American Misfits and the Making of Middle-Class Respectability

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Robert Wuthnow
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     2017.
     352 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691176864.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

At first glance, roving hucksters, the fabulously wealthy, and naughty children seem to be unlikely subjects for a study of American middle-class respectability in the 19th century. But Robert Wuthnow argues precisely the opposite in American Misfits and the Making of Middle-Class Respectability: a collection of societal outliers potentially holds the key to understanding the rise of middle-class social norms in the United StatesRather than occurring in the homes and churches of pious, industrious, and thrifty paragons of the emerging middle class, the story that Wuthnow tells unfolds in less predictable contexts: insane asylums, ecstatic worship services, immigrant enclaves and New York City’s decadent Upper East Side.

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, Wuthnow argues that practices are embodied, internalized, and inscribed in the everyday, and consequently, they are used to distinguish between desirable and undesirable behaviors. Within this framework, hucksters, lunatics, fanatics, those who died young, the excessively rich, and misbehaving children served as persistent and conspicuous contrasting cases for those aspiring to join the emerging middle class. In this way, a ragtag group of misfits played a crucial role in defining middle-class respectability in the 19th century by demonstrating precisely what it was not.

Wuthnow supports this primary contention by using each of these six types of misfits to demonstrate how they individually and collectively determined the sweet spot between the upper echelon and lower rungs of society. The hucksters’ nomadic lifestyle reminded middle-class aspirants that people without roots in a community lacked moral grounding. Quarantined in asylums and deemed insane, those who lost their mental faculties represented the social and financial cost of a loss of rationality. The excessively rich demonstrated that wealth was precarious and morally suspect. And naughty children (a group featured prominently in children’s literature) exemplified the serious—and at times deadly—price of misbehavior.

Chapters 4 and 5, on the subjects of fanatics and those who die young, respectively, focus extensively on how religious misfits factored into the establishment of middle-class respectability. Wuthnow argues that religious fanatics demonstrated an excessive level of faithfulness, characterized by an unyielding commitment to their own beliefs and an imperviousness to reason. Religious fanatics traversed the bounds of acceptable behavior and served as a stark warning for those within the religious mainstream. At the same time, religious congregations played a crucial role in moral formation and social cohesion in a society familiar with death, especially among young mothers and children. While the chapter’s title suggests a focus on those who died young, Wuthnow primarily concentrates on immigrant congregations as examples of how religious communities collectively participated in boundary making, encouraged social cohesion, and supported one another.

American Misfits succeeds in a number of ways. In particular, Wuthnow applies a fruitful theoretical lens to the establishment of middle-class social norms in the 19th century. He also convincingly integrates religion into his broader thesis and reminds his readers of religion’s central role in shaping social expectations in the United States. Religious outsiders, even those who handled snakes, convulsed at revivals, or holed up in immigrant enclaves, played an important role in establishing expectations among the religious mainstream. Wuthnow’s examination of religious fanatics stands out as one of the most convincing and engaging chapters in the entire book. 

Despite its obvious strengths, a handful of potentially important foundational perspectives fade into the background. Issues of race, gender, and class, for example, appear only in passing throughout American Misfits. This trio of lenses figures so prominently in the social logic of the 19th century that considering any of them in the contexts that Wuthnow covered could certainly yield even more fruitful insights. American Misfits, then, might provide a sturdy foundation upon which future researchers could build their own studies that more prominently consider issues of race, gender, and class, and potentially feature an even more diverse cast of middle-class misfits. 

Wealthy socialites, doomsday prophets, and free-love communes all existed outside of the bounds of middle-class respectability. As piety, thrift, moral uprightness, and community engagement came to define middle-class respectability in the 19th century, they did so in contrast to a recognizable cast of social misfits. By negative example, hucksters, lunatics, fanatics, those who died young, the excessively rich, and misbehaving children defined how 19th-century Americans conceived of life in the emerging middle class.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Klumpp is a doctoral candidate in American Religious History at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University. He is the author of many works about American culture and society, including Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland and Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State (both Princeton).

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