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

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

by Grace Elizabeth Hale
     
 

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At mid-century, Americans increasingly fell in love with characters like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and Marlon Brando's Johnny in The Wild One, musicians like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and activists like the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These emotions enabled some middle-class whites to cut free of their own histories and

Overview

At mid-century, Americans increasingly fell in love with characters like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and Marlon Brando's Johnny in The Wild One, musicians like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and activists like the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These emotions enabled some middle-class whites to cut free of their own histories and identify with those who, while lacking economic, political, or social privilege, seemed to possess instead vital cultural resources and a depth of feeling not found in "grey flannel" America.

In this wide-ranging and vividly written cultural history, Grace Elizabeth Hale sheds light on why so many white middle-class Americans chose to re-imagine themselves as outsiders in the second half of the twentieth century and explains how this unprecedented shift changed American culture and society. Love for outsiders launched the politics of both the New Left and the New Right. From the mid-sixties through the eighties, it flourished in the hippie counterculture, the back-to-the-land movement, the Jesus People movement, and among fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians working to position their traditional isolation and separatism as strengths. It changed the very meaning of "authenticity" and "community."

Ultimately, the romance of the outsider provided a creative resolution to an intractable mid-century cultural and political conflict-the struggle between the desire for self-determination and autonomy and the desire for a morally meaningful and authentic life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wide ranging and engagingly written, A Nation of Outsiders is one of the most provocative works in post-World War II U.S. history published in recent years." —Journal of American History

"A Nation of Outsiders is smart, insightful, and politically astute. Grace Hale's analysis of the 'romance of the outsider' is necessary reading for anyone who has ever wondered about the meaning of our national obsession with 'authenticity'-as well as for anyone who might be curious about what Jerry Falwell and Holden Caulfield have in common."—Beth Bailey, Temple University

"In addition to telling a wealth of perceptively rendered stories, Grace Hale understands, as do few historians, that American rebels should neither be understood simply, with empathy, on their own terms nor viewed, often condescendingly, by the mainstream social order. No one before has woven these individual narratives into a larger analysis of how white middle-class rebels both rejected, in romantic ways, what they took to be established, oppressive norms while also helping to generate a more flexible, more profitable consumer society. In so doing, Hale makes A Nation of Outsiders required reading for anyone curious about the role and definition of rebellion in recent U.S. history."—Michael Kazin, Georgetown University

"A Nation of Outsiders provides a provocative and lively addition to the growing sense that postwar America was far less homogenous and consensual than the white bread postwar suburban stereotype suggests. Grace Elizabeth Hale carries her story forward to suggest how some of this 'rebellion' has cropped up in new and unexpected places in contemporary America. An important correction to the notion that the spirit of rebellion was limited to the 1960s or confined to those on the left."—Alexander Bloom, co-editor of Takin' to the Streets: A Sixties Reader

"For a nation whose history is so deeply saturated by white supremacy, Americans have paid an awful lot of attention to the disaffections of a wide array of self-proclaimed white outsiders and underdogs. Grace Elizabeth Hale provides a rich and intelligent account of how alienated-often fully aggrieved-marginality became the mainstream in post-war U.S. culture, from Holden Caulfield, the Beats, and the new minstrelsy of rock 'n' roll, to William F. Buckley and the white grievances of the Moral Majority. It's as if white Americans across the political spectrum had been rehearsing responses to the Obama presidency for two generations. This is an important book, not only for what it says about our past, but what it suggests about our present and our future as well."—Matthew Frye Jacobson, author of Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America

"A sweeping, thought-provoking study of America's postwar political and cultural counterculture...This polemic offers a refreshing take on recent cultural history." —Publishers Weekly

"Smart new study of post-1950 American rebelliousness...a helpful addition to our understanding of the American left." — The American Prospect

"Original and insightful study." — The Wall Street Journal

"A work that displays an astonishing amount of research, a tour-de-force narrative summary of 20th century events as diverse as the civil rights movement, the New Left, the New Right and the Jesus People." — Washington Times

Publishers Weekly
Hale (Making Whiteness) explores the mainstreaming of outsider status in a sweeping, thought-provoking study of America's postwar political and cultural counterculture. Although Americans have a history of appropriating from minorities, from the 1950s on white Americans began identifying with them, imagining that "people living on the margins, without economic or political or social privilege, something vital, some essential quality that had somehow been lost from their own lives." Like Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac, the white middle class borrowed the black and working class blues and critical stance toward the establishment. "Rebellion" went mainstream and lent romance, moral weight, and authenticity to movements as diverse as beat literature, rock and roll, the Jesus Freak movement, even prolife activism. Hale is able to explain, at least partially, the failure of so many 20th-century social movements: fantasies about the authenticity or purity of blacks or the poor became more persuasive than doing the "hard work of creating a system of economic justice." While sometimes slow-moving and too secure in the validity of its central argument, this polemic offers a refreshing take on recent cultural history. (Mar.)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199314584
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
04/17/2014
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
404
Sales rank:
1,198,442
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Grace Elizabeth Hale is Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940.

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