Young, Rebellious, and White

Young, Rebellious, and White

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

by Grace Elizabeth Hale
Oxford University Press, 2011, 386 pp.

CULTURAL REBELLION is at the center of American history and has intersected with politics, sometimes in weird ways. In A Nation of Outsiders, Grace Elizabeth Hale, a cultural historian at the University of Virginia, argues that during the 1950s the white middle class of this country “fell in love” with rebellion. She’s right. The typical depiction of the 1950s as a decade of smiling, conformist, Valium-dazed “men in gray flannel suits” and “Tupperware women” isn’t accurate. Hale reminds readers of the popularity of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951) and how its central character Holden Caulfield’s condemnation of the “phony” was shared by C. Wright Mills’s critique of alienated white-collar workers. But unlike Mills, who might have dreamed of political engagement, Caulfield’s popularity was due in large part to his apoliticalness. “What Holden offered readers,” Hale tells us, “with his slangy language and his not-exactly-going-anywhere-life,” was a way to embrace “rebellion” not as “an act” but as “an expression of the inner life” and “feeling.”

And so it was for so many other rebels of the 1950s: James Dean, whose inarticulateness and surging emotions are perfected on screen in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), or Marlon Brando’s lunkheaded character in The Wild One (1953) who, when asked what he’s rebelling against with his fellow gang of bikers, answers, “What ya got?” White boy rebels were everywhere in 1950s America. Consider Elvis Presley, who, as Hale shows, liked to rip off the black blues tradition for the benefit of white audiences who watched Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan on the boob tube (it would have been more interesting for Hale to deal with the ramifications of the fact that two white Jewish kids wrote “Hound Dog,” originally performed by the black artist Big Mama Thornton, before Elvis covered it, making the story of racial expropriation more complex than first appears). And, can anyone who reads Dissent forget about that great rebel author Norman Mailer, who published in these pages in 1957 his infamous essay “The White Negro”? Irving Howe would come to regret that editorial decision, but Mailer’s essay established a crucial pattern of thought that Hale discusses astutely—an association of “blacks” with “unfettered sexuality,” a cry against “repression,” and a belief that “violence could be a kind of agency, a natural ‘high,’ one possible way in which an outsider could experience a heady sense of power.” And, oh yes, don’t forget the “beatniks” and the popularity of On the Road (1957), in which Jack Kerouac recounts the joys of traveling across the continent, going into black sections of D...