Review – Hale, “A Nation of Outsiders”

My Elvis photo wouldn’t upload so here’s a picture of Mithra

Grace Hale, “A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America” (2011) – This is a reasonably strongly argued book about an interesting subject that I think gets some important things wrong. It asks bigger questions and ranges more widely than is typical for academic works of American history these days. It’s all there in that sentence-length subtitle: how did rebellion become as popular of a cultural stance as it became, especially among a group of people — young middle class whites — who had seemingly every reason to like the postwar order that had showered them with then-unheard of prosperity and freedom?

This isn’t an especially thesis-heavy book- another departure from trends in its space, and for the most part a good one. Hale takes us through various cultural manifestations of rebellion that appealed to white kids between the late forties and the early eighties: “Catcher in the Rye,” folk music, the beat poets, the new conservatism, evangelicalism both of the hippie-fied “Jesus Freak” variety and the more conservative type that the former usually congealed into anyway. In almost all instances, rebellion as an existential posture becomes detached from stable political or social meanings in all of these instances, usually well before they gain mass popularity. These things become politically polysemous, moving people left and right simultaneously in some cases, and most often depoliticizing people by upholding personal authenticity over mass confrontation of power.

So far, so good- it’s funny, in the introduction she specifically cites Tom Frank as one of the people she’s attempting to critique by making more space in her work for genuine rebelliousness of subcultures than he ever did, but several of these chapters could be Baffler articles. That said, I am getting a little tired of this mode and line of inquiry. It’s not like I’ve grown more sanguine about subcultural rebellion as a political force. I just think there’s limits to the story of the late twentieth century’s failed subcultural rebels in terms of explanatory power. But hey- I picked up this book and so knew what it was about. I just thought Hale, the well-respected academic historian, would ask more interesting and thoroughgoing questions than Frank the polemicist. She only did intermittently, and some of the answers were real head-scratchers.

Hale’s first chapter, on folk music, is probably the best, most ambitious, and most closely-argued chapter in the book. She makes some ambitious claims about the nature of performance always angling either for transformation or transcendence. Both imply an escape from self, one by temporarily becoming something else, the other by permanently escaping the plane of selfhood more generally. Heady stuff! She brings some of the cultural historical work about minstrelsy that made such a stir earlier in the millennium into the mix. Minstrelsy was about a lot of things, much of that work argued and Hale does too, but formally it was about transforming on stage, playing with identity and trying on being someone else. Mutatis mutandis, this is also what the folk revivalists of the fifties and sixties did, in Hale’s telling. In our argot, they LARPed being black bluesmen, Appalachia hill folks, rural girls moved to factory towns and singing their laments. Beats and “white negros” ala Norman Mailer did something similar- sought out a mode of rebellion through identity play. All of them, in Hale’s telling, over-complicated matters with authenticity politics — folkies looking for “the real” folk music, despite being New Yorkers with working running water — perhaps a legacy from folk revivalism’s roots in both right- and left-leaning political-cultural projects. But by the time Bob Dylan showed there was fame and money in eschewing all the authenticity stuff — that you could be “authentic” by just being yourself, however contrived that self was, i.e. started selling transcendence — the generation he spoke for was primed for the message.

I think there’s a lot of insight there. I’m also uncomfortable with the way the argument — I get the idea that a lot of arguments in this space do this — seems to relativize the dehumanizing aspects of minstrelsy while simultaneously spreading its logic across the range of pop culture history (and present). Like… blackface was fucked up. I get that it was popular and influential. I get that there’s no neat dividing line between the forms minstrelsy informed, from jazz to cartooning, and minstrelsy. I get that many pop performers, black ones included, continued, and continue, to sell an image of blackness for white consumption after blackface went out of style. But I kind of figure, you know, not painting your face and bugging your eyes out in a cruel dehumanizing parody has to be kind of an important distinction? Like, there was nothing stopping white kids from seeking that out and doing it, as indeed numerous pictures from fraternity parties will affirm, if that’s what it was all about. I think there’s enough of a difference that we can’t just port the logic over to the long history of the blues and from there to it’s fans. Among other things, it seems impossible to enjoy minstrelsy without enjoying its cruelty or partaking of its transformative elements (or more likely, both). That’s not the same with folk or blues (or hip hop, to use another music often put into the same category).

These category confusions and odd, odd conflations dog the work into later and generally less coherent chapters. They become especially tricky when we get into political organizers on both the left and the right. I get that the middle class white kids in SDS were often stupid about race and achingly naive and earnest about seeking personal meaning through community politics. But if you’re going to center your argument about the group on feelings, like the “falling in love” with a certain picture of black and/or working class authenticity that Hale had them experience (based on their letters, admittedly), you need more theoretical fuel in the tank than Hale has in order to explore what that means, otherwise you wind up with “Tom Hayden et al caught feelings, rendering their organizing invalid.” It’s pretty weird to me that she seems almost more to see William Buckley, who far and wide depicted himself as a “revolutionary” against stultifying consensus liberalism, as a more legit rebel than the SDS kids. Or rather, since it was all emotive, performative garbage, easily appropriated by either the right or the left, Buckley wins by being palpably insincere, not woundedly, childishly open and sincere but still tripping over their own dick ala Hayden or Joan Baez.

It gets extra weird when Hale tries to assign political valence, or a lack thereof, to acts of rebellion- or maybe this is just me being sensitive about depictions of Hunter S. Thompson, a writer I admire (I’m also a white blues fan, so). Hale basically tries to wedge Thompson into a Jon Stewart-era version of left-liberalism, fails due to Thompson’s sense of humor, love of guns, and lack of interest in government regulation, and thereby declares him and his rebellions as politically ambiguous. I get that right-wingers can and have admired Thompson and hijacked his work. But his own opinions were clear, and it’s anachronism to claim them for anything other than (an arguably under-theorized, homegrown version of) the left- of fighting power and distributing it downwards. He probably wasn’t the best role model as an organizer, but, and I say this as something of an organizing snob… a lot of people weren’t, back then, including organizers who became legends. And the only thing Thompson wanted to be was a writer, not an organizer.

Basically, I think my problem here is that Hale hits on close to home targets, but doesn’t really hit them that well. The blues/folk/blackface stuff is at least pretty sophisticated abd deeply read, even if I think she basically pursued a blind alley- it was a popular one, for a while, might still be around Culture Studies, if that’s still a thing (“in this economy?!”). I think she would need considerably better definitions of terms and more sensitive readings, though, to render SDS and YDF equally emotive and useless, and to make HST — a guy who shot himself to death in part because his country re-elected George W. Bush — a right-winger. I’m making this book sound like it’s awful. It’s not! Especially the stuff on folk authenticity politics and the Jesus Freak movement is pretty good, and shows a sophistication that seems to disappear in other areas. It’s odd! But I don’t know… still basically mostly good even if I disagree with it? ****

Review – Hale, “A Nation of Outsiders”

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