American Literary Regionalism and the Authenticity of Place:

Reading Rosanna

Nestled in the ridge and valley landscape of northern Appalachia is the tiny Central Pennsylvania town of Belleville. Heading west out of Belleville on Main Street, just before the brick Locust Grove Mennonite Church, Wills Road meanders to the left, and, rounding a corner alongside the Kishacoquillas Creek, a cemetery comes into view. The weathered stones record the history of the Kishacoquillas “Big” Valley–Bylers, Hartzlers, Hostetlers, Kanagys, and Yoders are among the dead. One of those weathered stones records the final resting place of Rosana, Wife of Christian Z. Yoder, 1837 - 1895. She is a celebrity, known throughout the Amish and Mennonite world and beyond to tourists as the epitome of Amish virtues. The stone erected upon her death does not warrant any special attention, though, for she was not a celebrity in her lifetime. The world knows Rosana, Wife of Christian Z. Yoder, because of her son Joseph–and that fact is immortalized with the recent addition of a stone plaque on top of her grave, inscribed: Rosanna McGonegal Yoder of Rosanna of the Amish. Nearby rests her son Joseph, recorded on his own stone as Author of Rosanna of the Amish.

Yoder and the Authenticity of Place

Just over three decades before Yoder wrote Rosanna of the Amish, Helen Reimensnyder Martin published Sabina: A Story of the Amish and introduced mainstream America to an awfully backward Amish folk:

You think that there dude’s walkin’ up there – he sayed he was goin’ fur a walk. Mebbe you was goin’ to walk along with him, like I sayed, if I hadn’t of come over?

Martin’s Amish and Mennonite characters were illiterate, folksy, and peculiar. As increasingly more tourists began pouring into Lancaster County and national interest in the Amish of Pennsylvania began to grow, several profited as cultural liaisons through their writings of Amish and Mennonite life. Mennonite writer Joseph Yoder felt that the way of life he grew up with was falsely portrayed through the popular writings of Helen Reimensnyder Martin and others, like A. Monroe Aurand, Ruth Linniger Dobson, and the playwrights of several Amish- and Mennonite-themed performances on Broadway. Finally, in 1938, Joseph Yoder penned a response to Dobson’s Straw in the Wind–the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back:

…being Amish born, raised Amish and still belong to the Amish Church, I wish to protest against the many misrepresentations in that novel.

Two years later, the Mennonite author published the account–the true account, as he contested–of his mother’s life. In essence, Yoder had joined the world of local color or regional writing alongside Martin and Dobson. Unlike their attempts at capturing Amish and Mennonite life in America, he sought to polarize their folksy, outsider accounts with his intimate, authoritative knowledge. On a linguistic level, Yoder matched the linguistic finesse of fellow regional writer Elsie Singmaster. He created the landscape for his readers through poignant use of Amish verbal repertoire with actual Pennsylvania Dutch: Ya, well, ich bin zufridde ‘Yes, well, I’m satisfied’ and Hab ich mich recht aagschickt ‘Did I behave right.’ Additionally, he included cultural terms without equivalents in English, e.g., Schtecklimann, ‘go-between used to present a marriage proposal to the parent’s of the bride’ and Abrot ‘council of ministers before worship service.’ In stark contrast to the other local colorists, he strategically incorporated dialectal terms to show intimacy between the characters or to enhance the contrast between insider and outsider speech. Completely unlike the other local colorists, Yoder employed terms that were common to Central Pennsylvania English, e.g., redd up the place, the flittin’, and haps. In so doing, Yoder presented the reader with a cultural landscape that was different, yet not bizarre and sensational. He created a regional story leaning on his own authenticity of the place and of the content.

Beyond the linguistic elements, the content served to instruct readers on the customs of the Amish without the sensationalism of earlier writers. He sought to write his mother’s story–and his own story–as truth. Today, we know that Rosanna is better described as “autoethnographic” or “creative nonfiction”–to borrow terms from Yoder scholar Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Elements of his story were likely remembered incorrectly or perhaps fabricated. And, although the content was ground-breaking at the time in presenting the actual customs of Amish society, the text has been replaced with scholarly contributions on Amish society in print, online, and televised media. What, then, is Rosanna’s relevance today?

Teaching Rosanna

As a graduate student at Penn State University, I had the opportunity to teach a large lecture course on the Pennsylvania Dutch sectarian groups. In addition to historical, sociological, and anthropological texts about the Amish and Mennonites, we also had students read Rosanna of the Amish. The reasoning seemed plain enough: the book is an easy and enjoyable read and it conveys aspects of Amish life very simply. The theme of “place” carried over well from Yoder’s writing to our classroom. Yoder, writing as an American regional writer, seemed a fitting classroom component given that Penn State’s own Professor Pattee, namesake of the library just yards from our classroom, was the first professor of American Literature in the country. He had written early on about local color writing and even tried his own hand at it using Central Pennsylvania as a backdrop as well.

Moreover, Penn State is merely ten miles from the book’s early setting in Half Moon Valley and about thirty miles from the main setting in Big Valley. For me, writing my dissertation on religious and linguistic change in Big Valley through oral history interviews, I was able to supplement the reading of Rosanna with the current information about the setting and provide first-hand account of its history and residents. Yoder scholar Julia Spicher Kasdorf was only steps away on campus and came to share her knowledge about Mennonite writer Joseph W. Yoder. Students in the course were very receptive to Rosanna. They loved the relationship that grows between Rosanna and Momli in the text; often they would hold on to the book to gift it for Christmas a few weeks after the end of the fall semester. Many of the students in the course were local, first-generation students. They lived in Big Valley or in neighbouring towns. They grew up going to Belleville’s Wednesday farm, livestock and produce sales. They knew the mountains which encase the Valley simply as Front and Back, not as Jack and Standing Stone as they are named on maps. For them, just as Yoder’s own childhood gave his work authenticity, their own Central Pennsylvanian childhoods became more authentic and woven into the story of minority culture in the United States. These students recognized places and terms and, although most did not have Amish or Mennonite backgrounds, they discovered that their own ways of living were special and unusual in a mainstream American light. Rosanna worked well in that lecture hall on Penn State’s campus.

Four years ago, however, I landed at a new position in the Midwest. Incidentally, there are some Amish from Central Pennsylvania and also from Lancaster here, but they are the minority among larger settlements of Midwestern Amish groups. I decided to offer a course on Amish culture here and it became very popular, particularly with nursing students who realized that they would probably be working with Amish and Mennonite patients in their future careers. When I started to put the syllabus together, I wondered how or if I could even incorporate Rosanna. At first, I said no. Rosanna worked in Central Pennsylvania because of Yoder, because of Pattee, because of Kasdorf, because of Big Valley. It would never work here at this university–after all, we are not near Belleville, we are near the Mall of America. I taught the course and, despite positive reviews, realized at the end that perhaps Rosanna would have contributed immensely to the classroom.

The next semester I decided to include it and, instead of focusing on the cultural landscape as familiar, I focused on the text as integral to the history of the Anabaptists in the United States. I presented information about Joseph Yoder and had the students read the book. They enjoyed it as a simple story, but we took the cursory examination further. Beyond the content, we discussed why Yoder wrote the book. We looked at Martin and Dobson, students gave their impressions, and then we examined Yoder in the light of his response to these early regional writers. Yoder wrote Rosanna at a crucial point in the Amish story in North America, at a crucial moment of increased tourism and increased interactions with this culture. Discussions created more questions to enable us to critically engage with the text as a product of its time. Why didn’t the Amish themselves present their own identities to mainstream American culture? How were the Amish mediated to the public through literature before Yoder? How did he change that? How are the Amish still mediated to the public through other media, i.e., through television and reality series and “bonnet ripper” books? How might Yoder respond today? The book served more than just the quaint story of Rosanna McGonegal Yoder. It became the springboard for questions and discussions on the reception and portrayal of the Amish in mainstream American society. With popular television shows like Amish Mafia and the popularity of author Beverly Lewis, Yoder’s work is still relevant today as an artifact of early cultural and reactionary liaising between the Amish and the world.

Additionally, Rosanna grew into our class’ springboard for discussion about the diversity of the Anabaptists. The vast majority of my students come with the impression that all Amish are the same–that all of those buggies they see along Route 29 toward Green Bay are Amish and not, as they most likely are, Groffdale Mennonite. Rosanna grew up in the Amish church in Belleville, yet the cemetery where she is buried is now associated with a Mennonite church. I show the strong contrasts between the worship services portrayed by Yoder and how the church now uploads digital sermons to its website. Students very quickly undo their misconception that Anabaptists are frozen in time. I use the oral history interviews that are now housed at the Belleville Mennonite Heritage Center to show students the individuals who attend churches in the Valley and how they have changed throughout their lifetimes. In listening to their narratives, students are able to connect a small place in Central Pennsylvania to their own lives.

Yoder wrote the story of his mother’s life as a response to the regional writers before him. He created a story that he defended as truth and painted a landscape that leaned on his own authority. The place and the story became authentic for readers. Just as Rosanna resonated with students in Central Pennsylvania because of its authenticity of place as regional literature, it continues to resonate miles away as an example of literary mediation of Amish society and serves to highlight the diversity of a group oft portrayed as monolithic.

About the Author

Joshua R. Brown

Joshua R. Brown, Ph.D. teaches in the Department of Languages, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he is Assistant Professor of German and an affiliate faculty member in the Women’s Studies program. With Julia Kasdorf he co-edited Rosanna of the Amish: The Restored Text (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009).