Aesthetic Drift #23 by Stephen McClurg

On Finally Reading The Outsiders

One way I disappointed my high school students was by not reading one of their favorites: S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. One particular student, Caroline, frequently reminded me how guilty I should feel for not reading the book she loved. 

I promised her some thoughts when I got around to it, which only took about a decade. 

Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was fifteen, and it’s quite an achievement considering the depth of characterization. Despite the characters’ flaws, I care about them. Overall, I think I would have liked the novel more when I was younger, but I was reading Stephen King or Clive Barker, and missed many of the books we’re supposed to read when we’re young, like this one, or Catcher in the Rye. Though I hazily remember the movie for The Outsiders, I was too busy watching stuff like ET or The Thing. Plus, the movie characters looked like the kids who wore cut-off jean jackets, sang John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurt So Good” on the bus, and smoked on the walk home—a walk that might or might not involve punching a nerd like me. 

Caroline says she understands what I mean, and explains who she was when The Outsiders crossed her path: “I was in seventh grade, and it was just a huge part of those formative years that bridged over into early adulthood. It was a time when reality seemed more avoidable and that my dreams could still be unrealistic and easily obtained.”

While The Outsiders reminds me of neighborhood bullies, for Caroline the book is bound with her own youthful dreams, one of the topics of the novel itself, which the reader mostly experiences through the protagonist, Ponyboy. He says, “It seems like there’s gotta be someplace without greasers or Socs, with just people. Plain ordinary people.” He’s one of the greasers, who live on the East Sideof a mid-size city in Oklahoma, a blue collar part of town. The Socs live on the West Side and are upper-middle class. 

For Ponyboy, I think the “plain ordinary people” relate to having his family back together out in a house in the country. His dreams–with the exception of wanting to bring his parents back to life—are quintessential American pastoral, with farms and horses, cakes and cattle:

“I wanted to be out of towns and away from excitement. I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade or ending up married to some scatterbrained broad with no sense. The country would be like that, I thought dreamily. I would have a yellow cur dog, like I used to, and Sodapop could get Mickey Mouse back and ride in all the rodeos he wanted to, and Darry would lose that cold, hard look and be like he used to be, eight months ago, before Mom and Dad were killed. Since I was dreaming I brought Mom and Dad back to life…Mom could bake some more chocolate cakes and Dad would drive the pickup out early to feed the cattle. […] My mother was golden and beautiful” (48).

Ponyboy’s grief over the loss of his mother is central to the novel. In the previous passage, Ponyboy calls her “golden”—a descriptor in the book associated with Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and related to innocence and idealism in the novel. His mother is like Eve in an Eden that never existed, this dream garden of a farm and a family made whole again. Throughout the novel, Ponyboy attempts to shore up his adopted family of brothers and similarly troubled friends, the same way people today are likely to build a family or peer group through fandom. 

Ultimately, I find the absence of women and the feminine frustrating, but one that makes sense in the novel. 

But femininity doesn’t belong with the greasers social codes or either notion of being tough as described by Ponyboy. Tough has traditional masculine connotations: strength, courage, stoicism, etc. Tuff is something aesthetically pleasing or cool, like a Firebird Trans Am or a kickass jam. Given this, I wanted more scenes with Cherry Valance, a spirited girl and potential love interest for Ponyboy. Her appearance is all too brief, but she is more sophisticated, smarter, and quite possibly tougher than a few of the outsiders themselves. 

Caroline had a different reaction when she first read the book: “Personally, I loved the lack of female characters because I was a melodramatic teenager and couldn’t stand the possibility of even fictional characters somehow taking away from my own feelings. When I found out Hinton was female, though, and that the characters were semi-autobiographical, I related to it even more. I, too, was drawn to misunderstood rebellious guys with shit tons of issues for me to capitalize on and solve. My dad was extremely strict, and I couldn’t hang out with a lot of my friends. So naturally, I rebelled more and eventually grew into quite a bad influence myself. ”

There’s a moment with these misunderstood rebellious guys that I find revealing and tender and is an example of Ponyboy’s concealed sensitivity. Ponyboy, while looking at one of his brothers says, “Asleep, he looked a lot younger than going-on-seventeen, but I had noticed that Johnny looked younger when he was asleep, too, so I figured everyone did. Maybe people are younger when they are asleep” (104). Most parents can probably relate to Ponyboy’s idea and I think it plays into these boys having to nurture each other. Small moments like this show that the guys are more than troublemakers.

I remember holding my children until they fell asleep and then watching them in their cribs. I still look at them in bed at night and in the morning. It’s hard not to see them younger, even as babies when they sleep. The outsider kids try to nurture each other in ways acceptable to their codes, while showing how they are still children fending for themselves in difficult situations. Caroline says, “It was invigorating to vicariously experience those emotions with the characters. That’s always been my favorite thing about literature and I’m relieved that’s remained the same since having to grow up.”As different readers, Caroline and I read that vulnerability in different ways, which is one of my favorite things about literature. 

There’s another scene that shows the kids taking care of themselves like adults, but with the tastes of children. It’s funny and bittersweet. Ponyboy says, “All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast. Mom had never allowed it with ham and eggs, but Darry let Soda and me talk him into it. We really didn’t have to twist his arm; Darry loves chocolate cake as much as we do. Sodapop always makes sure there’s some in the icebox every night and if there isn’t he cooks up one real quick. I like Darry’s cakes better; Sodapop always puts too much sugar in the icing. I don’t see how he stands jelly and eggs and chocolate cake all at once, but he seems to like it. Darry drinks black coffee, and Sodapop and I drink chocolate milk. We could have coffee if we wanted it, but we like chocolate milk. All three of us like chocolate stuff. Soda says if they ever make a chocolate cigarette I’ll have it made” (104-5). I can’t help thinking Ponyboy would have it made today with the vaping craze, but I like how it’s a scene of making breakfast and coffee, but everything gets infused with chocolate and sweets. My kids have badgered me daily for pancakes, sometimes even for dinner, knowing that we will likely have them on the weekend.       

While I was reading, I kept pondering whether or not younger readers would identify with these characters. I approached the book considering it for classroom use, the old habit of a teacher. A prejudice towards YA books I have is thinking they are for someone else, not me. (What YA means as a genre or marketing tool is for another time.) I should just be asking if I felt something while reading the book. Was I moved? Did it make me think? Did I enjoy it? Yes. Yes. Kind of.

Caroline says she was invigorated by experiencing the lives of these characters; maybe I let too much of my own baggage get in the way. She also says, “I was still an oblivious kid when I read it, and I still had a lot of dreams and plans for my life. My priorities were having friends, looking cool, putting minimal effort into class, smoking cigarettes and getting the hell out of school. Unfortunately, life finally happened and my dreams currently are not being late on rent and my car insurance, finding a new apartment/moving when my lease ends in less than a month and to eventually finish school. Meanwhile, I’m a waitress and hooked on the cigarettes that I started smoking to look cool. My American Dream is holding on to the dreams I used to have and wishing I never had to grow up.” 

What she says does sound like experiences in the book. We have dreams and goals and we would like them validated. We want family and friends, to be close to others, feel loved, feel appreciated. Ponyboy might give us a model for holding onto dreams and goals while making a life of what one has and the people around us, even if that life does not immediately—and may never—look like what we have imagined.

Maybe this ambivalent equilibrium is what Hinton achieves. If she leans too far into dreams and fantasy, the book becomes YA pulp and pap. Easy to eat, but no sustenance like the chocolate cigarettes Sodapop jokes about. If she leans too far the other way, past reality, the book becomes as monstrous as those little boys stranded on an island, who not only kill their only true, wise friend, but also kill what’s true and wise within themselves. The Outsidersis a very American novel and Ponyboy negotiates with the idea of the American Dream and the difficulties of being poor in an America full of dreaming. Ponyboy has to be tough, but he also chooses to be kind. Much like the American cognitive dissonance of dreams and disparities, he knows that nothing gold can stay, but fights to stay gold.

Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.