Joseph W. Yoder, Amish American
by Julia Kasdorf
Post Your Opinion
by Maurice Mierau
Who's the bestselling writer of Mennonite origin in North America? Most Canadian readers would assume the answer is Rudy Wiebe. However, the bestselling book of all time by a Mennonite writer is Rosanna of the Amish, by Joseph W. Yoder, first published in 1940 and now over the 400,000 mark in sales. Rosanna is in many ways the Anne of Green Gables of the Amish; it romanticizes and defends Amish community life while also telling a compelling individual story. Julia Kasdorf, an American writer and academic of Amish background, has written a biography of Yoder that does an admirable job of telling his story in a specific cultural context.
Kasdorf tells us in an author's preface that "I believed [Yoder] might exemplify how anyone from an ethnic or traditional background can become an artist without breaking ties with his place and people of origin." Kasdorf herself has achieved recognition as a poet who writes out of her Amish American background. She goes on to say that as she discovered how strained many of Yoder's relationships were in the Amish American community, she then was "more interested in understanding how this particular Amish-born individual became an American, engaged in public life and discourse, even as he maintained conversations with individuals from his community of birth."
Yoder was born in 1872 in an Amish village in Pennsylvania. Kasdorf reveals how Yoder mythologized his own life in Rosanna of the Amish. He begins in the preface by claiming that everything in the novel is factual and that nearly all the characters are personally known to him; Rosanna is his mother. Then he invents Irish parents for Rosanna in an elaborate and historically improbable inter-mixing of Amish and Irish bloodlines. He uses the ethnic stereotype of the excitable, emotional Irishman to explain why a repressed, plain-dressing Amish person like himself would be so unrepressed, so obsessed with music, such a snappy dresser, and so prone to unchristian outbursts of anger.
Yoder spent most of his career as a self-employed itinerant choir leader and music teacher, spreading harmony singing and musical literacy all over rural Pennsylvania. He introduced classical choral music to thousands of rural Mennonites and Amish people in a large geographic area. Yoder also had a career as a fundraiser for a church-run school, and a briefer career as an athletic director at another school. He left the Amish church of his parents as a young man and joined a slightly more liberal Mennonite church, but always had trouble fitting in. At the age of sixty, Yoder married a Presbyterian woman named Emily Lane who actively supported women's suffrage and the temperance movement.
Yoder became an author because of his reaction to the ongoing popularity of "local color" novels such as Helen R. Martin's Tillie: A Mennonite Maid and Ruth Dobson's Straw in the Wind. These books portrayed Yoder's own 'Pennsylvania Dutch' (i.e. Amish) people in a very stereotyped way, and Yoder wrote Rosanna largely as a corrective aimed at fixing the perception of his community in the eyes of mainstream America.
Emerging as he did from a deeply patriarchal culture, it is interesting that Yoder made a woman the main character of his novel, and also that he was interested in women's issues: he portrays Rosanna as being deprived of an education because of her gender, and late in his life he wrote a book denouncing the "prayer veil" or head covering that is required for women in traditional Amish churches. In his youth, Yoder was fascinated with "muscular Christianity," that odd amalgam of physical fitness, religion, and jingoism. He read Bernarr McFadden's Physical Culture magazine, whose covers look to a jaundiced modern eye like gay porn. Kasdorf shows how McFadden's magazine reflected turn-of-the-century anxiety about masculinity in a society where women were slowly being liberated, where much of the rural population was getting educated and urbanized, and where America was starting to extend itself as an imperial power. Yoder's Amish community was pacifist and sports and gymnastics were not part of their culture, and so his obsession with muscular Christianity was controversial.
Fixing Tradition is illustrated with a large number of interesting archival photographs, and has a useful index, map, and timeline. It is marred by shoddy copy-editing (I counted fifteen grammatical and typographic errors in the body of the text).
Kasdorf's biography is especially good at showing the contradictions in Yoder's life. A cranky idealist who wanted to reform his backward, sectarian community, he also served as an apologist for this community in the larger world; he was a music teacher whose biggest success was an autobiographical novel, and a musicologist who transcribed Amish hymns for people who thought his project was a waste of time. Many of his interests, like his passion for organic farming, seem as contemporary as the paradoxes in his life. Fixing Tradition is a timely reminder that a life can tell many stories and still speak in one voice, without fixing anything. ò