BOOK REVIEW: Romancing the outsider

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By Grace Elizabeth Hale
Oxford University Press, $29.95, 386 pages, illustrated

Grace Elizabeth Hale’s “A Nation of Outsiders” is two books in one. The first is 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. It’s unusual for academics (Ms. Hale teaches history at the University of Virginia) to take up both the left and the right (usually they prefer the left), and it is even more unexpected when they are fair to both sides, as Ms. Hale is, scrupulously.

Her second subject (which Ms. Hale argues rises out of her first) is alienation in America - feelings of not belonging - and how alienation, particularly that of American males, has played havoc in our history.

Alienation is a familiar theme in American writing at least as old as Henry David Thoreau, who declared that most men live lives of “quiet desperation.” It made more recent appearances (always as indictments) in such works as Philip Slater’s “The Pursuit of Loneliness” (1970) and Robert D. Putnam’s 1995 “Bowling Alone.”

Ms. Hale makes clear much of her book’s subject matter in its long subtitle: “How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America.” She sees the rebellion she writes about taking serious root in the 1950s. Americans had become wealthier than ever before. But the young began to feel estranged - alienated - and to denounce their parents’ lives as inauthentic - without meaning.

As Ms. Hale shows, inauthenticity was a central theme of much of the literature the young read at midcentury (and continue to read). Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 “The Catcher in the Rye,” found the adults he met to be “phonies” and wished the world free of phoniness.

Six years later, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” took as its credo true freedom came from the absence of all white, middle-class convention.

And it was during the 1950s and 1960s, Ms. Hale writes, that alienated whites began to see black Americans as authentic in ways their own white parents were not.

The Civil Rights Movement aided the white discovery of blacks. So did the growing love among young whites for black music and for Elvis Presley, whose own songs and style had deep roots in black music.

What was happening, in Ms. Hale’s words, was that many Americans had begun their “romance of the outsider,” a solution for their feelings of alienation.

Outsiders - blacks, the urban white poor, and anti-American Third World movements - now were regarded as worthy of respect and imitation, while white American insiders deserved only contempt.

For Ms. Hale this template works too for William F. Buckley and his followers who, alienated from an increasingly leftist and secular America (she claims), fell for the “romance of the outsider” and founded their own way of being - outsiders.

Indeed, Ms. Hale sees these same forces at work - the desire to play the outsider and thereby earn authenticity - in bringing the young into the radical and violent Weathermen, to Christian fundamentalism, the Jesus People, the pro-life movement and much else.

By this time Ms. Hale has gone too far, and stretched the meaning of her “romance of the outsider” to cover almost everything that happened between 1950 and 2000.

This is to cast off nuance and detail, often the most interesting parts of history.

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