"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 September 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Importance of Being Average


During the 1920s, American literature entered an unprecedented phase of national navel gazing. The era's unbridled excess and prosperity, its competing social mores, the struggle between interventionist and isolationist impulses which laid the groundwork for World War II and the Cold War that followed — all of these helped inspire an investigation into the country's character that wouldn't stop until Pearl Harbor (John Marquand's irresistible homefront dramas portrayed the war as combination marriage stumbling block and existential crisis for his graying Jazz Age upper class characters). But of all the period's many works of cultural self-examination — from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, one of the better middle fingers to one's hometown ever put in print, to that favorite national summary statement of three generations of tenth grade English teachers, The Great Gatsby — the most interesting book of the 1920s is Robert and Helen Lynd's groundbreaking sociological report about Muncie, Indiana: the Middletown Studies.

Nestled on the White River fifty minutes from the Indiana-Ohio border and a full hour north and east of Indianapolis, Muncie trudges into the 21st century looking like many Midwestern cities from the Rust Belt to Corn Country: a neon donut consisting of service industry icing, strip mall sprinkles, and a hole where most of the manufacturing business used to be. Brandishing its twin symbols of grouchy media longevity — David Letterman schooled here, and the creator of Garfield owns a home and studio just east of town — Muncie attempts to fashion an industry-attractive public identity while enjoying the unique burden of having once been labeled the epicenter of Average America. And the chamber of commerce's task is nothing compared to life on the inside. It's one thing to be fifteen and entertain a teenager's certainty your hometown is a nothing-special paragon of mediocrity; it's quite another to know a book out there confirms it.

How does a city embrace such a curious legacy? At first they did so with both hands, thank you very much. The Lynds' 1929 tome, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture, and its 1937 sequel Middletown in Transition not only helped former trade magazine editor Robert to a degree at Columbia, they put Muncie on the map of national consciousness at a time when being singled out as Average Americans living in the Average American town was a distinct and noteworthy honor. It helped that the Lynds' study was terrifically and often fundamentally insightful. In addition to drug intervention-style question and answer sessions that served as a model for similar survey-style explorations into public attitude and opinion, the Middletown studies helped put to rest the absurd notion — assertions in this year's presidential campaign rhetoric notwithstanding — that America was a classless society, and gave the first clues that the automobile had transformed American culture. One part of the survey locals still joke about was the respondent who, when asked why the family chose to maintain a car instead of running water, pointed out that one could not access the wonders of downtown via bathtub. For generations of Muncie residents, inclusion in the Lynds' study was a hat-tipping distinction of the classy but unremarkable kind, better than a high school band's being asked to play in a major Thanksgiving parade, but much less exciting than winning the basketball sectionals.

There have been few catcalls. Although one might think the distinction of being the representative American town would put a big red target on Muncie's butt for the entertainment industry, the reality is much less tame. Sidelong references to Muncie litter two generations of Jay Ward cartoons, the town's name was invoked to give Richard Dreyfus everyman street-cred in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it was the much-ridiculed hometown of the doofus played by Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy. Most of the offhand references were gentle rebukes, the hometown of featured characters defined by their between-the-coasts parochialism, like the "What's with all these fancy forks?" know-it-all played by Tom Bosley in one of the initial Love Boat movies. Garrison Keillor informed a Muncie crowd that Groucho Marx once said of their hometown "If the world were a tuxedo, Muncie would be a pair of brown shoes." But that line sounds like it was used before by Keillor or Marx or both. All in all, Muncians have survived 75 years as sociology's stock mouth breathers with near-anonymous aplomb.

The easy laughter that accompanied Keillor's joke says something about the uneasy head on which lies the plastic, mass-produced crown. Muncie has walked something of a perception tightrope regarding the Lynd legacy for two decades now. A more intense interest in the Lynd studies began with the first of several major re-investigations of its premises. In 1982, public television broadcast a critically-lauded subject-by-subject examination of Muncie called simply Middletown. For Muncie residents, the look into such subjects as the most recent, divisive, mayoral election and the travails of a local pizza parlor owner (a segment called "Family Business" which nearly became Henry Winkler's pre-MacGyver attempt at television producing), yielded the now-familiar joys of voyeur television. The failure of PBS to run an episode which confirmed the shocking truth to those who failed to watch the first-run episodes of James at 15 that teenagers have sex, and the mere existence of the segment (title: "Seventeen") brought Muncie face-to-face with the uglier side of putting yourself on display. The end result was nostalgic: The original legacy of the studies must be preserved for the sake of civic pride, not to mention so that less-flattering elements may be understood in their proper pro-community context. Concrete accomplishments on the healthy, nurture-the-spirit side of things included a major academic center established to concentrate information about the city for researchers, and that center's participation in two good-sized, old-fashioned sociological studies, the results printed on paper and everything. (The first, conducted in the late 1980s, used modern sociological techniques; for the 1999 effort researchers planned to closely follow the Lynd model. A nation breathlessly awaits the modern Hoosier's opinion on anti-government anarchist radicals.)

On the other hand, some of what Muncie has done suggests an unease along the lines of a Kathleen Turner accent change. The most amusing incident of collar tugging is the constant re-contextualization of the study's aims. Muncie spent most of the '80s trying to find a way to pay homage to the Lynds while keeping "average" the heck away from the city slogan. Some civic representatives preferred to assert the value of the study is not in making Muncie the average town but the middle-town, despite the fact that Middletown is the actual name of fine towns in Ohio and New Jersey. One local historian and unrepentant booster argues there is nothing average about Muncie, that the studies make his extraordinary hometown "representative." Muncie has even shown a preference for "America's Hometown," despite the number of more qualified claimants for that particular title — for instance, Plymouth, Massachusetts using the historical standard, Washington D.C. using a standard of extreme self-loathing, or Hannibal, Missouri using the white-guy-stands-on-his-porch-and-imparts-folksy-wisdom standard.

All of this verbal shading and pointless distinction-making obscures the fact that whatever average qualities Muncie may have enjoyed in 1925 may be gone 75 years later. The scarcity of large non-Anglo ethnic communities may have appealed to the Lynds' sense of a more widely cohesive community (and to their lack of research resources), but that hardly seems like the America we think of today. And the growth of Ball State University from tiny teacher's college to sprawling university of the Larger Team's Homecoming Victim variety also violates one of the Lynd's pre-selection standards. Is it time the mantle was passed on to a Centerville, Iowa, or an Odessa, Texas?

Not so fast. Don't take Muncie's hedging too seriously. If there's anything average Americans know, it's a slight degree of self-loathing at their own station in life, particularly when it's quantified. Families without two nickels to rub together may vote like the nouveau riche and describe themselves as Lower Middle Class even under torture. Given the fact that the town's most important corporation has fled the banks of the White River for the kind of uniquely western-focused town that authors like Lewis once argued were found in the Midwest, the possibility of savage single-parent and orphan metaphors make Muncie the most pleasing choice based on its potential for enriching the language. Besides, as an analysis of phone-survey targets suggests, if Muncie isn't average anymore, it still thinks that way. Someone has to be the puppy in the window; let's stick with the pros.


courtesy of 40th Street Black

pictures by Terry Colon

40th Street Black