In honor of the recent release of The Simpsons Movie, I’ve invited Dale Suderman in as a guest blogger to share some little known history of the Simpsons.
“The Simpsons” is the best satire of contemporary American culture. For those interested in Mennonites involved in mass culture, it is also a case study of a family morphing from immigrant Mennonite experience to pop culture celebrity in four generations.
For two decades “The Simpsons” cartoon show on the Fox network has made people laugh and groan at the antics of the most dysfunctional—but ultimately loving– family in America. Homer and Marj Simpson and their three children, Bart the brat, Lisa the child genius and Maggie the pacifier-sucking infant along with Grandpa Abraham live in the mythical city of Springfield.
The creative genius of the show, Matt Groening, has been coy about Springfield’s location—even suggesting it might be Winnipeg, Manitoba since his father was born Canadian. He has alluded to the Mennonite and Germany language origins of his family. Matt Groening has recreated his own family tree in the names of his cartoon characters. Most obviously, his real life parents are Homer and Margaret Groening, and he does have a sister named Lisa.
The show is preoccupied with religious— and some might say also sacrilegious — themes. From Reverend Lovejoy—of complex denominational identity to neighbor Ned Flanders—the born-again, Bible believing neighbor, Groening wrestles with complex issues of faith and meaning in all his characters.
When Bart’s tree house burns down, the Amish show up for a barn raising. Marj says, “Oh, those Amish are so industrious, unlike those shiftless Mennonites and the scene shifts to “Mennonites” shooting dice and smoking cigarettes. In-jokes like this go over the heads of most viewers.
Reconstructing the genealogy of Matt Groening one finds a fascinating saga.
The story begins in the 1870s when Abraham Groening emigrated from the Ukraine and became a leading member of the Gnadenau Krimmer Mennonite Brethren church located southwest of Hillsboro in Marion County, Kansas. He was a school board member of a one-room school district and hired his 16-year-old son, Abram Abraham Groening—soon known as AA Groening– to teach a room full of youngsters—most of them his siblings.
In 1908, AA Groening is among the first 39 students in the newly opened Tabor College meeting in the Mennonite Brethren Church in Hillsboro. Seven years later he graduates and begins some graduate work at Kansas University and teaches part-time at his alma mater. He is what is known as a promising young lad.
But there is a shadow on the horizon. War fever is breaking out with the looming conflict with Germany. The Groenings speak both High German and the Plautdeutsch dialect. They are pacifists by religious conviction. A draft notice is sent to AA Groening.
Vigilante groups in Kansas are out to prove their patriotism and protect America by kicking some German pacifist’s butt. One night, they pick Abraham Groening as a target. He gets wind of this and drives his family to his brother-in-law’s house. John Siebert hides the car in the barn, the Groenings in the attic and tells his own family to keep quiet. The youngest child was told she nearly suffocated as her sister held her hand over her mouth to keep quiet. The vigilantes came on horseback with torches and guns, circling the house but not entering. Shortly thereafter, on September 18, 1918 the pater familias Abraham Groening had a quick farm sale and moved his family to Hepburn, Saskatchewan. Apparently they later relocated to Main Centre, Saskatchewan.
According to the Investigative Reports of the Bureau of Investigation, 1908-1922, roll # 705, an agent from the Bureau of Investigation—the predecessor of the FBI—came to Hillsboro looking for AA Groening. He interrogated John Siebert rather firmly. Siebert claims he does not speak the English so good, does not recall ever discussing religion or politics with Groening and says that Groening went to Canada because he thought farming would be easier near the Arctic Circle.
The draft-dodging AA Groening marries in Canada, begins a family and has a son named Homer. When the war is over he does more graduate work at the University of California and returns to Tabor College as a professor in 1920. By 1930 he is Dean of Tabor College and instrumental in starting the athletic department. His parents Abraham Groening have also returned to Hillsboro and retire there.
In 1930, AA Groening and family—including his ten-year-old son Homer move to Oregon where AA teaches at Albany College—later known as Lewis and Clark College.
Homer marries Margaret Wiggam. He has strong aesthetic interests and works in advertising but also makes films and writes poetry and cartoons. He fights in World War Two as a pilot—which probably produced some interesting conversations with his father.
Homer and Margaret have a son Matthew Abram Groening born in 1954. Matt remembers his father’s encouragement for sketching and cartooning. Matt graduates from Evergreen College, gets a slacker job in a record store and begins selling his cartoons known as “Life in Hell” from the front counter. He gets an offer to do a cartoon series and the Simpsons begin. The pop icon names his son, Matthew Abram Groening—the fourth generation to use this biblical name.
In 1972, AA Groening returns to Tabor College to receive a distinguished alumni award. He and his wife walk through the old church building where he first took college classes.
In the 1980s Homer Groening returns to Hillsboro and takes assorted cousins and relatives to lunch at the old Iron Kettle Restaurant—the hangout of towns peoples and farmers. He thanks them for their kindness to his family.
This is an inter-generational saga. Abraham Groening is an immigrant from the Ukraine to central Kansas and part of the larger Mennonite migration. He is a leader in the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church—a group somewhat more conservative than even the pietist Mennonite Brethren. The faith that prompted him to relocate his family a second time to Canada to avoid the drafting of his sons into the military is complex and unknown. His son Abram Abraham Groening is equally complex and worthy of more research. Here is a man who goes from teaching in a one-room school at age sixteen to a doctorate in science with time at Kansas University, the University of California—probably Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. Somehow he is able to return to his Mennonite Brethren alma mater as faculty and even briefly as Dean without controversy. He moves on to Oregon and continues a distinguished career. His religious affiliation later in life is unknown.
Homer Groening bridges into the world of advertising, media and illustration. The fact that he is a WWII veteran must have produced some interesting dialogue with his father.
Matthew Abram Groening certainly knew the story of his family. While it is said that “Grandpa Abraham” was a mere coincidence presented by his scriptwriters, certainly Matt Groening has retained control of names used in the show.
How much of this is coincidence and merely the whimsy of a creative genius remains open to discussion. One suspects that a more careful examination of the life of AA Groening as the bridge figure would solve part of this puzzle.
A modified version of this article was published in the August 16, 2007 Hillsboro Free Press in the View from Afar column written by Dale Suderman. Thanks to the entire staff of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Hillsboro, Kansas) and other towns people for their assistance in researching this article. You can contact the writer at Dale.Suderman@gmail.com