Monday, November 8, 2010

New England vs. Pennsylvania

It is no joke that racism and biological extinction lay down like wolves at the door of the Puritan and the English in general. Question more deeply the house and those within if you dare, but for their own reasons the Pennsylvania Dutch were not so afraid. Many had faced their adversary in the old world tortures. Here, in the milder circumstance of Pennsylvania they domesticated nature, invited it indoors, befriended it in their own natures, and while they spoke little of this faith, painted it, embroidered it, sculpted it and threw it on the forge. Thus domesticated, Pennsylvania didn’t produce a Scarlet Letter or spooky stories, but decorated chests and barns.

Concepts of nature thus underlie the two competing American philosophies of the Puritan and Pennsylvania Dutch. What they thought of themselves they thought of nature equivocated as human nature, not the natural world. "World" was a place of temptation, not the eco-sphere. Both philosophies projected an image of themselves outward.

New England puritans, conditioned by their fear, took the view that "the world," meaning nature, would contaminate them. Many such ideas were misapplied by the mind of the believer. The baggage of puritan beliefs was more toxic in the austere climate and soil of New England. Garrisoned against the natural they would have welcomed the Pennsylvania genius inviting nature indoors (as they did a century later in the guise of transcendentalism), had they not feared the unknown that lurked at the clearing's edge. By 1850 transcendentalism made them long for the pond, but two centuries earlier New England believed that the savage Indians, wild men and their own sins were only kept at bay by fear of the soil and cutting back its growth, which helps explain natural demolitions such as clear cutting the forest three and four centuries later. Prevent sin and make a profit. The idea of sin in nature perverted creation in their souls. Against the evil they found in themselves, projected outwardly, they erected a theology of dominion and racial superiority. In a new puritan age today, "this spiritual imagination is impotent, sterile, or dead, is necessarily going to be an era of violence, chaos, destruction, madness, and slaughter" (Merton, Seeking Paradise, 85).

One cannot say the puritan hid his malaise. He legalized it, celebrated it with intellectualism. Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather drew sharp lines. If you disagreed with the governmental/pastoral views you had better be quiet about it. These things are thrown into sharper contrast compared with the milder governmental/pastoral conditions of Pennsylvania, where the English were and still are the majority party. Making literature into sociology tempts an effect of depravity upon nature from Hawthorne, whose "virgin soil as a cemetery" (Scarlet Letter, ), "the pine trees, aged, black, and solemn, and flinging groans and other melancholy utterances on the breeze, needed little transformation to figure as Puritan elders; the ugliest weeds of the garden were their children."

There are any number of such statements to the effect that "to the Puritan, nature was not benign. The wilderness was a place of terror"“ (Broyles), or as William Bradford put it (1620) "a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men." Michael Broyles makes the telling observation that "much of the story [of Pilgrim's Progress] is set in was the metaphorical terrain the believer had to traverse...," which he says to differentiate the kinder nature of Puritan composer William Billings who was opposed to his fellows (The New England Psalm Singer, 1770) also see Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music, 25). A great deal more than this has been said of the Puritan fear of those first two centuries.

Divide and conquer is the oldest rule of opposition, Quakers aside, who had more in common with the pacifist PA sects than with those who came to rule in Pennsylvania before the Revolution. These English exploited difference among the Pennsylvania German peace lovers, which admittedly the colony had been founded to pursue. Relations with the "world" were a sticking point for immigrants of the Lily. Some held differing taxonomies of Church and Sect, celebrated to this day as insoluble, that is of the churched vs. the plain. Should they be in love, half in love or not at all? The divided separate but equal existence of Germans alongside the English in American civilization came to an end after the Civil War, for then, though the Dutch were still divided, they were assimilated. Some people think the Amish are the last bastion of the "separated" and that these differences existed even in 1950, that is, speaking German, farming, going barefoot, everything the matriarch, Anna Mack, despised. The Amish may continue to exist in 2050, but assimilation got all the rest.

For a long time Pennsylvania Germans sought to show that even if they were German they really did belong. Millard Gladfelter in his Foreword to Pennsylvania German Fraktur demonstrates this view when he refers to the persistent contests among Pennsylvania cultures for retention of custom and language" (ix). His "contests" feature a cultural cold war between the English "on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers" and the Germans of "outlying countrysides." In the same volume Weiser is at pains to make the Dutch into Americans. He broadens the mandate of Penn's colony into "the much-celebrated openness of the United receive into its midst persons and cultures of widely disparate origin" (xiii). But it was not the United States that welcomed them, but Penn's Quaker Pennsylvania. American is a misnomer here for the English and Puritan, but it has to be, for the English never welcomed the disparate, the range given by Gladfelter from "Negro Spirituals to Pennsylvania German Fraktur" (1x). Quite otherwise, they exploited them. So in order to fit in, assimilate even in the bi-centennial world of 1976 that these volumes commemorate, Weiser constructs a rhetoric that celebrates the whole for its part, the United States for Pennsylvania, but it was only Pennsylvania that welcomed the diverse. Weiser's Introduction of Fraktur is worth attending because he expresses transparently the attitudes and prejudices in the background of paradise art.

There is a perennial defensiveness in Pennsylvania German writing about the survival of its folk culture. "We are richer for it,' says Weiser. Instead of celebrating the dishes and language for themselves, it has to be for "the tolerance of American polity" (xiii), almost apologizing for being. Welcoming the diverse may be what America says of itself today on the Statue of Liberty, but to the extent it is true, the only practical example was among the Pennsylvania Germans in Philadelphia. Then the American rhetoric hatched that all men are created equal. It is a Pennsylvania dream of equality that Weiser celebrates "in styles at variance with the majority" (xiii), not an American one, even if it becomes so, and it was not "the majority," they were at variance with, it was the English! Reading all these continual apologies for their Dutch defensiveness, it isn't that they are false to the fact so much that they apologize for being what they are. Keyser, commenting on the texts of fraktur in his Preface to Hershey's book, doesn't have to add, but does that "none of this little-studied body of folk poetry is fine literature" (8), he could easily have said, "these texts are an invaluable window into the mind of their art."

Borrowings From Betters

Even friends of fraktur feel they must not seem partisan. Weiser says that "with some exceptions, the motifs of Fraktur are simply embellishment and have no esoteric meaning or function beyond the beautification of the piece" (xxvii). Hershey defends fraktur as cultivating the beautiful, "a process that stretches the imagination and pushes the artist toward an appreciation and even a love for things beautiful"(52). Even! Why are such things said? Answer with a question, "Why else would this large body of folk art...have been preserved and so obviously treasured?" It is only the PA Dutch who can doubt their beauty while everyone else celebrates it. After examining a thousand piece of fraktur Hershey says that in some cases the design illustrates the text, but mostly they are "lovely compositions," pretty pictures if you will that "convey religious meaning equally as well as they communicate the value of beauty in everyday life" (56). One feels like drowning in the tepid.

The abstraction of image from text proliferated from fraktur through the other folk art genres of linens, chests, pots, ironwork and barns. This encouraged the divorce of meaning from text, Stoudt's point, that the images derive meaning from the hymns, etc., but that their later abstraction does not sever their prior connection to this origin. Weiser wants the images to be an imitation of the nobility by the middle class, a folk art, of "cultural sinking from the tastes of upper levels of society" (xxviii), not a rising from the unconscious or from the hymns as we know all art truly is. He uses this failing social/political analysis in his Preface to the Pennsylvania German Decorated Chest. It is the omnipresent Dutch apology that they were brutish peasant boors who could do nothing creative but imitate in bastardy their betters.

Keyser says "none of this little-studied body of folk poetry is fine literature" (This Teaching, 8). Who does not quarrel with such a plebian notion of fine? It is an odd determination if this little-studied art is compared with Mozart, but not with Kafka or Borges, who though entirely irrelevant, also apply for "fineness" in vain. Has such a claim of fine been made of other folk art? "Their copies of upper class, from furnishings to portraits, to attire, are frequently grouped together under the name of folk art" (Chest, 13). Weiser's "constant cultural sinking from the tastes of upper levels of society" so that "fine engravings and prints owned by the elite found their country counterpart in the drawings of schoolmasters and itinerants" (Fraktur, xxviii) are an old discredited assumption. He cites the lion and unicorn from British arms and the eagle from American, as borrowings from betters. Everything has context, but it is patently post hoc to say that because they preceded them they caused them. Images have to be allowed their own world outside social milieus. The Dutch eagles are a supreme delight in their interpretations, hardly copies. Do you say Navajo weavers imitated their betters when they wove chief blankets or railroad trains at the behest of traders?

Rationalizing art is a hard road, divorcing text and context the same, which was argued of Blake, whose illuminations were not even "mere embellishment." It would be better for critics to admit they cannot see any connection and consider getting glasses.

Spiritual Transfer

Technology, philosophy and religion promoted assimilation. Early twentieth century transfers of decorative images from chest to barn were a "last flowering" (Yoder, Hex Signs, 3) of this art, but the compromise of Dutch ways is tracked in every activity, from song to speech. "Did any of the now common English choruses originate among the Pennsylvania Dutch and spread, through translation from German to English...? Yoder answers his own question, "the type of spiritual transfer that took place--one might almost call it spiritual osmosis--was from the greater to the lesser body. Anglo-American religious patterns were adopted by the Pennsylvania Dutch, rather than vice versa (Pennsylvania Spirituals, 348). But it wasn't just the permeable membrane of song, it was the stenciling of patterns instead of free-hand painting (Fabian,63), "machine made ware from England [Gaudy Dutch china] resulted in driving out local potteries" (Frederick, 257). "English ideas about furniture finishes, printed birth certificates, and Victorian popular designs, the Pennsylvania Dutch lost interest in the artifacts of earlier generations. In time, the chests, pottery, and pie safes were relegated to the attic or barn" (Hex Signs, 37).

Substitution of English ideas in the Americanization of the Pennsylvania Dutch touched the flower-star and the images on barns transferred from household decorations. These images had a contentious history, but they came from everyday relations with nature, sun, animals, plants. For all the debate of the origin of the hex sign, the twelve pointed star, the image comes from gardens, it is the image of a double tiger day lily, a duplicate of its shape. This is easy or difficult to find in the borders and plots of day lilies. The deeper legacy must involve a use of earth, design of internal landscapes, a spirit of acceptance that permeates mind and spirit, a spiritual force symbolized by the natural.

That these images are taken from nature, from the wilderness as it were, indicates a prejudice against the natural, a fear of it, common in the New England mind, the repression of the natural, the wilderness, although Jung was Swiss.

Spiritual Demise

Stoudt says the images are mandalas, after Jung, but gets no credit for it from Yoder. The images painted on furniture, embroidered on linen, drawn on paper are "a full range of celestial and earthly subjects. Stars and birds, both identifiable and unrecognizable, are seen along with the plump heart..." (Fabian, 58). With the toasting couple, the unicorn, equestrian figures and mermaid Fabian describes techniques, "the unicorn painters of Berks County, for example-also had templates for the major elements of their designs" (62), but "after the second decade of the nineteenth century, however, stenciling is frequently used in lieu of freehand painting. It is obviously used as a time-saving device and as such is one of the heralds of the decline of the traditional arts of rural Pennsylvania" (63)

But the most usual popular treatment rouses superstition before dashing it to the ground. Pennsylvania Dutch Country, (Irwin Richman) invokes amulets and symbols, "askew crosses," scratched into lintels, "almost invisible except to the knowing eye," "symbolism and magic" (53) before taking Yoder's Hex Signs as proof against this voodoo. Having his cake and eating too, the author dances with popular modern hex signs, but allows little if any "iconic meaning to the decorations found on fraktur," the quintessential Pennsylvania German Artifact," with every one of those barn symbols and then some, "flowers, vines, animals and birds...hearts, crowns, angels and compass stars" (56).

Exfoliations of the lily in this spiritual flower garden, "died when the point of view which created them—the faith of Pennsylvania’s radical religious sects—was killed by the advent of religious liberalism” (Stoudt, 24), the introduction of English in schools and the death of home-crafts by the industrial revolution (Stoudt, xviii). Stoudt already rules out a huge segment of the population when he says "sects." But Yoder also allows that the decline of fraktur "can be found in the nineteenth-century disintegration of the folk culture of the Pennsylvania Germans, particularly (1) the disappearance of institutional elements such as the parochial school, which had produced the Vorschrift, (2) the shift to the English language, which brought with it an inevitable loss of German devotional literature as the wellspring of fraktur symbolism, and (3) the decline in the very meaning of baptism, which had produced the Taufschein." The decline of baptism "can be partially attributed to the impact of the revivalist movement, which invaded the Pennsylvania German churches and sects from the world of Anglo-America." It was a complete conquest: "Fraktur was part of the old-style colonial culture, which, especially in the field of religion, was being challenged and reshaped through acculturation with Anglo-American forms" (280). Reshaped through acculturation here means denatured. So the decorative art of the lily, its expression of an inner state, abstracted completely out of its origin, became the so called “prayer acts” of Wentz (24) and the lily was exhausted.

How much a meliorist one wants to be about this is a choice to celebrate the past from the majority point of view of the English or lament the passing of the Dutch? Going from the island to the continent of the majority gives so many rewards but foreordains the peasant inferior to the Ph.D., begs the question of what the rural folk benefits were, if impossible to recapture, when everyone suddenly wishes the garden were back again that has been sacrificed to progress.

What is the meaning of the flowering heart, its iconography and philosophy in itself? Who are the suspects in its demise? Were, as Stoudt argues, whole classes of these people [German-American] transcendentalists one hundred years before Emerson? Where are the studies of that text from the many sources that remain untranslated of the 3151 books and almanacs printed in the German language in America between 1728 and 1830? What devastations wreaked upon these people in the interests of social control need correction?

Afterword - Did You Find Paradise Today?

Told it doesn't exist you long for paradise. When it was in the interest of scholars they believed, not that they personally thought it existed or its art in the mountain sunset or the mouse. Were paradise free speech or whatever pleases, the three harvests and hot tubs of the captives of pleasure could have private paradises too. But the art of paradise is not about us, it's about the creatures that inhabit it, wild or domesticated in a green Shade. Paradise kept with hands brings the natural to the human.

Free of the separation which we reckon occurred when the serpent came to America, myth before discovery, besieged by enemies in a colonial fantasy of sexism and racism so called, thinking makes it so. Serpents destroy forests, prairies and animals, take dystopia over utopia, symbols of destruction over innocence. It's hard to imagine paradise in an age that denies it but longs for memories of wholeness it forgot. Was there peace? Nobody wants Inferno, but nothing succors in the deconstruct.
We get over disbelief. The child believes, but the adolescent diminishes, imitates the adult. In their private paradise they go to pillage the garden. Ask if one believes and get a look. One believes in profit. One believes in success. But look for paradise if you believe it's lost. Find a piece of paradise. Evening conversations would begin, "did you find paradise today?" Everyone would be looking.

This fictive assumption presumes a restoration of earth was forming in the minds of artists with the industrial revolution, the chimney sweep of Blake, that paralysis immobilized agencies able to effect remediation. In reinvention, but the paralysis is also metaphorical, we rise in the night, thoughts start before four AM. So would creation travail with the problem sons. You could wish they were out of the way, but not if worse were in store. We may go on with daily life, right to the end, shibboleths of the past argue, as though they meant something. Doctrines of false imagination finish the day, sleep another night in evasion and deny.

Works Cited

The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Edited by Lester J. Cappon. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Jacob Boehme. Six Theosophic Points. Translated by John Rolleston Earle. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1958.
F. George Frederick. Pennsylvania Dutch Cookery.
Mary Jane Lederach Hershey. This Teaching I Present: Fraktur from the Skippack and Salford Mennonite Meetinghouse Schools, 1747-1836. Intercourse, PA: Good Books 2003.
Monroe H. Fabian. The Pennsylvania-German Decorated Chest. Pennsylvania German Society, 2004.
John Joseph Stoudt. Pennsylvania German Folk Art. Allentown, PA: Pennsylvania German Folklore Society. 1966
John Joseph Stoudt. Jacob Boehme's The Way to Christ, In A New Translation. New York, London: Harper, 1947.
Frederick S. Weiser and Howell J. Heaney. The Pennsylvania German Fraktur. Breingigsville: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1976.
Richard E. Wentz. Editor, Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Spirituality. Sources of American Spirituality Series. New York: Paulist Press, 1993]
Don Yoder. Discovering American Folklife. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 2001
Hex Signs (with Thomas E. Graves) Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000.
Pennsylvania Spirituals
. Lancaster, PA: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1961

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