Monday, March 9, 2009

Apologizing for Art in the Americanization of the Pennsylvania Dutch

The Tree Is the Goat

When new England was founded it was a variety singled out from the strands of  religion minus the other qualities of the Renaissance. New England left behind class, status, court, stage and literature with severity.  It was closer to the medieval. Two hundred years after its founding New England still worried that its literature did not compete with the old. Step child English-American affiliates still worry about that. Its narrow outlook contributes much to chauvinism, isolation and infertility. The spiritual did not renew the physical in this new world, but was argued contaminated by it when actually the reverse is the case, the spiritual contaminates the physical. Uncontaminated nature does not mean clean land fills, it means uncontaminated by mind. The Puritans transferred their view of themselves, their sin to the forest, as if they could drive it away on the back of some Old Testament goat. The goat however was the forest itself, mowed lest sins found their way back. A scapegoat is no good unless forever lost. The tree as goat was cut so that sin could no longer hide as a predator in the darkness, as if the predator were outside  as if their fears were anywhere but in themselves. This thinking has fueled all American botanical and biological depravations. That the fear of sins transferred to the outer world is still going on is in some respects quite unbelievable.

Misapplying the precept that the world would contaminate, the believer equivocated the world as physical nature not its culture. This was all the more toxic in the austere soil of New England. Garrisoned against the natural the British did not dream of welcoming nature indoors until two centuries later in the guise of transcendentalism. By 1850 transcendentalism had them all wishing  for the tree and the pond, but earlier, the new English believed savage Indians and wild men (their own sins) hid at the clearing's edge,  only kept at bay only by cutting back the growth. How this differs from the defoliations of Agent Orange in Vietnam is not at all. Clear cutting the forest and exterminating the buffalo is its logical extension. The prevention of sin could hide evil and make a profit at the same time. Souls perverted by this greed and fearing erected a theology of dominion and racial superiority. The new puritan age of greed today produces a "spiritual imagination... impotent, sterile, or dead, [it] is necessarily going to be an era of violence, chaos, destruction, madness, and slaughter (Merton, Seeking Paradise, 85).
The Puritan celebrated this malaise intellectually. Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather drew sharp boundaries of  governmental/pastoral views. Literature as sociology tempted a depravity out of  Hawthorne, what he called "virgin soil as a cemetery" (The Scarlet Letter, I ), "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."  "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." As Michael Broyles says, "much of the story [of Pilgrim's Progress] is set in was the metaphorical terrain the believer had to traverse...," which he  differentiates from the gentler nature of Puritan composer William Billings (The New England Psalm Singer, 1770. Also see Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music, 25). A great deal more  has been said of the Puritan seed time of fear that these first two centuries produced in the harvest of our extinction.
Question them if you dare. Racism, extermination and extinction lay down like wolf cubs at the Puritan door. Romulus and Remus embodied all the worst qualities of the new English, but the Pennsylvania Dutch who survived the nihilistic and legalistic adversaries of Holland and Switzerland did not  dare. In place of the old world tortures, Pennsylvanians domesticated the natural, befriended it in their own natures, painted it, sculpted it and threw it on the forge. Pennsylvania didn’t produce any Scarlet Letters, only decorated chests and barns.

Divide and conquer is the rule of any occupation, basic English exploited differences among the Pennsylvania Germans that Penn's colony had been founded to set free. Relations with the "world" however were a sticking point for immigrants of the Lily too. They divided into Church and Sect, churched vs. plain. But the separate but unequal existence of Germans alongside the English ended after the Civil War when the Dutch bought the farm, that is, gave up and began to assimilate "American" civilization. Some people think the Amish a last bastion of the "separate" and that these differences existed up till 1950 in speaking German, farming, going barefoot. The Amish may continue to exist in 2050, but assimilation got the rest.

Compromise Borrowings From Betters

Pennsylvania Germans wanted to show they really belonged. Millard Gladfelter in his Foreword to Pennsylvania German Fraktur calls the cultural war between the English "on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers" and among the Germans of "outlying countrysides" a "contest"  for retention of custom and language" (ix). Assimilate or die looks better in velvet.  Weiser pains to make the Dutch into Americans by declaiming "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, it was Penn's Quaker Pennsylvania. The English never welcomed the disparate. From "Negro Spirituals to Pennsylvania German Fraktur" (Gladfelter,1x) they exploited them. In order to 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. Fraktur's Introduction is worth attending for so transparently reflecting the prejudice of its paradise art. "We are richer for it,' says Weiser, defending the fragmented survival of Pennsylvania German folk culture. Instead of celebrating sauerkraut and language for themselves, it has to be for "the tolerance of American polity" (xiii). Welcoming the diverse may be what America says of itself on the Statue of Liberty, but it was in Pennsylvania where American rhetoric hatched that all men are equal. It was a Pennsylvania dream of equality Weiser celebrates "in styles at variance with the majority" (xiii), but it was not "the majority" they were at variance with, it was the English they continually apologized to for their Dutchness. Commenting on the texts of fraktur in a Preface to Hershey's book (ThisTeaching I Present, 2003), Keyser says 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."

Friends of fraktur must not act 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! It is only the PA Dutch who doubt their beauty while everyone else celebrates it.  "Why else would this large body of folk art...have been preserved and so obviously treasured?"  All subjugated groups doubt themselves. After examining a thousand pieces of fraktur Hershey says that in some cases the design illustrates the text, but mostly they are "lovely compositions," pretty pictures that "convey religious meaning equally as well as they communicate the value of beauty in everyday life" (56).

Abstraction of image from text proliferated also in other PA German folk art genres of linens, chests, pots, ironwork and barns. Divorcing image from text did not however sever the connection. Weiser wants the images to be an imitation by the middle class of the nobility,  folk art, a "cultural sinking from the tastes of upper levels of society" (xxviii), not a rising from the hymns or from the unconscious. The Preface to the Pennsylvania German Decorated Chest applies this failing social/political analysis. It is the omnipresent Dutch apology that  peasant boors could do little but open in bastardy to their betters. Keyser: "none of this little-studied body of folk poetry is fine literature" (This Teaching, 8). Should this little-studied art be compared with Mozart, but not Kafka or Borges?  Though entirely irrelevant, who else should also apply for "fineness" in vain? Stevens, Poe?  "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) pass sociology but fail art. He cites the lion and unicorn from British arms and the eagle from the American as borrowings from betters, but it is patently post hoc to say that because they preceded them they caused them. Images exist outside social milieus. Schimmels's Dutch eagles are a supreme delight in their interpretations, hardly copies. Do you say Navajo weavers imitated their betters, the traders, when they wove chief blankets or railroad trains at their behest? Divorcing text and context is a hard road, much argued of Blake, whose illuminations were not even "mere embellishment." It would be better for critics to admit they cannot see connections and get glasses.

Spiritual Transfer

Technology, philosophy and religion provoked assimilation. Early twentieth century transfers from chest to barn were a so-called "last flowering" (Yoder, Hex Signs, 3). But the assimilation of Dutch ways tracks 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...? No! 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 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 convention reduced the flower-star. For all the debate of the origin of the twelve pointed star hex, the image comes from a double tiger day lily, a duplicate of its shape, easy or difficult to find in flower borders. A deeper legacy involves internal landscapes in a spirit of acceptance in mind and spirit, a spiritual force symbolized by the natural.
Spiritual Demise

Stoudt says the images are mandalas, but gets no credit 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). This decline rouses superstition before dashing the tradition 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 voodoo. Having his cake and eating too, the author dances with the hex, but allows little if any "iconic meaning to the decorations found on fraktur," the quintessential Pennsylvania German Artifact," ", vines, animals and birds...hearts, crowns, angels and compass stars" (56).

Exfoliations of the spiritual lily "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  rules out a huge segment of the population when he says "sects." Yoder allows the decline of fraktur "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). Acculturate, assimilate! Reshaped through acculturation here means denatured. So the decorative art of the lily abstracted became the so called “prayer acts” of Wentz (24) and the lily was exhausted.

However much a meliorist wants to celebrate the Pennsylvania past from the majority point of view or lament the passing of the Dutch, the peasant is ordained to be inferior to the Ph.D. What then were the rural folk benefits? What if someone wishes the garden back again,  the flowering heart iconography? Whole classes of German-Americans were 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? These mark the limits of social control that fostered assimilation to the English.


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
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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