Robert S. Kreider's richly informative autobiography, My Early Years, makes an important contribution to Mennonite history and literature. In a life spanning much of the twentieth century and beyond, Kreider has helped to shape significant Mennonite institutions and programs, particularly in the areas of higher education, relief work, and church history. Known professionally as a teacher, scholar, and administrator, Kreider should also be numbered among the Mennonite dreamers, people with imagination--"sparkle," to name a quality Kreider praises--whose creative thought constitutes a vocation in its own right.
This is a big book, though not the full life story. It could be said to constitute a pre-autobiography, since Kreider ends the story with a beginning: the outset, in 1952, of his professional teaching career. Readers may question the decision to focus so exclusively on beginnings, until they encounter the depth and breadth of experience concentrated in Kreider's various apprenticeships.
My Early Years is arranged in six illustrated sections of roughly one hundred pages each. Part I is given to Kreider's family past, including fiction-worthy cameos of Illinois forebears, and probing, sensitive portraits of his parents, Amos E. and Stella (Shoemaker) Kreider. The next section shows us Kreider's boyhood and adolescence, spent in Sterling, Illinois; Goshen, Indiana; and Bluffton, Ohio, locations of his father's farming, academic, and ministerial assignments.
Part III pictures the family relocating to Kansas, where Kreider's father accepted a position teaching Bible at Bethel College and Robert, only sixteen, entered college ("The men on the football team impressed me as fearsomely masculine. . . . I needed to shave, maybe, only once a week."). Here we also learn of summer exploits, including a cycling and work camp tour to pre-war Europe in 1938, the occasion for the book's jaunty cover photo. This section concludes with an account of post-Bethel study for a master's degree in Christian ethics at the University of Chicago, a period of broadening horizons whose completion in the spring of 1941 coincided with Kreider's receipt of his draft notice.
World War II determines the agenda for the three sections of the volume's second half. If I have any minor criticism of the book, it is the decision, midway, to present as the main narrative excerpted letters to family, friends, and colleagues. These letters have much to offer in documentary detail and day-to-day immediacy--filled with ellipses, they communicate the breathless nature of busy lives--and their presence reminds us of the lost art of paper and ink correspondence. For this reader, though, despite the insertion of brief explanatory and summarizing comments, the letter-based portion of the book sacrifices the author's fully integrated voice heard in earlier sections.
Be that as it may, this latter part of the autobiography provides a trove of absorbing material relevant to emerging developments in Mennonite institutional history, the stage for much of Kreider's ensuing adult maturation. From 1941 to 1946, Kreider was assigned to oversee educational programs in Civilian Public Service units, first in Colorado Springs and then at Mennonite Central Committee headquarters in Akron, Pennsylvania (a genuine community and lively think tank, "an intimation of the Kingdom"). The latter post eventually involved assisting the director of the M.C.C.-C.P.S. hospital section, under whose auspices C.P.S. workers drew national attention to the need for reform in U.S. state mental institutions. Covered here too is the account of an American Friends Service Committee mission to China in 1943, for which Kreider had been selected among the first C.P.S. participants, but whose thrilling expedition came to a halt in South Africa due to the Starnes amendment's restrictions on C.P.S. service abroad. Kreider's account of the final year of C.P.S. includes his courtship of and marriage in 1945 to Lois Sommer, a recent graduate of Bluffton College and M.A. student at Columbia University, who had participated in the first women's summer service unit affiliated with a C.P.S. unit at Ypsilanti, Michigan, State Hospital.
The book's closing section describes Robert and Lois's three-year period of Mennonite Central Committee relief work, culminating in Robert's term of study in Basel in 1948 (attending lectures by Karl Barth, among others) and, in 1949, directorship of the European program of M.C.C. It is difficult to convey in brief the intense level of activity carried out by Robert, Lois, and fellow Mennonite players on the post-war European stage in the late 1940s, a moment when, as Kreider sums up, "M.C.C. work in Europe was cresting." These pages reveal a baptism of experiential learning: language immersion, scenes of malnutrition and devastation, mass food distribution, "shuttle diplomacy" on behalf of Russian Mennonite refugees among M.C.C. personnel, military officials, and shadowy local contacts (heady, taxing endeavors thrust upon a 25-year-old Robert), incessant conference attendance, short-notice hospitality, myriad congregational visits, mountains of paperwork, and the occasional bargain tickets to "Faust" and "Tannhäuser."
The book's final chapter treats the couple's return to the University of Chicago, where Robert undertook doctoral studies in church history. Here Robert and Lois began a family, participated in the life of Woodlawn Mennonite Church (including a year of pastoring for Robert), and anticipated a move to Bluffton College, where, after so much mobility, they would settle for twenty-two years.
This autobiography--readable, self-delighting, judicious--contains interest of many kinds. Simply as a record of Mennonite and American people, places, and events captured by a highly observant witness, My Early Years offers a compelling slice of history in the years between 1919 and 1952. Unlike institutional or scholarly history, the autobiographical mode allows Kreider the freedom to focus on homely, human stories, "material," as he writes, that "eludes conventional history: the everyday life of family, neighborhood, congregation and community." Our formal church history seldom makes room for, or gives credence to, this lore of the Freundschaft, parables repeated at holiday dinners and passed through the generations. But Kreider recognizes the truth in this kind of material, so much of it centered on human character, and comedic at its core: the curious fact that his grandfather J.S. Shoemaker, for example, was missing two fingers from one hand, "preserved in alcohol in a bottle in an upstairs closet at Uncle Arthur's," or that this same revered church leader "took over from his bride, Elizabeth, the writing of daily entries in her diary--beginning with their wedding night." Or this deft sketch of grandfather John H. Kreider, who loved to eat, suffered from gout, and, "a man of few words, . . . would wiggle his middle finger in the direction of a dish on the table that he wanted passed."
There is also in reading any autobiography the curious pleasure of the author's multiple, simultaneous perspectives: experiencing the immediate event; remembering it from a chronological distance and others' re-tellings; monitoring one's self in the act of documenting that event. Kreider avoids bogging down in theoretical questions, but he registers an awareness of the genre's peculiar straddling of history and fiction: "What is really the there in the story and what has been reshaped in the lens of self? . . . [W]ho is to say that a story told a thousand times is less true than an event that happened only once?" To my mind, the points in My Early Years where Kreider adds his perspective, analysis, and storyteller's phrasing to the "there" of an event are some of the most satisfying in the narrative, as in his frankly mythologizing treatment of his birthplace, Sterling, Illinois--"my Camelot." "I liked Sunday School that preceded worship. . . ," Kreider writes of boyhood visits to Sterling's Science Ridge Mennonite Church,
Although the church had no musical instruments, Sunday School opened and closed with the sound of stringed instruments: the pulling of the curtains hanging on metal rings along the taut wires. The Psalmist speaks of praising the Lord with stringed instruments. At Science Ridge I knew what that meant: the ceremony of pulling the curtains before and after Sunday School--harp music of the angels.
Here mythic vision captures the holiness of Sunday School, and the potency of childhood memory, in ways purely impassive documentary cannot.
Though the author announces no explicit thematic scheme, certain repeated motifs give coherence to My Early Years. Two thematic threads weave through this narrative, and ultimately intertwine. Kreider's coming-of-age account sheds light both on the individual leader who emerges in the 1940s and 50s, and on the matrix of family, church, and community against which he must both discover and distinguish himself. Indeed, a prime source of fascination in this memoir is the thematic interplay between community tradition and individual talent.
Halfway into My Early Years, Kreider quotes Meister Eckhart: "There is no stopping place in this life, nor was there ever one for any persons, no matter how far along the way they've gone." On one hand, an epigraph that pictures life as perpetual motion seems apt for this memoir, filled as it is with journeys--by wagon, Model T Ford, freighter, Jeep--and whose primal emblem, the author announces in its opening pages, is a road: U.S. Route 30, the Lincoln Highway. Even the closing words of this volume, in an Epilogue written from the vantage point of Robert Kreider's ninth decade, indicate that its author remains on the move: "To tell the truth, I will be interested in how that story eventually unfolds." To strike out for new territory, to be independent, to forge one's own history, are driving impulses in this story.
On the other hand, as we have seen, Kreider's autobiography honors origins. A counterpart to Meister Eckhart's vision of the pilgrim wanderer may be found in an epigraph Kreider draws from Psalm 16: "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, yea I have a goodly heritage." Boundedness, belonging, peoplehood: these motifs sound throughout the story as well, in counterpoint to the quest for individual identity. The degree to which Kreider in his life story emphasizes ancestral inheritance, highlights his parents' powerful influence, and vows a common faith history possessed by all Mennonites--Swiss, Russian, or Ethiopian, as he puts it--reveals a maturing awareness that the complete individual locates himself among a people.
This revelation, the merger of calling and community, flashes across the page as the story proceeds. For example, a picture of Kreider at the start of his second year of master's study at Chicago, twenty-one years old, studying Christian ethics, reading Reinhold Niebuhr and labor history, and engaged, extra-curricularly, in the Kimbark Co-op, Socialist Club, Mennonite Fellowship: "I was beginning to sense that I could make it successfully in a world beyond a safe Mennonite fold. However, I was feeling a tug back to my roots." Meanwhile he was typing up lecture notes borrowed from fellow student Winfield Fretz, who was attending Wilhelm Pauck's seminar on Anabaptist history. "For me that was an invitation to the Anabaptist vision three years before Harold Bender's celebrated 'Anabaptist Vision.' Step by step I was curving back into a focus on my Mennonite heritage."
Finally, in taking up Kreider's memoir, readers put themselves in the hands of an author who admits in the Introduction that he likes to write, and whose unlabored, incisive prose bears witness to the fact. Kreider's descriptive and allusive powers, evident in reveries on childhood haunts and in letters dashed off between precarious Jeep runs, suggest that one of Kreider's untried callings might have been to write novels. (He did sketch notes in 1946 for a "Tolstoyan epic novel on the fall of Berlin"; we might still hope.)
More than prompting that intriguing conjecture, however, My Early Years makes the reader appreciate the providential concurrence of a young man of Kreider's prodigious talents, the heritage that nurtured them, and a church that welcomed them--and that we have the story in this teeming, fascinating book.
Susan Fisher Miller