The Construction of Mennonite/Amish Character in
Novels by John Updike and Denis Johnson
DANIEL W. LEHMAN*
Abstract: Mennonite and Amish characters play small but crucial roles in the best-known novels of John Updike and Denis Johnson, two celebrated contemporary writers in the United States. At their best, both Updike and Johnson manage to break through the sort of stereotypical depictions that characterize much writing about Mennonites and Amish by non-Anabaptist fiction writers. In part because of their gift for narrative irony, a relative complexity emerges in the Anabaptist characters drawn by Updike and Johnson, even though both novelists seem capable of writing about these characters only at arm’s length. Yet, a careful reader can detect an almost palpable yearning on the part of the novelists? protagonists for the power that Mennonite and Amish belief and practice might offer a broken people in a broken world.
?Outside of Churchtown he passes an Amish buggy in the dark and catches a glimpse of a bearded man and a woman in black in this horsedrawn shadow glaring like devils. . . . They never appeared in his rear-view mirror. He passed them and there was nothing. It was just that one sideways glance; the woman’s face a hatchet of smoke in the square shadow. Tall coffin lined with hair clopping along to the tune of a dying horse.?
?John Updike in Rabbit Run
?She was dressed in a long skirt and wore a white cloth over the crown of her head, something like a skullcap. Before they ate, they dipped their faces and prayed for three or four full minutes. It had struck me that the husband looked very somber, very old-fashioned, with his dark suit and big shoes, his Lincoln beard and shiny head. Now that I saw the wife in the same kind of getup, I understood: they were Amish, or more likely Mennonites. I knew the Mennonites did missionary work overseas, works of lonely charity in strange worlds where nobody spoke their language.?
?Denis Johnson in Jesus? Son
Burgeoning critical interest in Mennonite literature in Canada and the United States primarily has focused on works written by authors more or less associated with the Anabaptist community’either those writers directly affiliated with the church or those on the fringes of the Mennonite/Amish diaspora. Meanwhile, the critical consideration of Anabaptist characters and themes in literary fiction written by ?outsiders? has been missing from recent scholarly writing about Anabaptists and literature’perhaps because we are too eager to discover what it is that we are saying to worry much about what others say about us. Yet Mennonites and Amish emerge as thematically significant characters in the best-known novels of two important American writers’John Updike, arguably the most prolific and seriously studied U.S. fiction writer of the post-World War II era, and Denis Johnson, a highly respected postmodern novelist who emerged in the 1990s. This paper’s epigrams from Updike and Johnson not only introduce their Anabaptist themes but also reveal a tendency either to see Mennonites and Amish as primitive bumpkins or as idealized simple, peaceful people. This intertwined attraction and repulsion mirrors how dominant culture often construes subcultures’blending contempt for the otherness represented by the subculture as well as betraying a longing for its sense of community. As historian David Weaver-Zercher reminds us in The Amish in the American Imagination, outside culture fashions the representation of sectarians ?for their own purposes, to mark boundaries, express fears, support causes, and, in many cases, make a profit.?
What has traditionally attracted artists to Mennonites and Amish, of course, has been the exoticism of plain dress and quaint practices (best exemplified in popular culture by the 1985 film Witness). Singularity of character normally confers both literary and economic value to the literary text. In a universe of cookie-cutter characters, those who stand out for the uniqueness of their style and actions will be compelling and memorable. Ultimately, that uniqueness can be pressed into several sorts of service. For instance, Weaver-Zercher’s study found that representations of the Amish tend to excite either hope that ?these plain-clothed sectarians have something vital to offer a nation that has somehow lost its way? (4) or the derision that plain people are ?backward, cruel, sexually obsessed? (5). While both impulses are found in the representations by Updike and Johnson, these authors? use of thematically significant Amish and Mennonite characters finally offers a rather more subtle agenda, primarily because they draw their stories across cleverly ironic omniscience and deftly shaded themes. Updike begins his ?Rabbit? novels with a stereotyped picture of Amish fanaticism that seems the very exemplar of ?backward, cruel, sexually obsessed.? Yet he complicates his depiction by slyly undercutting the narrow assertions of his surface narrative to fashion a covert but crucial Mennonite/Amish subtext to his later novels about Rabbit Angstrom. Similarly, Denis Johnson explores sectarian Mennonite practices at the end of the millennium to see what values the church might offer to broken characters in a broken world. Though the Mennonites have much to offer that world, Johnson seems to conclude, the church is slow to reach out and thus is too content to remain remote exemplars than active healers.
THE AMISH/MENNONITE SUBTEXT IN JOHN UPDIKE’S RABBIT NARRATIVES
John Updike’s four novels about the life of ex-basketball star Harry Angstrom’Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest’as well as his sequel novella ?Rabbit Remembered’?are about many things, of course, covering as they do, over 1700 pages, some four decades of Rabbit’s life in the United States amid a rich array of cultural and historical references. Still, plain people figure prominently in key scenes’including a critical early moment in the very first novel, when Rabbit runs from his stifling domestic life as a 1950s-era MagiPeeler salesman in Mt. Judge, Pa. In his nighttime dash for freedom Rabbit passes an Amish buggy along Route 23 just east of New Holland and reflects on what he believes to be Amish fanaticism and the Amishman’s earthy sexuality. Although Rabbit recognizes somewhat enviously that the Amish have managed to keep clear ?of all this phony business, this twentieth century vitamin racket’ from which he too is fleeing, he clearly worries about what he thinks is their righteous contempt for him. ?He tries to think of the good life these people lead . . . but in his head they stay devils, risking getting killed trotting along with one dim pink reflector behind, hating Rabbit and his kind? (27). His stream-of-consciousness rumination soon devolves toward obscenity as he imagines Amish men overworking their animals and engaging in intercourse with their women ?standing up, out in the fields, wearing black clothes, just hoist black skirts, and there it was? (27).
Where did Rabbit come by this outlandish prejudice toward the Amish’a prejudice that epitomizes the repulsion side of the representative equation that Weaver-Zercher identifies within popular representations of Amish in the 1950s? As it happens, because Updike sprinkles Rabbit, Run with so many popular references, we know a fair amount about his protagonist Rabbit’s cultural tastes. Updike’s central character listens to Duane Eddy and the Big Bopper, Connie Francis and Mel Torme (28-29). At the movies he enjoys Bell, Book and Candle and The Shaggy Dog (99-100). On television he watches ?Mickey Mouse Club? (9-10). We don’t know how much Rabbit follows Broadway shows or reads popular novels (in later novels he does become an avid reader), but if he had, he might have found plenty to fuel his prejudice. In fact, says Weaver-Zercher, 1950s-era Broadway shows like Plain and Fancy or By Hex and popular novels with Amish characters such as The Witch Tree Symbol ?without exception? portrayed the Amish disciplinary structure with an ?undercurrent of suspicion? and identified the Amish with ?a religious tyranny that many Americans associated with the Middle Ages? (113).
Had he picked up a best-selling novel written only a few years before the time frame of Rabbit, Run, Rabbit may have found even more fuel for his distrust of Amish and Mennonites. Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow imagines a dystopia some two generations after a future nuclear holocaust in which the world is ruled by New Mennonites. These Mennonites appear to have survived nuclear war only because they were prepared to live without modern appliances and gadgets. A character in the novel says of them: ?And only those who had always lived without all the luxuries, and done for themselves with their own hands, and had no truck with the cities, came through without hurt and led us all in the path of peace and plenty and humility before God.? The novel’s protagonist, however, is not satisfied with the repressive life of the New Mennonites, who forbid radios, colorful clothing, freethinking and any community of more than a thousand people or two hundred buildings within a square mile. He runs away from the New Mennonites and, with the help of a dissident named Ed Hostetter, makes his way to Bartorstown, a desert hideaway, in covert rebellion against prevailing religious norms. There he learns that the rebels possess a hidden super-computer and nuclear reactor and are attempting to produce safe nuclear power to reverse the fierce reaction against modernism enforced by the New Mennonites. ?Wasn’t one burning of the world enough’? the protagonist wonders. ?Why did you have to keep this thing alive’? A Bartorstown leader replies: ?You can’t destroy knowledge. You can stamp it under and burn it up and forbid it to be, but somewhere it will survive? (171).
Of course the reader can only speculate if Updike’s fictional Rabbit Angstrom (himself named for a nuclear measurement) would have read The Long Tomorrow, which, after all, did sell some 200,000 copies a couple of years after Rabbit finished high school. But without doubt, the novel’s depiction of Mennonites as rigid idealists who hated and distrusted progress helped to construct the popular image of Mennonites in Rabbit Angstrom’s Eisenhower-era America. Brackett managed to evoke two prevalent fears in post-World War II America’totalitarianism and nuclear proliferation’into thematic conflict in the novel around images of Mennonite theology and practice.
Written a few years later, Updike’s Rabbit, Run is a more subtle novel than The Long Tomorrow and offers a complex narrative task for any reader of the novel who wishes to judge what it has to say about Anabaptist values and practice. For example, the novel’s deftly ironic narration undercuts Rabbit’s prejudices against plain people. Indeed, Updike has enjoyed an almost startlingly complex four-decade relationship with his Rabbit protagonist, as anyone understands who has read the four Rabbit novels and the novella. Rabbit is quite frequently wrong in his hastily drawn cultural opinions, be they about Amish or about African Americans, who are ?a strange race . . . noisy . . . loose-jointed’ or his conviction that all professional women are ?thin, taut . . . overexercised,? with deep bony eye sockets and no curves. Why, then, should we trust Rabbit’s prejudiced conjecture about the Amish in their buggy along the dimly lit road near New Holland? Better, perhaps, to attend to the muted voice of the narrator who crouches inside Rabbit’s more articulated thoughts and reveals that the plain people and their values offer a rather more deep-seated challenge to Rabbit than he believes. ?He can’t shake them, mentally,? the underlying narrator reports of Rabbit’s interior reaction to the Amish in their buggy. ?They never appeared in his rear-view mirror. He passed them and there was nothing? (27).
While the plot of the Rabbit saga is too complex to explore at length in this essay, Rabbit’s initial flight from responsibility is unsuccessful, and he returns to Mt. Judge, this time only to abandon his wife and take up with a prostitute named Ruth. And as the novel cycle progresses, Rabbit Angstrom is more deeply in trouble than ever’losing a daughter to drowning, a young mistress to fire, a son to drug addiction. For our more immediate purposes, Updike ultimately introduces a powerful character and theme during the latter narratives of the series’a child (Annabelle Byer) whom Rabbit apparently produced during his affair in the first novel with the prostitute Ruth. Ruth, it seems, has settled down by the third novel and has married a farmer named Frank Byer, who lives south of Mt. Judge near the fictional town of Galilee, amid signs for lawnmower sharpening and Pennsylvania Dutch quilts, and past the billboard of a ?giant Amishman pointing to a natural cave? (298). Although Updike doesn’t quite say it directly, it is reasonable to assume that Rabbit’s former mistress has married a Mennonite farmer. ?Her hair,? Updike writes, ?that used to be a kind of dirty fiery gingery color is flattened now to an iron gray and pulled back in a bun like the Mennonites wear? (397). Ruth won’t confirm that Annabelle is his daughter, but, as happenstance would have it, in the fourth novel, Rabbit at Rest, Annabelle Byer becomes Rabbit’s nurse after he suffers a heart attack while attempting to save his granddaughter from drowning.
As Rabbit debates with his doctors whether to make do with an angioplasty or undergo a more invasive heart bypass surgery, he betrays all of his old prejudices as well as his continuing knowledge of popular culture narratives when the doctor suggests that he might have the heart bypass surgery in Lancaster. ?Lancaster is worse,? Rabbit fumes. ?Amish farmers overwork their animals to death, inbred so much half are hunchbacks and dwarfs. He saw them in the movie Witness being very quaint, Kelly McGillis wiping her bare [breasts] with a sponge and everybody chipping in to build that barn, but it didn’t fool him? (259). In this atmosphere of prejudice, Rabbit declines the heart bypass surgery in Lancaster or anywhere else and tells Annabelle that he will not seek a reunion with her now-widowed mother Ruth. Having closed off these options, Rabbit will be dead in a matter of months’stricken at 56 by another heart attack after another lonely drive south, one more getaway that takes him from Mt. Judge, through the fertile land of Mennonites and Amish, to Florida, where he dies in a pick-up basketball game, trying to showcase his dying skills.
Updike saves his most telling commentary on Rabbit and his relationship with his former mistress and estranged daughter for ?Rabbit Remembered,? the sequel novella published in the year 2000. In the novella, Annabelle Byer establishes a relationship with Rabbit’s son Nelson, and the two compare her stepfather Frank Byer to Rabbit Angstrom, the real father they unknowingly shared. Although never specifying that Frank Byer was a Mennonite, Annabelle recalls her stepfather as ?a wonderful man? who taught her how to ride a tractor, pick apples and strawberries, feed chickens, and practice carpentry, and whoprovided the compassionate example that has led her to become a hospice nurse. ?He could fix anything’you know how around the farm everything is always breaking down, he never let on he was flummoxed, just would sigh and settle down to it. He had this wonderful confident, calm touch’with my mother, too, when she’d let her temper fly? (252). Annabelle’s half-brother Nelson can’t help contrasting this man’this Frank Byer’to his own father, Rabbit Angstrom. ??He sounds great,? he grunts. ?Every time my father tried to fix anything around the house, it got broken worse’? (253).
If Updike succeeds in building a covertly Mennonite character, Frank Byer, who is characterized by more than culturally exotic external trappings, he also has Annabelle deliver perhaps as symbolically important a description of her real father’Harry ?Rabbit? Angstrom’as any presented during the five Rabbit narratives. ?He was once a patient when I was still at St. Joe’s,? she recalls. ?An angioplasty, I think it was. He was a charmer. Full of jokes.? Told that Rabbit had died less than six months later of a massive heart attack, Annabelle remarks, ?He should have had a bypass, it sounds like? (187). And so Rabbit should have, Updike suggests. Rabbit should have risked the inner workings of a new spiritual core’a heart in which blood flowed free and unrestricted’instead of shutting his life down in his old prejudices and gambling on the temporary fix of a balloon angioplasty to clear the crud of accumulated grease and inactivity from his heart and soul. Although Updike never states it directly, one way to read the Rabbit novels is to see them as the story of an American Everyman who’though Updike clearly loves him for all his flaws and especially for his raw, if ultimately ineffectual, drive for freedom’never outgrows his more base desires and prejudices. And for our purposes, it is intriguing that Updike constructs an Amish-Mennonite subtext across the 1700 pages of his five Rabbit books, drawing a clear alternative to Rabbit’s many flaws in the characters of Frank and Ruth Byer and their home among the Mennonites of Pennsylvania.
THE HEALING POWER OF MENNONITE PRACTICE IN THE NOVELS OF DENIS JOHNSON
A generation younger than John Updike, Denis Johnson would seem an unlikely writer indeed to introduce Mennonites as a serious thematic element of his novels. Frequently surreal, Johnson’s narratives prowl lonely bus stations and all-night bars, usually drawing their characters from the drifters, the criminals and the maimed. And yet here are Mennonites’cropping up in startling places’as when a young gun-toting heroin addict strays from his drug detoxification therapy group near Phoenix, Arizona in Johnson’s Jesus? Son and stumbles onto a townhouse complex wherein he hears the lovely voice of a woman singing in the shower. Like a fantasy variation on Witness, she appears before the Peeping Tom narrator as she steps from the shower: ?as soft and young as her voice, but not a girl.? He can’t stop watching her, clinging to the windowsill in the darkness outside her window with his chin propped on its edge. ?[I]t was virginal and exciting, too,? he tells the reader. ?I had thoughts of breaking through the glass and raping her. But I would have been ashamed to have her see me. I thought I might be able to do something like that if I were wearing a mask? (143). The drug-addicted narrator grants his readers? outraged horror at his criminality. ?How could I do it, how could a person go that low’? he asks us. ?I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected myself to do worse? (147). And it’s true, as earlier narratives’a welter of thefts, assaults, abortions, heroin overdoses, deaths’in the story cycle that is Jesus? Son already have proven.
But as this story unfolds at the culmination of the Jesus? Son collection, the narrator finds that the woman’s unspoken power to change him proves far greater than his power to assault her. She is a Mennonite woman: ?She was dressed in a long skirt and wore a white cloth over the crown of her head? (148). The narrator peeps on her and her husband nearly every night during that long spring, confiding to the reader that he knows of the Mennonites? works of lonely charity on mission fields (148). And very quietly a transformation takes place in the life of our narrator. His day job at Beverly Home, a center for Alzheimer’s patients and severely disabled seniors’a job originally procured only to score quick points with his Narcotics Anonymous counselors’begins to acquire meaning to him. He recognizes something of himself in the deformed and demented patients he encounters each day. Haltingly, and at the urging of his nurse supervisor, he begins to understand the power of healing, rather than hurtful, touch. ?I was taking a new approach to life,? he confesses. ?I was trying to fit in at work. I wasn’t stealing. I was trying to see each task through to the end? (146). He comes to see Beverly Home as ?a place where, between our lives on this earth, we go back to mingle with other souls waiting to be born? (151).
Yet all the while, he continues to peek on the Mennonite couple nearly every night near his bus stop. He never encounters them directly nor speaks to them, but their power to transform him is steady and real. ?I got so I enjoyed seeing them sitting in their living room talking, almost not talking at all, reading the Bible, saying grace, eating their supper in the kitchen alcove, as much as I liked watching her naked in the shower? (152), he confides. His sexual fantasies still tempt him, but they have veered from assault. He hopes one day to spy the couple making love, but guesses that ?in that sort of religious community they were kept to a schedule or something? (153). One night the curtains are drawn and he hears the ?lovely cries? of the woman and the shouting of her husband ?like a preacher on a stump? (154). Certain that this might be the night for which he has waited, the narrator scrambles to a crack in the curtains. ?I was lurking there in the dark, trembling, really, from the pit of my stomach out to my fingertips? (154). It turns out the Mennonite couple is having an argument; the man is apologetic, but the woman does not wish to be mollified. She pulls the curtain open and stares out into the darkness at her own reflection in the window, not more than two feet from where the narrator lurks in the dark, his eyes locked to hers. ?I could have touched a teardrop, I stood that close,? he tells his readers. The Mennonite husband wants to tell his wife that he’s sorry, but he apparently can’t say the right words. So he drops to his knees and begins to wash her feet. ?He put the basin [a yellow plastic dish tub] on the floor and went down on one knee, head bowed, as if he were proposing to her,? the narrator tells us.
She didn’t move for a while, not perhaps for a full minute, which seemed like a very long time to me outside in the dark with a great loneliness and the terror of a life not yet lived, and the TVs and garden sprinklers making the noises of a thousand lives never to be lived, and the cars going by with the sound of passage, movement, untouchable, uncatchable? (156).
The narrator never tells the reader if he sees the Mennonite couple again, only that he makes his own acquaintance with the sadness and beauty of a partially paralyzed woman whom he begins to date. ?Ghosts and memories hovered around us,? he says:
. . . I was just learning to live sober and . . . a lot of the time the world seemed to smolder around its edges. But I was in a little better physical shape every day. . . . All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us? (159-60).
The success of the ?Beverly Home? episode of Jesus? Son seems to turn on the contrast that Denis Johnson evokes between the lurking world of darkness and longing surrounding the Phoenix tract house and the centered peace inside the Mennonites? lamp-lit home. The narrator’s yearning for ?a place for people like us? is palpable, expressed first in criminal aggression and ultimately in halting healing. Still, Johnson’s depiction of the Mennonite couple, though certainly idealized in some senses, is equivocal. Though the power of their practice (singing, worshiping, prayer, communion) transforms the peeper, the couple seems also caught in a sort of stasis, almost hermetically sealed, removed somehow from the rough and tumble of Phoenix underlife’perhaps saving their human interaction for those ?works of lonely charity in strange worlds where nobody spoke their language? (149). At least for this couple, their practice’while exemplary and transforming’is turned inward, caught in its own reflection like the woman’s in the window, mirroring a remoteness that might enclose distinctive Mennonites when they are gawked at by the unwashed world.
Johnson returns to a Mennonite theme in his most recent novel, The Name of the World, published in the year 2000. In the novel a part-time history professor at a Midwestern college suffers the aftermath of an auto accident that has taken the life of his wife and four-year-old daughter. He thinks of the warnings he might have given the elderly driver who was at the wheel when the car carrying his wife and daughter skidded on ice and floated into the path of a panel truck going forty miles an hour. ?I might have looked one last time into their faces’but didn’t,? he thinks. ?. . . I stood there with one last statement? ?Take the gravel road. It’s safer’?on the tip of my tongue. On the tip of my tongue. I can still taste it in my mouth.? Awash in such regrets, the narrator allows his life to spin downward: losing a job, lashing out at the friends who might support him, haunting a casino/striptease club on the banks of the Sioux River in what might be northwestern Iowa.
In the midst of his despair, the narrator follows a woman driving a car onto the vast flatness of the plains surrounding his small college town. She stops at a prefab, low-slung building and enters, so the man follows her inside. What he finds is ?sing night? in an auditorium filled with dozens of rustic wooden pews. The men sit on one side and the women on the other. ?I recognized that the crowd around me was one of those Protestant sects descended from Rhineland Anabaptists, like the Mennonites or the Amish,? the narrator protagonist tells us. ?The women all wore skirts or dresses, rather long ones, and flat-heeled shoes and socks, and they kept their long hair in thick braids or pinned up. All of the men wore mustaches or beards. They’d picked me out right away, my face scraped bare? (85).
Later identifying the worshippers as Friesland Mennonites, Johnson, as in Jesus? Son, focuses on Mennonite practice and its potential for healing, noting that the worshippers ?didn’t believe in insurance companies, military service, or state supported education? (89). As the narrator waits in the hall, everyone takes hymnals from the slots in the backs of the seats. ?Number two thirty-eight,? says one, and the voices lift: ?Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, / That calls me from a world of care / And bids me at my Father’s throne / Make all my wants and wishes known. / In seasons of distress and grief, / My soul has often found relief / And oft escaped the Tempter’s snare / By thy return, sweet hour of prayer? (87). Though the hymn is sung a cappella, its transformative power is electric. ?Their song astonished even more than their praying,? says the narrator. ?They sang in multiple harmony, in a fullness and with a competence that didn’t seem studied, but perfectly natural, innate, all talent? (87).
Yet Johnson prepares a different sort of transformation for this narrator than what his more pious readers might desire. Like the Mennonite couple in Phoenix, the Friesland Mennonites, it seems, cannot provide the power to pull the outsider through to transcendence’only to wash away some portion of his bitterness and to move him toward a neutral space where he might yet be healed. ?[N]early three hundred people, all singing beautifully,? the narrator tells us of the song. ?I wondered what it must sound like out in the empty green fields under the cloudless blue sky, how heartrendingly small even such a crowd of voices must sound rising up into the infinite indifference of outer space. I felt lonely for us all, and abruptly I knew there was no God? (88). Despite that declaration, the transformation is meaningful; the narrator moves from a space where ?for some time now I’d certainly hated [God], this killer, this perpetrator, in whose blank silver eyes nobody was too insignificant, too unremarkable, too innocent and small to be overlooked in the parceling out of tragedy? (88). What this ?grand and lovely multitude of singers? does for him, the narrator tells us, is to burst the darkness and the weight of chains that surrounds him, open his eyes, stop the ringing in his head. ?Until just past six, for exactly an hour by my watch, we praised the empty universe,? he says. ?I felt our hearts going up and up into an endless interval with nothing to get in the way. All my happy liberated soul came out my throat? (88-89).
A careful reading of John Updike and Denis Johnson reveals that some of the best writing produced by ?outsiders? about Mennonite and Amish practice might ultimately move beyond the surface characterization of exotic dress and cultural otherness toward more subtle inner values. At their best, Anabaptist characters might yet exemplify peaceful, reconciling behavior’an antidote to the materialistic vacuum that haunts the landscapes of the contemporary literary novelist. The best characters then, like Frank Byer, might be Anabaptists without ever being identified as such’might be wonderful, compassionate, confident, calm.
Meanwhile, we can trace the steps toward that ideal in the best work of John Updike and Denis Johnson’each of whom is willing to use Mennonite or Amish themes and practices to inform his fictional projects. Updike begins his Rabbit cycle with a stereotypical image of sectarian fanaticism, complicates it with ironic narrative depth and builds what could be described as a covert but consistent Mennonite subtext into the later novels of his Rabbit series. In so doing, he seems to break free from the paradigm of either uncritical acceptance or contempt for otherness that marks most popular narratives of Amish or Mennonites written by outsiders. Similarly, Denis Johnson explores Mennonite practice to see what it might offer to the broken in the outer world’the drug addicts, the drifters, those in the grief of loss. We have much to teach, Johnson seems to conclude, although we too often stick to ourselves’content to stare at our own reflections in hermetically sealed homes and remote houses of worship’while the world outside our windows longs for the spiritual values we seem to possess.
Harry Loewen (with Paul Tiessen)
. Stanley C. Shenk’s 1971 dissertation at New York University, ?The Image of the Mennonite in American Novels, 1900-1970,? was an early exception to this trend. Although Shenk mostly considered novels written by Anabaptist writers, he also studied characters and themes developed by such non-Anabaptist writers as Helen R. Martin and Leigh Brackett, the latter of which is briefly considered in this essay. Shenk also credits a paper, ?The Mennonite Theme in Contemporary American Fiction,? delivered in August 1945 by Elizabeth Horsch Bender at the Fourth Annual Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems at Bluffton College. Additionally, the Mennonite Encyclopedia has a helpful entry on ?Mennonites in Literature? that cites some of the better-known novels in which Mennonites figure as central characters. The most recent and important exception to the critical neglect that I am tracing is an outstanding sociological study by David Weaver-Zercher, The Amish in the American Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2001). While Weaver-Zercher focuses on representation of the Amish and considers a wide range of popular culture texts beyond literary fiction, Weaver-Zercher’s careful reading of texts for what they reveal about the North American society that produces them has strongly influenced my study.
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. Other important Anabaptist characters in U.S. novels since World War II include the Anabaptist chaplain in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22; a minor but intriguing character in Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed recent novel The Corrections; and central Mennonite characters in James A. Michener’s Centennial and The Novel. Of the two novelists discussed in this paper, Updike apparently learned about Mennonites at an early age in his hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania near Reading, while Johnson most likely encountered Kalona-area Mennonites as a graduate student in Iowa City at the University of Iowa Writers? Workshop.
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. Two of the most interesting studies of Anabaptist-related novelists presented at the October, 2002 Mennonite/s Writing: An International Conference at Goshen College concerned rising novelists who credit the influence of John Updike and Denis Johnson. In his paper on Canadian novelist David Bergen, Ervin Beck cited a personal interview in which Bergen credits Updike’s Rabbit novels as a major inspiration for his work. At the same conference session Carroll D. Yoder discussed Eastern Mennonite University graduate Stephen Byler, who has written a narrative cycle, Searching for Intruders, reminiscent in theme and structure of Denis Johnson’s Jesus? Son. In a personal interview with my daughter Hadley Lehman for her senior English thesis at Goshen College, Byler cited Denis Johnson as an important influence on his writing, which has been called ?new and noteworthy? work by The New York Times.
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. In his dissertation Stanley C. Shenk concluded that The Long Tomorrow was the best-written novel about Mennonites among the thirty he had studied and’after Helen R. Martin’s Tillie, A Mennonite Maid’was the best-selling novel ever written about Mennonites (381). Without doubt, its depiction of Mennonites as rigid idealists who hate and distrust progress helped to construct the popular image of Mennonites in Rabbit Angstrom’s Eisenhower-era America. The novel’s author Leigh Brackett had been the co-author, with William Faulkner, of the script for Howard Hawks? 1946 film production of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. She was a prolific science fiction author who culminated a long career by writing screenplays for George Lucas? Star Wars II and The Empire Strikes Back (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi.brackett).
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3. In Alison Maclean’s film version of Jesus? Son the protagonist magically reaches through the glass window in an effort to touch the Mennonite woman’s face while she stares at her reflection. He ultimately breaks and enters the couple’s house, and the Mennonite man tells him to take what he needs, though the narrator is shamed and declines’Jesus? Son, dir. Alison Maclean (Universal Studios, 1999). Denis Johnson’s original written narrative, however, draws the scene with the Mennonites more subtly and symbolically and never brings the two worlds into physical contact.
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5. Updike, ?Rabbit Remembered,? 183-84, 252.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Amish/Mennonite Characters in Updike and Johnson
*Daniel W. Lehman is Professor of English at Ashland University. His most recent book is John Reed and the Writing of Revolution (Ohio University Press, 2002).