Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merral Lynd, Middletown: A Study in American Culture

The classic study Middletown: A Study in American Culture by the husband and wife Lynd’s adopts an anthropological approach toward growing American cities of modest size (30,000-50000). The work’s most notable feature in its first half revolves around its significance as a harbinger of future American life. The town’s citizenry, fundamentally native born whites with few African Americans, illustrates a distinctive class cleavage that pervaded much of Middletown society. Divided roughly into business and working classes (the author’s note that each category illustrates far greater diversity than the labels acknowledge i.e. business class included professionals not necessarily included in such categorizations), the differing lifestyles and attitudes of each clearly emerges.

In terms of local economy, the growth of corporate business/industry in the area changed work relations between individuals and the company and the locality and industry. Increasingly, local factories/industry featured few ties to local communities, owned and operated by individuals outside of Middletown. Moreover, for the working classes, work expectancy began to end at age 45 illustrating the difference in both work rates and life expectancies of aging employees. Specialization also wreaked havoc with locals as older workers noted that new machinery not only robbed them of work satisfaction but also made them more replaceable. If promotions became easier, competition for them increased as the college educated and others now competed for foreman and other management positions. Interestingly, the importance of unions/labor seem to ebb in this study though one might wonder if the period which the study takes place may have influenced such views since the 1920’s as other historians have noted, marked a period in which corporate welfare undermined the power of unions and labor.

Homeownership served as a marker of status and independence. In general, homeownership increased for most residents between the years 1890-1930. The working classes could argue that their rate of ownership had increased. Though one wonders what occurred during the 1930s and 40s after 20 year amortization became available and the HOLC/FHA incentives came into play. The home’s importance in the lives of young people experienced decline as school became the center of most teens lives. Clearly, the 1920s revealed the growing teen culture that many might associate with the 1950s. Middletown’s young people enjoyed school clubs (depending on which clubs one belonged to existed as a marker of status) and athletics. Sexual practices of young people also appear to concern the older generation as the automobile was sometimes described as a form of moving prostitution while teens reported to sexual experimentation with petting parties and the like. Parents express a general sense of loss of control over their children. Interestingly, the traits parents suggest they value in their children differed according to class with working class parents more focused on obedience while their business class counterparts expressed a greater faith in independence (this reminds me of a David Brooks column of the last year or two in which he essentially argued this trend continues to this day in part due to work patterns that blue collar types have to endure).

Many of the issues uncovered in Middletown remind the reader of the 1950s. The increased importance of material goods in terms of status determinants from cars to housing to clothes arises as a concern for both the young and old. Students fret about not having the right clothes to “fit in” while adults use their ownership of various consumer goods in similar fashion. Throughout the city, the distribution of household and other technologies lacks equity as the authors note that some houses have many such items while others none. The bifurcation of high school life emerges as an axiom for adult and child. Adult residents express far more concern their children learn “practical” educations, expressing little concern over teachers but great pride in athletics. As well, the impersonal nature of the student teacher relationship seems to parallel similar developments in industry. The specialization of education follows a similar pattern as that in manufacturing.

Most disturbing for this reader was the apparent latent anti-intellectualism on display. A general decline in public lectures, self criticism, and reading point to a distrust of analytical/critical thought. If periodicals enjoyed some support, literature suffered from a lack of attention. One mother even commented that while she would like her children to attend a college that might increase their sense of culture she then corrected herself remarking that unless you lived in California or the East Coast it mattered very little. Rising divorce rates and their commonness illustrates the gradual increasing rights of women but also provided a window into typical relations between husband and wife such that many wives thought it perfectly acceptable that their husbands tell them nearly nothing about the household income. Romantic love served as a trope for marriage but behind this idealization, both business and working class parents exhibited favorite traits for future suitors (male) and their objects of affection (women).

The introduction of the automobile to Middletown drastically altered numerous aspects of the city’s life. From a financial standpoint, many blamed automobiles for skewing family finances, even preventing homeownership. In regards to the importance of the home, the car served as a social activity itself both for individuals, teens, and families. Increasingly the homes importance as a sight for social and familial unity declined. Movies and dancehalls also challenged previous leisure patterns, battling with traditional churches for the Sunday attentions of citizens. With the decline of organizational life for the working classes (lodges and unions as already mentioned no longer carried the same sway, working class males especially found themselves in social isolation to a greater degree than before, local sports (as in My Blue Heaven) served as perhaps the most significant activity connoting community solidarity. The business and professional classes however engaged in numerous civic clubs/associations to the point that some observers noted they had been “clubbed to death”. While spiritual life remained present its importance seemed to be more arbitrary than before. The diminishing importance of religious leaders did not help, nor did the arrival of the Klan which seemed to divide Catholics from Protestants to some degree. Middletown’s smaller Jewish population no doubt suffered as well. (the authors note three general aspects of religious life – the working class was more emotionally involved, shift in the status of certain beliefs, and though a general range of beliefs and depths of belief existed a general vague acceptance of god predominated such that atheists feared to identify themselves – note the working classes here seem distinctly more Catholic and the popularity of the KKK in Middletown seems to be based on both intolerance and the popularity of civic organizations as Kenneth Jackson discussed in The KKK in the City).

In politics, the two party system dominated. Third Party supporters were viewed warily, even with hostility. The importance of political life declined as cynicism toward the electoral arena grew, many citizens simply voted straight political line tickets. Business executives promoted a “city manager” type of government (Amy Bridges covers this well in Morning Glories). Newspapers remained vital to public information but both its delivery of news and editorials remained subject to advertising and business interests.

Much of Middletown seemed to be trapped in a transitional phase. If health care for the general population depended on private and church charities in the 1890s, it now seemed more diffuse. Many could not afford health care in general though “semi-public” agencies developed, a segment of the population maintained hostility toward what they perceived as “socialized medicine”. Local doctors seemed intent on preventing outside competition. Middletown’s experience in health care and social welfare reflected the 1920s limited federal and state governments which perhaps had begun to view their role in more activist terms but had not yet fully embraced such a position. Local charity in general had been widely secularized, like much of Middletown’s society.

What most clearly develops in Middletown between 1890 and the mid 1920’s is a growing divide between the city’s working and business classes. Working class men became more isolated as the business classes created more civic organizations, building social and political capital. The Lynd’s are careful to point out cultural diffusion did not only occur in a trickle down method (as the leisure section confirms the findings of Peiss and others regarding the influence of hetersocial working class leisure spaces moving upwards) but rather also the reverse.

Criticisms –

The anthropological approach is good but it seems at times to be mindnumbing, does the reader really need to know every aspect of Sunday school education? Obviously, the 1920s emphasized conformity in Middletown, much as the 1950s would nationally. Its unsurprising that residents resisted such cultural changes while embracing or making room for technological advances that wrought greater difference.

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