The rise of the romantic rebel in postwar America.
If the television series “Mad Men” confirms anything about Americans, it is that they like to read mid-20th-century cultural history as allegory. Righteous rebellion (the 1960s) confronts small-minded conformity (the 1950s) and all hell breaks loose. Those who prefer more nuance in their sense of the past would do well to take up “A Nation of Outsiders,” Grace Elizabeth Hales original and insightful study of (as her subtitle has it) “How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America.”
In Ms. Hales view, the counterculture was already well under way by the time the 1960s began. The success of J.D. Salingers 1951 novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” signaled a public restlessness with the comforts and supposed “phoniness” of middle-class life. Throughout the decade, Jack Kerouac, the Beats, James Dean (“Rebel Without a Cause”), Marlon Brando (“The Wild One”) and other such iconic figures suggested that something was rotten in the state of mainstream America.
The new rebels looked to the countrys outsiders to clarify their own feelings of alienation. In this respect, postwar rebellion had roots in 19-century romanticism. In their “Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth and Coleridge had tried to locate hidden human truths in the experience of “people on the margins,” Ms. Hale argues—children, peddlers, miners, even the insane. Kerouac wrote in the same vein though with less literary art: “The only people for me are the mad ones,” announces the hero of “On the Road,” “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk . . . desirous of everything at the same time.” Other rebels, including folk singers like Pete Seeger and, soon enough, back-to-the-land hippies, believed that they spied in rural America the rootedness and authenticity that was being devoured by suburbia and mass culture. Ms. Hale writes that Seeger wept at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 as Bob Dylan, the prince of rebel-outsiders, put aside his acoustic guitar for electric; the older folkie saw a betrayal of romantic ideals.
For better and worse, the outsider most appealing to the postwar romantic rebel was the African- American. In 1957, Norman Mailer published his infamous essay “The White Negro,” the love song of a middle-class white man to what he viewed as the uninhibited sexuality and visceral emotionality of African- Americans. A growing audience of middle-class whites listened as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters and Little Richard sang of the outsiders suffering and alienation. Black Americans helped to model for the young, as they did for Elvis Presley, a new, more open emotional style, one that came to define the 1960s revolution as much as political protest did.
As Ms. Hale tells it, by translating the outsiders predicament into a medium that the middle-class easily understood, music introduced whites to the South and the civil-rights movement. White college students came to rural Mississippi in the 1964 Freedom Summer to register voters with their guitars under their arms; in true Wordsworthian spirit, they adopted the denim jeans worn by Southern farm workers, soon to be a mainstay in the middle-class American closet. In time, however, the white students identification with the outsider melded into radical politics. Tom Hayden, for instance, read Salinger and Kerouac in high school and tramped around the country before the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto announcing the arrival of the New Left, was a gleam in his eye. “Romanticism and a sense of social justice were often inseparable,” Ms. Hale observes.
One of Ms. Hales most provocative insights is that this youthful romanticism tarnished the struggle for black equality. Despite their privilege, white college students pronounced themselves powerless outsiders, comrades in the fight against an evil establishment. Their romanticism allowed them “to imagine commonalities across race, class, and later gender divisions” that turned out to be nonexistent. Black-power activists who broke away from the civil-rights establishment were in part reacting to their intuition that “whites romanticism was another form of oppression.” As the Vietnam War intensified, some students embraced the violent tendencies of Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael while extending their furious identification with the outsider to the Vietnamese and other Third World people.
Equally provocative—though less convincing—is Ms. Hales claim that conservatives and evangelicals were also outsider rebels. Yes, William F. Buckley deplored the spiritual emptiness of mass culture, and young Christians did re-cast Jesus as a long-haired hippie. But the rhetorical similarities between right and left confuse more than they illuminate. Neither Buckley nor Christian evangelicals were driven by romantic longing. Conservative ambivalence about modernity is inherent in the creed, and Christian alienation from the secular state is as old as the religion itself. The lapse is not surprising. If “A Nation of Outsiders” could be said to suffer from one overall flaw it is that its author is considerably more attuned to culture than politics.
Ms. Hale also misses an opportunity to bring her insights into the present. She mentions outsider- eccentrics like Christopher MacCandless, the hermit- protagonist of the book and movie “Into the Wild,” who starved to death in 1992 in the Alaskan wilderness. A more consequential example would be the followers of identity politics on campus and in the media. Here, as in the case of the 1960s radicals, activists assert their ethnic authenticity in opposition to an alien bourgeois order. That such an example so easily springs to mind reveals the sharpness, if not the breadth, of Ms. Hales argument in “A Nation of Outsiders.”
Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703800204576159322424868998.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEFTTopOpinion