Royden Loewen is to be greatly commended for overcoming his confessed doubt about the worthiness of diaries written by
ordinary men and women engaged in everyday farm life. In this volume, he has brought together excerpts written by 21 rural Mennonite diarists, aged 15 to 71, writing from 1863 to 1929, who either lived in or visited Canada during this time. Loewen was able to see the significance of these diaries as personal narratives that highlight the lives of ordinary people, even though such diaries are often ignored.
Loewen states that the
daily diary written by the ordinary person about everyday life turns the often hidden contours of household and community In other words, as 21st century outsiders looking in on the world of 19th and early 20th century people, we are able to catch glimpses of their personalities, routines, concerns, religious experience, and social networks. We can see how their status as insiders — members of a close-knit, minority group — affected their viewpoints. There is much to savor here: social patterns within seemingly homogenous communities; women’s perspectives from
inside the house; the safety of a common belief versus the yearning for a deeper spirituality; the literacy inherent in the Mennonite culture so that the Anabaptist martyr story is referred to; the intrusion of
worldliness into the rural patterns handed down from previous generations and/or from the old country; the variables of ethnicity, gender, class, age and religion.
Missing from what could have been discussed were the collective memories of the diarists with common backgrounds; the lens we use today to study historical writings; and the silences or gaps about subjects that Loewen expected to find when he started this project. However, his preoccupation with certain variables (such as the differences between the Swiss-American Mennonites in Waterloo County, Ontario, and the Dutch-Russian Mennonites in Manitoba) shows his areas of passionate interest, which will bring much-needed illumination to many. As a non-Canadian and a Mennonite of non-Russian background, I am certain that many details of significance to Loewen would have gone unnoticed or unappreciated without his careful notations.
Loewen utilizes much of his introduction to discuss his theories about the types of diaries on the continuum of
literary self-consciousness, and how he rates the diaries he excerpts from. The travelogue required a broader world view than those that were confined to a certain place. The pietists may have recorded the minutiae of their daily lives, but were also concerned with their state as spiritual beings, and so needed words of emotion that carried them beyond the routine. The private, personal diaries are records of people who saw themselves as individuals and not just part of a group psyche. Finally, the daily household journal — the most common form of rural Mennonite diary — is simply a record of information about the weather, work, family and their community.
Loewen has arranged the diaries in this book into eight sections called: 1 - Migrating Men; 2 - Immigrant Women; 3 - Old Men and Young Boys; 4 - Merchant Fathers; 5 - Married Men and Their Work; 6 - Bishops and Evangelists; 7 - Farm Women; 8 - Diverging Paths. Unfortunately, his discussion of these sections in his introduction jumps around (1, 2, 6, 4, 3, 7, 8) so that it is difficult to get a sense of continuity or to know if the selections are interrelated or build on each other thematically. The section titles are rather inconclusive too, and anyone uninterested in reading the introduction may well find them confusing. For instance, ten of the diarists emigrated from Russia but only three were included in Section 1 or 2. Granted, Cornelius Loewen included a short travelogue of his immigrant journey, but neither of the women in Section 2 did. In Section 4, Elias Eby was not a merchant anymore when he wrote his diary, so it is hard to make comparisons re: wealth and status with the other diarist in this category. In Section 3, I was expecting the youngest diarist to actually be a young boy, not a 15 year old youth. And the list could go on.
The book would have been improved by not categorizing the diaries into sections, but instead arranging them chronologically. The introduction could have categorized all the diaries, first according to how they fit into the Ontario versus Manitoba Mennonite groups in order to examine the role of ethnicity etc. in understanding the diarists. Then, all the diaries could have been categorized according to their type to help us understand why different kinds of diaries were kept and what this reflects about the diarists. As stated above, some of this was done by Loewen, but not in as nearly an orderly a fashion as it could and should have been done. I had to put together a chart to get some kind of intellectual framework figured out in these matters, and I can’t imagine that most people are going to bother.
Thankfully, there are the diaries themselves to enjoy, with or without an intellectual framework. There is much here to relish, to be moved or amused by, to be wondered at, and anyone with an interest in how rural Mennonites spent their time will want to read this book. The maps, photographs and biographical notes provided are very helpful and interesting. Loewen is somewhat inconsistent in how he lists what diaries are available by each diarist: sometimes he tells what the complete span dates are of any diaries written, but other times he leaves out this vital information. Hopefully, other scholars will be inspired to search out these and other diaries anyway to include in their research.
It is unfortunate that only a third of the diarists in this book are women. In the preface, Loewen lists six women diarists whose writings he could have included, but didn’t. This makes for an imbalance of viewpoint, and it is too bad that Loewen has helped to silence the voices of women in this way. However, that caveat aside, Loewen, in publishing this set of diaries for the first time, has made a tremendous contribution to making visible the lives of ordinary people and filling in gaps in the historical record about rural Canadian Mennonites.
Archivist, Swarthmore College Peace Collection