Robert WUTHNOW. American Misfits and the Making of Middle-Class Respectability.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017, pp. 352. $35.00 ISBN: 9780691176864; eBook ISBN 9781400888092. Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105.


On his website for the sociology department at Princeton University, Robert Wuthnow summarizes the sociological problem guiding his scholarship as follows: How do cultural, racial, socioeconomic, religious, and political divisions shape cohesion, inclusion, exclusion, and inequality? His latest book, American Misfits and the Making of Middle-Class Respectability, ably extends that scholarship into “the social construction of middle-class respect and respectability” (the subtitle of Chapter 1).

Essentially, Wuthnow’s work shows how a prime foundation of the American dream, middle-class “respectability,” is grounded in exclusion. He offers a range of persons who become defined as disrespectable, i.e., “misfits” (e.g., the huckster, the lunatic, the religious fanatic, the profiteer). He challenges the romantic ideal that the Protestant work ethic (a la Max Weber) created the cultural foundation for a middle class merely through hard work and thrift. Instead, Wuthnow emphasizes that Protestant and other religious groups created cohesive in-groups whose members “were accountable to one another. They were respectable in one another’s eyes” (p. 32). While “others” (Simmel would refer to them as “strangers”) were not only displaced, they were “likely to feel estranged, … separated from [the respectable members of society] not only by physical separation [but also] standards of exclusion … organizational gate-keeping mechanisms” (p. 34). Thus, Wuthnow argues, respectability is relational.

Wuthnow clearly “connects the dots” between institutionalized religion and religious communities and the values and norms of respectability, even beyond transgressions of a more specifically moral nature (e.g., prostitution). He examines the case of Methodists, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States by the end of the nineteenth century.  Like major denominations of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, Methodists conformed to norms for orderly participation in weekly worship, along with Bible study or other organized group activities. Yet leaders of the Methodist church had to be watchful of “the delicate line between fanaticism and acceptable religious behavior” (p. 119). One New England preacher described the non-fanatical characteristics of a respectable person as “mental discipline, intellectual culture, and scholarly attainments” (p. 119), while rejecting the emotionalism that characterized the Beekmanites, African American groups, and others, while warning that such unbridled behavior could result in suicide, murder, death by rattlesnake, or other tragedies that sent such fanatics “over the edge” (p. 120). In other words, conventional religious leaders had to insure the respectability of their members in middle-class society.

In chapters four and five, Wuthnow briefly notes the processes of Catholic immigrant assimilation (and Americanization). Wuthnow’s work offers foundations for understanding the contemporary movement of Hispanic Americans from misfits into middle-class respectability. I would like to see greater elaboration there.

Wuthnow’s writing is always clear and engaging. I appreciate his integration of previous theoretical work in this area (Weber and Simmel, but also DuBois, Myrdal, Harrington, and others), as it lends cogent synthesis to his argument. In the final pages, I think Wuthnow also offers the reader a link to understanding the current state of the American narrative:

… a tendency to find solidarity [while reinforcing respectability] by identifying an outside group as the “other.” (p. 264) 

This book includes 24 prints and photographs depicting representations of geographic locations (e.g., Kansas State Insane Asylum, ca. 1900), people (e.g., a South Carolina Huckster, Philadelphia, 1904), and events (e.g., A Seeker Getting Religion, 1873) that illuminate the historical meanings of [dis]respectability in American culture and society. American Misfits also includes careful notes, an excellent bibliography, and a detailed index.

Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. Readers of Catholic Review of Books will be familiar with the depth and breadth of his work on the intersections of religion with politics, race, social change, as well as rural America and sociological theory.