Reading from a different angle

Courtesy SparklingAdventures.com

Courtesy SparklingAdventures.com

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?

9780060243647_xlgDown-These-Mean-Streets-9780679781424Because 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.

-BR

The Outsiders: “For Teenagers, About Teenagers, Written by a Teenager”

The OutsidersAccording to a New York Times essay written by Dale Peck in 2007, The Outsiders was an instant hit when published in 1967 and has remained an all-time best seller for more than forty years. I believe that these facts say a great deal.

Although The Outsiders has been criticized for its “sometimes workmanlike prose” and intermittent clichés, such as, perhaps, the novel turning out to be Ponyboy’s crucial English theme, these elements might also be considered those which make the novel authentically Y.A. (Peck, 2007). That is, because The Outsiders was written for teenagers, about teenagers and by a teenager, it is distinctly reflective of the adolescent experience. In fact, the authenticity resulting from these circumstances is said to have profoundly influenced subsequent Y.A. works because after the publication of The Outsiders, young readers began to insist that Y.A. fiction mirror their realities. This meant that from 1967 on, Y.A. fiction would not only need to recount the teenage experience, but recount it in a voice that rang true to young readers.

As for the so-called clichés, these may be considered amateurish, or they may be considered reimaginings of various aspects of quintessential American stories (think “Rebel Without a Cause” and “West Side Story”). And given that the novel’s author, S. E. Hinton, was only fifteen when she began writing the novel, the term “amateurish” hardly packs a punch. No matter what its toughest critics say, the popularity of The Outsiders speaks for itself. Hinton has clearly given the people what they wanted.

-SD