Serious Nonsense by William W. Donner

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Serious NonsenseSerious Nonsense: Groundhog Lodges, Versammlinge, and Pennsylvania German Heritage
by William W. Donner
Penn State University Press, 208 pp., paper $29.95

Serious Nonsense looks at the origin and development of the Pennsylvania Dutch versammlinge, a type of meeting in which the order of business and program are conducted solely in the Pennsylvania Dutch language, often referred to as “the dialect.” Versammlinges were created in the 1930s by individuals of Pennsylvania German heritage for the purpose of expressing their shared ethnic identity – and having a little fun (gschpass) – through fellowship, storytelling, light comical entertainment, music and singing, and plenty of traditional good food, with the provision that the dialect, or “mother tongue,” is spoken exclusively during the course of the evening. These meetings are usually held regionally on an annual basis and not for the benefit of tourism. The development of versammlinges coincided with a rekindled interest in Pennsylvania Dutch culture between the World Wars.

Donner begins the book with an excellent discussion of the Pennsylvania Dutch ethnic group and its diverse religious affiliations, explaining that it is the so-called “church people,” the Lutherans and German Reformed (now United Church of Christ) who originated and continue to attend and participate in these meetings. Much of the book is about the male-only grundsow (groundhog) lodges, which honor the groundhog as a symbol of ethnic identity, and in particular the history and activities of the Lehigh Valley Grundsow Lodge #1. Donner was active as a member of the raad (board) of Lodge #1, and the book is profusely illustrated with photographs of meetings and artwork used for the program covers for that lodge.

Donner ends with thoughts about the future of the versammlinge as nonsectarian dialect speakers dwindle and the use of English has crept into the meetings in recent years. More information would have been welcome about the nongroundhog lodge meetings, but as Donner explains, all versammlinge generally follow the same format, and many of the same speakers are used at these gatherings.

Kerry A. Mohn
Ephrata Cloister