Mennonites and Amish, with their dual-kingdom theological traditions and church/world separatist models, have oft labeled individuals according to insider/outsider status. One is either "in" the church and its ethnic lineage, or one is "out" of the church and community, holding neither membership nor ancestral ties. Sometimes persons move from one status to another; usually the movement is from inclusion to marginality. As a pure dichotomy, the insider/outsider framework is a simplistic and false way of portraying the unsettled way in which individuals position themselves and are positioned in relation to the group. Nor does it address the dynamic aspect of self-definition, whereby individuals zigzag across psychological and sociological boundaries.
In her exploration of the life of Joseph W. Yoder, author Julia Kasdorf well recognizes the mistake of fixing people either inside or outside of the group with which they are associated, as the subtitle of Fixing Tradition reveals. Joseph Yoder is not Amish or American, he is Amish American. He was simultaneously in and out and his life filled with "lines of departure and return."
Yoder, best-known as author of Rosanna of the Amish (1940), was a complex individual with multiple identities that shifted according to the changing contexts of his life and the influences bearing upon him. While Yoder himself attempted to "fix" the tradition of the Amish, to try to fix any one label to Yoder is folly and Kasdorf excels at demonstrating the ways in which Yoder continually reinvented himselfas Amish, as Irish, as a man, as a teacher, as a writer, as a musician, as an ideologue.
A person with distinct idiosyncracies and unique responses, Yoder was nevertheless also a product of a particular social era. Kasdorf models an approach to writing ethno-religious history that situates individuals and events within diverse circles of influence, ranging in Yoders case from his cloistered Amish family and community to the organizational and ideological spheres that shaped the progressive era in early twentieth century America. She demonstrates how Yoder was inspired by the highly gendered reform movement called "muscular Christianity" that promoted physical health and athleticism alongside a militaristic evangelicalism. Unmarried for most of his life, Yoder was representative of a larger societal culture of autonomous, gentlemanly bachelors. Later in life, Yoders modernist sensibilities were vehemently directed at specific issues, like the Amish-Mennonite womans head covering and the inscription of Amish hymn tunes. His ongoing interest in creative educational models also connected him to broader reform movements.
Fixing Tradition is biography and social history written with the literary sensitivity of a poet. The text is a rich mixture of the "fact" offered up by archival research and the creative imagination a biographer must bring to her subject to bring him to life. Readers may not be drawn to like Yoder; he seems arrogant, opinionated, self-centeredactually situating himself at the center of every group photographyet a certain identification with his life struggles is unavoidable.
Indeed, upon reading the books thoughtful epilogue, one understands why Kasdorf was drawn to explore Yoders life. Growing up in the same geographical and cultural environment as Yoder, and sharing his artistic proclivities, Kasdorf has felt both the pull of embrace and disdain for the conformist, undemonstrative "plain" people. As someone whose profession includes teaching and writing about Mennonites, I could relate to Yoders occasional zeal to correct misplaced perceptions and stereotypes and "get the story right," fully realizing that I, like Yoder, bring my own interpretive biases to the task. With equal intensity I could identify with his desire to distance himself from that story and envy the "other" (regrettably I dont have an Irish ancestor).
Yoders famous book about the Amish was described as a "hybrid of biography, history, and autobiography." Kasdorfs reflection on the process of writing this book might lead one to use the same terms to describe Fixing Tradition. As such, it offers wonderful insight into Kasdorf, Yoder, and a unique era of Amish-Mennonite American history.
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