Revisiting Middletown: 50 Years Later, the American Family Is Alive and Well in Muncie, Ind.
They are residents of Muncie, Ind., a town cursed for the last half century with the label "typical." It was visited on the city of 40,000 (now 83,000) by Robert and Helen Lynd, two sociologists who arrived there in January 1924 to begin the first scientific study of a U.S. community ever undertaken. They picked Muncie because its culture, industrial growth and lack of major urban problems made it representative of the nation as a whole. Their report, titled Middletown to keep its locale anonymous, caused a sensation when it was published in 1929. The Lynds had found a high degree of stability and harmony but also marked class divisions and a divorce rate far above the national average. Marriage, they disclosed, was viewed as a drudging disappointment, mired in poverty, adultery and the fear of abandonment. A follow-up study the Lynds published eight years later, Middletown in Transition, confirmed their original findings. Sex, in Muncie, was felt to be a dark, inchoate force that threatened to "break loose and run wild."
Now a group of 10 social scientists, underwritten by the National Science Foundation and led by University of Virginia sociologist Dr. Theodore Caplow, has studied "Middletown" again. They found Muncie changed in some respects: The population has experienced predictable increases in recreational drug use, extramarital sex, child abuse and suicide. But Caplow and his colleagues still consider Muncie a paradigm of a growing, self-contained, homogeneous American city, and their conclusions (the first volume of which will be published next April by the University of Minnesota Press) promise good news for the besieged American family.
After interviewing and observing 300 families over two years (spring 1977 to fall 1979), they believe that despite the influx of modern times, Muncie is more stable and attractive than ever. The same proportion of Middletowners are marrying, and at the same age they did 50 years ago, though they are having fewer children. Middletown's adolescents were found to have the same respect for their parents and the same points of argument: staying out late, their choice of friends, the size of their allowances and the quality of their schoolwork.
Most of the changes appear to have been salutary. Middletowners still hew to their ancestors' basic values, but they are more tolerant than their parents. The generation gap is far smaller in this Muncie than the one the Lynds predicted, and the divorce rate is lower now than it was 50 years ago. Today 95 percent of Middletowners say they are happy in their marriages, a fact the Middletown III researchers credit to improved communication within the family. "The deterioration of the family as an institution is a myth," insists Caplow. "The family is strong and probably will continue to be. What changes have happened have generally been for the better."
To observe those changes firsthand, PEOPLE correspondent Sarah Moore Hall interviewed some of the families of Muncie (not necessarily those interviewed for the study, whose identities are closely guarded). Her report:
Doug Hannah, a 33-year-old stockbroker, is a descendant of the Kitselmans, one of Muncie's two most powerful industrial families. The family fortune, made in fences, may be less now, but another legacy remains. "I was raised to be thrifty and hard-working, and those are values I intend to pass along to my children," says Doug. "I am definitely a mirror of what my parents taught me."
According to Middletown III, today's Muncie displays "the barest minimum of class consciousness." Thanks mainly to unionization of Muncie's glass, steel and auto factories, working-class families now play golf and tennis, vacation in Europe and send their offspring to college, while white-collar people do their own laundry and mow their own lawns. The Hannahs are a case in point. After Doug married the former Barbara Corso, one of three children of an Italian liquor wholesaler in nearby Logansport, they settled in a modest two-story colonial house. "You don't feel that you have to keep ,up with the Joneses here," says Barbara, 30. "In fact, it's hard to find the Joneses."
Nearly half of the wives in Muncie work now; Barbara and most of her friends are among them. Though she doesn't have to, she teaches 40 hours a week, leaving her children—Katy, 4, and Christopher, 16 months—with a $55-per-week sitter they can easily afford on their combined annual income of $40,000. Her job entailed some changes in the division of household labor. "I think we invented role reversal," says Doug with a laugh. "We just didn't know what it was. I often scrub the kitchen floor and Barbara changes the oil in the car." Yet most of Muncie's working women still find themselves in stereotyped female positions; they are nurses and teachers. Men continue to bring home 85 percent of the family income in town. "It's just that certain attitudes haven't reached us yet," Barbara says. "They will in time. Meanwhile, Muncie is a very male-oriented place."
Attitudes are in fact already changing, sometimes painfully. The working women of Middletown are no more or less happy than full-time housewives, the study reports, but their family life has felt the difference.
Philip and Kathleen Cramer, both 37, were high school sweethearts, and they married before graduation. They had their daughter, Laura, now 15, the next year, and son Scott five years later. Philip finished a B.A. and went to work in the Chevy plant, and Kathleen became, in her own estimation, "sickeningly traditional—I was president of the PTA, did Scouts and was a typical mother except that I got involved in programs for preschool and elementary school children." That led her to Ball State University, where she got a B.A. in 1973 and then a master's degree. Her decision to pursue a doctorate in psychology precipitated a major crisis in the household—the most serious break from tradition they have faced. "It was a definite shift in values," says Philip. "I was a little threatened and fearful in the beginning, but now I can make quiche and do the laundry, and I go to PTA meetings at night instead of Kathleen."
The Caplow study found that the boys and girls of Muncie are now treated more equally than they used to be, and such changes must surely be responsible. "The returns aren't in yet," says Kathleen, "but we think our family is strong. What's important is that we are always here when we need each other. If the housework doesn't get done, it doesn't get done. I have no regrets."
In the final analysis, of course, there is no "typical" American town: Muncie has neither the social problems of a large urban area nor the isolation of a rural community, and it has some of the virtues of both. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it has somehow protected its extended families. The residents, the report notes, "see more of their relatives than of their closest friends."
Alfred Ellison, 78, and his wife, Mary, 77, live in a house Mary's family has occupied for five generations, and there are four generations of Ellisons currently living in Muncie. At the last family get-together, Mary counted 34 of them. "You know," Alfred reflects, "you hear a lot these days about people who abuse their parents. What you never hear about are those that care, that take care of their parents the way young people should." That, says Mary, has always been a cardinal rule of their family. "I remember when I married Alfred, his mother lived two blocks away, and one of us made sure to visit every day. The rituals of being good to one's family began when we were infants."
Looking back on his nearly eight decades in Middletown, Alfred mourns for a past when "our activities were centered around family and the church. I think our sense of community was stronger then. If people were in trouble, you helped them." His Muncie is not the one the Lynds studied but the one he keeps in memory. That is the pitfall of oral history, and perhaps one reason why, as the Middletown researchers observed, the younger generation think they live in a uniquely wicked, troubled world, and they do not realize that their parents and grandparents felt exactly the same way.
But even Alfred Ellison senses the more palpable truth about him—that there is still a steadying sameness at the heart of things in Muncie. "We talk a good deal about how things have changed and nothing endures," he says. "But what you have to look at and see is if things down deep have changed. I don't think they have. The only thing that's really happened is that everything's gotten bigger. The only thing that has gotten smaller is my bank account."