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Middletown, Teetering On the Divide

"As far as I'm concerned, the Republicans have turned things to [expletive]," he says. "I'm working two jobs now just so I can put gas in my van."

Cantrell talks about what it was like when his dad came up from the South, like so many others, to work in the parts plants in Muncie. How the city was thriving then. If people think this is Middle America, he says, they're wrong. Muncie doesn't represent Middle America anymore.

Probably.

"Well, I hope Middle America is a little better than what's around here," he says. "Otherwise, that's depressing."

* * *

What a burden, being average.

When Robert and Helen Lynd happened upon Muncie in 1924, looking for a place to study the effects of industrialization, they liked the city because it was "middle-of-the-road," they wrote, without "outstanding peculiarities or acute local problems." Not too big, not too small; not too hot or too cold. Not on either coast, but smack in the Midwest, which seemed more quintessentially American to the Lynds, somehow. For the purposes of their study, they named it Middletown.

Muncie was not truly average or typical in the literal sense. It had fewer immigrants than most Midwestern cities of its size, and what black population there was, the Lynds utterly ignored in their surveys.

But when the book "Middletown" came out in 1929, it became a national bestseller, and many Americans came to feel that Muncie was Anytown, U.S.A. Muncie became another Peoria for market researchers and trade journals, who figured that if, say, newfangled school supplies sold here, they would sell . . . everywhere!

"The only two books that are absolutely necessary for an advertising man are the Bible and MIDDLETOWN!" one sales journal declared, according to Sarah E. Igo's book "The Averaged American."

There have been many more sociological studies and books about Muncie over the decades -- so many that Ball State formed the Center for Middletown Studies. A filmmaker came in and made a documentary series that aired on PBS in the late '70s and early '80s.

The good people of Muncie could be forgiven if they have felt at times like lab rats.


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