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

and not drop dead on the spot. Because every song was a complete catharsis. I mean it was so emotional.” It danced through future musician Janis Joplin’s first encounter with the blues: “They were playing that fifties crap on the radio. It seemed so shallow, all oop-boop. It had nothing. Then I heard Leadbelly, and it was like a flash. It mattered to me.”2

By the mid-1960s, it was hard to imagine youth culture without this romance. It echoed through the hippie counterculture, into the back-to-theland movement, and everywhere young Americans self-consciously created new communities. It flourished in the Jesus People movement, as hippies rebelled against not just the lifestyle but also the liberal religion of middle-class America and took up conservative forms of Christianity. And it thrived among young political conservatives who followed William F. Buckley in seeing themselves as rebels in an era dominated by liberalism. By the end of the seventies, it had even worked its way into fundamentalist and Pentecostal strands of Christianity, where rejuvenated believers used the romance of the outsider to transform their isolation and separatism into strengths, markers of difference reworked into sources of power.

White middle-class Americans imagined people living on the margins, without economic or political or social privilege, as possessing something vital, some essential quality that had somehow been lost from their own lives. They often found this depth of meaning and feeling in what they took to be the expressive culture of black people, but other outsiders served as well. However the margins and center were defined, the key imaginative act was the “discovery” of difference. These encounters with outsiders enabled some middle-class whites to cut themselves free of their own social origins and their own histories and in identifying with these others to imaginatively regain what they understood as previously lost values and feelings. They remade themselves. They became outsiders too. The romance of the outsider spread throughout American culture because it provided an imaginary resolution for an intractable mid-century cultural and political conflict, the contradiction between the desire for self-determination and autonomy and the desire for a grounded, morally and emotionally meaningful life. Politically supple, it registered people’s conflicting longings for affective, aesthetic, and social freedoms and yet also for social and historical connections.

By the end of the twentieth century, the romance of the outsider had become so pervasive that few scholars questioned how odd and uncanny it was, how historically unprecedented, to understand politically and economically enfranchised people as marginal and alienated. A critical mass of white middle-class Americans had developed alternative measures of the relationship

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