Last modified: Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Middletown, the "typical" American city
How Muncie, Ind., became a symbol of American life
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Oct. 26, 2005
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Imagine a community that is typical of American society as a whole. Could such a place even exist, let alone be discovered and studied?
In 1929, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published a groundbreaking study of a small American city and how its citizens were responding to 20th-century modernization. They chose Muncie, Ind., for their study, and their book quickly became a national bestseller, read by academics and the general public alike. The book was titled Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, and Muncie soon became synonymous with Middletown.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of the Lynds' famous study, the fall issue of the Indiana Magazine of History is devoted to their project and its effects. As James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University in Muncie, notes in his introduction to the issue, "Americans quickly began to view the city as a representative slice of the nation, and scholars ... repeatedly returned to the city." This fascination with Middletown as a typical American community has persisted, with the result that Muncie is "the most well-documented, thoroughly studied community of its size in the nation," according to Connolly.
The Lynds themselves had no illusions that they had "held up a mirror to America," but their efforts to explain the limitations of their work were largely ignored. Reviewers nationwide praised their book extravagantly, and even so skeptical a critic as H.L. Mencken wrote, "I commend (it) to all persons who have any genuine interest in the life of the American people ... It reveals, in cold-blooded, scientific terms, the sort of lives millions of Americans are leading."
In addition to Connolly's essay summarizing the research of the Lynds and subsequent scholars, the issue features a memoir by Staughton Lynd, son of the original researchers, in which he reflects on his parents and the significance of their work. He reveals that his parents were initially told that their work was unpublishable. "It was a grim period," recalled Helen Lynd. "We didn't know the manuscript was good."
Staughton Lynd also deals with accusations that his parents neglected to study the non-white population of Muncie. Pointing out that "my parents' decision to study a community that was almost all white is ... what their life experience qualified them to do," Lynd also states his belief that his parents' lifelong involvement in issues of justice for the poor and the working class would have led them to write a very different study were they alive today: "I am convinced that, if they had it to do again in the 21st century, they would find a way to put the transcendence of racial, ethnic and national boundaries at the center of their project."
The issue includes an article by Sarah Igo, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, on how Muncie was portrayed in the popular media of the 1920s and 1930s, and how the town became caught up in a national fascination with Middletown as the "typical" American city. In the issue's concluding essay, John Straw, director of archives and special collections at the Ball State libraries, details the libraries' sources for further study of Middletown and Muncie.
The Indiana Magazine of History is published quarterly by the History Department of Indiana University Bloomington in cooperation with the Indiana Historical Society, which offers the journal as a benefit of membership. The magazine's Web site can be found at https://www.indiana.edu/~imaghist. For general information on the articles, contact the editorial office of the magazine at 812-855-4139. For more detailed information on Muncie and Middletown studies, contact James Connolly at firstname.lastname@example.org.