In the early 1920s husband-and-wife sociologists Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd scoured America in search of a city “as representative as possible of contemporary American life”. They found Muncie, Indiana. “A typical city, strictly speaking, does not exist,” they conceded in the first paragraph. “But the city was selected as having many features common to a wide group of communities.” They didn’t tell anyone it was Muncie. They just called it Middletown.
They published their findings in 1929 with a detailed portrayal of a town becoming less devout and less deferent, more educated and more automated, where women were less likely to bake their own bread and more likely to work outside the home, young people lead more independent lives, where public speeches were getting shorter and schoolgirls preferred cotton to silk stockings.
Derisive of politicians (“Our politics smell to heaven,” said one business leader) Muncie residents were also fiercely loyal to the two main parties in ways that still ring true. “A man is a Republican or he is not,” argued one local editorial. “A Democrat or he is not, and the test of his partisanship is the support he gives his party.”
Amid these shifts in gender, generation and religion, the central focus was on class. This was their central aim, to challenge the myth of meritocracy and social fluidity, and show how much the America one was born into shaped your life chances. Surveying the streets in the early winter’s morning, for example, they explained that it is in the working class part of town where lights go on at 6am so labourers can make the early shift while the well-to-do areas remained in darkness. “[The] division into working class and business class constitutes the outstanding cleavage in Middletown,” they wrote. “The mere fact of being born upon one or the other side of the watershed roughly formed by these two groups is the most significant single cultural factor tending to influence what one does all day long throughout one’s life.”
Norman Birnbaum, a longtime Guardian reader and retired academic who contacted me on reading of this project, knew the Lynds in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “Bob was the prototypical midwestern New Dealer and progressivist,” he said. “They were very proud of Middletown because they thought it brought into sharp profile some key problems.”
The book was released to rave reviews and enduring success. HL Mencken declared: “It reveals, in cold-blooded, scientific terms, the sort of lives millions of Americans are leading.” Stuart Chase at the Nation magazine wrote: “Whoever touches the book touches the heart of America.”
And so it is that Middletown, and therefore Muncie, became a proxy for the quintessential America. “The Lynds tried to have it both ways,” says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University in Muncie. “They called it Middletown. They clearly wanted it to represent more than just this one community. But on the other hand they suggest that you shouldn’t generalise too quickly from it. But the reaction was: ‘This is the real America.’ And that conceit, however well you think it holds up, and it doesn’t hold up that well demographically, carries this whole enterprise forward. It’s the reason I have a job. It’s the reason why you’re here.”
And from there began what Sarah Igo, in The Averaged American, describes as “the strange slippage between the typical and the good, the average and the ideal”.
In 1935 Robert Lynd, under pressure from his publishers, came back to do a follow-up, Middletown in Transition, which examined the effects of the Great Depression on Muncie.
When the book came out in 1937 Muncie’s mayor said: “We think we are a typical city of typical Americans. We do not mind being in the spotlight.” None of that, it turned out, was remotely true.
Whether Muncie liked being in the spotlight or not depended heavily on what that light exposed. “Muncie has always had a mixed response to the attention it has received since Middletown,” says Connolly. “On the one hand they really like this idea that this is quintessential America. They are the ur-Americans. They are the ground zero of American life. And that’s an attractive idea for them and for outside observers. On the other hand they would bridle at some of the ways that they were portrayed.”
When the acclaimed photographer Margaret Bourke-White took a series of photographs for Life magazine that showed the deep economic inequalities following the Depression, the town was in uproar. In 1982, as one of our readers noted, PBS released a six-part documentary on Muncie called Middletown. One episode, set in Southside High School, which has since closed, depicted casual drug use, profanity and sexual banter while focusing considerable attention on an teenage interracial relationship. After tense discussions between local leaders, PBS and the film-makers, the episode was withdrawn and the series sponsor, Xerox, withdrew its sponsorship – but not its funding – from that particular program, which has since been released on DVD. One person involved in the talks at the time told the New York Times that the decision was made to protect the children. ‘’It’s a very difficult issue of freedom of speech versus what these kids might have been doing to themselves. There’s a possibility that they really could be destroying their lives in saying some of the things they said in the film. In a way, you have to protect them – they’re minors, after all – from themselves.’’
And like a fairground mirror, Middletown gave America an image of itself that was both familiar and woefully distorted – an image that the American commentariat preferred to reality. For when the Lynds selected a city they settled on three key characteristics: that it be between 25,000 and 50,000 people, that it was “self-contained” (not a “satellite” or suburb) and finally, that it should “have a small Negro and foreign-born population”. Muncie did not actually fit the bill for the final point. At 5% its black population was proportionally higher at the time than New York, Chicago and Detroit . It did have a small foreign-born population because the local business class imported workers from Tennessee and Kentucky. “There was a conscious attempt to keep foreign workers out,” says Connolly. “Because they wanted people to go home during slack times and they were worried foreigners would bring in dangerous ideas.” But once again, this made it atypical compared with other towns of its size.
The Lynds did this consciously because they wanted to concentrate on class and therefore avoid dealing with “two major variables” and deal instead with a “homogeonous, native-born population”. “They understood that they were doing that and they justified it in a social-scientific sense,” says Igo, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University. “They try to unmask this myth about class. But what it did was create this other myth about a representative America – a nostalgic, white nativist America.” That myth, says Igo, is enduring. It can be found in Sarah Palin’s praise of the “real America” in 2008 or Ronald Reagan’s ad “It’s morning again in America” in 1984 or even Donald Trump’s “Make America great again”. “Every country has a mythical sense of what it is, so it’s not unique to America,” says Igo.
Nor is it limited to Republicans. In the runup to the 2008 primaries Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, laid out a plan of attack against Barack Obama. “His roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his centre fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values ... Every speech should contain the line you were born in the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century ... Let’s explicitly own ‘American’ in our programmes, the speeches and the values. He doesn’t ... Let’s use our logo to make some flags we can give out. Let’s add flag symbols to the backgrounds.”
During a drive around town, Yvonne Thompson, the African American director of Muncie’s Human Rights Office, says the town’s black population (now 12%, roughly the same proportion as the nation at large) which lives on the east side of the railroad tracks remains largely forgotten. For a long time there was no fire station and there is still no supermarket there, she explains, and if a train is on the line and the roads are blocked it can slow down the response time for ambulances. “We have to remind people that we’re here,” she says. “And that we’re not going away, so don’t forget about us.”
We pull up at Shaffer chapel and she shows me a plaque. On 7 August 1930 a white mob in Marion, Indiana, some 40 miles away, broke into the local jail with sledgehammers, dragged three black teenagers out of their cell, beat them and then hung two of them from a tree by their necks (the third managed to get away). The night before, they had been arrested and charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his white girlfriend, Mary Ball. (Ball later testified she had not been raped.) Lawrence Beitler took pictures of the crowd, including children, that had come to watch the bodies swing. Over the next 10 days he would sell thousands in what became the inspiration for Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and is now an iconic image.
The bodies were left to hang overnight and were cut down in the morning. By that time news reached Reverend JE Johnson, a pastor and mortician 30 or so miles away in Muncie. Knowing that Marion had no black undertakers, he braved the trip to Marion that morning to pick up their bodies and prepare them for a Christian burial. When rumours spread that a white mob was coming to take the bodies back, Muncie’s black community armed themselves in preparation and the town’s white sheriff, Fred Puckett, stood with them. The next day Puckett and a posse from Muncie’s black community escorted Johnson to the county line from where he continued to Marion to deliver them for burial.
This took place just one year after Middletown was published. But the experiences of people like Johnson and many of those who stood with him that day, are omitted from the “typical” American story of Middletown.
“How are you going to have a thorough study of this town and leave us out?” asks Thompson, who’s wearing a black T-shirt stating: “It Matters.” “And then tell everybody it’s the ‘real America’.”
Archive photographs by Ball State University Libraries Archives and Special Collections; current photographs by David Levene for the Guardian