Like Gallup and the other political pollsters Igo writes about, the Lynds promoted the scientific status of their claims—and simultaneously slipped in a moral subtext. The Lynds had been hired to undertake “a Basic Religious Study of the people in a small industrial community.” Their sponsors wanted a town “near the centre of life in the U.S.” and home to “all the chief denominations.” The Lynds further refined those conditions in the interest of an emerging social science ideology. They rejected South Bend for its “cultural and religious heterogeneity”—too many immigrants, for one thing—preferring instead Muncie, Indiana.


Blessed with what they regarded as so perfect a laboratory, their ambitions expanded. The Lynds reinvented themselves as anthropologists of the average American. Their annoyed patrons cut them adrift. Released commercially, however, their book became a surprise bestseller. Thus did the Lynds learn what Roper, Crossley, and Gallup were to learn a decade later: there was a hunger among ordinary Americans for being told what it was they were supposed to already believe.


“This was looking at yourself in the mirror,” Good Housekeeping’s reviewer enthused, and, as another review suggested, people liked what they saw: “More cities like Middletown are needed here—good, sane, substantial, hard-working communities that breed the best citizens.” The only problem: that was the opposite of what the authors intended to convey. The Lynds worried that the typical Middletowner was shallow, irrational, and greedy—and yet their book was systematically misread through a prejudice: if they’re writing about the typical American, they must mean to describe a decent American. But Middletown was larded with Veblenesque scoldings: “More and more of the activities of living are coming to be strained through the bars of the dollar sign.” Even religion “served the instrumental function of furthering social status.” What’s more, whenever the Lynds revealed the Middletowners’ core values as inadequate or untrue, there would be “a redoubling of emphasis upon the questioned ritual and a cry for more loyalty to it.”


You might say, if you were being ungenerous, that the Lynds stumbled into a mess of their own creation. They had found in Muncie what they thought was the typical U.S. city, even if, as Igo points out, it was a “demographic curiosity,” “populated largely by farm-born factory workers . . . more ‘old stock’ . . .than any other city in the Midwest of its size, apart from New Albany, Indiana.” To further their scientific quest for pristine homogeneity, the Lynds decided to include no answers from African Americans in their tabulations—though Muncie’s black population was proportionally larger than those in Detroit and Chicago. They were trying to make themselves scientists, but they ended up endorsing a mythology: that the typical American was native-born, midwestern, and white—when a truer social science would have shown that that was no longer true.


The kind of place that social critics like the Lynds, Gallup, and the others took to be “typical” resembled the towns depicted by those with no such social scientific agenda: the novelists Sinclair Lewis (Main Street; Babbit) and Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio). It was also the same kind of town with which the Good Housekeepings of the world saturated their pages—only to idealize it, rather than to criticize it. There’s a lesson here: whether you’re Gallup, eager to enshrine the average American, or the Lynds, vaguely distrustful of him, when you search for the “average,” you tend to find it exactly where you started looking—and, lo and behold, whether reader or author, what you find there will match your preexisting convictions.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. His new book, Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, is forthcoming.