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Staughton Lynd Interview


Staughton Lynd is the son of Robert and Helen Lynd, the sociologists who wrote Middletown, and Middletown in Transition. Staughton Lynd is a labor activist by profession. 

He is the editor of We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s and The New Rank and File. He is the author of Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radicalís Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement.

Staughton Lynd

New River Media Interview with: Staughton Lynd, 
Labor Activist and Son of Robert and Helen Lynd  

QUESTION: Please start by telling the story about Robert Lynd before he was married, in Wyoming, working the oil fields. 

STAUGHTON LYND: My parents met at the base of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, on a road called the Dolly Copp Road, which is still there. My father had spent the night at the Appalachian Mountain Club hut at the top of the mountain. He had hiked down and he was walking along with his undershirt drying on the back of his pack. And here in the opposite direction came a very respectable middle-aged gentleman with two daughters, one of whom was my mother. And they got in conversation, and it appears that my mother said something about Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. 

And this made an enormous impression on my father, so that when he had continued in his direction and they continued in theirs, he reflected, and he climbed back up to the top of the mountain to look in the guest book to see if he could figure out which of the two young women in the guest book was the one who had been reading Veblen. And I guess he figured it out correctly, because after a time, they met and became engaged to be married. 

Now, this is the early 1920s, I'm going to say 1922, although I'm not absolutely sure of the year. And my dad was at divinity school, Union Theological Seminary. And it appears that between the first and second years the custom was for students to sign up for summer preaching assignments. And there must have been a list on a board, and my dad, being an adventurous soul, chose Elk Basin, Wyoming. He arrived in Elk Basin by stagecoach, to find that it was a Rockefeller oil camp where the men - and I think I have this correctly - worked six or six and a half days a week. 

And according to an account that he wrote at summer's end, he found a boarding house, but at supper that first evening he noticed a kind of chill in the air and concluded that the men at table, who were working for Mr. Rockefeller, were not excited about the idea of this handsome young man from the East spending the day visiting with their wives. So my dad - this is my favorite thing about him, the thing that I most admire - my dad got a job as a pick-and-shovel laborer and preached in the schoolhouse on Sunday nights. 

At the end of that summer, my parents were married. And at some point my father decided not to become a minister but instead took a research job, which was defined as the study of the religious life of a typical American city. And the fascinating thing to me about the research job, even before my father gets to Muncie, Indiana, is that the job was offered him by a foundation controlled by the Rockefellers. And you wonder what was going on, because my dad, after his summer in Elk Basin, had published two articles - and he wrote very well, very forcefully even then - two articles in the Survey Graphic in which he criticized the long hours, the low pay, the social isolation in Elk Basin. 

And in fact, the story at our family table was that he wrote a letter to John D. Rockefeller Jr. and asked him for a contribution to the project of building a community center for the women in Elk Basin, who led rather isolated lives. And the story - I have no way of proving this true or untrue - the story is that John D. Rockefeller replied and said that Standard Oil had had a hard year - and he wasn't in a position to contribute. 

So my father had made himself obnoxious in a public, if minor way, for the Rockefeller family, and here comes this offer from a Rockefeller Foundation. And the closest I can come to the dynamics of the situation is that it's like an employer offering a foreman's job to an outspoken shop steward. "This guy has a big mouth, he's attracting some attention, let's hire him." I can only assume that it was as on a shop floor when a particular person is articulate and makes himself available to fellow workers, that oftentimes the employer will offer that man a job as a foreman. I think in short that the Rockefellers may have been trying to buy my father's silence. 

QUESTION: How do you think his experiences at Elk Basin influenced his outlook on the Middletown project? 

STAUGHTON LYND: We should first of all say that the Middletown project was initially designed as the study of the religious life of a typical American community, a small midwestern city. And two things were true about the way my father went at it. One of them pretty obviously connects with Elk Basin, and that is that he showed a good deal of sympathy to the situation of working people. He found Muncie to be divided along class lines. He wrote a chapter called "The Long Arm of the Job." 

The other thing that may or may not be connected with Elk Basin. He refused to study religion as a thing in itself. He took the position that it could only be understood as part of the entire life of the community. And the folks who were paying for the study were very dissatisfied. They thought it was a waste of time. They thought it wasn't going anywhere. And my dad had a tough time sticking to it. 

Now, this is before my parents had children. I didn't come on the scene until 1929. But through the mid-1920s my folks were revising and revising the manuscript and the sponsoring committee was steadily finding it unsatisfactory. And at least my mother's story, and I have more confidence in that than any latter day version to the contrary, is that my dad finally said, "Well, look, if I can get it published myself, is that okay with you?" And the committee said, "Sure, but you won't." And the rest is history. 

QUESTION: Was Rockefeller interested in religion as a way to address the social rift represented by the labor strikes so prevalent after World War One? 

STAUGHTON LYND: I can only say that I believe that to be true, and that the cultivation of religion was of a piece with the cultivation of so-called welfare capitalism, bowling leagues and the like, and of company unionism. That is, these were all stratagems, ideas for defusing the very serious class conflict, which had shown itself, for example, in the steel strike of 1919. 

QUESTION: How much of an activist outlook is coming through in Lynd's first book, Middletown as well as the second, Middletown in Transition

STAUGHTON LYND: I don't want to present myself as an expert on Middletown, but I will add this fact to the stew. The most powerful employers in Muncie, Indiana at the town were the Ball family, who made glass jars for putting up preserves. And my father, in conducting the original Middletown study, kind of went everywhere and met everyone. He talked to the Rotary Club. He sang in church. He shot the breeze with the local socialists, or one of them. And he had a cordial relationship with the Ball family. And again the kitchen table story is that after the second book appeared the Ball family stopped sending Christmas cards. So there came a time when I suppose you would say my dad had to pick sides or at least was perceived by others as picking sides. And certainly his choice was with those who worked, who did manual work in Muncie rather than with the owning class. 

QUESTION: Do you think that your father went through any kind of political transformation between the books? 

STAUGHTON LYND: There's no doubt that my father had himself become more radical between the publication of the first Middletown book in 1929 and his second trip to Muncie in the mid-1930s. Of course, he wasn't unique in that. That was true of American academics, writers, professionals of all kinds. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he, in fact, were somewhat disappointed in Muncie's lack of, oh, willingness to criticize the foundations of the social system. 

First of all, understand that my father was one of a number of persons with a strong background in religion, who went into sociology. That was a common transition, and I suppose up to that point all it meant was being the kind of person who was concerned to create a community center for the wives in Elk Basin. It didn't make one a flaming radical. 

But clearly during the 1930s my father - and I'm speaking in very broad strokes - my father moved from someone who read and admired Thorstein Veblen to someone who was very interested in what was happening in the Soviet Union, who made a special trip to the Soviet Union in 1938, who never became a Communist, but who was caught up, as so many others were, in the sense that there were great social changes afoot and that the Soviet Union exemplified them. 

There were some more profound ways in which he was radical. He was for years and years and years associated with a foundation called The Twentieth Century Fund. And in the mid-1930s when Senator Wagner and others proposed the National Labor Relations Act, what we sometimes still call the Wagner Act, the federal law that gave workers the right to form unions, the Twentieth Century Fund funded a special study of the law and patted itself on the back that it was so liberal as to say, "This is wonderful because it will equalize the power of capital and labor. The individual worker is not able to stand up to his or her employer, but by associating in unions they will achieve equality." 

And my dad withdrew from the study, because he said, just as his son has - (laughter) - it's not true. Even with a recognized union, workers don't achieve equality. It's still the unilateral prerogative of the employer to decide whether to close a plant, for example. So that this is one way in which I think my dad was very radical indeed. 

In the late 1930s my father gave a series of lectures at Princeton University, later published as the book, Knowledge for What?, and therein his insistence was that knowledge had to be applied to the great problems before humankind. And, for example, he criticized the field of history, which I later went into, as lecturing on navigation while the ship was going down. And so there were many ways in which I had the clear understanding growing up that my father was a radical, was a person of the left. On the other hand, it was equally clear that he was not a member of any organized left-wing party, and as a matter of fact throughout this period, although he tried to express great sympathy and solidarity with the Soviet Union, he got nothing but lumps from true believers, from Party members, because he also expressed criticisms and misgivings. So he was an independent radical. 

QUESTION: Did your father feel he had more in common with people of Muncie than, say, the people of New York or the big city? 

STAUGHTON LYND: My father grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. He recalled going to Presbyterian church on Sunday not so much as a theological experience, as an experience of community. I remember him often speaking of what it made him feel when everyone would stand up together and sing, something, by the way, that he loved to do and that he did all his life. When he was in Elk Basin he was not only a pick and shovel laborer and a preacher, he was a Boy Scout leader. And I think that's the point, that my father was a person who could go to church and function as a Boy Scout leader and be very comfortable. 

Or to say the same thing in another way, it was always a matter of regret to me that he defined himself in his adulthood as an academic, because I think he was so much more than an academic in Muncie. Not exactly that he was an activist but he was one heck of a participant observer. I mean, he would not only go to Rotary Club occasions, he would sing his famous song, "The Huckleberry Picnic." He grooved on it. He was part of it. Whereas as a tenured professor of history at Columbia, particularly after World War II he was much less comfortable in my opinion. My dad wanted to solve problems, to change the world. And I think it was a loss for him when the lecture room and the seminar room became his only theaters of action. 

QUESTION: Did he see his role in Middletown as that of a problem solver? 

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, remember that the study was to be a study of the religious life of a typical American community. And after all my father was someone who not so long before had graduated from divinity school. He was concerned with the religious life of American communities and indeed several chapters of the book are about the religious life of Muncie. 

But I suspect that my dad was still struggling with the questions, still struggled all his life with the question, "What are we doing to do with this society that to a certain extent professes itself not only democratic, but religious?" And in the case of Muncie I would assume overwhelmingly Protestant Christian, but which makes its living by buying and selling and in ways that set one human being against another and leaves some human beings behind, while others forge ahead. I think in the second Middletown book the focus probably had shifted more to, you know, the hopes for qualitative social transformation that were aroused by the New Deal, and was Muncie with its rotary clubs and so forth, part of the action or was it just a kind of backwater? And I think he may have concluded that it was something of a backwater in the larger scheme of things. 

Now, by the way, the two field trips to Muncie were very different. I mean, the first time first of all my parents went together. They had a research/secretarial staff of maybe three other people. So you have to imagine getting on toward half a dozen people living in this community for I think on the order of a year and a half. The second book my sister and I were little. My mother stayed at home. My father went and went for a much shorter period, like six months. So that's also part of the picture. 

QUESTION: When the books came out, there was a type of criticism that said, this is not an important place, it's just small town life. 

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, Middletown could be viewed, no doubt has been viewed as part of a genre, which includes the works of Sinclair [Lewis], of Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio, the effort to come to terms with the semi-rural, small town, heavily Protestant backgrounds, which were that from which so many Americans of that period emerged. And looking at it in that way you could say, oh, my goodness, here's this chap who grew up in it, who came back to it, who saw that it was not just onward and upward and a collection of Horatio Alger stories, and the good women of the congregational church helping those who need, but that there was more to it, that there was a class structure in this community and so on. 

I mean, I don't think that's an invalid way to see something, but perhaps I could make this analogy. All of us willy-nilly critique our parents in the process of growing up and becoming separate human beings, but that doesn't mean that we look down on our parents. And I feel that at least as far as my father was concerned it was that kind of experience, that, I mean, Muncie was already in him in a way that he knew he would never wholly extricate himself from and didn't want to wholly extricate himself from. But at the same time it was a part of his growing up to look at that with fresh eyes and see things that perhaps as a banker's son growing up in Louisville he hadn't seen so clearly. I mean, you just have to sort of partake of the Horatio Alger aspect of that from which my father came to understand that he would want to both affirm it and to critique it. And that's what Middletown is. 

My father in going to Muncie and in spending years of his life stubbornly saying that he wanted to write about Muncie as he felt it needed to be written about, was I think performing an act of criticism and an act of love. He was talking about the kind of earnest Christian background in which he had grown up and which he was certainly not prepared to disavow or ridicule, but which he also thought needed to be looked at in new ways, or that you didn't try to discuss the religion of Muncie or of the United States except in the context of its life as a whole, and you recognized that that life included a class division between blue collar workers and others, and you reached out in love with one hand at the same time you that insisted on seeing it as it is or as it was with the other.


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