Campbell Corner Language Exchange


A Path Out of Middletown

The Life of Helen Merrell Lynd, 1896-1982

by Christine Biancheria & Susan Frietsche

Campbell Corner extends best thanks to the Lancaster Literary Guild for permission to reprint this essay in full.


Helen Merrell Lynd with Bert Loewenberg, Colleague and Historian, Courtesy of the Sarah Lawrence Archives


Helen Merrell Lynd—the philosopher and writer, the radical educator, the formidable scholar—possessed the kind of genius, both intellectual and interpersonal, that inspires great art. The portraitist Alice Neel caught her raptor-like gaze on a canvas that now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Renowned American poet Muriel Rukeyser serenaded her in subtle, evocative poetry. Alice Walker paid grateful tribute to Helen Lynd in her memoirs, remembering Helen in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens as “the first person I met who made philosophy understandable, and the study of it natural. It was she who led me through the works of Camus and showed me, for the first time, how life and suffering are always teachers....”

“We didn’t know the manuscript was good,” she recalled. “I was about 26, Bob was under 30. It was getting on for four years then, and we had worked long hours and long days.” The couple’s spirits had been understandably dampened when the Rockefeller Foundation, the book’s original sponsor, rejected their manuscript as “unpublishable” and downright savage on religion. At that point, remembered Helen, “I think Bob probably had more confidence in it than I did.”

Fortunately, so did Alfred Harcourt of Harcourt, Brace. About five years after the project had begun, Bob gave Harcourt a copy of the manuscript. Harcourt himself reviewed it and decided immediately to take a chance on it, publishing Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture by Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd in 1929.

“Nobody was as surprised as we when it came out with front page reviews in the Times and Herald Tribune,” Helen recollected in an address to the American Sociological Association. Middletown was plastered all over the shop windows of Brentano’s bookstores in New York and secured for Helen and her husband the status of nobility among American scholars.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Institute of Social and Religious Research originally commissioned Middletown as a study of small-town religious life. Convinced, though, that religion could not be separated from its broader cultural context, these maverick authors ambitiously undertook to study all aspects of an entire American city instead.

For their subject, Bob Lynd chose Muncie, Indiana, as representative of contemporary American life. As a later New York Times reviewer would caution, “Those who cling to their childhood illusions about their native land will wish that the Lynds had scrutinized the Patagonians instead.” The Lynds and the three women who made up their staff packed up and moved into the community. Seeking objectivity, they decided to try something new; they applied anthropological techniques typically reserved for the study of foreign communities and tribes to their American subjects.

Unlike typical researchers and writers of the time, the Lynds immersed themselves completely in the culture they were studying. They lived in Muncie for a year and a half. They pored over newspapers and organizational minutes. They attended church, where Bob sang solos. They went to Rotary meetings and developed a social circle, becoming part of the city’s life. A turning point came when the Lynds decided to let their subjects speak in their own voices. Middletown is animated by what the Lynds call “folk talk,” or the “rattle of conversation that goes on around a luncheon table, on street corners, or while waiting for a basketball game to commence.”

These plain-spoken voices convert the sociologists’ research into a poignant and searing critique from which a startling image emerges: while Middletown believes in the American Dream, there is a tremendous schism between its beliefs and its realities that has left its inhabitants miserably unhappy, with little insight as to why. Its citizens embrace each new invention—from automobiles to the credit purchase—as progress, never pausing to realize the cost it exacts from their quality of living. The reader, turning the pages of this heartbreaking book, is overtaken by an unsettling sense of recognition: one cannot help but see our own society in the life of Middletown.

The Lynds gather evidence that shoots down the sacred cows of American culture where they stand: the unquestioning faith in the value of hard work, education, marriage, religion and politics. Middletown’s citizens believe in reward for hard work, but the facts reveal a city divided along formidable class lines that ultimately dictate everything from careers to religious beliefs and politics. Trapped in a treadmill existence, parents scrimp and save for their children’s education, which they view as “an open sesame that will mysteriously admit their children to a world closed to them....” But Middletown’s schools are ailing and inadequate to the task. Rather than liberating children, formal schooling consists of a “systematic, high-pressure orientation to life,” accompanied by an unnatural “taboo upon physical activity [which] becomes stricter, until by the third or fourth year practically all movement is forbidden....” The educational system produces teenagers fully inculcated in the prevailing views, such that high school seniors respond with striking uniformity to the Lynds’ extreme true-or-false statements. For example, they believe overwhelmingly that the “white race is the best race on earth” and the United States “is unquestionably the best country in the world.”

“Middletown adults,” the Lynds write, “appear to regard romance in marriage as something which, like their religion, must be believed to hold society together.” But romance is the exception. Most are too tired by day’s end for companionship, and “such conversation as there is may be of a bickering sort, or may lapse into apathetic silence.” Housewives are so lonely that the knock on the door by Helen Lynd, hoping for an interview, becomes a notable event, and so Helen, with a note of sadness, writes that in a number of cases after she had “succeeded in breaking through an apparently impenetrable wall of reserve or of embarrassed fear, the housewife would say at the close of the talk, ‘I wish you could come often. I never have any one to talk to….’”

Middletown seeks relief from its lonely, disappointing reality in religion and dreams of heaven. Thus, the Lynds report that, “when an overwrought working class woman, ill-dressed and unkempt, rose in a noisy Pentecostal church and cried, ‘I’m tired of this ol’ garlic and onions world! I’m going home to Jesus!’ no simple description can convey the earnestness of her wailing words.” Church, the Lynds discover, is a place where Middletown’s parishioners cope with the “too-bigness” of life. In their elegant prose, they describe how Middletown shuns ambiguity or debate in religion. Rather, “in church question marks straighten out into exclamation points, the baffling day-to-day complexity of things becomes simple, the stubborn world falls into step with man and his aspirations, his individual efforts become significant as part of a larger plan.”

Occasionally, the town’s inhabitants become “reluctantly conscious” of the dissonance between their wishes and their lives. But with regret, Bob and Helen note that, wed by fear to the devil they know, the citizenry’s knee-jerk response is renewed insistence upon traditional institutions and values. Like Boxer, Animal Farm’s longsuffering horse whose response to any oppression is, “I will work harder,” Middletown’s folk seek solace in more of the same. In the end, the Lynds conclude that what is really needed is a deep-cutting reexamination of Middletown’s most basic institutions and beliefs.

All the world loves a mirror, and despite Middletown’s damning portrait, critics hailed the book as a great American wake-up call and as a research model that would transform social science the world around. Today, Middletown is ranked among the greatest works of sociology. The irony is that it was produced by a couple in their 20s, neither of whom yet held a Ph.D.—never mind that Bob Lynd never took a sociology course, and Helen Lynd confessed to her friends that she had no real interest in the subject.

The Lynds responded differently to their first encounter with Middletown. Helen later recalled that Bob “always claimed that he could have lived happily in Muncie, and I couldn’t.” In some ways, Bob did go on, at least figuratively, to live in Middletown. His career path took him to a staid teaching position on the tenured faculty of Columbia University. Although Bob remained the more famous of the pair, his life in mainstream academia was suffocating. The fate of this once-buoyant individual was described by his son, Staughton Lynd, in his recent book, Living Inside Our Hope: “His classes grew gradually smaller. He had a series of heart attacks. He developed a writing block. He would sit hunched over his desk like a small boy doing homework, smoke one cigarette after another, and clip the business press in perpetual preparation for the book on power that was never written.”

Helen Lynd, in contrast, went to the liberating and off-beat Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, to join its first faculty. Middletown’s disturbing images of an entire culture too afraid to challenge its fundamental assumptions, even for the sake of its own happiness, dogged Helen Lynd throughout the rest of her life. She spent the remainder of her life at Sarah Lawrence studying the link between courage and creativity in the individual who can tolerate the uncertainties that arise outside the shelter of the traditional and see things freshly.

In Bronxville, Helen spread her wings and took flight, becoming an outspoken philosopher and social critic, a groundbreaking teacher and a muse to some of America’s finest women writers and artists.


Helen Merrell Lynd’s upbringing, recalled in Possibilities, a collection of previously unpublished writings and interviews, was one she found “both so restricting and so enlarging.” Restricting because of its small-town provincialism and religious dogmatism; enlarging because her parents, intellectuals themselves, bred Helen for an independence of mind that permitted her to adopt the best and reject the worst in her experience. Helen Merrell was born on March 17, 1896, in La Grange, Illinois, the first of three daughters of Edward T. and Mabel Waite Merrell. Helen’s mother was brisk and a bit of a disciplinarian. Her father, who had attended a theological seminary, edited a Congregationalist magazine. The dignity of her father’s position sharply constrained Helen’s childhood activities: no dancing, no theater, no desserts on Sundays. His income, and consequently his household, was modest. According to their son Staughton, Helen “hated what seemed to her the penny-pinching, anxiety-ridden atmosphere of her childhood.”

Still, in Possibilities, Helen described her father as a man with “a good writing style, a sense of humor, and a flair for people and for principles,” and one of the great influences of her life. He spent long hours reading aloud to the family from literature and especially the Bible, the cadences of which influenced Helen’s own writing style. Looking back, Helen said, “I cherish the fact that when I read the Bible, as when I read Dickens, it’s in my father’s voice.”

Despite their provincialism, Helen’s parents displayed their own brand of unconventionality. Her father bitterly complained when the local country club blackballed a prospective Jewish member, and Helen remembered that when “Negro ministers came to the church it was usually our family who had them to dinner.” As for her mother, Helen discovered later that she “would never give the salute to the flag. Because she said it wasn’t true, there wasn’t equal justice for all.”

Helen inherited this spirit of dissent, which she exhibited from an early age. In Possibilities, Helen recounted a telling exchange with her mother, who once commented that a German immigrant in the neighborhood was very ignorant because she said, “I seen.” A young Helen shot back, “Well, they’re not [as] ignorant as you are, they know parts of two languages and you know only one.”

When her father was offered a job in Framingham, Massachusetts, the family moved east. There, Helen enrolled at Wellesley College, where she encountered Mary Case, a professor who made a profound impact on Helen and ignited her passion for philosophy.

Like her childhood, Helen’s experience at Wellesley was both emancipating and confining. Helen suffered emotionally there, where she first became conscious of her relative poverty. She came to Wellesley a shy young woman plagued with a sense that she was physically awkward and unattractive, and so it did not help matters that she wore the wrong clothes and ended up having to do housework for other students to get by. Decades later, “she was still bitter about the social stratification at Wellesley. That was humiliating to her,” said Suzanne R. Hoover, a former student of Helen’s and perhaps Helen’s closest friend and intellectual companion in later life. “I mean, she could still get really churned up about it if she started to talk about it so many years later.” Helen’s sense of awkwardness never left her, and Suzanne noted that, throughout Helen’s life, she felt desperately ugly.

On the other hand, Wellesley was for Helen academically liberating. Precociously intelligent and something of an intellectual spitfire, Helen drew the attention of her teachers. One in particular was her elderly, wheelchair-bound philosophy professor. Eager to enroll in Miss Case’s course on Plato, Helen was disappointed when the college told her that she could not register because she lacked the philosophy prerequisite. Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, Miss Case bent the rules for Helen since, as she pointed out, Plato never took philosophy either.

In Miss Case’s classes, Helen witnessed the kind of thinking and teaching that she would bring to Sarah Lawrence in her attempt to spur the growth that Middletown did not. Miss Case taught Helen that the questions one asks can be more important than their answers and put Helen at ease discussing different points of view.

Helen graduated in 1919, and it was during that summer that she met her future husband.


The special synergy that would produce Middletown started on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Helen Lynd always loved to hike, and in the summer of 1919, she and her sister set off on an 11-mile trek up the mountain. In Possibilities, Helen described what happened next. On the way up the trail, she said, “we met a man coming from the other direction. Bob had climbed Mt. Washington the day before, spent the night at the Ravine House, and had all his washing hung on the back of his rucksack. He was on two weeks’ vacation in the mountains. We got into conversation, and for some reason or other I mentioned Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. We didn’t exchange names.” Soon after, Helen wrote to a friend to say that she “had met a man who certainly knew how to have a good time in the world.”

Frustrated that he didn’t get the young woman’s name, Bob turned around and hiked all the way back up the arduous trail to the hut at the summit to retrieve Helen’s name from the guest book. Bob wrote to Helen and, on his suggestion, said Helen, “we climbed Bear Mountain and cooked cocoa and lamb chops. It was one of the great experiences of my life.”

Bob had been attending the Union Theological Seminary, and after returning from a summer interning as a preacher in the Rockefeller oil camps of Elk Basin, Wyoming, he and Helen were married on September 3, 1921. On their honeymoon in the mountains, the romantic Bob returned to Mt. Washington and stole the page from the guest book in the hut where they had signed their names.

The following year, Bob wrapped up his studies at the Seminary, and Helen finished her master’s thesis at Columbia. Then the pair headed off to Muncie, Indiana.

These two intellectual Titans were poised to revolutionize social science research which, to that point, had tended to be a top-down examination of a single facet of life to prove or disprove an academic theory. The Lynds, on the other hand, with their working-class sensibilities, would enter into the community with little in the way of preconceived notions and examine it from the bottom up, participating in its life, drawing connections and talking with ordinary people. As their son Staughton explained in a recent PBS interview, for the Lynds, this critique of American culture and religious life was both “an act of criticism and an act of love.” Those who knew the couple insist that they were not cynics. They thought their dissident voices would make a difference.

Believing that change arises through the vision of the extraordinary individual who sees beyond the conventional to an entirely new way of being, Helen turned her attention to the study of creativity and personal transformation. She thought she had found the secret in a line from one of her favorite poets, John Keats, who wrote of “Negative Capability,” which, he said, is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason....”

Helen took this idea with her to Sarah Lawrence College, where she was recruited onto the faculty that would open the College’s doors in 1928. Helen recalled that “Mr. [William] Lawrence, Sr., wanted it put in the Sarah Lawrence charter that it was a college for Christian—I don’t think he thought it necessary to add, white—girls.” But for the influence of President Henry McCracken of Vassar, who served as an adviser to Mr. Lawrence in establishing the new college, this restriction may well have been imposed. But if Mr. Lawrence had hopes of creating a conventional institution, Helen Lynd’s presence on the faculty consistently pulled the College in a different direction, away from the hierarchical “lesson-textbook-recitation method” that had so stultified Middletown students.

Lois Barclay Murphy, a Sarah Lawrence professor and noted child psychologist who recommended Helen for the position, later said, “there was no way I could have predicted her profound, enduring influence on the little college.”


Suzanne R. Hoover attended Sarah Lawrence in the 1950s. With plans to become a conductor, Suzanne also studied in Paris with the legendary musician Nadia Boulanger. But English was a deeper love, and eventually, she returned to teach at her alma mater. She retired only recently, and now lives in New York City. Suzanne, casual and unassuming, met us in the lobby of her building, and led us to her serene apartment lush with houseplants and cluttered with old books and African art, high above Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Sitting in her armchair with sunlight filtering through the foliage surrounding her, Suzanne spoke quietly and thoughtfully of Helen Lynd and her teaching: “She was, I think, a disconcerting teacher for people who needed facts and certainty, and who couldn’t deal with what Keats calls ‘negative capability,’ the ability to remain in doubt and mystery,” Suzanne explained.

Helen once said she believed it necessary “for a student to go through a period of chaos” to learn to think for herself. To foster independence, Helen did not lecture, but instead plied her students with question after question. “Students who couldn’t deal with that found her difficult. Because she was interested in questions, not answers,” said Suzanne, who was quick to add, though, that Helen “was very much loved by her students. And I think one of the reasons was that one always felt as her student that one was being listened to.”

Helen taught classes on subjects that she herself was learning about and genuinely viewed her students as partners in discovery. The effect was magical. Years later, for a memorial service for Helen, former student Frances Vicario described it: “I would like to quote Staughton Lynd’s remark,” she commented, “which amused his mother. He said, ‘My mother might possibly mistake a jackass for a unicorn, but she would never make the mistake of taking a unicorn for a jackass.’ It was wonderful to be taken for a unicorn by Mrs. Lynd.”

From the beginning, Suzanne said, Helen and her colleagues pushed Sarah Lawrence away from the type of education that stunted growth. There was no standard curriculum, no grades. Instead, education focused on the individual student’s needs and abilities. To Helen, the role of education wasn’t just to pass on encyclopedic knowledge, but to create free-thinking individuals who might bring about social invention and change. As Suzanne once said, “we learned that traveling without a map can be frustrating—sometimes even frightening—but that when you rely on a map, you end up learning mostly about maps....”Helen’s assignments were intimidating, yet alluring all the same. Frances Vicario recalled one: “Our focus was the culture of ancient Egypt; our site—the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum among the statutes, frescoes and ancient relics there. These served as ‘primary sources’ from which we formulated our own hypotheses on such activities as the family, getting a living, religion, etc. Later our findings were compared with corresponding activities in the American society of the thirties.”

Helen’s teaching methods mimicked her interpersonal style, which Suzanne termed “dazzling and very seductive.” Helen’s manner, Suzanne continued, “was to incessantly ask questions. She would grill you, or interview you, about where did you go and what did you do and what was it like. As though she needed to know those things more than anything else in the world.”

This insatiable curiosity, and the relentless questioning it spawned, was classic Helen and a characteristic that seems etched in the memories of everyone who knew her. “Why do you think there is so much emphasis on childhood traumas and neuroses as the driving forces behind creativity? Questions like these would suddenly come out of Helen Lynd,” remarked another former student, Tital Beal, at Helen’s memorial service. “You might be waiting in a hectic midtown coffee shop line with Helen. Or browsing through a bookstore. She’d look at you expectantly, as if your ideas mattered more than anything else at that moment.” As she was graduating, Suzanne, impressed by Helen’s skill as a listener, confided in Helen about some of the difficulties in her life at that time, and Helen responded in kind. Helen thought that Suzanne was one of her most gifted students and described Suzanne’s mind as “ranging and profound.”

And so their friendship grew. “We just loved talking about stuff,” said Suzanne, pausing and then adding, “which we did at great length.” With her memories crowded round her, Suzanne looked wistfully out her window and said, “We talked about everything.”


While Helen reveled in the fact that, at Sarah Lawrence, she could teach at the “front edge” of her thinking, it was not all a Bohemian paradise. Bringing us hot herbal tea, Suzanne reminded us of the political climate engulfing Sarah Lawrence in the ’50s: “This was right after McCarthy, and we were going through some rough stuff.” But Helen, she said, “was brave because she didn’t pull any punches in class. She said what she believed.”

Helen detested labels and the thoughtlessness behind the mantras of American politics— “containing Communism” and “fighting for freedom”—used to justify any wrong. In the ’40s, she gave talks on the duties of the teacher. At Smith College, she warned that the “slogans ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ on Communism may block the effort for historical understanding. If all the angels were on one side and all the devils on the other, it would be easy to find a formula to cover the situation. But issues of such moment do not come pre-analyzed, nor can they be resolved by shibboleths.” She implored teachers to push their students beyond superficial analysis. “The day after Pearl Harbor,” she would explain, “my senior seminar came in saying ‘Now, the issues are clear!’, by which they meant, ‘Now, thank Heaven, we can stop thinking.’”

Neither Sarah Lawrence nor Helen escaped the notice of the anti-Communist vigilantes. The American Legion’s Westchester County Americanism Committee set its officious sights on her, seeking her dismissal as a “subversive influence.” Though not a member of the Communist Party, Helen had associates who were, and she had traveled to the Soviet Union. The National Council for American Education listed her as one of the “RED-UCATORS AT LEADING WOMEN’S COLLEGES.” Their pamphlet named her suspect affiliations including the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, the League of American Writers and the League of Women Shoppers.

Accused of being a sympathizer, in 1950, Helen was hauled before the Jenner Committee, the Senate version of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Helen fired off a letter to the Committee in response to her subpoena, challenging the Committee’s constitutional authority to conduct the inquiry and threatening that she would not answer any questions that would hurt colleagues or which, she wrote, “would otherwise cause me to lose self-respect.” She retained Attorney Telford Taylor to represent her.

Taylor, a former brigadier general in the U.S. military, was famous for his role as principal prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. After the Nuremberg trials, Taylor became an early critic of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his cohorts. Helen said in Possibilities that Taylor’s greatest help “was that he scared me so much that neither the chairman of a committee nor anybody else could scare me after that. He’s a very impressive person and I don’t have the kind of memory that he expects people to have.” Suzanne told us that, when Helen spoke of being questioned by the Committee about her travels, Helen would say “she could remember the exact shape of the seagulls’ wings in the harbor,” the things that mattered to her, but not the answers to the Committee’s questions. If anything, Suzanne said, “Helen was a card-carrying Romantic.”

Helen survived the experience with her position at Sarah Lawrence intact, but she regretted long afterward that she had answered the Committee’s inquiry into her party affiliation instead of taking the Fifth. Like the witch hunts of Arthur Miller’s Crucible, the anti-Communist crusade had a long reach; just a few years later, Helen’s son Staughton was kicked out of the Army, where he held noncombatant status as a conscientious objector. One of the reasons given: his mother was “a hyper-modern educator.” Describing this era, Suzanne explained, “There was such a sense of the limitation of the American political scene during those years, such a sense that America was smaller than Helen wanted it to be.”

The experience only shored up Helen’s beliefs in the methods of Sarah Lawrence, where students then, as now, designed their own courses of study bent to their individual needs. Helen firmly believed that freedom is something that is learned and that Sarah Lawrence should teach it by giving students the experience of making strong, independent choices. In 1950, she told a convocation there that she remained on the faculty because “Sarah Lawrence ... is a sign—however small—of a hoped-for future.”


Following Helen’s trail, through the sheaves of paper in the Sarah Lawrence archives, interviews with those who knew her and writings of colleagues and friends, we consistently were struck by the profound and lasting impact that Helen had on others. One of them, Elfie Stock Raymond, met us on Sarah Lawrence’s campus, where she now teaches philosophy.

About 30 minutes north of Manhattan, the campus is a refuge of tranquility set about with evergreens. From a classy black car emerged the spritely figure of Elfie, dressed to kill on a lazy winter Sunday. With a hint of a Hungarian accent, she guided us to a local restaurant in Bronxville.

Elfie’s credentials are impeccable. She studied Reformation history in Zurich, theology at Berkeley and philosophy in Vienna and holds an advanced degree from the Sorbonne. She met Bob Lynd when she was a Fulbright scholar at Columbia University, and he introduced her to Helen. Amid all of her standout accomplishments, Elfie appeared especially proud that Helen recruited her to Sarah Lawrence in 1964 to take up the philosophical reins.

Elfie began by insisting that Helen was a philosopher, not a sociologist. And in fact, Helen earned her Ph.D. in the History of Ideas at Columbia in 1944 with a study of a decade of change entitled England in the Eighteen-Eighties: Toward a Social Basis for Freedom. (According to family legend, Helen had drafted her Ph.D. thesis in the 1920s, but then left it in the back of a taxicab, necessitating its complete rewriting years later.) Helen taught social philosophy at Sarah Lawrence because it allowed her to blend many disciplines. As Elfie explained, Helen had a talent for combining literature, philosophy, psychology and political theory.

Describing Helen’s personality, Elfie brightened and relaxed. “You were very grateful you knew Helen,” she told us. “She took great delight in being alive. In her company, you felt more vivacious. She was a genius at interaction.” When we asked if Helen was religious, Elfie replied, “She didn’t talk theology, she lived it.” Helen, Elfie remarked, had a “courtesy of the heart, la politesse du coeur. The old-fashioned theological term was grace.”

Helen cared for her students, said Elfie, and “she really knew that social conventions were crippling and sought to undo the crippling effect, to give people back a sense of themselves. This is for me her beauty and her greatness.”

Elfie turned to Helen’s writing at Sarah Lawrence. Those who knew Helen agree that she did not regard Middletown as her life’s work; rather, it was her book, On Shame and the Search for Identity, published in 1958. “Helen’s most original thinking is in Shame,” Elfie commented. “In Shame, she criticizes the psychology establishment with great power.”

Helen took the leading psychological authorities to task for their cramped views of human possibility, but she went further. In shame, a phenomenon until then largely ignored by mainstream psychology, Helen glimpsed a path to revelation. In those instances of great discomfort, our selves stand exposed; in falling short of some inner ideal, we learn about who we are and what we wish to be. And with shame’s disillusionment, we can learn difficult truths about the world around us. In the “rejected gift, the joke or the phrase that does not come off, the misunderstood gesture, the falling short of our own ideals, the expectation of response violated—such experiences mean that we have trusted ourselves to a situation that is not there,” Helen wrote. Momentarily, we “have become strangers in a world where we thought we were at home.”

The chance to see in a new light is open to those with the negative capability to tolerate shame’s anxiety and the uncertainty of the new. Without that courage, shame becomes a painful, isolating experience to be avoided at all costs, often by insisting on a society of strict mores and well-defined roles. In the clarity of these scripted roles and standards, for better or for worse, we can avoid the mistakes and misunderstandings ending in shame. To Helen, shame was a crossroads leading on to discovery and change or back to darkness and the comfort of old beliefs, however false.

This theory led Helen, in her older years, to explore the link between creativity and the willingness to risk anxiety, disillusionment and rejection. Elfie helped compile some of these unfinished writings for Possibilities. In her drafts, Helen related an illustrative story about her 8-year-old granddaughter: “She asked me what I was doing with all those papers. I told her that in every time and place there are some people who have new ideas or ways of seeing and doing things that are different from those of most other persons. But it is a risk to say them or to act upon them, because they are not like other people’s and often one is hesitant and simply keeps them to oneself.”

Helen’s wide-eyed granddaughter replied: “Grandma, I know exactly what you mean. At school we were to make wings for Christmas. Every one but me made little wings close to their shoulders. I took lots of aluminum foil paper and wire clothes hangers and made big, beautiful wings. But then I was nervous to take them to school because they were different from what every one else made.”

“I love that story,” Elfie said.


It’s easy to idealize Helen. Suzanne Hoover had cautioned against this: “I think it’s necessary to see the pitfalls of her approach and then judge how well she navigated them.” Helen’s chief analytical weakness was what Suzanne had called her “knee-jerk optimism”—and Erich Fromm her “belief in Santa Claus.” This optimism, Suzanne had said, led Helen to a profound refusal of the tragic view that could distort her judgment.

On a personal level, Helen could be difficult on those closest to her. Despite its auspicious beginnings, Helen’s marriage to Bob became complicated. Their son Staughton, in Living Inside Our Hope, noted that, however “it may have been for him in the 1930s, after World War II my Dad seemed desperately unhappy as a professor. He thought the new emphasis on heavy statistical analysis in doing sociology trivialized his discipline, and in any case he couldn’t do it....” Nothing in Staughton’s own academic experiences, he wrote, caused him to revise his impression that academic life “is so mean-spirited. I have often felt that its practitioners fall into two groups: those grimly competing for tenure, and those worried that they may be over the hill.” Maybe Bob fell into the latter group, but in any case, his writing tapered off, and his personality began to change. Some who knew him during those years described the formerly affable man to us as irascible.

The marriage grew competitive. According to their son, Bob let it be known that, in his eyes, “he was in the real academic big leagues,” whereas Helen was teaching in a flighty, experimental environment. At the same time, Helen came to feel herself Bob’s intellectual superior, and she let him know it. Perhaps out of resentment, he never bothered to read Shame, Helen’s most important work. Bob Lynd confided, though, in correspondence from the 1930s, “I shall never be sure if Helen’s achieved version of how to live is not far greater, richer and more humanly valuable than my own.... Helen will grow till the moment she dies.”

“But it’s also true that my parents very much loved each other,” Staughton told us over dinner. There was once a great intimacy and mutual respect between them, which made the writing of Middletown possible. Both Helen and Bob benefited tremendously from their collaboration. Certainly, neither exhibited the same confidence in their writing when going it alone. In fact, when writing Shame, Helen was constantly pushed by her colleagues to speak more in her own voice rather than to assemble quotations of others to make her point. The Middletown collaboration also brought Helen a conventional respectability that, despite her unconventional ways, she craved.

Helen’s drive for social acceptance may have lurked behind her discomfort with the path her son had chosen. For decades, Staughton and his wife Alice, two radical Quakers with a Marxist bent, have been long-distance runners in the grassroots struggles of the Left. Though Staughton had the benefit of advanced education at Harvard and Columbia, he wound up blacklisted in academia because of his public protests of the Vietnam War—at least one of which landed him in jail—and a controversial factfinding mission he undertook with Tom Hayden in Hanoi.

Even before the war, Staughton’s life had been unusual. In the 1950s, after his military dismissal, he and Alice lived for years in a utopian, cooperative community in Georgia, earning a living in part by milking cows. In the early ’60s, he took up teaching in Atlanta at Spelman College, a school for African-American women, followed by a stint as director of the Mississippi Freedom Schools. Eventually, he and Alice were drawn into the labor movement and became lawyers. After moving to Ohio’s Mahoning Valley in the mid-’70s, they worked on behalf of unemployed and retired workers suffering the effects of steel-industry shutdowns. The couple retired recently because, Alice Lynd said, “We just don’t have time for jobs anymore.” In their alleged retirement, the two remain hard at work reforming a nearby super-maximum security prison.

Staughton’s activist lifestyle may have been a sore point with his mother, but at the same time, he was much beloved by her, excessively so, said friends. In fact, she did not attend her son’s wedding. But whatever her qualms with his lifestyle, Helen grew to support the marriage, and she was far more accepting of Staughton’s political methods than was his father. Staughton has written that he took guidance from Robert Lynd’s 1921 summer working with and preaching to the laborers of Elk Basin. When we asked about the influence his mother had on his life, however, Staughton answered, “It was everything.”


Mother and son were very much alike and once conspired to assist a talented young African-American woman floundering in what she regarded as Spelman’s repressive atmosphere. Staughton recounted the event over drinks at the Red Lobster near his home in Niles, Ohio, where, we had been assured, you’ll find the best fish in town.

Looking out over the straw of a Bahama Mama, the 72-year-old activist explained to us, “I was reading examination books one evening. And in a bleary state of mind, I came upon this particular examination book, and my reaction was, ‘Gee, this is a pretty good exam, but there’s something about the way it’s written!’

“So I went and looked for the other half of the Spelman College social science department, Howard Zinn. And I said, ‘Howie, do you have a student named Alice Walker?’”

Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, shared Staughton’s reaction, and soon the two developed a warm mentoring relationship with the young writer, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple.

Alice Walker remembers Staughton with obvious affection, too. “I think Staughton probably drove me to one of my very first demonstrations,” she told us in a phone interview. “He and Alice had this enormous old, old, old Cadillac, which was just like sitting on a sofa, and he would tool us around in that to various events and mind-broadening activities.”

Staughton and Alice Lynd must have seemed perfect role models to her because Walker felt a need to rebel at Spelman, to act out in support of the civil rights movement here and abroad. But “once I was back on the campus,” she complained, she was expected “to be a really nice, ladylike person. It was an incredible strain to balance that, and I really wasn’t succeeding, and Staughton could see that.”

One day, she recalled, “I was standing on the campus basically in tears because I was just so frustrated.... I think [Staughton] decided that he would help me leave since I was determined to go, but I didn’t have anywhere to go actually.” Staughton contacted his mother about getting Walker into Sarah Lawrence.

Suzanne Hoover had told us that Helen rose to the occasion by going out and personally raising the money from former students for a scholarship for Alice Walker. Helen shepherded Walker through the transition. “I met Helen when I got to campus,” said Walker. “And she was really lovely. She appeared bearing this wonderful old Irish woolen throw which they had had in their family for a very long time, and she brought it because I transferred in the middle of winter, and it was really, really cold, and she was trying to be sure that I was warm.”

Helen became Alice Walker’s adviser, or don. “It was like having a guardian angel,” she said. “She had a really wonderful twinkly smile, and she was altogether very human.” Walker recalled being welcomed to the Lynds’ apartment on Central Park West, where she was amazed by the huge fireplace and the homey atmosphere right in the middle of Manhattan. Walker has chronicled the emotional turmoil of her student days, and so her meeting with Helen Lynd was well-timed. In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Walker wrote of Helen that, “since studying with her, all of life, the sadness as well as the joy, has its magnificence, its meaning, and its use.” During the phone interview, Walker made sure to add “shame” to that list.

What’s more, Helen introduced Alice Walker to her colleague and close friend, the acclaimed poet Muriel Rukeyser, who was on the Sarah Lawrence faculty as well. Rukeyser, for whom poetry and politics were one and the same, played a pivotal role in the nascent writer’s personal and literary development. “These women,” Walker wrote in Our Mother’s Gardens, “were Sarah Lawrence’s gift to me. And when I think of them, I understand that each woman is capable of truly bringing another into the world. This we must all do for each other.”


In 1982, Helen Merrell Lynd suffered a stroke. After regaining some ability to speak in the hospital, she told Staughton that her chief concern was the welfare of her daughter, Andrea, who was going through a divorce. She managed to ask whether Staughton thought that they had done all they could for Andrea. He said that he thought they had. He kissed his mother good-bye and went out for the afternoon. Later that same evening, he received word that she had died.

While Helen’s works can be found on the library shelves of any sociology department worth its salt, and her memory permeates the style and history of Sarah Lawrence College, Helen Merrell Lynd has not been given her due in the pages of history. Though the more original thinker, she was obscured by her husband’s fame. For many, Helen Merrell Lynd begins and ends between the covers of Middletown. But if Middletown identified the trap, Helen’s life was a beacon lighting the way out.

At a service for his mother, Staughton Lynd feared that memories of Helen would dim. Alice Lynd suggested, however, that there are two kinds of legacies: the subjective and the objective memory, the traces one leaves behind. Helen Lynd is present in the education of all who pass through the doors of Sarah Lawrence. In the works of those she inspired in her lifetime. In her son’s compassionate activism. In the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. On the canvases of the great painter Alice Neel. In the inherited lessons that Alice Walker in turn passes on in her works. As the philosopher Morris Cohen wrote in A Dreamer’s Journey: “Brief is the life of man; and of uncertain duration is his handiwork, be it ships, houses, governments, or laws. But the echoes from soul to soul will go on so long as human life lasts.”

Copyright Rapportage, The Journal of the Lancaster Literary Guild 2002. Reprinted by permission. One-time rights only.