I grew up in a small industrial city in Indiana not far from Muncie—the town made famous by Robert and Helen Lynd in their books on Middletown. Twenty years ago, a number of tiny evangelical churches there burst out of their non-descript buildings and moved into large and impressive new quarters surrounded by parking lots, where fleets of buses were lined up waiting to bring the faithful to services. When a point of doctrine or personality split one of the large new congregations, the departing parishioners rented an abandoned dry-goods store and held services there until they went on to a new church as grand and apparently well attended as the one they had left, which showed no signs of diminution. Meanwhile, in the established churches, the congregations seemed to grow older and smaller. One might assume from the unscientific evidence of my infrequent visits home that religion was flourishing but that there had been a marked shift in denominational loyalties.
Although All Faithful People seems to uphold these assumptions, at least in part, its authors would presumably be wary of my thumbnail history because, they say, “superficial observations…are notoriously inaccurate.” This caveat appears in a chapter in which the authors write that the people in Middletown have “serious interest” in religion, basing their claim on the growing registration in religion courses in local colleges. They do not ask whether or not those courses have intellectual substance: if they are mostly “gut” courses the large enrollments might suggest something else altogether.
In Middletown Families (1982), the earlier volume growing out of the recent studies of the town, the authors respond to what the Lynds in Middletown in Transition call “our impression” about the generation gap by primly toying with the word: “if we may be permitted to state an impression only partly buttressed by statistical data.” If I may be permitted an impression of my own, for sociologists of all sorts the degree of superficiality of an observation depends on how useful it is to bolster whatever point is being made. I approached both the old and the new studies of Middletown with a wariness, not simply of the way data was gathered and interpreted, but of the ideas and attitudes they often reflected as much in their turns of phrase as in their argument.
In 1976 a group of sociologists and other social scientists under the direction of Theodore Caplow went to Muncie to repeat the research that the Lynds did in the 1920s and 1930s. The project was financed primarily by the National Science Foundation with supplemental support from Brigham Young University, the base for Caplow’s two chief associates, Howard M. Bahr and Bruce A. Chadwick. From the material gathered between 1976 and 1981, more than twenty papers have so far appeared, as well as Middletown Families and the present volume. Unlike the Lynds’ books, Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937), which attempt to portray a whole community, these are specialized studies with a necessarily narrower focus.
As the difference in the number and scope of publications suggests, replicating the research of the Lynds is impossible. Caplow et al. admit as much. Muncie is a great deal larger than it was in the 1920s, the population is older and blacker, and there are more women. The tiny normal college that the Lynds saw as having little influence on the town has grown into Ball State University, a major cultural force in Muncie. After discussing the changed setting at length, the authors say that “today’s Middletown is still the same place the Lynds studied in the 1920s,” but that statement has more to do with their idea of Muncie than with the reality. Nor can the methods used be the same, even though on several occasions the recent study used the same questionnaire as the one the Lynds used.
More than fifty years of sociological studies have come between the Lynds’ pioneering work in social anthropology in an American setting and the approach taken in what is generally called Middletown III. The Lynds had two assistants part of the time and a secretary throughout their year-and-a-half stay in 1924 and 1925; when Robert Lynd came back in 1935 for a much shorter time he was assisted in his fieldwork by five graduate students. Caplow, on the other hand, had numerous associates, assistants, and interviewers, and the advantage of computer analysis. “We are not at all sure that we understand the community as well as the Lynds did,” Caplow says in the preface to Middletown Families, “but we have more information about it.” Both the Lynds and their would-be replicators use the same kind of material—unpublished studies, solicited and unsolicited recollections of the past (e.g., diaries), newspaper and other contemporary comment, direct observation, interviews, questionnaires—but the information is filtered through differing sensibilities and intuitions.
Helen Lynd’s remark about “Bob’s…account…of a revival service,” quoted in All Faithful People, suggests that Robert Lynd was the chief author of the original Middletown studies, but his acknowledgements in Middletown in Transition make it clear that they are properly coauthors. In the prefaces to the more recent studies, Caplow lists the original authors of each of the chapters, but, as he says specifically in Middletown Families, this is “a jointly authored book and not a collection of contributed papers.” The difference is that the Lynds might almost be a single mind reflecting a view of Middletown while Caplow’s committee, despite its shared conclusions, has produced books that are often repetitious; the chapters come at the same material from different and sometimes contradictory points of view. For example, the remarks suggesting that Middletown’s families are increasingly vulnerable (at the end of the chapter on Easter and Christmas) seem at odds with the general conclusions of Middletown Families, which suggest that family life is thriving.
The Lynds, who attempted to reconstruct the Middletown of 1890 as a basis for comparison with the modern city they were studying, concluded that technological changes had altered the nature of work. Mechanization had replaced craftsmanship. The business of “getting its living” had been reduced to “an instrumental rather than an inherently satisfying role.” Other new technologies such as the automobile and movies were changing traditional institutions like the family and the church: the former was losing its cohesiveness, the latter was giving way to secular organizations. Received values—patriotic, religious, familial—were seen as public rhetoric (“Magic Middletown”) or private assertions that fitted uneasily with a money-dominated society. When Lynd came back to explore the effects of the Depression on Middletown, he found, as Middletown in Transition suggests, that, although widespread want had forced Middletown to respond in uncharacteristic ways to the crisis, the town was “overwhelmingly living by the values by which it lived in 1925.” Lynd found that an even greater disparity had arisen between the expressed values and the reality of the workplace, the family, the church.
Whereas the Lynds were preoccupied with change, the authors of the new studies, as the subtitles of both books indicate, are concerned with “change and continuity.” Change, they suggest, is imposed from outside; the continuity of attitudes and institutions sustains the community from within. Middletown Families claims to explode “the myth of the declining family,” reporting not only that families are in healthy condition but that most respondents are satisfied with their marriages and their jobs. All Faithful People dispenses with “the hypothesis of universal secularization,” citing not only the growth in church attendance but its changing quality, “an unmistakable shift from religion as obedience to religion as pleasure.”
Faced with the new data and their reading of it, the authors of Middletown III might have reported simply that the Lynds were incorrect in charting the direction in which they saw Muncie moving. Instead, despite their display of respect for their elders, the studies frequently treat the Lynds as adversaries. Their distrust has much to do with the tone and the implications of the Lynd books; but there are enough instances of misrepresentation and misunderstanding in the Caplow studies to make it clear that they are not only protecting their own findings but defending the attitudes they brought to them.
All Faithful People reports that the “Middletown Spirit” chapter in Middletown in Transition “summarized—or parodied” the values of the city, but it never questions the Lynds’ list of the dominant values in Muncie. The “faint vein of satire” Middletown III detects in the Lynds’ work was perhaps unavoidable: any collection of platitudes of any period, presented baldly, is likely to strike a critical note for many of its readers. It is probably this quality that made a popular success of Middletown, and it is certainly what led H.L. Mencken to praise the book and the sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz, as recently as 1979, to describe Lynd as “the Sinclair Lewis of sociology.” Yet reportorial accuracy has a way of misbehaving. All Faithful People quotes a woman who says the restorative power of going to church is “kind of like taking a good hot bath” and describes “a 200-foot banana split…made in the churchyard and eaten by the congregation” to help raise attendance at one of the local Baptist churches. If the authors had not insisted on their credentials as active churchgoers and their inclination “to characterize religion in Middletown by those elements that appear valid to us,” the innocent reader might suspect a “faint vein of satire” in Middletown III as well.
The difference between the Lynds’ Middletown and Middletown III has to do with more than tone. Much of the Lynds’ study is about money and its getting and spending, its formative and deforming influence on all the institutions they observed. When we read that “the condition of there being more men than available jobs, though dreaded by the working man, is commonly called by his bosses ‘an easier labor market,”‘ we recognize a criticism as well as a description. We can hear the attitude of the Lynds in phrases like “the peremptory little figures on the cost sheets” or, in Middletown in Transition, “Middletown, like Malthus….” In the preface to Middletown in Transition, Robert Lynd disassociated himself from the “laissez-faire individualism” that pervaded Middletown even during the Depression.
By contrast, practically no emphasis is given to money in the recent studies of Muncie. In an amusing but not very convincing chapter on the secular symbols of Christmas and Easter the authors give no thought to the way commerce helps to shape and sustain those symbols. It is startling when, in a couple of sentences, the recent high unemployment in Muncie is mentioned in All Faithful People, but “hardship” is introduced only to indicate that the recession had no negative effect on the financial support of the churches. The line between the business class and the working class, so important to the Lynd studies, has been erased by 1980, at least for most statistical purposes, although we can be sure that this distinction can still be made. Middletown III may aspire to social-scientific objectivity but it appears to embrace the society it is presenting. The Lynds, who distrusted much in Middletown, still managed to convey greater sympathy for the people of Muncie.
Both Middletown Families and All Faithful People emphasize the “privatization” of behavior and values in Middletown. Although this tendency is generally presented optimistically—All Faithful People closes with a reference to “wonderfully untroubled” religion—there is a recurring suggestion that the cozy nest of private behavior is a kind of redoubt, a defense against “encroaching public institutions, such as government and big business.” Indeed, the authors seem to share Middletown’s “resentment at the federal presence.” They include oddly venomous pages in Middletown Families on the scholars, the journalists, the social workers, and, worst of all, the “tens of thousands of government employees” who make a living out of “the myth of the declining family.” These books reflect as well as report the new conservatism.
Oddly enough, the Lynds, those social activists, were less political than the Caplow team when they commented on the lurking forces that Middletowners try to ignore. They suggested that the boosterism of “Magic Middletown” provided “assurance in the face of the baffling too-bigness of European wars, death, North Poles, ill health, business worries, and political graft.” The Lynds speak of “the essential loneliness and confusion of life” and “the slippery business of living.” Portraying Middletown in the clutch of big government seems facile compared with the Lynds’ account of Middletown suffering the uncertainties of the human condition.
A generation younger than Robert Lynd, I, like him, am an expatriate Indiana boy with a tenuous connection to the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps because of that small resemblance, I am in sympathy with the voice, a mixture of concern and irony, that sounds through the original Middletown volumes. Despite the detailed and potentially useful material gathered by Middletown III, I am made uneasy by Middletown Families and All Faithful People. The note of complacency in them may be justified by the statistics, but I miss the questioning eye that might have been brought to a description of the society on which that attitude rests. More than that, I wonder about the disquiet beneath the optimism, a disquiet that seems to have escaped the compilers of Middletown III. There is not much Angst in evidence around the old neighborhood when I go back to Indiana, and the unexamined life is as ubiquitous as the gasoline lawn mower. Yet I get the feeling that the people there, even as they perform the replenishing tasks of their daily lives, are aware, as James Whitcomb Riley’s Little Orphant Annie was, that
…the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you Ef you Don’t
April 26, 1984