Rebels With an Attitude

A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love With Rebellion in Postwar America, Grace Elizabeth Hale, Oxford University Press, 386 pages, $29.95

Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, John McMillian Oxford University Press, 277 pages, $27.95

Around 1950, Americans began to see signs of a new kind of discontent. A generation of young rebels started popping up in fiction and films -- Holden Caulfield, the characters played by Marlon Brando and James Dean -- who were fleeing from or revolting against the phoniness of American life and white middle-class adulthood.

America's iconic heroes had always included plenty of rebels, going clear back to the nation's founders, but white middle-class American adulthood wasn't what bothered them. Brando's and Dean's predecessors included weary figures like Humphrey Bogart's characters and anarchic tough guys like James Cagney's. They weren't young, and they had nothing against middle-class whites per se.

Nobody -- and that includes Grace Elizabeth Hale in her smart new study of post-1950 American rebelliousness -- has definitively identified the reasons behind this new kind of ferment. Surely it has something to do with the triumph of New Deal economics, which was creating, for the first time, a nation with a middle-class majority. Surely it has something to do with the rise of a bureaucratic, professional -- and to some, denatured -- class even as the nation's agricultural and manufacturing sectors shrank.

The ferment among the young also surely had something to do with the growth of a youth market -- teenagers with sufficient discretionary income to support artists and entertainers who spoke specifically to them. Young middle-class whites, Hale says, "learned to use mass culture to critique mass culture." And for the first time, Hale continues, they sought models of authenticity from outside their own ranks -- from African Americans and poor rural whites in particular. The young Elvis, she notes, appropriated the look, movements, sensibilities, and songs of black musicians ("Hound Dog" had been Big Mama Thornton's rollicking lament of her man's infidelity) to invent an identity and a sound that thrilled white teens. Brando, Dean, and the Elvis of "Love Me Tender" "created a new model of the white male hero as a blackened and feminized outsider who expresses his feelings and desires."

The attraction that outsider (chiefly, black) authenticity held for the white middle class, Hale argues, is crucial for understanding much of postwar liberalism and the white New Left in particular. Her perspective is particularly helpful in charting the New Left's evolution after whites were expelled in 1966 from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had been the primary organization bringing together young black and white leftists. The white New Left thereafter not only intensified its focus on opposing the Vietnam War but also identified itself with Third World revolutionary movements. Radicals even redefined young whites as an outcast vanguard unto themselves, as Jerry Farber did in a classic of the period, his 1967 article "The Student as Nigger."

Hale's argument is a helpful addition to our understanding of the American left, but she also applies it unconvincingly to the postwar American right. To be sure, unlike such earlier conservatives as Robert Taft and Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley had a playful and rebellious air. The American establishment had moved just enough to the left (there's that New Deal again) so that a young conservative could rail against it. But Buckley wasn't upset with white middle-class life. Hale lumps such latter-day right-wingers as the Young Americans for Freedom and even anti-abortionist Randall Terry into this anti-liberal-establishment rebellion, but the nuance that made her dissection of the left so resonant is missing here. The causes and role models embraced by the postwar young and the New Left were, in fact, new and distinctive, but those that the postwar right upheld were decidedly more conventional. At least as far back as Lexington and Concord, Americans have been claiming the mantle of rebellion, but while some are genuine revolutionaries, most are retreads.

***

Jerry Farber's "The Student as Nigger" first appeared in the Los Angeles Free Press, probably the single most successful underground paper of the 1960s. The Freep, as it was called, was the creation of Art Kunkin, a onetime Trotskyist who was two decades older than the '60s kids (like me) who read the paper every week for its radical politics, rock coverage, and hot photos. Unlike the Los Angeles Times, the Freep actually explained the roots of the Watts Riots and avidly chronicled the rise of the rock-youth culture on the Sunset Strip.

The Freep was almost surely the best of the radical underground papers whose rise and fall historian John McMillian chronicles in Smoking Typewriters. McMillian's subject is specifically the New Left generation of the 1960s (Kunkin is the sole exception). There's not much here on The Village Voice, which pioneered 1950s left liberalism, or the alternative papers, like the Boston Phoenix, the Chicago Reader, or the L.A. Weekly, which came along a little later. McMillian instead tells the story of the Underground Press Syndicate and Liberation News Service and how the factional fights of the New Left divided and sometimes dissolved their newspapers. He takes the reader inside the organizations, describing how frequently stoned the reporters (and publishers) were and how FBI agents, acting on J. Edgar Hoover's orders, called on printers and told them not to publish the papers. Yet McMillian makes clear how much fun it was for the journalist-activists to put out these weeklies despite the threats and occasional violence they faced. Smoking Typewriters may not deepen our understanding of the '60s, but it does provide a lively chronicle of the dedication, ecstasies, nuttiness, pathologies, and generational cockiness of the 1960s left that the decade's underground press reported and embodied.

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