Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia.
The field of Amish Studies has long grappled with the meaning, motives, consequences, and contexts of popular and tourist Amish portrayals. As in the seminal dissertations of David Walbert and David Weaver-Zercher, Susan Trollinger approaches the tourist industry itself rather than the Amish relationship with tourism. (1) She invites readers into three Holmes County, Ohio, towns. The villages attempt, she argues, to provide a context that addresses anxieties tourists bring from their helter-skelter lives--anxieties over time scarcity, indistinct gender roles, the omnipresent inundation of powerful technologies, and status quo upsets via America's rapidly changing racial composition. By inviting tourists to participate in nostalgia (real or imagined), the villages offer hope for the future. The Amish, too, affirm a bright future by demonstrating a resolution of these tensions in the modern world, but also by offering a subtle, indirect critique of contemporary, middle-class, white baby boomers, the primary consumers of Amish tourism.
Those familiar with her earlier work on Behalt and Mt. Hope/Walnut Lreek can expect a similar framework. Selling the Amish is the culmination of these previews. (2) The three core chapters flow sequentially and progressively, connecting each successive point with those that came before. While her methodological approach--visual rhetorical analysis--has evidence of qualitative empiricism via field notes, photographs, and interviews, the final product is mainly inductive. This erudite lens fits the subject well, given the latent motivations driving tourists and tourist venues.
Walnut Creek architecture resembles the late Victorian era. While contemporary intrusions exist (e.g., a cell phone tower), Walnut Creek is not about illusion but rather nostalgia. Americans today feel as if they are working more and relaxing less. Victorians, as suggested by Walnut Creek's ambiance, experienced time slowly and abundantly. Food preparation and leisurely space suggest attention to family and nurture (and the time to do it). The Der Dutchman restaurant (of Dutchman Hospitality) offers family-style meals where all partake from serving bowls; food is skillfully prepared from scratch on the premises. Resting places like porches and the Carlisle Inn lobby, shopping spaces with elaborately designed "boutiques," and accommodations for pedestrian traffic all encourage tourists to slow down. The sale of cookbooks and home decor suggest tourists could embrace a future with plentiful time for family and friends.
But how? By returning to gender roles where women care for the domestic space and men are breadwinners. Carlisle Inn and Carlisle Gifts (both of Dutchman Hospitality) suggest feminine, domestic spaces; men with their families enjoy a full meal after an imagined "hard day of labor" at the more gender-neutral Der Dutchman. Tourists witness the Amish in Walnut Creek exemplifying gender distinctiveness and, thus, time abundance, such as young adult Amish women "domestic" employees. But the Amish model is unrealistic for tourists. Instead, Walnut Creek presents patriotic themes, reminding viewers of the basic goodness of America, hope for a future that will reflect on the present age "as just another moment when the nation's resolve to sustain its historic role in a hostile world was being tested" (73). Thus, Walnut Creek suggests a future when "time is plentiful, gender is clear, and nation is good" (77). Yet, in as much as style is important--home decor, food, Thomas Kinkaid paintings--the Amish subtly challenge tourists because their style speaks to commitments of faith; of what do tourists' styles speak?
Berlin is an amalgamation of themes, but two dominate: the frontier and the 1950s. Building facades like barns, forts, general stores, and log cabins suggest the frontier; reiteration is offered by merchandise like antique implements and tools, knives, and folk crafts. As pioneers regenerate themselves when settling new regions--leaving culture, regaining personal control, and recreating human civilization with rudimentary tools--tourists, ambivalent about technology and a lack of control, are invited to experience regeneration in Berlin by interacting with genuine and simulated antique tools and mass-produced folk art. The 1950s similarly addresses technology and societal regeneration. At the time, technology "was all promise and possibility" (109), but this is remembered through soda fountains and brand names, not nuclear war and communism, a time before the disorder of the 1960s. The Amish seem to control technology, suggesting the possibility of Americans regenerating their own culture.
Sugarcreek is a case of decline. Trollinger argues that Sugarcreek offers nostalgia but no hope for contemporary resolutions. Sugarcreek's Swiss theme first found expression in the annual Swiss festival, next in the chalet-style renovations of commercial building facades. The main tourist lure became the steam train, which stopped offering joy rides in 2004. Tourist traffic plummeted, the Swiss theme proved unable to attract visitors on its own merits. Buildings went vacant; even the "Sweet Basil" restaurant/banquet hall photographed on page 125 has since changed hands twice. Trollinger suggests that when tourists encounter Swiss ancestry, they are either reminded of their own nondescript, aggregate ethnicity, or, in seeing the Swiss as "other," that they as middle-class Americans are no longer the ethnic standard-bearer, but one group in an increasingly diverse country. Sugarcreek does not resolve the anxieties tourists face about ethnicity in modern America. The Amish, further, reinforce that their Amishness is authentic, not a commemorative costume.
Are her assessments accurate? After reading, I perused the three towns. Yes, she captured the towns' essences. However, there is quite a bit of thematic overlap: a "tools"-based antique mall in Walnut Creek and some Swiss and Queen Anne architecture in Berlin, for example. In addition, these themes have diffused throughout Amish Country. Why have Swiss-themed venues beyond Sugarcreek--such as the Guggisberg (Charm) or Heini's (Bunker Hill) complexes--succeeded if Swiss facades provide no promise for social tension resolutions? Using towns as the analytical unit helps focus the study, but what results. would emerge had the themes been the unit? For example, Walnut Creek's Victorian theme is largely contained within the Dutchman Hospitality complex and immediate neighbors; similar tourist success follows Dutchman Hospitality (3) to Plain City, Ohio, where a mere five Amish residents reside.
While the main content is in the three town chapters, Trollinger includes two chapters prior: an overview of the Amish and of Amish tourism. For as little attention as the Amish receive in this book, a chapter-long synopsis of Amish society seems out of place. She cites The Riddle of Amish Culture like a crutch (40 percent of the chapter's citations), detracting from a potentially rounded literature review. (4) An additional chapter-long gift of her insight into, say, Charm or Millersburg would have been more welcomed. Chapter 2 is the book's real beginning: her overview of Amish tourism is theoretically rich, coalescing general and Amish tourist literature.
A logical step building on Trollinger's contribution is to explore why some plain groups are also attracted to Berlin's and Walnut Creek's resolutions. Why do some plain women embrace the interior decorating styles advanced by Dutchman Hospitality? Are they inflicted with gender confusion as well, finding resolution in materialistic home decorating? Do concessions to modern tools create anxiety in their lives? As I meandered about Berlin, there were a handful of large-capped Amish girls selling merchandise, but many more doily-donned "in-betweeners."
The series Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies continues to produce stellar titles, though they are increasingly unaffordable. It is a shame that this short book is $50, because it is a fascinating, stimulating read that merits a broader readership than cost may permit.
(1.) David Walbert, Garden Spot: Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); and David L. Weaver-Zercher, The Amish in the American Imagination (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
(2.) Susan Biesecker, "Behalt: A Rhetoric of Remembrance and Transformation," The Mennonite Quarterly Review 73 (July 1999), 601-614; and Susan Biesecker, "Heritage versus History: Amish Tourism in Two Ohio Towns," in The Amish and the Media, ed. Diane Zimmerman Umble and David L Weaver-Zercher (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 111-130.
(3.) I understand that this entity has recently been divided.
(4.) Donald Kraybill, The Riddle of Amish Culture (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
Ohio State University CORY ANDERSON
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|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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