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E. Bruce Geelhoed Interview

E. Bruce Geelhoed is the Director of the Center for Middletown Studies and Professor of History at Ball State University. 

He is the author of The Rotary Club of Indianapolis; Charles E. Wilson and Controversy at the Pentagon 1953-1957; and The Thrill of Success: The Story of SYSCO/Frost-Pack Food Services Inc.  He is a co-author of Margaret Thatcher.

E. Bruce Geelhoed

New River Media Interview with: Bruce Geelhoed 
Director, Center for Middletown Studies and 
Professor of History Ball State University 

QUESTION: Tell us a little bit about when Robert and Helen Lynd came to Muncie, Indiana to begin work on what would become the Middletown study. 

BRUCE GEELHOED: Lynd came to Muncie in the 1920's with some money from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., by that point a noted philanthropist, with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, several other organizations. One organization that he established was what was called the Bureau of Social and Religious Research. The curious point about this is that what Rockefeller wanted to do with this organization was have studies that would explore the possibility that religion could influence capital and labor, that the strife, the labor strife that was happening in the United States during the 1920's and even before that; he felt that perhaps religion might have a positive role to play in that. 

He had wanted the Bureau of Social and Religious Research to focus on that, and indeed, even had set up a study to be conducted that would go in that direction. Robert Lynd came to the Middletown Study, or what eventually became known as the Middletown Study, as the second researcher. The first person that the Bureau wanted to use later was discovered to be unqualified to do the work, and Lynd was brought along to do this. 

Robert Lynd and his wife Helen came to Muncie in 1925. The idea for the study that related to the role of religion in mediating the differences between capital and labor sort of got put to one side, because Robert Lynd for a long time had been interested in doing what he called a small city study, where he would observe life in a representative American community and explain that in the context of how ordinary Americans lived out their lives - customs, behaviors, attitudes and that sort of thing. 

Muncie was selected, curiously enough, because the Lynds were convinced that it was a community that did not have a dominant influence by any particular ethnic group or any particular family group or any particular economic sector. In that respect, it was seen as somewhat representative. They didn't want to have a community that could be readily identified as being influenced too heavily in one way or another by a given company or a given elite group of people who dominated the life of the community, and so forth. 

Later on, Lynd revised that, of course. He acknowledged that the Ball family was more important in Muncie than he originally had thought, and he also saw that the influence of the teachers' college in the life of the community was greater than what he had originally hoped for. 

When he came here, interestingly enough, what he discovered was there were really two Muncies. There was the Muncie of the working class. These were the people who, by and large, worked with things. They were the people who lived on the south and on the east side of town. They held wage-type job occupations in the auto industry, in the glass industry, in small business, in light industry, in the commercial trades, as contrasted with the people who were of the business class, and they worked with people. This was the managerial group, the doctors, the lawyers, the professors, the educators, the owners of business enterprises, sometimes the managers of business enterprises, and they tended to live on the north and on the west side of town. And there were entire neighborhoods that reflected those two divisions in the community. 

Interestingly enough, if you know anything about the geography of the town, it's the White River that basically separates the north from the south, the east from the west. The working class tended to settle on the south and on the east side, and the business class, from about the 1910's on, tended to settle on the north and the west. And that is a pattern that has continued literally right up to the present day, throughout the entire course of the 20th century. 

The working class was much larger, of course, than the business class. Muncie grew substantially in the 1890's. It was a community of less than ten thousand in 1880, and by the turn of the century it had become thirty-five thousand population. By the time the Lynds arrived here, I think it was a population of about fifty thousand people; a large, large working-class community, much more heavily concentrated in the trades than in, shall we say, the elite of the business owners and that sort of thing. 

QUESTION: How did the Lynds operate? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: No one had done a small city survey of the type that the Lynds proposed to do. They took up residence in Muncie and tried to become part of the fabric of the community. They had a residence from which they operated which wasn't too far from downtown Muncie. They walked the streets. People talk about how the Lynds, who were, shall we say, more cosmopolitan and were from the East and that sort of thing, how they must have responded to Muncie, how they must have seen this as, you know, somewhat unusual in terms of the lifestyle and patterns of the lifestyle. That had some truth to it, although Robert Lynd, of course, was originally a Hoosier. He was born in New Albany, Indiana, far to the south. A different story for his wife, of course. 

But he saw a community in the 1920's that was influenced by people who had moved up here from the South, from Kentucky and from Tennessee, from parts of Appalachia. And that's different from small-town America in the northern Midwest, or at least in states of the north of Indiana - Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, that sort of thing; a much different sort of culture. It was a conservative culture, economically, politically, in terms of its racial attitudes and that sort of thing. It was a community that reflected the influence of late nineteenth century southern attitudes, in part. 

And then you also had the effect of the modernization movement that was typical of all of America at that time and was somewhat distrusted by, shall we say, the old-line Munsonians who had been here for a generation or two and were more inclined to think in the terms that I just described. A different small-town feeling for Lynd had he been, let's say, in a small town in central Michigan or a small town in western Illinois that had maybe its roots in agriculture or it maybe had its roots in commerce and trade. But here you have one that has its roots in industrialization and people who are coming up from Kentucky and Tennessee escaping that rural background to find steady work in a factory setting and then beginning to form family relationships and associations that tilt in that direction. 

Glass manufacturing becomes important for Muncie. Because of that, there's a whole, shall we say, mini-economy that grows around the supply of that type of business. And then after World War I, General Motors comes to Muncie in 1921 with a transmission plant, and in 1928 with a battery plant. That changes things significantly, because not only are the auto companies are expanding tremendously during the 1920s. That's one of the stories of the economic growth of the 1920s is the growth of the automobile. And with General Motors and glass and auto parts and all of that figuring into the equation, you can see how the city develops its industrial profile. It also has a college, of course, and it has all this other, but this is the industrial profile of the community. 

QUESTION: What did the Lynds criticize about Muncie? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: What the Lynds saw in Muncie that they later became very critical of was this all-too-vigorous embrace of the consumer society. The Lynds were very critical of advertising and of the manipulation of people's attitudes and beliefs. And, of course, much of the 1920's prosperity was conditioned by advertising, convincing people that if they didn't have a certain household item or a particular type of automobile or household appliance and this sort of thing, that somehow they had to have it. They had to have it for their own satisfaction. They had to have it because their neighbors had it or somebody else in their family had it and they were suffering by comparison and all of that. 

This headlong dash on the part of the ordinary citizen to acquire more and more consumer comforts or creature comforts, as the term might be, was something that left the Lynds and their research team sort of shaking their heads. They could see it happening. They could understand it happening. But they didn't feel that this was adding anything to, shall we say, the capital of the community, the social capital of the community. 

Now, it's all well and good to be critical of that sort of thing. You're observing it happening here. But if Middletown is representative, and I think it was of America in the 1920's, Robert and Helen Lynd could have gone into any other community. They would have seen the same sort of factors at work, because the pervasiveness of advertising was changing people's attitudes all over the country. 

QUESTION: What about this class division that he observed? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: The two communities, the business class and the working class, historically in Muncie do not ever really come together around a unifying ideal. In other words, as the century progresses, there's not a closer connection between or shall we say a closer drawing together of these two disparate elements within the community. Both of them continue to live out their lives according to the culture of that particular class. For the working class, it's one set of values. For the business class, it's another set of values. 

Economically, the south end stays manufacturing; the north end stands as commercial and trade and all that. The south end is Democratic in terms of its affiliation with a political party, with some modest exceptions every now and then, of course, but still heavily Democratic when people go into the voting booth. It's a natural fact of life that there's no desire on the part of one element of the community to embrace the values and the attitudes of the other. The Lynds saw it. It's no different today. 

QUESTION: What did the Lynds find out about religion in Muncie? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: The Lynds give a lot of attention to religion in Muncie, in both Middletown and in Middletown in Transition, the two books. Now, Middletown, Muncie/Middletown, is in Indiana, a conservative Midwestern state. It is a small community. It is influenced by, shall we say, a certain degree of southern attitudes and customs. 

But the big point that needs to be stressed here - and you can see this in Middletown; you can see this in Middletown in Transition also - is that the community is a community of mainline denominations. It is not characteristic of, you know, hyper-conservative, Bible Belt, fundamentalist Christianity of the type that so often gets associated with the revivalist tradition. And that's unfortunate, because people associate that particular religious style or that particular religious preference with small-town Midwestern communities. 

And the Lynds noticed, shall we say, the modernist philosophy about religion entering into the teaching and the preaching and the churches at the time on all sorts of things, like the Bible and science as it relates to things like evolution, or do you believe that the Bible is without error and that controversy. What is the role of the clergy in interpreting the Bible for people and all that sort of stuff. So Muncie reflects, probably to a greater extent in religion than it does in economics and politics, the more modern aspects of America in the 1920's and, shall we say, in the 1930's. 

The Protestant ethic, sure, that takes root in Middletown like it does all across the United States. What's the Protestant ethic? The Protestant ethic is to say if you work hard and you are honest, and you treat people the way you want to be treated, that by and large you are going to be successful. It also is the idea that by working hard, effectively, productively, that you are also serving the Almighty, as well as serving your employer or serving yourself. That's the religious element to that. 

What goes along with that, of course, is that by doing that you will be rewarded, and by not doing it you will be penalized; you will bear the consequences of being a lazy employee or something like that. And if you succeed or if you fail, or your relative economic and social status in the community ultimately comes back to you, and your efforts. The Lynds, confronted with this headlong rush into modernization and modernity and the impersonal nature of all of the forces that were at work during the 1920s, found the typical Munsonian belief in individualism to be just purely astonishing. So individualism and the Protestant ethic as it is practiced in Muncie during the 1920's are very much, should we say, two sides of the same coin. And it is very strongly held. You know, I suppose you could even make the point that today in Muncie a good number of people would like to believe that's the case, that they are going to succeed or they are going to fail based upon their own ingenuity and their own efforts. 

QUESTION: What about the black population of Middletown? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: Lynd does not pay much attention to the African American population in Muncie in terms of describing that influence in that particular group of people in Middletown, that is in Middletown the book. And he gets criticized for that, they get criticized for that, the two authors. The role of the Ku Klux Klan likewise is something that gets very little treatment in terms of their analysis of the dynamics of the community during the 1920s. 

The African American community in Muncie has never been large. It's never exceeded 10 percent of the total population. By and large the African American community has lived on the east side of town. The African American community by and large consisted of working class people who had a variety of jobs in the factories in Muncie, tended to work in or worked in service-type positions. African Americans came to Muncie and found a hospitable climate. But why did African Americans come to Muncie from the South, from Virginia, places like this? They came because they knew that there was work. And usually they would come at the instigation or at the encouragement of a friend or of a family member or someone like this. 

If this was a semi-hospitable climate at least for African Americans, what about the Klan during the 1920's? Much of the Klan's activity in Muncie was focused on the community's Catholic element. There is not a large Italian population in Muncie, for example. There is a large Irish American population, but there's not a large Italian. There's a small Jewish population. But the point is that the Klan tended to focus on not just racial but also native anti-immigrant feeling and anti-Catholic feeling - it's not a happy picture, because some of the more respectable people in Muncie belonged to the Klan during the 1920's. But a good deal of its activity - the threats, the intimidation, the economic prejudice and everything like that - was directed not just at African Americans. It's not the tradition that we associate with the Deep South. And you have a period of time when the Klan's influence starts to decline, in Indiana and elsewhere, and the leader of the state Klan organization is arrested, is prosecuted, and is basically dealt with by the middle of the 1920's. So it's a chapter in Muncie that is somewhat notorious. 

QUESTION: Do you think Lynd was aligned politically? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: Well, Robert Lynd always, from the political and the sort of economic perspective, tended to lean to the left. I think by the 1930's it would not be accurate to say that Lynd was describing himself as a socialist. But he certainly felt that the days of shall we say unbridled, unfettered capitalism were over, and we had to be moving in the United States to some form of collective, not in the Soviet sense, but collective communitarian ideology that blunted the harshest aspects of capitalism, that laissez-faire, individualistic, each man for himself, Adam Smith, by doing the best for yourself you are also doing the best for others - that that approach to economics and politics and sociology was gone. And he believed that the deprivation and the hardships that were created during the Depression were evident of, shall we say, the bankruptcy of that philosophy. 

So coming to Middletown in the 1930's, I think he expected people to have the same sort of change in attitude that he had had, that they would question the functionality, the efficiency, the effectiveness, of a modern capitalistic free-enterprise economy and society, and our society built on the individual liberties above everything else, that the Depression simply would force people to change their thinking. This had happened all over the United States - we know that. You know, in Detroit for example, when unemployment reached 50 percent there were unemployment councils that were petitioning political authorities for help. And many members of the Communist Party were leading that whole movement, you know, and nobody felt I guess, shall we say, terribly threatened by that; it was simply saying capitalism the way that you define it in the 1920's and beyond is not the way that things are going to work effectively any longer. 

QUESTION: What did Lynd find when he came back to Muncie in 1935? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: What Lynd discovered here was that people's attitudes hadn't changed, that there still was belief in quote/unquote "the capitalistic system," individual liberty was still a prized value; and although this was not said a lot, I am sure, some people espoused the philosophy that if you didn't make it and you were out of work, maybe you weren't responsible for that, but the responsibility for getting back on your feet and providing for your family and everything like that was yours and you couldn't necessarily expect someone else to come along and help you do it, or an agency of government to come along and help you to do it. So Lynd was shocked by that. 

What would allow Muncie to have those kinds of attitudes when all around people are not holding to that, or at least they are not holding that to that degree? Muncie still has the rudiments of an industrial base during the 1930's. The darkest moment for Muncie's economy probably occurred in 1930 when General Motors closed its transmission plant here, quote/unquote "General Motors moved out of town." And Lynd talks about that a lot in Middletown in Transition and how this was a psychological blow, and economic blow to the community: if they are leaving us we are really in bad shape. And yet General Motors had always held up the prospect - the management of General Motors had always held up the prospect - that if the economy improved and there was a demand and everything like that that they would consider coming back to the community. So the municipal leadership is holding out for the prospect that maybe they will come back. 

Ball Brothers Manufacturing Company continued to do business effectively during the Depression and that's not to say that they weren't gangbusters and, you know, they served the company served to underpin the nature of the entire community here. But when times are tight economically people are looking for ways to save. And one of the ways you can save is on food purchasing and all of that, and so home canning as a behavior explodes during the 1930s. Rather than buy it, you know, people will grow it, preserve it, and then eat it when they need it. And so their business remained fairly strong. And as a consequence of that, the family which owned the business still had its resources, and people in the community knew that the family had its resources. 

And then in 1935 General Motors comes back to Muncie and starts re-hiring. And that did a couple of things. Number one, it got people back to work; and, number two, it restored the sense of confidence. If they are back, then things are going to eventually stabilize and get somewhat better. 

But Lynd is not looking at that in that perspective. He hadn't been here between, say, 1929 and 1935. He hadn't been here during the really awful times. Had he been here in 1933, for example, and seen the county government in Muncie issue four permits for new housing construction, worth $8,500 total for that entire year, he might have discovered some different attitudes on the part of people. Muncie had a million dollars of new home construction in 1929, and in 1933 it had $8,500 worth. There was absolutely nothing happening in that town. That is a statistic that comes out of Middletown in Transition. 

QUESTION: Was what was going on in Muncie typical? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: It was not representative of what was going on in the country I don't think economically, and it probably wasn't representative of what was going on in the country in terms of the attitudes either. It's interesting politically. Muncie voted for Hoover in 1932. And, you know, that's really kind of astonishing when you think about it, because the evidence of the Depression is all around by that time. There is no doubting it it's there. You had it for three years. It tells you that there is this continuity of the conservative tradition and the belief Hoover was the greatest espouser of rugged individualism that has been in the White House, you know, probably during this century. And Indiana votes for him. 

QUESTION: How did the town respond to the success of Lynd's book? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: The publication of Middletown probably surprised everybody when it became the bestseller that it did in terms of the readability, and the fact that so many thousands and thousands of people were buying the book. It certainly helped to classify Muncie as sort of the proto-typical representative American city, even though you can read Middletown and you see no mention of Muncie, Indiana in there. It's sort of left to the reader to try to find this place that he's talking about and locate it on the map or get your information from a closer source to all this. 

How does Muncie became known as Middletown, that really occurs in the popular consciousness after the publication of Middletown in Transition, when Margaret Burke White comes here in 1937. And she does this photo essay in Life Magazine, which is entitled Muncie is America's Middletown. And that photo essay, four or five pages in length, shows the contrast that the Lynds were talking about between the palatial mansion of a business class person over here and the hovel that a working class person lives in, or the cramped quarters of a working class family, where you might have the grandmother whose husband has died living with the mother, the father and the grandchildren in kind of tight quarters; by contrast with a, you know, roomy, spacious home on the northwest side that only the husband and the wife and the children live in and the grandparents are someplace else, you know, in presumably decent accommodations of their own, probably not even here in Muncie and that sort of thing. 

QUESTION: What was the legacy of his work for sociologists and other social scientists? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: What Lynd did with the two books was, he certainly came up with a method, a process by which one completes a small city survey or a small city project. And that method I'm sure has been applied in numerous other communities. You know, we regularly get people asking for copies of Lynd's questionnaires, because they'd like to try it in this town in Massachusetts or this town in, you know, you name the place. 

Lynd drew the big picture with certainly smaller elements to it. Well, maybe you don't want to take on the Robert Lynd approach in the big scheme, but you want to analyze one aspect of your community relative to, let's say, home ownership or possession of automobile vehicles and see whether that community compares with Muncie as Middletown. He provides you the roadmap by which to do this. So the point is that if you consider Muncie as normative, then you can go to another community, analyze the same sorts of factors and decide whether or not that community is exceptional or normative based on Middletown. 

Now, that's happened, I'm sure, over the course of this century thousands of times. That would be, I'm sure, a project that sociologists known and unknown would assign to their students: go back to your home town, take some of Robert Lynd's questionnaires and start throwing those around, see how your home town of Euclid, Ohio or, you know, Kankakee, Illinois, just to cite a few, see how they compare, see how that looks like over a certain period of time, that sort of thing. 

QUESTION: How was Muncie revisited in the 1970's for "Middletown III"? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: Ted Caplow, Howard Bahr, Bruce Chadwick came to Muncie. Chadwick and Bahr are sociologists of Brigham Young [University]. Ted is a sociologist of course at the University of Virginia. The purpose was to do another small city study on the fiftieth anniversary of the original Middletown study. And they lived here for several years, three or four years, became part of the community in that respect - did a lot of the same kinds of sociological research that Robert and Helen Lynd had overseen back in the 1920s, and to a certain extent the 1930s. Caplow wrote two books that came out of the Middletown III Project. One was called All Faithful People, and that was an analysis of religion in Muncie during the 1970's. Another was called Middletown Families and, as the name suggests, it was a 1970's revisit of the family patterns of life in Muncie during that particular time. 

Both of those books emphasized the continuity aspects of Muncie tradition, and obviously always social scientists are always interested in this notion of is it continuity or is it conflict, is it continuity or is it change. And Ted likes to talk about it. He says, you know, continuity wins hands down, that there is this progression of values from generation to generation. Muncie represents those, you know, the continuous nature of that tradition. 

What's interesting about Muncie in the light of those studies is that the community had changed so really dramatically during the period of time from let's say Middletown in Transition to Middletown III. By the 1970's the area is considerably larger. It has benefited over the years from an influx of additional manufacturing operations. The college is considerably bigger. In the 1970's it was an institution of about seventeen, eighteen thousand students. Back in the 1930's it was an institution of about a thousand. The dominant force in the life of the community is obviously a combination of higher education and medicine and industry. And back in the 1930's there is not a balance between those; it's pretty much a business-oriented culture as opposed to a service one. 

My sense is - and this is certainly not a brilliant observation by any means - my sense is that in a conservative community such as Muncie has always been, is that Muncie will follow trends which have been established - Muncie will be behind the curve so to speak on this. And what is fashionable in terms of clothing styles or music or preferences of one type or another, they eventually will get picked up and they will get absorbed and they will get accepted here in Muncie, but it won't happen as quickly as it would in the urban centers. 

QUESTION: What happened to Muncie by the 1970's? 

BRUCE GEELHOED: The great story of Muncie in the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century is basically the community's de-industrialization. It began in 1962 when Ball Brothers Manufacturing Company decided that it was going to take its glass-making operations and transfer them to other sites in the country. Now, that's not to say that the company left the community. The headquarters was here, and there were some aspects of its manufacturing would still remain. But the big glass-making plant was basically discontinued and the company moved into other areas. Now, in retrospect, that was kind of a signal that maybe the community's best days of industrialization were starting to come to a close. Between 1980 and 1985, Muncie was one of the top twelve counties in America in terms of the number of people who left. 

So the community basically sort of de-industrializes because of the, shall we say, changing profile and changing shape of trends in the United States. Industries that were important, like food processing, moved to the South and the West and Southwest. And if you are a manufacturer in that industry, to keep up with your customers you have to move basically from the Midwest and the Northeast to follow that whole thing there. The same thing applies in the auto industry: modernization of plants in Oklahoma and in Kansas and places like that. And when the Midwest is referred to as the Rust Belt in the early 1980s, there is sort of a reason for that, and Muncie and Central Indiana don't escape that. 

QUESTION: Talk about the Muncie of the 1999 study, Middletown IV. 

BRUCE GEELHOED: The aspects of continuity in the community, what's the same, still a community of mainline churches. There is a vibrancy of religion. The large Methodist churches are still functioning, the large Roman Catholic congregation likewise, the large Presbyterian congregation's the same way. Basketball's big. The Lynds talked about basketball both in Middletown and Middletown in Transition. Basketball continues to be big. Not as big as it once was, of course, because there are other games in town. The youth now [want] cars. They wanted cars in the 1920's but now it was a situation where you hoped that Dad would give you the keys to family car, now it's, you know, I've got my own, and I keeping it going by working a part-time job twenty hours a week and that's enough to put gas in it and help Dad pay for the insurance. But I have to have the car because my mom is working. 

There still is an emphasis on the importance of family and families doing things together. The best example of that probably is the whole youth sports scene, with large soccer leagues. Mom and Dad are in a position of being spectators now, but they're all there. That's a phenomenon that's occurring around the country also. It's not just here. 

Here is a fascinating statistic, and it tends to get overlooked little bit. Primarily because I guess people don't explore it to any great degree. Muncie has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1936, with one exception. That's 1960. Middletown voted for Nixon over Kennedy that year, but it voted for Roosevelt in 1936, voted for Roosevelt all the way on through, and stayed with Truman, then it went over to Eisenhower and basically it switched, it swung, stayed with Johnson, but swung to Nixon, stayed with Nixon but then swung to Carter and then swung to back to Reagan, and then swung to over to [Clinton] again in 1992 when he ran against Bush. Sometimes the statistics are so compelling that they just leave you with your mouth wide open. 

Now, if that doesn't show that a community is representative and in thinking, in keeping with the thinking of a nation as a whole, I don't know what is. And the community has changed so much. It's not the same community. It's not the same profile of voter that's voting in the 1930's and the 1940's and the 1950's and the 1960's. And yet - this is what the results are. I just find that absolutely fascinating.


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