Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: Crusade by Roy F. Bergengren

Published in 1952 (only three years before his death), Roy F. Bergengren's final book, entitled Crusade: The Fight for Economic Democracy in North America, 1921-1945, was written with the clear purpose of recording the legacy of his life's work as a credit union organizer. Mixing a chronological narrative of the movement's growth from his early work as the head of the Credit Union National Extension Bureau until the Second World War with countless colorful anecdotes and philosophical asides, Bergengren provides the reader with a rich textual mosaic which powerfully conveys his sense of the movement's trajectory and meaning during the years of his involvement.

As a work of history written by a participant, Crusade often reads like a book-length acknowledgements. For each event he covers, whether it be successfully lobbying for a state credit union law or organizing a speaking tour, Bergengren faithfully names all of the people whose support made the particular achievement possible. While this nostalgic style sometimes gets a bit tedious and mushy, it also means the book is an excellent place to start for anyone interested in undertaking a wide variety of credit union history-related projects. Not only will that reader emerge from Crusade with a fairly clear sense of the movement's overall developmental path, but he or she will also likely have developed a list of the names of the key players in almost any episode of that period.

In addition to laying out the sequence of events and naming the names, Bergengren also uses a number of stories to illustrate a variety of important elements of the credit union movement during the period. Having organized literally thousands of credit unions from coast to coast among people from all walks of life, his anecdotes range from funny to suspenseful to ecstatic. By capturing the elation of the rallies that surrounded Edward Filene's tour of the Midwest in the 1930s, or his nervousness upon being handed a gun and informed that a man who had threatened his host's life had just broken out of prison in the Smokey Mountains, Bergengren effectively conveys the sense that the credit union movement was not simply a growing business model that calculated its success solely in terms dollars and cents, but was, rather, a social movement in which the identities and efforts of many people throughout the United States (and Canada) were deeply invested.

Finally, greatest value of Crusade arguably lies in the fact that it is not just Bergengren's historical testament, but his philosophical one as well. As he unravels the story of the movement, Bergengren constantly reflects on what the experiences he's describing have to say about the fundamental nature of credit unionism. As the book progresses, these asides become more frequent and in-depth until the last chapter, entitled "After My Crusade," in which he aims to distill the "unchangeable purpose" of the credit union movement. After a lifetime in its service, he comes to the conclusion that:
[T]he unchanging objective, as fixed, as imperturbable as the mountains--the objective of the human race for centuries past and for all the vast reaches of time ahead--[is] to attain 'the brotherhood of free men.' ... The credit union of the future will be limited only by its vision. With courageous leadership, imaginative leadership not afraid of precedent, we shall open up new avenues of cooperative effort which must lead inevitably to the brotherhood of free men.1
At a time when the credit union movement is experiencing something of an identity crisis, Bergengren's reflections are powerfully relevant to contemporary credit unionist people. His memoir is a great way to get reacquainted with the movement's roots, both historically and philosophically, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is involved with credit unions. Even if you don't have time to power through all three hundred fifty-seven pages, at least give the final chapter a gander - you won't be disappointed.

1Bergengren, 355.

No comments:

Post a Comment