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Tri Bun Ella

Tri Bun Ella

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AbstractThe Outsidersif often credited with marking the emergence of YA liter-

ature. It was written by a teenager and was intended to represent honestly the dif\ufb01cult lives of other young adults. Despite the novel\u2019s audience and purpose and its potentially provocative acknowledgment of the problems of social class,The Outsiders was readily institutionalized as part of school reading lists and educational curricula throughout the United States. Its institutionalization can be accounted for in part by the way it offers a palliative to the problems it depicts. The protagonist, Ponyboy, represents the novel itself as an intervention into those problems, but it works to reaf\ufb01rm a notion of rugged individualism and a faith in American education. Such lessons ultimately disarm the novel\u2019s class critique and render it safe for educational institutions.

KeywordsS.E. Hinton\u00c6The Outsiders \u00c6 Educational use of literature\u00c6 Social class\u00c6
In 2001Publisher\u2019s Weekly reported that S.E. Hinton\u2019sThe Outsiders ranked second
in its list of all-time bestselling children\u2019s paperbacks, behind only E.B. White\u2019s
Charlotte\u2019s Web. Its relative longevity is fueled no doubt by its frequent inclusion on

summer reading lists and its widespread use in secondary school classrooms. This raises the question of why the novel has attained such a prominent place in the canon of instructional \ufb01ction. Given that this is a novel written for young adults by a teenager frustrated with the failure of literature to represent the \u2018\u2018grittier\u2019\u2019 elements of adolescence, it might be surprising that it is now safely ensconced on approved reading lists for schools throughout the United States. This fact signals its endorse- ment by the very adults who embody authority and establishment. What is it about the novel that lends it to this kind of cultural legitimacy and institutionalization? Some

E. L. Tribunella (&)
Department of English, The University of Southern Mississippi, 118 College Dr. #5037,
Hattiesburg, MS 39406, USA
e-mail: Eric.Tribunella@usm.edu

Children\u2019s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87\u2013101
DOI 10.1007/s10583-006-9016-2
InstitutionalizingThe Outsiders: YA Literature, Social
Class, and the American Faith in Education
Eric L. Tribunella
Published online: 13 June 2006
\u00d3Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

might argue thatThe Outsiders was introduced into secondary schools merely because of its simple language and plot, its usefulness in exploring the conventions of the novel, its acceptably sanitary references to sex and violence, or its presumable appeal to young adults (Wilder & Teasley,1998, p. 42). These factors alone, however, are not suf\ufb01cient to account for why Hinton\u2019s novel has resonated so powerfully in American culture and with American educators. I want to propose that the educational can- onization ofThe Outsiders is enabled in part by the fact that, although it tantalizes audiences with the relatively rare acknowledgement of social class as a problem, the novel offers a safe and undisruptive palliative for class inequality and the endemic malaise of modernity. Its domestication on school reading lists suggests something about the blunted edge of its class critique. I investigate here how the novel works to contain its own radical potential in this regard, thereby enabling it to be absorbed readily into educational curricula.

The Outsidersis considered a landmark publication in the history of the young

adult literature market. The young adult, or teenager, for whom the book was imagined, has always been related intimately to economic and consumer trends. The \ufb01rst recorded use of the word \u2018\u2018teen-ager,\u2019\u2019 at \ufb01rst hyphenated before settling into its more common usage, was in 1941. Thomas Hine notes the connection between the rise of the teenager and market forces: \u2018\u2018Because youth culture is, in essence, a series of decisions about personal appearance and entertainment, it can scarcely exist if its members don\u2019t have money they can spend as they see \ufb01t in ways wholly distinct from how their parents would spend it\u2019\u2019 (1999, p. 226). Hine suggests that in the economy of WWII and the post-war period, teenagers increasingly took the more marginal jobs left by adults moving into better-paying, more skilled work. This provided teenagers with some of their own disposable income, although not enough to allow them to be \ufb01nancially independent or to start their own families. This minimal disposable income would be a necessary condition for the invention of the teenager, who was, from the beginning, constructed as a consumer. The 1940s saw not only the coinage of the term \u2018\u2018teenager,\u2019\u2019 but also the invention of a new market, as clothes, magazines, and music came to be developed, packaged, and sold speci\ufb01cally for the new teenager. It would take another two decades for the young adult literature market to crystallize fully, when in the 1960s publishers would capitalize on the teenager by releasing books aimed speci\ufb01cally at this group.

From their inception, then, the teenager and teen culture were inextricably linked to the economy and social class, and so it is perhaps \ufb01tting that the1967 publication of Hinton\u2019sThe Outsiders, with its depictions of class con\ufb02ict and violence in the lives of a small group of urban teenagers, has come to be seen as marking the maturity of YA literature. Michael Cart concurs with other critics in dismissing most \ufb01ction read by young adults\u2014even if not speci\ufb01cally written for them\u2014during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s as what would now be called \u2018\u2018genre literature,\u2019\u2019 like romances or mysteries. In what has come to be a popular view of the history of YA literature as a distinct category, Cart argues, \u2018\u2018I think it is suf\ufb01cient to say that the real birth of young adult literature came with its embrace of the novel of realism, beginning...in the late 1960s\u2019\u2019 (1996, p. 39). Responding to what she saw as the lack of realism in literature for young adults, and its failure to grapple honestly with the dif\ufb01culties faced by young people, Hinton attempted to write a novel she thought would better represent the experiences of teenagers. That meant confronting directly some of the problems of adolescence: violence, con\ufb02icts with parents and other youths, and feelings of alienation and isolation. In other words, focusing on problems and how to deal with them was adopted as a strategy both to

Children\u2019s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87\u2013101

produce the appearance of realism, as though realism were synonymous with turmoil, and to distance YA \ufb01ction from the romantic and benign writing of the preceding three decades.1Since the teenager was, to a certain extent, a product of economic forces, we might not be surprised that in this landmark publication one of the key problems is precisely the class status of its teenage protagonists.

This push to represent the realistic problems of adolescents clearly led to YA liter- ature\u2019s being caught up by the lure of didacticism. It is hard to write a novel about a problem or problems without being tempted to offer solutions. Thus, the \u2018\u2018New Real- ism\u2019\u2019 of YA literature also ushered in the \u2018\u2018new didacticism.\u2019\u2019The Outsiders is emblematic of these connections. It is not only a key prototype of the new realist novel for young adults, but also an explicitly didactic one. In fact, as the novel ends we learn that Ponyboy is submitting it as make-up work for his English class. Hence, the book refers to itself as the product of an instructional assignment. Ponyboy decides to hand

thisin to ful\ufb01ll the assignment because he feels a moral urgency to share the lessons he

has learned through his experiences, which become the story of the novel. Ponyboy admits he wants \u2018\u2018to tell people\u2019\u2019 what he has discovered. That central lesson is crys- tallized for him by his sacri\ufb01cial friend Johnny, who admonishes Ponyboy in a deathbed letter to \u2018\u2018stay gold.\u2019\u2019 For Johnny, to \u2018\u2018stay gold\u2019\u2019 signi\ufb01es remaining innocent and childlike. Ironically, then, this foundational novel of young adulthood effectively urges its adolescent readers to turn back, and Ponyboy\u2019s response to the problems represented in the novel is the novel itself, a literary representation of the lives of poor youth. How, though, does the novel work as a response to the problems it details? What kind of response is it? How do the answers to these questions relate to its institutionalized and canonical status in the United States? And what are the implications of this inducement to \u2018\u2018stay gold\u2019\u2019 and the construction of the narrative itself as Ponyboy\u2019s homework?

First, we have to clarify the problems depicted in the novel in order to understand the novel\u2019s response to them. The central con\ufb02ict in the novel takes shape between two rival groups. Greasers have long hair, dress in jeans, and have reputations for being thugs. Their clothes, their reputations, and even the designation \u2018\u2018Greasers\u2019\u2019 mark their \u2018\u2018inferior\u2019\u2019 class status presumably because the ragged quality of their clothes, for instance, results directly from their poverty. Their rivals are called \u2018\u2018Socs\u2019\u2019 as shorthand for \u2018\u2018the Socials, the jet set, the West-side rich kids\u2019\u2019 (Outsiders 2).The Outsiders rep- resents a clash between con\ufb02icting models of youth\u2014on the one hand a nineteenth century and Depression-era model of the child as a necessary economic contributor to the household, and on the other hand the new teenager of the mid-twentieth century whose primary job is going to school and spending money on youth culture. In 1900, 26% of boys between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed in paying jobs, and this did not even include those working on family farms and not receiving wages (Hine,1999, p. 123). Hine explains that \u2018\u2018if you were in your teens during the second half of the nineteenth century, you would likely have been, in one sense, more \u2018grown up\u2019 than either your immediate predecessors or contemporary teenagers. If you were not among the majority of teens on farms, you would more than likely have been working for wages at an adult job to help support the family\u2019\u2019 (Hine,1999, p. 121). Teenage Greasers like

1In an article forThe New York Timesin which she explains her project inThe Outsiders, Hinton is

actually critical of the ways realism is represented as simply a collection of problems. \u2018\u2018Adults who try to write realistically seem to mix up the real with the dirty,\u2019\u2019 she writes (\u2018\u2018Teen-agers\u2019\u20191967, p. 27). Ironically, though, her novel can be seen as fueling precisely this way of coding realism in \ufb01ction for young adults.

Children\u2019s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87\u2013101

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