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1929 = 100?

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. By Robert S. Lynd and Helen, Merrell Lynd. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $5.00. American City: A Rank and File History. By Charles Rumford Walker. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $2.50.

Nineteen twenty-nine was a big year. Early in 1937 our national industrial production stood at ninty-seven per cent of its 1929 level. Therefore 1937-. The Lynds’ new study, “Middletown in Transition,” is an appraisal of the accuracy of this syllogism —made with the understanding that there are various ways in which it might be completed. The relation of social myth to social fact is likewise the subject of Charles Rumford Walker’s “American City.”

Superficially, recent events in Middletown and American City—Muncie and Minneapolis—have little in common. Minneapolis was in 1934 the scene of a strike which affected the alignment of the city’s forces in a way likely to be permanent. Middletown’s troubles of the same period were so readily glossed over that docile labor is now officially numbered among the city’s major attractions. Yet it may be questioned whether the stories of the two cities do not make complementary reading.

Because the city was the capital of an agricultural empire, the depression came to Minneapolis as a sharp drop part way down a long decline. Behind the story of Minneapolis is the story of the exploitation of the West— lumber, wheat, iron ore. The laissez-faire spoliation of a quarter of a continent had its outlet in Minneapolis in the lusty first years of the new century. The saga of the empire builders represented not only the aspirations of Everyman but the current achievements of a certain small but conspicuous number of his fellows. Lumber barons were on the make and lumberjacks were exaggerating their own rank and file exploits in tales of Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox.

Both fantasies were over before the war. After the war, the long agricultural decline extended the skids under the city. General levels moved down and squeezed margins; pressures were exerted on labor as to whose extent the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and the Editors of Fortune disagree. The old social myths fell before a combination of new social facts and old social facts seen in a new setting. The I. W. W., the Non-Partisan League, and the Farmer-Labor Party bore witness to the search for new symbols among the groups for which the old symbols had had least meaning, The Truck Drivers’ Strike of 1934 was a violent indication that one group, at least, of Minneapolis’s workers had renounced the myth of getting ahead by individual effort, and formulated and adopted a new economic strategy of collective action, supported by adequate tactics.

Middletown’s business, unlike Minneapolis’s, depends, in first instance, on industry rather than on agriculture. To Middletown, therefore, the depression came like a crevass in an upgrade; the strain on the symbols of the past that developed in the early 1930’s was in general a new strain. For that reason much of Middletown in 1937, its investigators report, is as it was when they made their previous report in the middle of the 1920’s. But new social facts are also present.

In the Middletown of only yesterday a semblance of laissez faire remained in the local, individual ownership of most of the more important plants; and recognition of economic differentiation was minimized by the friendly, philanthropic, unostentatious attitude of their self-made owners. In the Middletown of 1937, differentiation had proceeded along a number of lines.

For all but the rule-proving exceptional man, it is becoming increasingly clear that the ladder of economic opportunity is no longer a ladder with an extension to permit vertical progress from the lowest to the highest rung. Instead there are two ladders: a short one of two rungs widely spaced, on which wage earners may try to step up to foremanships; and a further ladder, placed on a different and higher level, on which those with technical training may move from grade to grade of white-collar prominence up to company with the group that gives the city’s life its tone. At the same time, geographic differentiation of social groups has become practically complete: the working class lives to the south of the tracks, the business class to the north—the top few cluster in a newly developed residential area which marks their living quarters off from the rest of the business class in the same way that horses and private planes distinguish their leisure hours from those of the less exclusive devotees of golf.

To the individually owned, locally owned business of the past have been added plants of some of the country’s biggest corporations, whose policies, affecting the jobs of all their staffs, are made elsewhere than in Middletown. As a result, the city has become a part of a larger industrial complex, bidding for a share in the nation’s work, and using the fact that its wage scales are lower than those of nearby large cities as an important item in the bid.

The Lynds’ description of the situation in Middletown makes American City look like a preview of possible future experience. The Lynds indicate how the long arm of the job reaches through the web of Middletown’s social patterns to color its whole design for living, and make even leisure in its own image. At the same time, they note the fact that one in four of the city’s families was unemployed at the pit of the depression, and that some of the depression programs of the Federal Government sketched a design for the direction of work and the use of leisure as part of a pattern of collective community life, a pattern at variance with the negative view of the functions of government associated with laissez faire and held by the dominant group in Middletown. They also remark the absence of local labor leadership which might provide a strategy for a working class aware of some of the implications of social facts as they are today.

No new ideology, so far as they can see, is in process of formulation south of the tracks. In the business group, the old symbols continue to be awkwardly applied to new facts, and the absence, in that group also, of any policy-making process encourages a tendency to distort the facts, by force if necessary, so that the old symbols fit.

The institutions through which democratic policy-making, through which the give and take that keeps social myths and social facts in harmony, might be furthered, appear to be close to impotent in Middletown. Religious life seems to be following an evanescent rut. The press reaches comparatively few people, and reflects rather than illumines the thought of its readers. The formal processes of democracy are blocked by politicians still doing business at the old stand. The educational institutions have felt the depression badly; and the names of the interlocking directorate of connections of the X family which exercises a veto-power on all phases of the city’s life are engraved upon their boards and lists of donors. Concerning this group and its associates, the Lynds quote Tawney’s sentence on the ruling class in Europe after 1789: “They walked reluctantly backwards into the future, lest a worse thing should befall them.”

The dangers of such a community are obvious. Lacking a policy pertinent to social facts as they are today, at critical moments the business group has only the recourse of using its power to force new facts to fit old symbols, and using it with the blind insistence of emotion covering fear. The working class, feeling itself ostracized and as yet failing to develop symbols of its own, runs the dangers of equally blind violence, violence without a strategy, much less a tactic, and doomed before the forces of a municipal-business partnership in police.

“American City” and “Middletown in Transition,” the former sketchy and journalistic, the latter methodical and backed by the best resources of able research, join in presenting a picture of America on the threshold of some kind of happening here. That picture makes clear that nineteen twenty-nine does not equal a hundred, for all the superficial approximations that our current rate of production may afford. It makes clear that unless we get on with the making of policy, we are likely to lull our sense of insecurity by mass repetition that nineteen twenty-nine does equal a hundred, that it must equal a hundred, that it shall equal a hundred. And it makes clear what such a procedure is likely to lead to in the way of social and economic consequences.


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