A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America

A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America

A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America

A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America

Synopsis

At mid-century, Americans increasingly fell in love with characters like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Ryeand Marlon Brando's Johnny in The Wild One, musicians like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and activists like the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These emotions enabled some middle-class whites to cut free of their own histories and identify with those who, while lacking economic, political, or social privilege, seemed to possess instead vital cultural resources and a depth of feeling not found in "grey flannel" America. In this wide-ranging and vividly written cultural history, Grace Elizabeth Hale sheds light on why so many white middle-class Americans chose to re-imagine themselves as outsiders in the second half of the twentieth century and explains how this unprecedented shift changed American culture and society. Love for outsiders launched the politics of both the New Left and the New Right. From the mid-sixties through the eighties, it flourished in the hippie counterculture, the back-to-the-land movement, the Jesus People movement, and among fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians working to position their traditional isolation and separatism as strengths. It changed the very meaning of "authenticity" and "community." Ultimately, the romance of the outsider provided a creative resolution to an intractable mid-century cultural and political conflict-the struggle between the desire for self-determination and autonomy and the desire for a morally meaningful and authentic life.

Excerpt

[We have become] a nation of outsiders, a country in
which the mainstream, however mythic, [has] lost its
compelling energy and its magnetic attraction
.
Peter Schraf, Harper’s (1970)

This book begins with two simple questions. Why did so many white middle-class people see themselves as outsiders in the second half of the twentieth century? And what effect did this vision have on American culture and society? Answering these questions requires tracing the history of a knot of desire, fantasy, and identification I call the romance of the outsider, the belief that people somehow marginal to society possess cultural resources and values missing among other Americans. To tell this story, I follow this romance at work in the novels, memoirs, musical recordings, photographs, films, cultural criticism, political organizing efforts, and other pieces of the expressive culture of the period, and examine how individuals used this romance, how it channeled their creativity and actions and produced new ways of thinking about history and the agency of individuals.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the romance of the outsider began to appear among self-conscious white bohemians and in books, music, and movies made for white youth. It often started with longing, desire, what we might call love. In the 1953 film The Wild One, it sparkled in the way the small-town teenaged girl smiled in reaction to Marlon Brando’s bad boy character, the leader of a motorcycle gang in the city, who answered her question “What are you rebelling against?” by snarling, “Whaddaya got?” It danced in the voice of Sal . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.