A Nation of Outsiders

Paul Harvey

Sometimes I like to take note of books here which don’t fall into the category of American religious history in some formal sense, but which address religious/cultural themes in ways that are fresh and innovative. Today we have such a text, just published with Oxford: Grace Hale’s A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America. Kaye Hymowitz reviews it here for the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post discusses it here.

The author has been at work on this book a long time, and it’s worth the wait (I read a previous rough draft of the book manuscript a couple of years ago and am going off that; I think nothing drastically changed between then and its publication this year). I admit I preferred the original title of this manuscript before it got changed for the book. Originally it was titled Rebel, Rebel: Outsiders in Twentieth Century America. I loved the multiple signifiers of Rebel there. Oh well, it looks like the publishers wanted one of those “how” subtitles that so many books have now.

More important are the wide-ranging connections Grace Hale draws between romanticism, a sense of alienation and outsiderism, and cultural politics through the twentieth century. The “New Left” and the “New Right” (both very old now) both receive extensive attention, as do writers ranging from Norman Mailer and Elizabeth Bishop to Bob Dylan to William F. Buckley. Hale writes compellingly of the central role musical desires for “authenticity” played in shaping 1960s culture. “Romanticism and a sense of social justice were inseparable,” Hale says, and that romanticism came not just from some sense of alienation from conformist 1950s America, but from much older roots in the Romantic period. As Hymowitz writes in the review:

The new rebels looked to the country's 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.

Of great relevance for this blog are the last two chapters, one on the Christian right generally (with a broad conceptual map of what constitutes Christian right there, including William F. Buckley, Jerry Falwell, Jesus People, and others from all over the spectrum), and another more specifically on Operation Rescue.

Book description from Oxford:

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.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Outsiders and Rebels
Part I: Learning to Love Outsiders
Chapter 1: Lost Children of Plenty: Growing Up as Rebellion
Chapter 2: Rebel Music: Minstrelsy, Rock and Roll, and Beat Writing
Chapter 3: Black as Folk: The Folk Music Revival, the Civil Rights Movement, and Bob Dylan
Chapter 4: Rebels on the Right: Conservatives as Outsiders in Liberal America
Part II: Romance in Action
Chapter 5: The New White Negroes in Action: Students for a Democratic Society, the Economic Research and Action Project, and Freedom Summer
Chapter 6: Too Much Love: Black Power and the Search for Other Outsiders
Chapter 7: The Making of Christian Countercultures: God's Outsiders from the Jesus People to Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority
Chapter 8: Rescue: Christian Outsiders in Action in the Pro-Life Movement
Conclusion: The Cost of Rebellion


Anonymous said…
wow, looks like a great book; can't wait to read it!