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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Investigating Americanness

Americans Study Americans

The 1920s saw a flurry of interest in defining and reflecting on "Americanness."  One indication of this interest was the popularity during the decade of texts that broadly characterized elements of American history and life.  These textbooks paralleled developments and changes in the academic fields of anthropology, sociology, and the interdisciplinary study of history, literature, and other aspects and products of the nation—a field that would become known as American Studies.

A Text Still Used Today

In his three-volume Main Currents in American Thought, Vernon Parrington set out to investigate the origins of ideas considered "traditionally American," through the nation's literature produced from 1620 to 1920.  The first two volumes of Main Currents received the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for historical writing. The prize committee awarded Parrington $2000, which was twice the amount received by Pulitzer winners in other categories that year.  The award was particularly surprising as Parrington was a professor of literature, not history, and was not well-known. 

In Main Currents, Parrington provides profiles of American writers and their texts, accompanied by analysis based on ideas from their time periods. Main Currents was praised both for its lively writing style and for presenting literature as the record of American thought. It also showed how economic forces had shaped the nation's political, social, and religious institutions. 

Do You Live in "Middletown?"

Interest in studying general ideas about the behavior and characteristics of "average" Americans is also indicated by the popularity of the book Middletown:  A Study in Modern American Culture by Robert and Helen Lynd.  In the early 1920s, the Lynds set out to conduct a study of religious ideas and practice in an average small American city. In planning their research they realized that in order to understand religion they would need to study many aspects of life in the community.  The city the Lynds selected for study was Muncie, Indiana, with a population of roughly 35,000. They gave Muncie the name Middletown for the publication of their book, though their attempts at hiding the city's identity were not successful. 

For their research, the Lynds and their assistants immersed themselves in Middletown life, living in the town, attending meetings of local organizations, and having dinner with residents, in addition to conducting interviews, administering surveys, and looking at newspapers and meeting minutes.  Using historical information for comparison, they ultimately framed their work as a study of how life had changed in Middletown between the 1890s and 1920s. The cross-century comparisons in the book focused on six main life activities:  Getting a Living, Making a Home, Training the Young, Using Leisure, Engaging in Religious Practices, and Engaging in Community Activities.

A Surprising Success

The Lynds completed their fieldwork in 1925, and Middletown appeared in 1929. It was an instant success and went through six printings that year alone. IN the foreward to the book, renowned anthropologist Clark Wissler calls Middletown "a pioneer attempt to deal with a sample American community after the manner of social anthropology." He went on to say: "To study ourselves as through the eye of an outsider is the basic difficulty in social science, and may be insurmountable, but the authors of this volume have made a serious attempt, by approaching an American community as an anthropologist does a primitive tribe.  It is in this that the contribution lies, an experiment not only in method but in a new field, the social anthropology of contemporary life."

The book was well received by scholars; and Robert Lynd, despite his lack of a Ph.D. at the time, was soon made a professor of sociology at Columbia University.  Middletown still wins praise for its objective and uncritical descriptions of small-town life.  The authors concentrated on presenting facts and opinions from Middletowners themselves. Though the Lynds drew some conclusions and asked questions about the future of Middletown based on their observations, they avoided making judgments as to whether life in the community, and by extension other small towns, was "good" or "bad."  In taking this approach, they confronted the negative image of small town life that had been presented by Sinclair Lewis in Main Street, and by other critics.

(See Who were Babbitts and Bohemians? for more on Sinclair Lewis and Main Street.)

Click Image to Get a Closer Look
Photograph of the Incarnate Word's gymnasium
Photograph of the Incarnate Word's gymnasium
Eugene O. Goldbeck

What can these Eugene O. Goldbeck photographs from the 1920s tell us about the topics the Lynds explored in Middletown?

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