Interview with Staughton Lynd

Staughton Lynd is an historian, professor, and lawyer, and the son of Robert and Helen Lynd, the authors of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, and Middletown in Transition: a Study in Cultural Conflicts. Even though both books are studies in social anthropology, the Lynds were not trained as sociologists. In fact, when they began their Middletown research, Helen Lynd was a recent college graduate and Robert Lynd had just left seminary school. Staughton Lynd talked with ARW about the lasting legacy of his parents' research.

American RadioWorks: In the early 1920s, your father gave up a job at Publisher's Weekly and enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. For a field placement during the summer after his first year at the seminary, he signed up to work in a remote, Rockefeller-owned oil town called Elk Basin, Wyoming. Tell us about your father's field placement and how it ultimately led to your parents' work on Middletown.

Staughton Lynd: [My father] arrived at Elk Basin by stagecoach. The first night, there was no hotel, no boarding house; he found a family willing to give him supper and a room for the night. But he noticed a chill around the table, and he decided that the male population of Elk Basin working six-and-a-half days a week for Mr. Rockefeller was not excited about the idea of a handsome young man from the East who would spend his week visiting their wives. So my dad went around to the foreman who did hiring and got a job as a pick-and-shovel laborer with a cubicle in the Standard Oil bunkhouse. And sure enough, that kind of won him the affection of the community, so that when he preached in the schoolhouse Sunday nights, or led a Boy Scout troop, or had a community sing, people showed up.

And he went back to [Union Theological Seminary] and despite this successful experience, did not go on to become a minister. He published an article in Harper's Weekly called "Crude Oil Religion," which is a kind of moment-by-moment personal account of the summer - just a wonderful piece. And the story at our family kitchen table was that my dad wrote to [John] Rockefeller [owner of Standard Oil] and asked for a contribution to create a community center in Elk Basin. And Rockefeller wrote back that it had been a hard year for Standard Oil and he couldn't make a contribution. But, the Rockefeller enterprise was under a lot of pressure. And I think Rockefeller, who was apparently a sincere and believing Christian, set out to create an appearance, perhaps in substance, of a somewhat more benign image of capitalism la Rockefeller. Very shortly thereafter, there was created the Institute of Social and Religious Research, that wanted to study the religious life of a typical American city. At some point they asked my father. And you have to wonder why. But in any event, my dad was offered this task, and so he had the [opportunity] to pick a community.

This was a period when cities like Detroit and Chicago were becoming significantly interracial cities. And of course, on the East Coast and West Coast, there were huge populations of immigrants. But my father selected [Muncie, Indiana] as the typical American community - a place where the population was more than 95 percent white. And he has a discussion at the beginning of Middletown as to why this was a baseline and then future researchers could introduce this or that additional variable. But I don't buy that. I think my father and my mother, too, intuited - correctly - that the place they were best going to be able to understand and portray would be a place like that in which they themselves had grown up. (His mother was born in LaGrange, Illinois and his father came from New Albany, Indiana.)

ARW: So the Middletown research started out as a study of religious activity, but spread?

SL: You couldn't understand religion or sports or how to make a living, or anything else, without understanding the total culture. And so that meant not just studying, but encountering everything. My dad describes it in his article about his Elk Basin summer, that there would be so-called Sunday school, when a given portion of the New Testament might be discussed, and then, anyone who was interested would just sit around and shoot the breeze about everything.

He did exactly the same thing in Muncie. It was a full-body immersion, not just a two-dimensional scholarly inquiry.

ARW: What did your parents have to say about their experiences living in Muncie for a year and a half?

SL: I think my mother's reminiscences are the way to get closest to this. She [remembers that my father] just threw himself into all aspects. [He had] this kind of shirtsleeve philosophizing with people, shooting the breeze with people like himself about things that mattered to all of them. And Mother said he could've lived there forever, but not her. She wasn't that keen on it.

ARW: Did he talk about how he felt going back to Middletown during the Depression and seeing what had happened to the community and people he knew?

SL: He didn't. I think the involvement in the community while doing the second book was more superficial. First of all, it was just my father, because by then my sister and I had been born. I don't think he spent as much time producing the second book. I am a historian of the labor movement in the 1930s and it's just odd to me the extent to which that seems to be missing from the second book.

ARW: You wrote an article for the Indiana Magazine of History called "Making Middletown" in which you are not totally complimentary of your parents' work or the subsequent follow-up studies of Middletown that have occurred over the past 75 years. Tell us why.

SL: I give my dad, in particular, a very hard time for this notion that a community with no black people and no immigrants was a typical American community. But, if they were alive today, if they were 25 years old, I give you my word of honor, they would be studying what it is that enables people from different ethnicities, different races to transcend the artificial barriers that divide them. Because that's our problem [now]. And were they young today, they'd be sensitive to it, and they would be showing us all the way, as they did in the 1920s.

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