A Case in Point
German sources of Pennsylvania Dutch thinking survived into the 20th century. Noah Mack, son of Mennonite Bishop Andrew Mack (1836-1917) says all his father’s speaking “reading and meditations were in German” (Mack, 4). “In preaching Bro. Mack used the scriptural German language well, which the German people enjoyed to hear much better than the Pennsylvania German’ (Mack, 7). But the lateness of the Bishop’s non-English usage limited his outreach, a product of his age and place because he was a youth in the beginning of the free school movement and because “in the community where his family grew up the Pennsylvania German language was so generally spoken than no one who remained in that section at the time learned to speak the English fluently” (Mack, 11). Personal motives also contribute, for “another cause for him not attempting to learn English was his deep sense of correct speech and definiteness of expression. In himself he had developed well the real German” (Mack, 12).
Andrew’s younger brother Henry shows what a difference 18 years makes. Henry spoke and wrote English fluently from the start. Andrew Mack certainly saw the need for English, he sent Noah to a school where everyone spoke it: “he never lamented much, but it was noticeable that he much regretted the fact that in many places his services were no more practicable nor desirable because of the German barring him from being understood.”
The expectation of German among these people was strong. A kind of German undertow overwhelms Noah writing in 1939, who spoke English his entire life. His English is generally clear, but when he speaks of this dialect problem he lapses into incomprehension: “At a time the remark was made in the home; had we begun to talk English when there was one member of the family who could talk it and who taught it in school, who was in the home yet at the time; then father you could talk English too now. For he was only about forty years old when he sent his oldest son [Noah] to the English school.” Andrew Mack's response to the question of speaking English, in untranslated form, assuming his readers understand it, is: “Yah over the Leut hette ghsawt, seht overmowl der Hochmuth, der Mack un sei Buva schwetza Englisch” (11) [Yes, but the people said, 'look again at the attitude, Mack and his boy are talking / talk English.'] (courtesy of Joseph Salmons). Prior to 1900 Pennsylvania Dutch natives spoke and understood some species of German. A surprising percentage still used German only, making them in Weygandt’s terms, “the most conservative people in America” (5), meaning that “people are doing there what they did in the days before the Mexican War” (5).
Speaking English was complicated by religion. From 1880 to 1900 the pull of German was strong. “In the mind of the older people in the church, English was considered almost a synonym for pride,” Noah Mack writes. “So it was the opposition to the English language sixty years ago [from his time of writing, 1939] was so strong in the plain churches and others too” (Mack, 11). That is, Mennonite “realism” conditioned the notion that speaking English was a pretense, because it was pretending to be something you were not. First a brother might speak English, but then came fancy dress, maybe an idea outside his own culture, followed also by reluctance to submit to the fellowship. Fancy language makes for fancy thought. The contradictions and conflicts of their identity were complex and widespread.
For Andrew Mack, already forty four in 1880, with a ministry, a family, a trade and a farm, learning English would have required sacrificing something else dear, especially learning it well enough to suit his own high standards. Noah seems a little severe with his father in this respect, taking the view that learning English is a moral good, which means that it was that for Noah. [Andrew Mack] “seemingly would not muster courage to attempt to use a language which he knew he could use but very poorly to begin with. In the five years above referred to, Father Mack and the rest of the family could have gotten a good start in the English language but sentiment from without and fear from within prevented all of the family from thinking about such a thing as talking English to the family...” (12).
3. Example from the Next Generation
Allegations that the English invented racism and spread it as a virus to other white new world immigrant groups, superceding their belief systems of acceptance of the stranger, true of many Pennsylvania groups, are the product of long meditation upon paradoxes expressed by native informants, to speak the sociology of it.
This understanding was a long time forming against the myriad sources of disbelief opposing such a proposition, for certainly no such idea was ever expressly uttered or implied from the sources. The opposite was the case. English was seen as the culture of choice, implying that all of art, education and desirable sophistication was English and the native German of no repute was to be rejected. Such statements and judgments were taken at face value for the longest time, but ultimately did not explain the mass of data and artifacts collected. Questions arose from the investigations then as to why such contradictory feelings existed that rejected their own past even while they could not outlive it, yet felt that they were culturally inferior. Anyone who has lived in American cultures besides the English sees this habit in full bloom in alcoholism among Indians and historic insecurity in many forms among hispanics and blacks. Truly the only exit from this oppression is confrontation even if it comes late.
The Prejudice Against the Body
Let it be said withal that English defamations of Indians, Germans and Irish were more famously a personification of the English themselves. Psychological pictures of Indians and wild men represented the Puritan fear that they sought to keep from entering outposts and towns. Such self prejudice was transferred to the Pennsylvania Dutch. Caricature, parody and shame, before the offer of assimilation, converted Dutch shame into a lingering symbol, alleged upon both their speech and physiognomy, to indict the universal peasant identified with New England’s dark nature.
If you were a German peasant you were ridiculed as being short, powerful and close to the ground. As the “realistic” Dutch subject might say, “short legs and powerful thighs are better for digging with shovels.” Humpty Dumpty would have nothing on this perfect peasant, round and stupid. The chain of association made short thighs and brutish body stand for a brutish mind. The Pennsylvania German mind, all along the target of the cultural war, was thus degraded by association with physiognomy. Short thighs equaled a short brain! The Dutchman was not supplied with cardinal virtues, but shamed with retrograde stubbornness, pride and separateness, irritating, petty and just plain thick headed, symbolized by fiction as late as 1942 inthe house frau, die Mem, the rough skinned ignorant universal farmer’s wife.
Apple in the Attic
Such an image of brutishness among an indefinite number occurs in Apple in the Attic: A Pennsylvania Legend, pervasive as late as 1942. Its heroine Emma is so dominated and peasantized she doesn’t even know she is pregnant as she compounds her fears with superstition. Apple in the Attic briefs the whole pantheon of stereotypes against the Pennsylvania German from the angry brutish husbands to the ugly broken skin and calloused hands of the wife.
It reads right out our informant’s feelings against Dutch language, customs and people, the product of the English/German cultural war. The only difference is that Elizabeth and her mother Anna were together in the front ranks striving for the rights and equality of women against these forces, even if they missed the greater English domination. In the novel Emma’s child Flora was the exact person Elizabeth abhorred being, “brought up on pap as a baby, soon graduated to sauerkraut and pretzels” (134). So while the novel panders stereotypes, and Emma in her attic of seclusion justifies them, they have nothing whatever to do with the real person. This Elizabeth, not of Her German Garden, a would be physician, never spoke a word in dialect, even if her mother understood it and her grandfather. A notable exception in this effort to overthrow English stereotypes was her mother’s stepmother, for grandfather Henry had remarried after his first wife died. The second wife was everything a stepmother is feared to be. Anna, the only daughter and the oldest, bore the brunt of government. We can hear it in Emma’s words above, “stop your vashing to change again zem didies” (122), but that’s more than taking the part for the whole.
Die mem had two more sons with Grandfather Henry after that who, while they achieved the peasant anatomy, being a little stout as she would say, were really smart and highly principled men, Philip Mack the millionaire, Harvey Mack, fulfilling his Mennonite vocation as an ambulance driver in WWI and afterward in the reconstruction of France.
This was replayed countless times across Pennsylvania before 1942, from the doll Flora wanted (165) to the Mother who is even more desperate to give it to her, a replica of Anna, to the hands, “tools of a farmer’s wife…these were not a woman’s hands, for they were too gross to be gentle” (144). Anna had had but one doll in childhood, given by her deceased mother, but showered dolls upon her daughters and when they were grown persisted as a folk doll artist, making doll clothes galore and giving many shows. Elizabeth, early a confirmed realist, naturally cared little for them.
Though temporarily vexed by her circumstances Anna still inherited the innate nobility of her Mack forebearers, those uncontentious gracious musicians and teachers, a side of the Pennsylvania German that English prejudice ignored from Franklin forward. If fleeing the farm was the message of the English, Anna got it and left. People have been reluctant to much admit this ethnic prejudice, but were victims of it, all the while internalizing it more.
It’s easy today to be facetious about such attitudes. Elizabeth’s own defense against the imposed peasant stereotypes and norms was caustic humor. Her approach-avoidance of folk life and folk art was like to her ambivalence the stereotyped uneducated Mennonite. She called herself “a mashed potato baby,” made it a negative myth of childhood that her people were all peasants with stubby fingers, thick thighs and heavy accents. This English loathing was translated in sayings like, “mashed potatoes were a substitute for mother’s milk for Pennsylvania Germans.”
“They called me chubby baby.”
“My legs were slightly uneven making me a little clumsy.”
“I wasn’t muscular.”
“I was a mashed potato baby.”
>She had a surgeon’s hands and mind but denied it: “I have peasant hands, short stubby fingers.”
The prejudice was not all learned; some was experienced in high school after WW I, vaguely suspect of being Germanic, she felt implicated in the lingering prejudice of supposed 5th column movements, further efforts to destablize the republic, as well as by the failure of Mennonites to baptize infants as all her friends had been done.
So even if the men of the Mack family were tall and finely tuned as they were, she charged them with shortness. "Henry had suits made to order. He was long from the waist to the knee, had heavy thighs." But Henry was a lousy farmer. “They weren’t athletes." Her nephew and his family were the only athletes she had heard of. She did not live to see her great nephew Andrew compete in the USTA Super Nationals. She also included her other grandfather in this indictment, defendant Jacob L. and his son, Howard, her father, storekeepers, “stocky, thick.” None of this was applied much however to the women, except herself.
“My family never had any growth spurts.”
“It’s an ethnic thing,” she maintained.
"I have a peasant body."
As though she foresaw this concern over the vexation of the body and wanted to further document it, she wrote, “my grandparents were farmers, but both my mother and my father had moved from Berks County to the city before they married in 1906. I was born in Philadelphia and attended Philadelphia schools, but I can claim all the virtues as well as the shortcomings of the Pennsylvania Dutch. One writer says ‘they have their admirable features including frugality, tenacity and an extraordinary sense of community, but they can be irritating, petty and just plain thick headed as most of their neighbors will testify at length.
At the end of that talk she gave at Strathaven High School in 1991 the virtues and shortcomings were still in conflict. She said, “as times have changed, we have stopped feeling inferior because of our peasant ancestry.” But that is the point, for they did not.
Her facetious boasting of opposites is doubtless another sign of intelligence, for she made English prejudice a joke, crowed that her people had been peasants born of peasants before Charlemagne. Teasing, she would look down the nose to see if one believed it. Of course, aping the peasant has been good business for artists since the Impressionists who went native, but even in poverty, even in the country, on the farm, artists have no doubt who the true aristocrats are, that is themselves, those who see, hear and think things the plebeian can't, the immense world of delight compassed by the senses five.So her insistent claim to peasant hood was always a high class put on, yet insisted upon to the end. Sure, her grandfather, Henry Mack, did a tour on the farm, but her mother Anna escaped and this daughter never milked a cow.
Reconcile the Paradox
If you reconcile these paradoxes you have the case in point, the last Dutchman of nine generations of vested folk identity and an artist trained and meticulous who negates both. That almost makes her more interesting than if she had affirmed both. Of course she denies this in interesting ways because her folk nature and the credentials of eye and mind persist.
We can undeniably generalize this as an identity conflict and take it that such contradiction results from the shame and prejudice directed against us all when we are living contradictions and affirmations of ourselves, our families and our physical and mental beings. But if we are going to excavate the folk identity beneath the layers of prejudice we can’t entirely believe the reports given us. The task is to work through the details, which, when framed properly in context, give opportunity to reconstruct the life that was, leaving us better able to solve the life that is.
So as la ast Dutchman in a family of only Dutchmen for nine generations, agonized by stories of farm drudgery, poverty and cultural isolation, this past conflicted strongly with her ideals. She believed it preempted her from becoming a physician. She knew Latin and read literature, but feared the lingering effects of the Pennsylvania ethos. Conflicted by her perception of every positive and negative trait of her Pennsylvania Dutch identity, she was a born artist. These contradictions preoccupied her in a speech at a local high school. She wrote in a draft that “the human urge to create something beautiful has always given the world artists, composers, musicians, architects, furniture makers, dress designers and a long list of others who have spent their lives in the pursuit of beauty.Not the Pennsylvania Dutch! Their harsh existence kept them busy supplying the needs of family and community without much thought for beauty
Such contradictions are a prime element of the “Dutch,' who above all else have always and only been preoccupied with beauty as a concern of everything she did. Graduating high school at 15 She immediately entered the Moore Institute of Design for Women, this born genius, but fond of boasting the opposite: “I was realistic enough to realize I wasn’t a genius, only a medium talent. On the piano I could only play hymns for Sunday school.” At the end of her life she even declared, “I’m very thankful to be realistic. I tell people I’m dying of cancer." The doctors at this stage were as suspicious of the cancer as the analysis is of these beginnings. Three months following the diagnosis of the most inoperable and untreatable pancreatic cancer, already spread extensively to the liver, no symptoms had appeared at all. The doctors wanted more tests, but she would give none. It took twice over this span for her to succumb.
She maintained contradictorily that she had been born of a long line of peasants. But her maternal grandfather’s family, the Macks were teachers from before the beginning of the free school movement in Pennsylvania, and also pastors and musicians for generations, even-minded and thoughtful people. Her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Bechtel likewise inherited books inscribed by family members of four generations of Mennonite pastors, from at least the 1780’s.
Her grandfather Henry Mack was a school teacher, as was his brother Peter Mack from 1860-1870, before becoming a pastor. Peter, and Andrew Mack, the oldest brother, were Lutheran and Mennonite clergy respectively. Her great uncle Andrew Mack, a cabinet maker, was the most significant leader and diplomat for 19th century Mennonites. All three of these brothers left their thoughts in written form. Bishop Andrew Mack left 49 letters, 1870-1906, courtesy of the Jacob Mensch collection. Peter left a diary, kept from 1870 until his premature death in 1878. Henry kept detailed ledgers of his activities from the age of 21, 1875 until 1900 and also compiled the Record of Tombstone Inscriptions / Old Mennonite Cemetery of the Hereford Congregation of Mennonites (1934) an invaluable preservation of the identity of these early settlers.
The musical aptitude of her background further contridictss the boast of peasantry. Grandfather Henry was a “chorister and musical director in many [Mennonite] churches in this part of the state” (obituary). He and his brother Andrew Mack, the Mennonite bishop, had been choristers since 1860 (Wenger, 120). Likewise, Peter Mack was “an accomplished musician.” Her own brother, Howard, assistant VP of Bell, was a devoted lifelong chorister who married the daughter of the Philadelphia architect, Edwin A. Yeo. A cousin by marriage, Anthony J. Loudis, graduated Juilliard in 1928 in piano and composition, took advanced degrees at Columbia and was chairman of the University of Delaware music department. Another cousin, Noah K. Mack, M. B. E., physician graduate of Hahnemann Medical School in 1937, was a Mennonite medical missionary in Tanzania for 14 years before becoming the sole doc of Morgantown, Pa. Her sister was a groundbreaking author with a graduate degree, chairman of home economics education of the Wilmington school district. Her mother was a tailor, dress designer and a woman of great independence of character, a Mennonite Mary Shelley instilling the rights of women in her daughters. Surrounded by excellence and thoughts of beauty of every kind, her people were not even pretend peasants.
So these lives and their response to prejudice may be like the parable of a Henry James story, mysterious if explained. Or it be a case of the mystery of coincidence like the supposed Shakespearean authorship of Psalm 46 translated in the King James Version. Yes, evidence can be cited, parallels in the Sonnets and the Plays can support this translation of the psalm, leaving a signature if you count 46 words from beginning and end. But these supposed facts belie the most obvious one that in every English translation before the King James Version this supposed “code” was just a word or two from being sprung. So is the peasant, artist, intellectual in denial a representative of her people, an even greater mystery put that way, a metaphor of her life, with a basement and attic filled with facts extracted as inferences on the floors between.
The citations identified as Mack refer to an 1939 unpublished biography of Andrew Mack by his son Noah, done for John D. Leatherman as referenced in Noah H. Mack His Life and Times, 12. Those authors used a copy in the Goshen College Library. My father acquired a mimeographed copy found among his papers.
Mildred Jordan. Apple in the Attic. A Pennsylvania Legend. NY: Knopf, 1942.
Peter Mack. Cited in Souvenir History of Zion Lutheran Church 1753-1893.
John Joseph Stoudt. Pennsylvania German Folk Art. Allentown, PA: Schlechter’s
Frederick S. Weiser in The Pennsylvania-German Decorated Chest by Monroe H. Fabian. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
J. C. Wenger. History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference Telford, PA: Franconia Mennonite Historical Society, 1937. Republished by Mennonite Publishing House. Scottdale, PA, 1985.
Cornelius Weygandt. The Red Hills. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1929.