Fixing Tradition

Fixing Tradition, by Julia Kasdorf, is a biography of Joseph W. Yoder (1872-1956), author of Rosanna of the Amish. Kasdorf was a heroic shapeshifter who in his lifetime journey acted from a variety of personas. Born of an Irish mother and an Amish father, he was raised in the Amish tradition, but positioned himself variously as representative of either or both ethnic traditions. How he chose to identify himself in the outside world was always influenced by his desire to be accepted by and considered a part of the Amish culture. However, he consistently took on roles which were outside the bounds of “being Amish” – as an avid student and reader, poet and writer, a transcriber of Amish traditional music, a music teacher, a promoter of higher education, a devotee of physical culture, a practitioner of a “muscular Christianity” that promoted physical health and athleticism as well as a militaristic evangelism, and in his later life, as an ideological critic of Amish tradition.

At several points in his life he was poised on the brink of leaving Amish culture more fully. For example, in 1905, at the age of 33, he was packing his trunk to go to Harvard to study journalism, but the gravity of his upbringing and relationships with the Amish and Mennonites—which he experienced as an actual physical force which weakened his body—kept him from springing out of his familiar orbits. Going to Harvard would have represented his final step into “the world”—instead he decided to stay with his people and teach music.

In Amish culture, with its strong “dual kingdom” theology, one is either “in” the church and the ethnic lineage, or “out” of church and community. Yoder was a strong individual who defied these traditional categorizations to make his own life, but who consistently made his “Amishness” a point of reference. He retained his relationships with his Amish family and community, saying later in life that this had been an attempt to prove to his community of origin that his education had not caused him to “lose his soul.” The paradox of his life was that in his novel, Rosanna of the Amish he tried to fix—as in preserve—a positive image of the Amish, yet a lack of positive feedback from the Amish to this work of fiction eventually led him to attempt to fix—as in mend or repair—the Amish themselves.

A fascinating aspect of this ethnographic case study is that the researcher and author, Julia Kasdorf, is herself of the Anabaptist tradition, and that she returned to her heritage as a way of exploring the tensions between communal social constraints and her own calling as a writer.

Fixing Tradition: Joseph W. Yoder, Amish American by Julia Kasdorf

Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, copublished with Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002; 280 pp.; notes, credits and identification, interviews and special archives, timeline, maps, index; ISBN 1-931038-06-6 trade paper $33.95.

Review by Joanna Wiebe,  first published in the Journal of the Communal Studies Association

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