The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London (2013)
ISBN: 9781421409146 (pb)
Reviewed by Allan J. Sim, University of Aberdeen
This book has been published as the companion text to a PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) television series called American Experience, billed on the PBS website TVs most watched history series. The episode on the Amish which this text supports is 112 minutes long and stands as part of a wider series looking at such diverse parts of US history as John F.Kennedy, The Abolitionists and Mount Rushmore. Sadly I have not had the opportunity to view the episodes of this series but a question does come to my mind, are the Amish part of the American Experience?
The Amish have certainly been confused with the early American pioneers but their history and purpose have been very different. It can be argued that the Amish have done all they can to be not a part of the American experience. Indeed they still refer to the outside society as “the English” and for many decades, before changed economic circumstances required closer interaction, choose to communicate with the English through the filter of the their fellow Anabaptists the Mennonites.
The preface to this book begins by saying ‘…the Amish are a tiny slice of contemporary American society, they are among its most recognized groups.’ (p. ix). While I agree that they are widely recognized and there has indeed been a resurgence of their portrayal on US television in such reality shows as Breaking Amish LA (which purports to follow young members of the Amish community exploring the world outside) I would argue that this no more makes them a part of American society than the frequent portrayal of the Grey aliens in the US media makes them a part of American society. In many ways the representation of the Amish has been just as fictitious as the aliens. We can argue that their image has been absorbed by American society but not that the Amish themselves are part of it.
The writers of this book are certainly well aware of some of these issues. In chapters 15 – 21 they look at the external ties that the outside world has developed with the Amish and that the Amish have had to develop with the outside world. My particular favourite is the image on page 382 showing the display of Amish romance fiction. The fact that they now have a section on Amish Fiction ably demonstrates how much the wider society has absorbed the Amish image. In the text the authors say that the reason for the rise of Amish romance fiction is a combination of the rapid pace of modern life making the slower pace of Amish communities appealing and ‘…a gnawing disenchantment among evangelical Christians with what they consider the hypersexualized quality of much of popular culture…’ (p.382). What is particularly interesting with regards to the books of Amish romance is the authors’ mention of the covert message woven into much of the fiction that the Amish are not truly Christians. Once again, given the current dominance of evangelical Christianity in American society, this suggests to me a separation between the Amish and American society, in many ways their appeal comes from being “the other”.
These concerns about the Amish being part of American Experience and American society aside, the book is an excellent introduction to the Amish and their society. The author’s’ credentials as Amish scholars speak for themselves, particularly Donald B. Kraybill, and what they have written is a text which is accessible to those who have perhaps watched the television show and wish to know more but it is also of interest to those who have read widely on the Amish. The first three sections tell us where the Amish come from, introduce us to their culture and tell us about how their society is organized. These sections are ideal for those new to research on the Amish and introduces them as they are rather than as they are often portrayed. These chapters give a detailed and insightful look at who the Amish are, remove the myth of the one Amish (the Old Order Amish) often given by less knowledgeable representations. In the final two sections the book opens out to look at how the Amish have had to adapt to physical facts such as the restraint land places on an agricultural society and how they have had to change their ways of doing business (bringing them into closer contact with ‘the English’). It also looks at the portrayal of the Amish beyond the boundaries of their society (see Amish Romance fiction above) and some of the consequences for the Amish of this portrayal (I would have liked to see more on this but the intentions of the book and space limits the possibility). These final two sections take us beyond description and into a fascinating look at how the Amish have changed and conclude with a look into the possible future for the Amish. These last two sections (chapters 15 – 22) take the book beyond being yet another descriptive text and encourage thought in the reader as to where Amish society may be going and, I would argue, to what extent American society will ever really be able to see the Amish as anything other than a quaint remnant of a past that they really do not belong to.