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

By Grace Elizabeth Hale | Go to book overview

Introduction: Outsiders and Rebels

[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

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