Rebel rebel

Scholar Grace Elizabeth Hale traces the strange history of American outsiderdom

By J. Gabriel Boylan
February 13, 2011

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The rebel, the loner, the iconoclast. For decades, America has had an almost romantic relationship with the idea of visiting the wrong side of the tracks, rejecting the mainstream, and living as an outsider. Once this may have seemed threatening; today, the outsider pose is so deeply woven into our commercial and political life that we barely notice it. Think of the scripted bad-boy stylings of pop stars, the ripped jeans at Baby Gap, the pro-business politicians running as “outsider” candidates.

And yet the impulse endures. You could say that this country began in revolt, so it’s natural that we’d mythologize freedom and liberty. But in fact, this modern “outsiderdom” has a clear history in American culture. Its roots in 19th-century minstrel shows ultimately led to the postwar genesis of rock and roll, to leather jackets and Elvis’s swaying hips, and onward through countless greasers, bohemians, folkies, punks, burnouts, and goths. Along the way, the outsider ideal has fed social, political, and religious movements from Students for a Democratic Society to William Buckley, the Jesus People to Jerry Falwell.

So how did we get from juvenile delinquents to “outsider” senators in business suits? Historian Grace Elizabeth Hale tells the story of this evolution in her new book, “A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle-Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America” (Oxford University Press). Hale, a University of Virginia professor, traces the role of the outsider and examines its seductive appeal to an increasingly prosperous and bourgeois society, and the growing social usefulness of appearing to be the rebel.

She spoke to Ideas from her home office in Virginia and via e-mail.

IDEAS: How did you first become interested in outsiders?

HALE: When I went off to college at the University of Georgia, REM was playing for free, and the Athens counterculture was all the rage. As a freshman, I came across a guy at a rickety card table with a hand-lettered poster board that said “God Is Dead” passing out pamphlets about atheism. I ended up joining a band and playing music and owning a restaurant/music venue and being part of that world. But at the same time watching people slide off the edge of sanity, particularly through drug abuse.

IDEAS: You start the story way before that — with minstrelsy.

HALE: Minstrelsy is a form of popular theatrical entertainment — skits, dances, songs, and even plays, performed in blackface. It grew up in the places where black and white working-class Americans met in bars and on docks and streets. Whites copied the moves, gestures, and sounds of the black people all around them. It was the beginning, in any organized way, of the long history of white Americans’ attraction to and playing with what they think of as black expressive culture, what I call “acting black.” In its moment of origin in the 1830s and 1840s, it can best be described in Eric Lott’s brilliant phrase as “love and theft.”

IDEAS: And how does that ultimately lead to rock and roll?

HALE: Because so many people were attracted to the music as liberatory and transgressive. But this encounter with African-American music does in fact teach a lot of people that this difference is there, and that it’s interesting. Do they caricature that difference? Sure, it’s not a perfectly positive encounter, but there is a form of identification.

IDEAS: But were early rock musicians or their fans aware of the caricaturing?

HALE: Musicians like Elvis were aware of what they were doing, and of not really portraying some legitimate version of black experience, and I think many listeners understood that, especially those who had real world contact with African Americans. And black musicians who achieved some fame and success, like Chuck Berry, they understood what they were doing, so it was very self-conscious on their part. It’s like rap music. Sure there are young people who see this gangster story as the truth, but most people have a sense of this as a story we’re all participating in.

IDEAS: Folk musicians, who seem obsessed with authenticity, do the same thing.

HALE: Dylan would be a perfect example of that, I mean growing up in a small town in Minnesota? This was his only escape and his only vision of black people. And by the ’50s there’s all these discussions in folk music magazines, “How do we perform this music authentically?”...And what comes out is that having an emotional relationship to the music is what is key, not having actually grown up and lived a hobo life, and this feeling allows white middle-class people to move past their not very well-articulated race and class identities and connect themselves to these people who seem to be living a more liberated or liberating life.

IDEAS: Is the kind of rebellion you write about particularly attractive to Americans?

HALE: I don’t think the attraction to outsiders and outsider myths is particularly American, as the Romantic writers (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Goethe) played a large role in creating the myth that people on the margins of society where somehow more “real.”

IDEAS: Is this desire for authenticity passé? So much of the culture we experience is now a highly developed commercial product.

HALE: People complained about this in the 1920s when records began to be mass produced, that it was ruining music. Music is often a part of mass culture and yet at the same time, through these various cycles, people find within it a space for pushing back against mass culture. And I remember living this in Athens, and people who were just so alternative, they prided themselves on how hard-core they could be, and yet their greatest desire in life was to get a record deal.

IDEAS: It’s interesting that today, there’s space on both the political left and the right to identify as outsiders.

HALE: From William Buckley forward, those on the right feel themselves as political outsiders for a fairly long period, starting with FDR.

IDEAS: Buckley came to seem like a quintessential conservative insider. What was his outsider strategy?

HALE: As an undergrad at Yale, William Buckley cultivated an oppositional style, pitting his conservatism and Catholicism against what he saw as the liberal orthodoxy of the campus. He developed this idea of the liberal elite, and his rebellion against it in his first book, “God and Man at Yale,” published soon after he graduated, almost single-handedly develops the model of the conservative rebel.

IDEAS: And even as conservatives have built mass constituencies, they still hang onto the notion of outsiderism.

HALE: Well I mean George W. Bush, the son of a president, went to a fancy prep school and then to Harvard and Yale, and yet was able to put on his cowboy boots, buy a ranch, and sell himself as an outsider...And then of course out of the moral majority and the movement of conservative Christians into Republican politics, you have other groups separating themselves within that group, the militia movement, the antiabortion activists, first nonviolent and then violent, so there’s always a way to step back from that group of outsiders and define oneself as the real rebels.

J. Gabriel Boylan is an assistant editor of Harper’s Magazine.