Our class recently discussed S E Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), considering it in the light of Erik Erikson’s views (1963) on American identity, which he believes developed under the pressures of various “polarities”: individualism vs. loyalty to the community, hard vs. soft (“better a sinner than a sucker”), etc. If you’ve read Hinton’s breakout novel, published when she was just 17 years old, you know Ponyboy’s struggles as he negotiates the embattled line between the Greasers and the Socs.
It’s a popular book, riffing off of West Side Story, The Wild Ones, Rebel Without a Cause and other outsider/insider texts. Hinton’s novel highlights the lower-class and middle-class divide: what kind of cars the members of the two gangs own, where they live, where they hang out, what they wear. To modern readers, the divide is visible, felt, continually contested. There is no DMZ, only “our turf” and “their turf”.
Which brings me to my point. While Erikson allows us to see Ponyboy’s struggle as a metaphor for every American’s struggle, it’s a monochromatic and monogendered struggle. That is, Hinton’s characters (and Erikson’s examples) are all white and mostly male.
Do modern teens, living in a more integrated country (albeit still haunted by racism and its consequences), notice the missing people? Is it enough to argue that Hinton’s purpose was NOT to address issues of race or gender? Is there any benefit in asking students to consider the novel from the stance of a woman or a person of color?
Because my job requires me to think about diversity – among the teachers in my courses and their current and future students – I read with such questions in mind. It may be that the way to make the omissions visible is to pair Hinton’s book with something like Walter Dean Myers’ Scorpions, featuring African American and Puerto Rican characters. Set in Harlem the 1980s, Myers’ novel is closer to the experiences of students in NYC classrooms. Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets is another, perhaps even more interesting option, since it was published the same year as The Outsiders.
Whichever book I select, it will at least address one part of diversity, helping readers to see and wonder about what’s missing.