I had forgotten how hostile Robert and Helen Lynd's books on Middletown were.
I reread them for the first time since college, the better to deal with the new series on PBS. From the books I learned quite a bit about the authors' feelings. From the TV show I learned something about television as a medium for information. I still don't know enough about Middletown.
Middletown, as almost everyone knows, is Muncie, Ind., a town of 36,000 souls in 1925 when the Lynds first analyzed it and found there wasn't even a paved road to the nearest city, 60 miles away. The two sociologists--whose groundbreaking 550-page statistical survey, "Middletown," made them famous and controversial--always insisted they liked Middletown and its people.
The 15-page list of conclusions in their 1935 sequel, "Middletown in Transition," begins blandly enough but soon sours. "Middletown believes: in being honest; in being kind; in being friendly, a 'good neighbor' and a 'good fellow'; in being loyal, and a 'booster, not a knocker'; in being successful; in being an average man. 'Practically all of us realize that we are common men, and we are prone to distrust and hate those whom we regard as uncommon.' "
Then the Lynds turn the screws. "As in so many other phases of Middletown's life, the preoccupation of the males with the practical affairs of earning a living makes them more or less automatic local boosters and more gray and neutral than the women in matters that do not concern their jobs. The restlessness of some of the wives is regarded by some men as due to 'their thinking too much.' "
A bitter litany of the Lynds' conclusions about "the Middletown spirit" follows, along these lines:
"That 'American ways' are better than 'foreign ways.' "
"That Negroes are inferior."
"That ordinarily any man willing to work can get a job."
"That the rich are, by and large, more intelligent and industrious than the poor. 'That's why they are where they are.' "
"That the captains of industry are social benefactors because they create employment. 'Where'd all our jobs be if it wasn't for them?' "
"That men are more practical and efficient than women."
"That most women cannot be expected to understand public problems as well as men."
"That 'red-blooded' physical sports are more normal recreations for a man than art, music and literature."
"That leisure is something you spend with people and a person is 'queer' who enjoys solitary leisure."
"That it is better to be appreciative than discriminating. 'If a person knows too much or is too critical it makes him a kill-joy or a snob not able to enjoy the things most people enjoy.' "
"That pacifism is disreputable and un-American. 'We're militaristic rather than pacifist out here--though of course we don't want wars.' "
And so on. The irony is as heavy and dated as a Sinclair Lewis novel. The question arises: Why did Muncie irritate these experienced researchers so? What was there about Middletown that seemed to annoy outsiders, urban easterners in particular?
"There is in Middletown's press an undertone of disparagement of New York and other big cities," the Lynds note in their second book. The feeling appeared to be mutual.
Something about the sheer complacency of "a culture sure of its rightness in the best of all possible nations" does tend to raise the hackles. Something about its willingness to settle for less, the tradition of the "average" cited by the Lynds ("We're up to the average . . . we're as good as most . . . we're no worse than other cities of our size . . ."), the axiom that "you can't satisfy everybody, so keep to the middle of the road, keep your neck in," cries out for brisk response. "Forthrightness is not an asset in Middletown," the authors comment, "despite the store it sets upon 'honesty.' Nor is conspicuous subtlety and adroitness. The blurred, cautious personality that keeps to 'the middle of the road' gets along better."
The key word here is "cautious." For the problem of Middletown was fear: fear of strangers, fear of change, fear of the future, fear of the power of one's own feelings. Like the residents of Shangri-La, Middletowners seem to have been convinced that if they ever left their magic garden they would shrivel to dust. Surely it was this bland assumption that America was them, that the world itself was limited to their dimensions, which earned Middletowners the putdowns from outsiders, the slings and arrows of The New Yorker.
This is an old story, of course, the classic story of the top hat and the snowball. If there were no Voltaire, someone else would have had to invent Dr. Pangloss.
But Middletown changed. I can't help but think the freeways, the magazines, radio and most of all television have brought the outside world to Muncie so thoroughly that the "we happy few" insularity is gone forever. Even before World War II exported wide-eyed Muncie citizens all over the place, New York fashions and opinions were being imported to Main Street.
Middletown has become part of the Global Village.
And perhaps the reason this fact doesn't hit us over the head is that the reverse has been happening too: Just as surely as television brings the world to Muncie, it brings Muncie to the world. That carefree, sentimental landscape of the beer ads, the cigarette ads, the telephone ads, the commercials for everything from trucks to gum: That's Muncie's landscape. That's how America sees Muncie, where the sun shines forever and young people laugh and sing while they grab soft drinks from the cooler and clean old-folks smile from their rockers.
It is doubtless true that the Muncies of America enjoy this myth of themselves, that picnickers buy coolers and fill them with ice chunks and Cokes because they saw it on TV, but what I want to know is, how much do they believe it? That's one thing I would have liked to have found out from the series on Middletown. How self-aware is Middletown really?
"Put some quarters in the jukebox, wouldja please?" a young man says at closing time in the TV series' restaurant episode. "Take the edge off this silence."
Is that a Middletown fear or an American fear? Exactly what proportion of the million-faceted American reality does Middletown represent?
The Lynds describe how the railroad used to cut Muncie in two, disrupting traffic and business every few hours, and how the businessmen couldn't see the need for an overpass. I lived in such a town once. I listened to the city fathers discuss their dying downtown area for 13 years, talk endlessly of free parking and one-way streets (pausing in mid-sentence while the train shrieked past under their windows), without ever noticing the tracks that bisected their city. The tracks are still there. The town is a backwater.
What I want to know is, has Muncie done anything about its tracks? It seems to me that that story, however it came out, would have told me infinitely more about Muncie than the Basketball Game, the Election or the other conventional conflicts that Peter Davis used in his insistence on "drama."
It may sound odd, but the way to achieve universality in art is through the specific, not the general.
Why did the Middletown TV series, this tremendous effort, three years of research and filming, eight hours of skillful, sometimes brilliant documentary, leave me feeling I was no nearer to understanding the place than before?
How do you tell the story of a community, anyway? The Lynds relied on a crisscrossing network of statistical surveys plus innumerable interviews and their own observations. They noted, for example, that a long list of basic civic improvements which apparently hadn't even been proposed during the good times of the '20s were accomplished only during the hard-pressed '30s. The spectacle of city business leaders scrambling for federal money even as they railed against welfare and "Washington pen-pushers" told us important things about Middletown.
Yet the Lynds are still dealing with power blocs and generalizations. We get no sense of the individual voices among those businessmen. Some factory owners forced their workers to wear Landon buttons in the 1936 presidential campaign; some didn't. Some successful executives confided that they despised the Rotarian backslapping but joined in rather than be singled out as different. The Lynds speak of "the growing awareness by the city leaders that they must control the things taught to the young": Well, which leaders? Which things? Control how? We need to meet some of these people and see them in action and judge for ourselves how they influenced the general direction of Middletown.
What if Davis had taken one episode, one family, and blown the whole eight hours on it? The family with the failing pizza business: what a story, what a variety of characters, what an interesting man, Howie Snider, father of eight, banjo player, extrovert and optimist, so different from the Lynds' gray stereotypes. Why didn't he move to the strip where the other fast-food places were? Why pizza anyway, for a retired lieutenant colonel? What is their house like, what do they eat at home, is his wife a good cook? And the young girl who speaks out on sexism but seems to fear an independent life, the boy who talks of joining the Army even as he goes AWOL from his job--what is going on inside those heads? We really might have come away with a sense of Muncie, of Middletown, and how it feels to live there.