brandt, Julia Kasdorf, and Sarah Klassen. Other names could be added. When colleagues ask me what I have been up to in my poetry writing over the last few years, I tell them that I, too, have been trying to write a transpersonal self by detailing in various ways what the late Bill Stafford referred to as "our mutual life." As a result, my writing, both scholarly and creative, has given me a new understanding of "regional writer." In the concluding section I will share a few personal observations about a contemporary cultural environment all of us now have to negotiate and some of the challenges in finding ourselves there.

II. Finding Our Place in our Mutual Lives

The addiction of homogenization in modern western cultures, notably American culture, is evident in most current television and print journalism, sit-coms, soap operas, sports broadcasts, films, superstores, marketing, merchandising, school textbooks, self-help books, religious services, vacation packages (this list can easily be extended by many pages). Our products and activities, promoted with bright colors and siren voices that imitate each other, belong with few exceptions to a generic city or town where life is presented as pretty much the same everywhere in America and beyond. Somehow fundamental differences between the generic and the universal have been erased; the generic is our new universal, and the human subject is being liquidated. Place and relation are replaced with a range of exchanges in a life domain whose center is rootless and whose power is neutral. The most proficient traders in the generic are our cosmopolitan provincials.

Freedom, individualism, and mobility, traditional hallmarks of upwardly mobile American moderns and persisting ideological icons, are actually inducements to greater rootlessness. Freedom in our current popular culture does not mean liberation from various hegemonic arrangements; instead, freedom becomes merely the lack of ties to anything but standard forms of comfort and satisfaction. Personal fulfillment is available largely through successful marketing of oneself as an easily recognizable commodity-in-demand in our no-place, virtual environment. Academicians, politicians, corporation managers, entrepreneurs, school superintendents, writers, journalists, broadcasters, and preachers have learned to play like advertisers with appearances to create presentations of themselves in keeping with the demands of the generic. In this virtual world, rootlessness and ruthlessness share more than phonic similarity.

In short, the principal currency of exchange to satisfy our desires is generic images. Increasingly the marketing of such images is the bond that, for example, many poets in America, including some highly successful ones, have established with readers. People consist of their marketability and whatever is gotten in the transaction. Our histories, rootedness, distinctive locale, and mutual lives are devalued by a conformist society identifying with an all-nothing environment. In the academia I know, colleagues move comfortably from urban place to urban place and college to college as their careers dictate—without missing a step. As Americans begin to explore citizenship in the global village—I am one of these seekers—chances are good that we'll confuse virtual citizenship with the real thing because we are becoming a no-place people here at home.

In a discussion of Wendell Berry's genealogical and communitarian landscape, Wallace Stegner notes Berry's conviction "that if you don't know where you are you don't know who you are." Stegner adds:

He is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of a place that comes from working it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering its catastrophes. . . . (Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, New York, 1992, p. 205)

And now readers will understand why I as a Mennonite regard local-color and regionalism as a redemptive virtue in my writing, right? Not necessarily.

Traditional conceptions (and many of the practices) of regional literature, rather than providing a corrective for our homogenizing, no-place culture, participate in the marginalization of region and reinforcement of liquid cultural values. For instance, although attractive in its apparent purity and simplicity, the idyll of regional life and local-color particularities (or caricatures) is quaint and backwards, offering the safety of a polarized nostalgic distance. As one side of the virgule in a set of related diametric pairs (region/center, tribal/national, bloodlined/kinless, rural/urban, natural/industrial, provincial/cosmopolitan, arcadian/modern, conservative/progressive, etc.), pastoralized and sentimentalized regions can only be defined by their opposition to the center and their own marginalization. One can't help but ask whether a sense of inadequacy in such writing is the message that sticks strongest to us. Wendell Berry has observed that "Provincialism is always self-conscious. . . . In its most acute phase, it is the fear of provinciality." ("Region and Writer," Hudson Review 40 [1987]: 22)

As someone whose visa to the global village has few restrictions, I am, nevertheless, an advocate of local-color and regionalist writing. I am willing to call such writing genealogical if that term refers to a heritage in which history, community, shared experiences, intimate bonding, and connection to the natural environment play a paramount role in our identity formation. A person (and language) so rooted can travel widely, I think, grow into a discerning citizen, and learn to negotiate well with our culture-at-large, with cultures beyond ours, and with the new histories being written by neo-nationalist, international, and trans-cultural developments—some of these promising, others alarming. Why leave our literature and our future in the hands of no-place Americans, our new provincials, or with conservative and nostalgic local colorists, our old provincials?

Let me expand a bit on the point just made by revisiting both "local" and "color." Like recent economic, social, and cultural historians, I have come to respect the importance of intimate knowledge of elements within our horizons and, in our examinations, of narrowly and finely sliced samples. Paying attention to the variety of ordinary yet overlooked specifics we usually call the local and particular also admits me in a special way to a field to which I'm attached. If that field is full of voices speaking to each other, to me, and within me on behalf of stories to which I belong, so much the better. If this kind of attention helps me to recognize and respect difference, better still. And if "local" also includes "location," that is, my whereness in relation to the rich and complicated world of the local, how can I reject the term?

As for "color," I'd like to suggest that the local world of most Mennonite writers can make them people of "color" if by "color" is meant racial mix, ethnic peculiarities, and all the gender and sex-based, economic, communitarian, vocational, mythic, and ethical colorations. I am referring, of course, to thorough grounding and its double gifts of belonging and openness to difference, gifts Stafford reflected on one evening at the dinner table, where we discussed, among other things, "Metis," "Cree," "Crowfoot" (his ancestry, in part) and "Mennonite." Our racial, ethnic, neo-regionalist, women's, and environmental writings in America have produced a literature of "color," of rootedness, and of profound differences even as our popular formulaic literature has caught a flight to the land of the generic.

For scholars like Richard Brodhead, Roberto Dainotto, and Amy Kaplan, traditional local color writing, while ostensibly representing and accentuating local particularities and differences, actually serves to consolidate the hegemony of national culture by ceding the cultural field to the new forces, and enacting a kind of tourism for those interested in exotic, old-fashioned ways of life as elements to annex to their lives or as expendable commodities. Whatever we might think of their analyses, the implicit warning that our best intentions may produce their opposite is one I readily accept. As a local-color writer, I prefer not to give aid and comfort to no-place Americans who surf the world and confuse functions that dissolve difference with global consciousness.

Which brings me to a term especially dear to me, one that Dainotto despises: "regionalism" (see his "All the Regions Do Smilingly Revolt," Critical Inquiry 22 (1996): 486-505). There is a world of difference between being rooted and root-bound. The rootedness I esteem is strong yet tenuous; it does not hold us back from growth and change. Indeed, it welcomes negotiations with a world well beyond the local and particular. The site of negotiation may forever change, and the subjects and terms of negotiations may rarely be the same. But wherever we find ourselves in such negotiation, that meeting is what I refer to as region. Regionalism, thus understood, is a term that belongs to moral culture. The call to regionalism is a summons for me as a writer to travel a good deal in our many American cultures, through our national culture of legacies, attitudes, beliefs, and practices, through the land, people, institutions, and practices of our neighbors (I was born a neighbor of America), and through the histories that forces of national and global capitalism have recently been writing in typical and variant versions around the globe. In the large middle landscape of negotiations, the will to negotiate must find words. And both seeking and finding must be faithfully reported. The words of which I speak do not seek the limelight; they seek community and loyalties, the mutual life Stafford hoped would not get lost in the dark. This life will educate and reeducate us on who we are by revealing where we have been, where we are, and where we might yet be—if we honor it.