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

Paradise, Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s fictionalized stand-in in his 1957 novel On the Road:

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights
of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a
Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not
enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music,
not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a
poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white
man” disillusioned.

It hit readers like a sledgehammer in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro”:

And in the wedding of white and black it was the Negro who
brought the cultural dowry… he kept for his survival the art of the
primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his
Saturday night kicks… the pleasures of the body… and in his
music he gave voice to… his rage and the infinite variations of joy,
lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.

It animated campus journalist and Kerouac fan Tom Hayden’s description of hearing participants in the southern sit-in movement speak in 1960. These black and white activists “lived on a fuller level of feeling than any people I’d ever seen,” he wrote. “Here were the models of charismatic commitment I was seeking. I wanted to live like them.”1

Popular music—postwar jazz, rock and roll, and especially folk music— served as a key medium for this romance. It sang in New York City painter, photographer, and musician John Cohen’s account of meeting Roscoe Holcomb, a banjo player and impoverished former coal miner, in eastern Kentucky in 1959 and listening to him play a song he had written: “My hair stood up on end. I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing something ancient, like a Gregorian Chant, or something very contemporary and avant-garde. It was the most moving, touching, dynamic, powerful song I’d ever experienced.” It moved within a critic and fan’s description of the people who made folk music: “There are beautiful, relatively uncomplicated people living in the country close to the soil, who have their own identities, their own backgrounds. They know who they are, and they know what their culture is because they make it themselves… mostly in their singing.” It rang in music collector Larry Cohn’s description of hearing blues musician Son House sing in New York City in 1965: “I had never seen nor imagined that anyone could sing with such intensity

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