Recently I was searching some vast Internet bookstore’s database for the latest books about the Amish and the Mennonites. My search revealed countless cookbooks (lots of shoofly pie and apple butter), syrupy sweet romances, murder mysteries set in Amish country, and several journeys of the non-Amish into Amish communities, where they discover the simpler values and rhythms they’ve lost in our frenetic modern world. Most of the scholarly books are defenses or celebrations of the Amish way of life. In an abstract, genetic way, the Amish are "my people". I didn’t want facts or sentimental journeys; I wanted to find a body of Amish and Mennonite literature. I wanted Amish poetry; evidence of genius and complexity hiding beneath the plain people’s surface of beards and bonnets.
One rare example of Amish self-representation is The Amish in Their Own Words. This book compiles writings from 25 years of the Amish "Family Life" magazine, essays and letters written to debate values and share community history internally. Editor Brad Igou suggests that this book will combat mistaken notions about the Amish being either country bumpkins or "saintly people living in utopia." If you come to this collection, however, believing that Amish culture glorifies masochism and expends a great deal of energy policing its own simple lifestyle, these texts will probably not change your mind. A majority consist of warnings about the slippery slope. The slippery slope is pretty much everything: brightly colored linoleum, necking or petting before marriage, public schools, flesh-colored stockings, personal photographs, paperback romances and Westerns, tobacco, unnecessary reflectors and decorations on buggies, fancy baby clothes, factory jobs, and so on. The slippery slope leads down the road toward more liberal churches, cars, electricity, and eternal damnation. It can all start with untied hair coverings. "Cap strings flying loose on the down road to hell," as one Amish woman so eloquently puts it.
Did I say I wanted Amish poetry? Out to the barn with hubby to chore./ I help to get started, but not much more./ One by one the cows come in./ Scrape down the Misht [manure] where they’ve been./ Tie them and wash their udders clean./ Cows are contented, but one seems mean./ I head for the house and when I arrive,/ I glance at the clock; it’s after five!
At least it’s an "authentic" Amish poem. Any search for an Amish or Mennonite literature will be haunted by the problematic concept of authenticity. Is the writer a real, bona fide Old Order Amishman? Does she belong to a more liberal congregation that will allow her to put rubber tires on her tractor? Did he leave the church as a teenager? Is she a researcher who spent time living with the Amish, a neighboring farmer, an anthropologist who’s done research in the field, a filmmaker with a cursory interest in factual detail? Or is he, like me, the ex-Mennonite son of an ex-Amish father?
The Amish and Mennonites are all about boundaries. Both groups are Anabaptists, but since the Amish originally separated from the Mennonites in 1693, their traditions have been characterized by a continual splitting of churches, marking off the degree to which one community will compromise with "the world", its wars and job markets and gadgets. The most conservative and most visible are the Old Order Amish.
For a student of the Amish, this book contains a great deal of useful information. But I am not a student of the Amish. I grew up both in frightening proximity to the Amish and at a vast cultural remove. For me, the highlights of this book were its peaks of absurdity: the essay by a man who was impressed by Henry Kissinger’s role as a peacemaker (!), but felt that all of that was rendered pointless by the fact of his divorce, and the story of an attack on Jacob Hochstetler and his family by Native Americans in 1754. In this dramatization, Jacob is a brave pacifist who refuses to fight back, even as his son begs him to load the gun and protect them. The mother, daughter and one son are killed, while Jacob and two sons are taken captive. Jacob wonders if his wife was responsible for her own death for not having been more hospitable to the natives when they stopped by one day. He successfully avoids torture by offering the natives peaches. Still, he and his sons are separated. "Even if you forget everything else," he advises his sons, "remember your names and the Lord’s Prayer." The punch line comes after Jacob escapes and one day finds himself face to face with a tall native. The native introduces himself in broken German as Jacob’s son, Christian, who has been adopted by the native tribe. Quick, somebody sell the screenplay to Kevin Costner.
I find myself making "my people" into a joke, this search for an Amish literature the literary equivalent of David Letterman’s Top Ten Signs Your Amish Teen is in Trouble. ("His name is Jebediah, but he goes by ‘Jeb Daddy’".) Humor is a major use for the Amish in mainstream culture, relying largely on the perceived gap between Amish piety and the ways of the world. Amish culture is probably funnier, however, from a distance.
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"If you could look with us into that hovel which our son calls "home" you would see a long-haired creature wallowing in rock music, weird lights, pornography, TV, cigarettes, and beer," writes a distraught Amish mother in The Amish in their Own Words. Having lived near enough to hear such sentiment throughout my youth, a youth that resembled that hovel in many ways, I can’t help but sympathize with those who make their way out of the faith into the shadowy realms of the ex-Amish. Like my father, who became a Mennonite and so was never "shunned"; and like my aunt, who joined her husband’s one-man "Church of Christ with the Elijah Message", and was. A journey similar to hers is documented in Crossing Over: One Woman’s Exodus from Amish Life by Ruth Irene Garrett and ten more in True Stories of the X Amish, compiled by Ruth’s husband Ottie.
Amish, is that an ethnicity or is it a cult? For Ruth and Ottie, the Amish are a hypocritical society of sadistic discipline and perpetual surveillance. Their women and children are no more than slave laborers; Ruth even makes the claim that there is no word for "love" in Pennsylvania Dutch. Hers is a tale of liberation through the love of Ottie, an outsider who worked as a driver for the Amish, and made a living off Amish-themed calendars. She was "caught in a vortex of passion from which there was no return" and seduced by his suave phrases like "putting the pedal to the metal". Her journey would feel more exhilarating, however, if one didn’t detect in her narrative a move toward uncritical devotion to her husband’s ideals: patriotism, Country and Western music, guns, horse races, and chemical fertilizers. The first thing he has her do when they run off together is shave her legs.
When their illicit relationship resulted in their ostracism, and Ottie was cut off from his ability to make money off the Amish, they came up with the idea for True Stories of the X-Amish, with the words BANNED, SHUNNED, and EXCOMMUNICATED blazing across the giant X on the cover. A conformist society creates homogeneity, apparently, even in its rebels. The first five stories in the book are so similar as to be almost indistinguishable. These boys are beaten by their fathers, forced to work without compensation, rise way too early in the morning to milk the cows, run away with just a few dollars in their pockets, live with ex-Amish friends or relatives, and start listening to Country and Western music. A van load of stern Amish from their former communities tracks them down and pressures them to return. They long only for what "normal" American boys long for: cars, radios, and good times. They are astounded by the modern world of plumbing and restaurants.
After this, the book takes a decidedly more sinister turn, as, with one exception, the final chapters involve Amish men and women who leave their churches to become "born again". That the network of ex-Amish helping each other escape is compared more than once to the Underground Railroad gives you a sense of the tenor of these pieces. As compelling as these stories might be, their telling is hampered not only by the unrelenting bitterness which they are filtered through, a bitterness I get the distinct impression belongs to Ottie Garrett, but also by the unfortunate fact that the stories are poorly written. I wouldn’t want to marginalize the ex-Amish for not having passed through an MFA Program, and learned how to "show, not tell." Still, reading the book is a chore.
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Crafted works of fiction do exist which represent the Amish. One is Avoidance by Michael Lowenthal. As an outsider, Lowenthal runs the risk of writing another sentimental journey or anthropological tract. Instead, he uses the Amish as metaphors the way they usually use themselves: community vs. exclusion. The disruptions in narrator Jeremy’s life have left him clinging to Ironwood, a summer camp for boys. Jeremy is also drawn to the Amish, studying their communities and living for a period with an Amish family. He becomes a counselor at Ironwood, and becomes infatuated with a fourteen-year-old boy.
Through Lowenthal’s conflicted narrator, we see the nostalgia for Amish community mirroring the nostalgia for the world of a boy’s camp, a place equally controlled, equally imbued with a yearning for "nature" and old fashioned American values: clearly defined roles and authority. It probably isn’t really possible for a modern adult to love either a boy or the Amish, only a tangled web of projections and misrepresentations. Jeremy projects the same things onto both: innocence, earthy smells, an affinity with nature, and a mysterious non-verbal bonding. Even a thieving, drug addicted 14-year-old is fundamentally innocent; even an Amish man who shuns his closest family is blameless, operating under the mandates of a system imagined as the embodiment of love. During the silence at an Amish dinner table, words aren’t needed, just sensual presence; in the boy’s inarticulate gaps lies an unspoken love.
Jeremy can acknowledge that he once wanted to have sexual relationships with older men, but he avoids the possibility of his own boy, Max, saying so. The boy’s mother has AIDS and his best friend is gay. He possesses the vocabulary of sexual identity, so why not simply ask? But Lowenthal recognizes that an articulate, empowered gay youth is not what the fantasy is about: a nostalgia for secret male societies, unspoken desires, the shame and pleasure of "molestation"; very much like the fantasy of the Amish. If an Amishman or a boy could articulate their desire, they’d cease to be an Amishman or a boy.
Jeremy himself, at 28, lurks around the edges of modern notions of sexual identity. He never names himself as gay, never links his desires with a larger social body, its politics and health issues. Max is more politically conscious than Jeremy; Jeremy notes, almost wistfully, that Drown the Clown used to be Smear the Queer, before the camp became more politically correct. The games the boys and adults play at camp, variations on the theme of capture the flag, mirror the most profound games that have been imposed on the real world: warfare and religion. Dressed up in simplified vocabularies of darkness and light, God and Satan, Amish and shunned, the world underneath the stars is imagined as a battleground for the souls of adolescent boys, in which the real pleasure is seduction or sublimation, depending on which team you’re on.
For Jeremy, freedom is a messy business, full of ambiguous moral decisions, and conflicted loyalties. Seduce the boy or comfort him? Report a friend’s sexual crime or cover it up? A world free of such responsibilities can seem comforting. Freedom equals loneliness in this equation, and control equals a loving and omnipresent community. But Jeremy’s journey proves to be anything but sentimental. His desire to understand what it would be like to be shunned is involuntarily fulfilled, and he discovers the degree to which he has been using the image of the Amish, a fantasy of belonging, only to mask the depths of his own alienation.
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Mennonites don’t necessarily share the Amish hesitancy to self-represent; they have poets and conferences and anthologies. Janet Kauffman’s work places her as the foremost pioneer of Anabaptist lit. Rot is a dreamy novella that reads like a poem. Her narrator’s story of a Mennonite father crystallizes the issues and myths of Anabaptist thought. She juxtaposes a man who aspires to existence with as little effect as possible with his obsession: the great anti-Mennonite, Stalin. Stalin is ego and power and violence, everything her father wants not to be, but which he believes is a potential for every man. Her father wants to evaporate. He wants to turn plainer and plainer, until he is nothing. "The aim is dust to dust." Stalin was embalmed and publicly displayed; the narrator’s father will simply walk into the woods and die, alone and organic. His daughter both respects his goals and struggles against them. Like Kauffman’s previous novel Collaborators, with its subversive portrait of a Mennonite mother, this brief novel is heart breaking and fierce.
Kauffman is unpretentiously self-referential of her fiction’s fictitiousness, seamlessly blending history and myth. Stalin and his daughter are characters as real in this landscape of tobacco farms and brambles as her father’s mysterious friend Irene Iruskaiya, or I. "She is not a good person—she says she has no decency because it’s an obstacle to thought," notes the narrator of I., suggesting Kauffman’s own style of inquiry.
Through a dense yet spare language, Kauffman transforms the tenets of Anabaptist thought into a restrained dance, both of and against nothingness. In its restraint and its hush, it is all the more extreme. An extreme response to life is poetry, even an extremely "evil" response, such as Stalin’s. The brilliance of this book is the way it clarifies and elevates the poetic madness which is Anabaptist thought, an extreme weapon waged against the poetic madness of the world: dictators and murder and rebellious daughters and death.
Literature is as much about specificity as "universality". Rot doesn’t pretend to explain a community to outsiders, but welcomes readers into a psychic zone where they must fend for themselves. Her story doesn’t pretend to be about Mennonites as a people. In the process of examining one man’s idiosyncratic struggle with history and ideology, however, and one daughter’s struggle with both her own distorted image of that man and the man himself, Kauffman stakes out new territory.
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David Weaver-Zercher’s The Amish in the American Imagination shies away from the impossible task of creating an accurate representation of the Amish, and instead examines the ways representations of the Amish have been used. In the late thirties, coming out of an era when the Amish were more commonly viewed as suspicious and backward aliens, there was an upsurge in representations. In an era of increasing government involvement through the New Deal, and with an increasingly urban population, the Amish became symbols of declining American values and a simpler life: more rural, self-reliant, and unadorned with the flashy styles of modernity. The "folk" and "folk traditions" were being threatened, and the Amish were seen as one of the last hold-outs, virtuous keepers of an essential Americanness.
One fantasy is that the Amish, with their particular mix of antiquated technologies, social control, and religious belief live the way all of us used to; another is that the past itself was a simple and innocent time; another is that the Amish are a static community, immune to change. By the fifties, these fantasies were being cached into profits through the Lancaster County tourist trade, the popular musical "Plain and Fancy", theme parks like Dutch Wonderland, and tour buses with guides to interpret the customs of the natives. The newfound industry played on the idea that the Amish represented a sort of living museum. Some tourists still get confused when they discover that the Amish aren’t paid by the state to act out their roles.
Particular themes have prevailed in Amish imagery from "Plain and Fancy" to 1985’s film Witness. Both involve outsiders who find themselves among the Amish and benefit from incorporating Amish values. But in both, the enrichment is a two-way street. In "Plain and Fancy", the outsiders help mediate the excesses of a harsh Amish discipline. In Witness, Kelly McGillis, has her simple Amish life enriched by dancing to "What a Wonderful World" with Harrison Ford. In both productions the Amish are viewed as a "saving remnant." The line is never clearly drawn between the ability to live a rural, family-centered, socially stable lifestyle and the harsher mechanisms of social control. Viewers are offered an affirmation of a happy, imaginary past to be learned from, at the same time they are subtly reassured that it isn’t tenable. Witness seems to condemn the violence of the modern world, but ultimately reaffirms violence as a harsh virtue that is required to save "the innocent".
Witness inspired protests, led by Amish scholar John Hostetler, because of its perceived exploitation and misrepresentation of the Amish. Hostetler, an ex-Amish Mennonite, expressed fears that the film was "a milestone on the path of absolute destruction of Amish culture". His interest in preservation was clearly more panicked than that of the Amish themselves. What could a mere movie do to a community that had survived centuries of torture and martyrdom? For Weaver-Zercher, the conflict raised the issues of who claims to speak for a community that barely speaks for itself, and the unreality of a singular "Amish position" on issues.
Weaver-Zercher examines the way Mennonites like Hostetler often experience a more intense relationship to the idea of a shared past. Many Mennonites have been raised Amish, so the mix of nostalgia for lost traditions and the desire to reject that tradition as untenable is strong. Hostetler’s work celebrated Amish values, using the Amish to promote small communities, social cohesion, and rural lifestyles. A different relationship can be seen in the career of Clara Bernice Miller, another Amish-raised Mennonite, who wrote novels in the sixties and seventies which treated Amish life as restrictive and harsh, oblivious to the true essence of Christianity. The conflict between these visions was played out in the seventies, when Herald Press, Miller’s Mennonite publishing house, published an unflattering novel about the Amish, Dan Niedermyer’s Jonathan, the story of a rebellious Amish teen. Hostetler also led the attack on this book, which involved charges of inauthenticity; Niedermyer had never been Amish, but had only lived near the Amish. With letter-writing campaigns and boycott threats, Hostetler shut down future printings of Jonathan and the planned publication of Amish Soldier, another tale of dogmatic Amish and rebellious teens. Since this debacle, Herald Press has limited its Amish publications to those syrupy sweet Amish-themed romances that cropped up so abundantly during my Internet search.
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The Mennonite and Amish diaspora in America is a small world. Ruth Irene Garrett grew up in the same Iowa community as my father. He knew her father. Novelist Clara Bernice Miller sometimes attended my childhood church. I was encouraged to read her books, but even at twelve they seemed too wholesome and earnest. I didn’t think Mennonite fiction could be real literature.
If the major players in these books aren’t my actual cousins, they look like my cousins and have the same names as my cousins. The possible narratives seem equally constrained. Like Ruth Garrett, my aunt married a divorced man, and was placed "in the ban". In "Plain and Fancy", two New Yorkers, Dan and Ruth, travel to Lancaster and end up staying overnight with the Amish. Like me, Dan was a writer. Like me, Dan’s grandparents had been Amish. Unlike me, he had a heterosexual relationship with a "sharp-tongued" girlfriend, and unlike me, he had an interest in re-connecting with his heritage. He mediates the humorous chasm between Ruth’s stylishness and the "simple honest values" of the Amish. Years ago, when I took my partner Jonathan—San Francisco born and raised--to meet some of my Amish family, there were plenty of humorous chasms, but little effort in bridging them from either side.
My father never encouraged anything but respect for the Amish. Still, as a child, I had no use for my relatives. I was enamored of modernity: images and electricity and violent men. At 19 I found a use, however, similar to those who’ve used them to warn "us" how far we’ve strayed: I used them instead to impress myself with the degree to which I’d fallen. If my friends were also drug dealers, it was less astonishing because their grandparents weren’t Amish.
In a much less abstract way than with the Amish, the Mennonites are "my people", even as an "ex". Mennonites have embraced the world the Amish reject, but the world hasn’t really returned the interest. Mennonites aren’t so quaint or picturesque. They drive cars and don’t dress so funny. Mennonites sometimes use their Amish cousins to gain attention, to set themselves up as explainers of the exotic, and to make money doing so, with scholarly books or Bay Guardian book reviews. I find myself using the Amish the way Sebastian used Katherine Hepburn, in Suddenly Last Summer: to attract.
Despite my distance from those worlds, the familiarity of the names and faces and images in these books created a strange mix of emotions: nostalgia and pity and horror and relief. If we believe that misrepresentation is oppression, and non-representation is poverty, are my emotional responses to this familiarity a form of liberation? Is a search for a literature necessarily a search for representations and identity?
At 19, hanging an Amish quilt—a gift from my grandmother--on my dorm wall for its hallucinogenic patterns allowed me to forge an identity around the degree of my fall and the irony of my heritage. The image was abstract; identity a complicated process. As a gay man, I am familiar with the sense of alienation that can come from non-representation. I am also familiar with the way over-representation can kill thought by draining our memories of complexity and encouraging us to plug our experiences into easily digestible formulas. I’m not sure if I really wanted to find an Amish literature at all, or if, perhaps, I wanted to reassure myself that such a thing could never exist, except in my own imagination.