James Juhnke: Robert, as you considered writing an autobiography, did you think of modeling it after biographies or autobiographies you had read in the past?
Robert Kreider: In the recent past, the best Mennonite biography is Al Keim's Harold Bender. I think I have been intrigued by some autobiographies like Russell Baker's Growing Up, or Ellen Goodman had a wonderful autobiography of her early years. Lots of baseball in it, and Catholic nuns. These are ones that . . . I am not sure that they shaped my writing of it, except that I appreciated biographies that have a substantial amount of detail in them.
JJ: Which is certainly one strength of your autobiography.
RSK: You might call it thick description.
JJ: Right. Well, it's poetic description, poetic detail. Did you place this in the context of Mennonite biography?
RSK: Here I think of another biography that has come out since I wrote this, my friend Von Hardesty's Lindbergh (2002). In this centennial year of aviation it is a wonderful book, beautifully illustrated. Well, did I set it in the context of Mennonite biography? No, I think I began writing for my family. And then as I wrote for family, I began to sense that there would be those looking over my shoulder, particularly the CPS years and the post-war years.
JJ: So when you wrote about CPS for example, you were thinking about readers who had been in CPS with you, and the way they would respond.
RSK: For those who are interested in the CPS experience. I don't have a great expectation of CPS men reading this. I think my generation has stopped reading. So it is for those who might be interested in reading about an experience back there fifty or sixty years ago. So I am not writing . . . yes, for a few peers . . . but we are slipping away. It is not a reading public any more.
JJ: How about the chapter on Goshen, and particularly the Goshen difficulties when Goshen [College] was closed for that year [1923-24], and the stressful times in the Indiana Conference and at Goshen. You must have had . . . writing that you must have had in mind how people in that community who have memories of that would read this.
RSK: Oh, indeed. And that's the one I suppose I wrote most carefully. With perhaps the most anxiety. Because I know that there are out there the conventional interpretations of the event. And the other is I know the feeling of hurt on the part of many. And so that was a chapter that I checked out with a number of people beforehand who had some awareness of that period, to see whether I was catching the nuances or whether I was going too far in some of the candor with which I approached it. I am still curious about those who defend a . . . what had been the interpretation of the closing of Goshen. I haven't heard from them.
JJ: Have you heard from others about the book, and what kind of reviews do you get from your readers?
RSK: I have received a number of letters and phone calls. People who take me out for lunch and they want to talk about it. And for those who have some memories of say, small town Bluffton or early Bethel or the MCC experience, it . . . they find a lot to stimulate their questions. I have had a few criticisms and these come from very dear friends. One, a journalist and an agnostic who said, "It's so churchy. So much church in it." Or another friend who said, "Well, who did you write this for? It reads like a source book." He commented that the quotations at the beginning of the chapters were good. So, it is not all positive. But I know that in the Bluffton area so many embraced the book. I got a phone call from a friend who reported that their men's book club had two sessions talking about it. So it . . . I think the details triggered their story. So often when people respond, they want to tell their story. And to me that is satisfying. It means that it evokes memories that are, that probably ought to be recorded. That go just beyond the oral.
JJ: One of the most powerful parts of the book for me was your description of your father and your relationship with your father. I have recently re-read James Carroll's autobiography, in which he has a very troubled relationship with his father who was a two-star general in the Air Force. This is during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. And it has to do with his choosing to drop out of a vocation as a priest in the church and breaking the hearts of his parents . . . sort of a disintegration of the family in the Vietnam era. It is such a contrast to your positive, wonderful, affirming relationship with your father. And which produced much of the raw material for your book. That is, your writing letters to your parents was the basis for much of this.
RSK: That's a section I enjoyed particularly doing, on my father. And using my mother as a little bit of a contrast. She had a different personality and it is complementary, I think. The part which I wrestled with, of course, on Dad, is that he was so good. And mother had, was so much more human in terms of, she had flaws like I have. And that . . . how to find the shadow in Dad's life, which I did then find in terms of the great hurts in his life. Perhaps you recall a section where I set up Dad's family as a dysfunctional family in contrast to mother's family, the Shoemakers, as a much more integrated functional family. That grabbed me at one point when I was working on it as a useful insight.
JJ: Well, it is a great challenge for a literary artist to make goodness interesting. Or to make peace interesting.
RSK: And it may not . . . I don't know to what degree my description of Dad is interesting. But the shadow in it might be the hurts, which I could have amplified, but you know the book got very long in any event.
JJ: But sometimes moments in a book stand out and are memorable and unforgettable. And your description of his returning from that meeting at Goshen and quivering and shaking physically is one of the most powerful moments in the book, I think.
RSK: Such information comes to me in the years just prior to my mother's death. There are bits of oral history that don't come out, that are not available to one, say if I had tried to write this back in 1952. It's available to me now.
JJ: If you had written this book in 1952, at the point where this volume ends, how would it have been different at that time?
RSK: Well, first of all, I would not have written it. I was just thirty-two years old, thirty-three, and it would be an ego trip to write a book at that age. It would be imprudent. Who would be interested? But now, given another half century, I see that indeed I did have some experiences that still are only meagerly reported in CPS and the MCC experience. If I have this corpus of memory and material I have an obligation. And I like to write. So I would not have done it. But given the passage of time, I can write with some candor. I think in comparison to some biographical writing in the Mennonite world, there is more candor in this, than in most. But I had the benefit that the people are dead. You can write then.
The earlier part . . . this book is really a collection of books. There is the story of a family that leads up to my parents, the first hundred or more pages. That story of the coming of my ancestors to America before the American revolution, much of that material was not readily available fifty years ago. But there have been so many good family histories and regional histories. The John Ruth histories of Lancaster and Franconia have helped me. If my parents read this book, they would just be delighted to see how much I have there that they didn't know. There are also questions that I can ask now that I would not have been able to ask back then. My interest in such things as parenting. Another would be the sense of place. I think to develop that at Sterling, Goshen, Bluffton, and so on . . . sense of place.
Back there if I worked on it, I would have sources available that I don't have now. For example in the CPS years, some of my closest friends like Esko Loewen and Bill Snyder and Elmer Ediger and others, I would have sent chapters and said, "How does it look? Is this authentic? Am I catching it? What counsel do you have?" I would have done that. I don't have that. My peers are dying off. I'm a survivor. Well, those are some of the things in my mind-candor and categories of analysis.
JJ: You do have a coda or an epilogue in which you quickly go over what happened in the years since. But do you have a plan to write another volume?
RSK: The ones who place pressure on me on this are my children. Our first child, Esther, appears on the scene . . . well, our second child, we lost the first . . . and they are interested in the story when they're in the picture. And so I have some obligation, yes, to continue. And I have already done some work on that latter section. I've done a lot more writing. But the problem is how to organize it. Here I have used six hundred pages to do the first thirty some years of my life. And I've lived now for fifty more years. And the second volume I'd like to keep within the compass of, say, three hundred pages. I would deliberately pace myself to do that. And, well, that presents a problem of how do you handle detail? You move toward a more generic . . . and then to me that's dull. I'd like to have a certain crispness of detail.
JJ: We are looking forward to reading it, when it comes out. Do you have any counsel for other folks who might be writing biographies?
RSK: I just finished writing a review for the MQR on the book that you have a chapter in, on Erland Waltner. I'd like to see a biography of Erland Waltner (The Work Is Thine, O Christ: In Honor of Erland Waltner, 2002). You are one who has written one of five chapters, forty or so pages on Erland, who played a monumentally significant role in the twentieth century among our Mennonite people. And that deserves a biography.
JJ: There one would be writing about a good man. And the challenges of writing about saintly people . . . .
RSK: It's easier to write a biography about Harold Bender than about Erland Waltner. But there it seems to me that it might be written in the context of other Mennonite leadership of the time. To play him off and get some contrasts, you'd throw in Ed G. Kaufman and others, and Harold Bender, you let him enter in. I keep wanting to write a biography of Lois and her family, in the context of her fascinating family. George Lambert, who wrote two books and made trips around the world. And her mother and her aunt who were in Armenia before the war. But my children say, tell me, "Look, you lay off of mother's story. You must get your story written, and then comes mother's story."
JJ: Well, we pray for fulness and richness of life, and ongoing energy and vitality so that you can write that book and more. Thank you very much.