Anyone wanting to know when “going rogue” became fashionable would do well to read this book.
What did the actor James Dean have to do with the Baptist founder of the Moral Majority Jerry Falwell? In her artfully rendered study, Grace Elizabeth Hale portrays a connection brimming with cultural significance. Her new book, A Nation of Outsiders, opens with two questions. Why, in the second half of the twentieth century, did so many white, middleclass Americans, the majority of them youth, liken themselves to “outsiders”? And, second, what were the effects of this identification on American culture and society? In her hunt for answers, Hale could have stuck with the stock figures of midcentury rebellion—the Deans and the Presleys. But instead she widened the orbit, encompassing a range of characters, not only Dean and Falwell, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer, but also the neo-conservative William F. Buckley and the folk singers Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie, as well as Vietnam protestors, leaders of Students for a Democratic Society and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Jesus People, Hippies, Yippies, and radical New Right activists. The lineup is impressive, as is the choreography. The author casts fresh light on the storied New Left and Sixties student movement. She illuminates as well convergences between the Civil Rights Movement and the folk music revival (this is the best part of the book, making it alone worth the price). Not least, though, she also manages a provocative contribution to studies in American conservatism, a once-negligible field of inquiry that is grandly rewriting how we conceive of the last half century-plus of U.S. history. (Anyone wanting to know when “going rogue” became fashionable would do well to read this book.)
Why were so many Americans attracted to those living beyond the pale of middle-class white society? Hale maintains that marginal figures were objects of affection in part because whites simply had greater physical and virtual access through media proliferation (photographic journalism, radio, television) and tourism. More important than access, though, was, she argues, psychological need. As she explains it, whites fell in love with the exotic and the primitive (chiefly African Americans) because they saw in their marginal status a way out of the iron cage of “mass” middle-class modernity, with all of its anxiety-producing contradictions. To be white and middle class was to be “phony.” Outsiders, on the other hand, were perceived as “authentic,” rooted, uninhibited, inextricably different. Even when these social outliers mixed with modernity, they seemed capable of containing it or holding its contradictions at bay. Disaffected whites believed that by simply appropriating outsiders’ dress, slang, music, habits, gestures, and lifestyles—by wiggling their hips, while singing their blues—they could magically self-disassociate from families, communities, social origins, and histories; they could live outside postwar, middle-class time and space and create new, sturdier identities for themselves.
That Americans were fascinated with the Other is not the original argument of this book. What is provocative is Hale’s claim that the insider-outsider relationship was, and is, driven by love. By that, she has in mind not the model love that two consensual adults express in the privacy of a bedroom. No, the sort of romance chronicled in this book is either unrequited or nonconsensual, driven by fantasy and narcissism, an objectification of the outsider for selfish gain. Significantly, chapter one opens with a prolonged examination of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, specifically honing in on Salinger’s mordant critique of middle-class “phoniness.” Starting with this classic work of fiction fixes Hale’s analysis in a well-worn critique of American capitalism. Yet it also has a secondary effect. As Hale reminds us, the prep-school dropout Holden Caulfield, Catcher’s protagonist, “refuses to grow up.” Focusing on Salinger imbues the romance with an air of irrationality. In other words, it is not mature. It is not considered. At best it is a self-absorbed dalliance that can never be consummated in a non-self-aggrandizing partnership. The confusion of intemperate hormones is the best-case interpretation of Caulfield’s infatuation, for, as Hale demonstrated very well in her first book, Making Whiteness, there is another, darker reading of Caulfield’s attraction to prostitutes and Village musicians.
In this reading, the romance with outsiders is more calculatedly sinister and more culpable, driven not by innocent infatuation, but by a cruel fantasy of sexual and racial domination. While careful not to reduce America’s romance simply to the perpetuation of sexualized racism, Hale skirts suggestively close throughout much of her study and in certain places makes the charge quite explicitly. The author cuts between the suggestive and the explicit by recurring to a critical cultural theory that was popularized toward the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s around the late-Lawrence Levine school of American studies, known as “blackface minstrelsy.” Minstrelsy was a commonplace, nineteenth-century entertainment that entailed whites taking to the stage to “act” black. White performers, to be more specific, would blacken their faces, don wigs, and suit up in baggy, ill-fitting clothes to act out caricatures (denigrating fantasies) of imagined blackness. These showmen and women, who were often only lighter skinned immigrants, were not merely entertaining unaware white audiences, cultural studies scholars have argued. Performers in blackface were simultaneously masking their own precarious social status while reproducing and “enacting” America’s dominant, racialized social hierarchy. In an era of ascendant Jim Crowism, minstrelsy worked, then, like a social hand in a cultural glove, buttressing the supremacy of whites. Following her University of Virginia colleague Eric Lott, Hale drops the black greasepaint and shoe polish and brings minstrelsy up-to-date, applying this cultural theory of white aggrandizement to wide swaths of the more recent American past.
Had Hale curtailed her analysis to self-described “whiteNegros,” to borrow Mailer’s phrase—had she restricted herself to whiteface, blackacting performers like Presley and Kerouac—her study of America’s romance with outsiders would be less contestable. But she ventures a more ambitious claim, one that ends up tarring all sorts of actors with the taint of minstrelsy. To be sure, race factored into America’s attraction to outsiders. Yet it cannot adequately explain the country’s mid-twentiethcentury dialectical obsession with conformity and rebellion. Mailer was notorious before “The White Negro” for having written a heralded, sardonic war novel. It contains some rather coruscating dialogue expressly on the topic of phoniness and predates Catcher. Any explanation of the conformity-rebellion dialectic would have to consider World War II, a “total war” that altered the sociocultural landscape for blacks no less than whites (one could argue even more so for fueling the Civil Rights Movement). A Nation of Outsiders has little to say about this or any other big structural development, relying instead on C. Wright Mills’s belated critique of American corporatism. Just as race cannot sufficiently capture the socio-cultural complexities of rebellion, neither on a more intimate level can love or romance. Psychoanalysis in critical theory has made a demonstrable resurgence of late. While the rapprochement has been beneficial for the humanities, with it comes a temptation that befell an earlier generation of psychoculturalists, namely, that of attributing the irretrievable, the incoherent, and the inexpressible to irrationality. Certainly love played a role in this “romance,” as Hale ably demonstrates. Nevertheless, a panoply of emotions, not merely affection, fueled America’s incongruous feelings toward rebellion. Rage and reason were factors, too. With corpses smoldering in Southeast Asian jungles and black bodies being hosed down on white Southern streets, clear-minded folk on both the Left and Right were, to quote Network’s Howard Beale, “MAD AS HELL.” Rebellion was as much a calculated renunciation of institutions and values as it was a romantic embrace of the marginal; it was as much a political tactic as it was a heartfelt longing. Although A Nation of Outsiders is constrained by its author’s commitment to race and romance, it is, nonetheless, an admirable work of finely rendered scholarship. It deserves to be read and read widely.