How American respectability has been built by maligning those who don't make the grade
How did Americans come to think of themselves as respectable members of the middle class? Was it just by earning a decent living? Or did it require something more? And if it did, what can we learn that may still apply?
The quest for middle-class respectability in nineteenth-century America is usually described as a process of inculcating positive values such as honesty, hard work, independence, and cultural refinement. But clergy, educators, and community leaders also defined respectability negatively, by maligning individuals and groups—“misfits”—who deviated from accepted norms.
Robert Wuthnow argues that respectability is constructed by “othering” people who do not fit into easily recognizable, socially approved categories. He demonstrates this through an in-depth examination of a wide variety of individuals and groups that became objects of derision. We meet a disabled Civil War veteran who worked as a huckster on the edges of the frontier, the wife of a lunatic who raised her family while her husband was institutionalized, an immigrant religious community accused of sedition, and a wealthy scion charged with profiteering.
Unlike respected Americans who marched confidently toward worldly and heavenly success, such misfits were usually ignored in paeans about the nation. But they played an important part in the cultural work that made America, and their story is essential for understanding the “othering” that remains so much a part of American culture and politics today.
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).
"American Misfits is filled with colorful anecdotes, lively characters, and sharp social analysis. One of America's leading sociologists, Robert Wuthnow shows that respectability is rarely about respecting others but rather about identifying others to malign for their deficiencies and offenses."--Leigh Eric Schmidt, Washington University in St. Louis
"This is an outstanding book—impressively researched, boldly argued with interdisciplinary breadth, and innovative in the way it depicts the middle-class American dream as perpetually fleeting and tenuous, marked off by day-to-day practices of the rank-and-file and prone to negotiation among those who seek to patrol the boundaries of belonging. It is also a riveting read, driven by rich description and detailed investigation of countless colorful characters who have tested those boundaries and found themselves held up as test cases of what America should and shouldn't look like, and who should and shouldn't be counted as respectable citizens."--Darren Dochuk, University of Notre Dame
Table of Contents:
1 A Relational Approach: The Social Construction of Respect and Respectability 19
2 Worked as a Huckster: Moral Connotations of Placeless Labor 39
3 An Incurable Lunatic: Pension Politics in the Struggle for Respectability 70
4 Not a Fanatic: Zeal in the Cause of Zion 101
5 Dying Young: Immigrant Congregations as Moral Communities 135
6 Excessive Profits: Wealth, Morality, and the Common People 187
7 Naughty Children: Moral Instruction by Negative Example 227
8 Othering: Cultural Diversity and Symbolic Boundaries 258
Selected Bibliography 307
Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Robert Wuthnow: