ESSAY; The Outsiders: 40 Years Later
Published: September 23, 2007

Few books come steeped in an aura as rich as S. E. Hinton's novel  The Outsiders, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. At a time when the average young-adult novel was, in Hinton's characterization, ''Mary Jane went to the prom,'' The Outsiders shocked readers with its frank depictions of adolescents smoking, drinking and ''rumbling.'' Although other pop culture offerings had dealt with these themes -- most notably ''Rebel Without a Cause'' and ''West Side Story'' -- their intended audience was adult. By contrast, The Outsiders was a story ''for teenagers, about teenagers, written by a teenager.'' Hinton's candid, canny appraisal of the conflict between Socs, or Socials, and Greasers (for which one might substitute Jets and Sharks), published when she was 17, was an immediate hit and remains the best-selling young-adult novel of all time.

Long credited with changing the way Y.A. fiction is written, Hinton's novel changed the way teenagers read as well, empowering a generation to demand stories that reflected their realities. In fact, in the novel, the need for a representative literature is a central aspect of 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis's existential crisis. The book's famous statement of theme, ''Stay gold,'' is of course a reference to Robert Frost's ''Nothing Gold Can Stay,'' and then there's the not-quite-believable assertion that the novel was written as a ''theme'' for Ponyboy's English class: ''Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn't be so quick to judge.'' Despite its obviousness, this device strikes me as crucial to the book, providing a context for the occasionally clunky deus ex machina and foreshadowing, not to mention the sometimes workmanlike prose. To an adolescent, the clunkers probably reinforce the authenticity of the book's voice, but the framing device establishes that unpolished authenticity as an aesthetic construction.

One suspects, however, that it was accidental here, or unconscious, just as it's likely that Hinton's echo of the testimonial frame Salinger used in ''The Catcher in the Rye'' (''If you really want to hear about it'') wasn't consciously intended, nor was Hinton's literalization of Holden's ''If a body catch a body coming through the rye'' into the rescue of a group of children from a burning church. In fact, what struck me most as an adult reader (and sometime Y.A. novelist) is the degree to which ''The Outsiders'' is derivative of the popular literature of its time, sometimes obliquely, as in the Salinger parallels, sometimes more directly. Hinton once said that ''the major influence on my writing has been my reading'' and names Shirley Jackson as one of her favorite writers. The literal truth of this statement is borne out in these two passages taken from the opening paragraphs of ''The Outsiders'' and of Jackson's ''We Have Always Lived in the Castle'' (1962).

First Jackson: ''I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.''

And now Hinton: ''I have light-brown, almost-red hair and greenish-gray eyes. I wish they were more gray, because I hate most guys that have green eyes, but I have to be content with what I have.''

Although such a strong resemblance between two works would probably be viewed with suspicion in this time of heightened alertness to plagiarism, this and other echoes strike me as crucial to the success of Hinton's novel. They soften the challenging nature of the book's subject matter by wrapping it in references, tropes and language familiar to its adolescent readers, even as they alleviate the fears of those readers' too-earnest parents. Right after the Jackson echo, for example, Ponyboy's older brother, Sodapop, is characterized as ''16-going-on-17.'' A quotation from ''The Sound of Music'' would seem out of place in a novel rife with ''blades'' and ''heaters'' and teenage pregnancy, but it's hard to deny after Ponyboy's immediate assertion that ''nobody in our gang digs movies and books the way I do.''

Indications of Ponyboy's, and Hinton's, love continue throughout. Randy Anderson's ''If his old man had just belted him -- just once, he might still be alive'' sounds a lot like James Dean's ''If he had the guts to knock Mom cold once, then maybe she'd be happy'' in ''Rebel Without a Cause,'' while the scene in which Dallas Winston waves around a gun until the cops shoot him is a cross between the climax of that movie, when Sal Mineo is gunned down for brandishing a weapon that (like Dally's) is unloaded, and Natalie Wood's famous ''How many bullets?'' speech from ''West Side Story.''

Going right down the honors English syllabus: Ponyboy and Johnny curl up together for warmth like Ishmael and Queequeg in ''Moby-Dick.'' Pony's admonition to himself --''Don't think'' -- is as Hemingway ''code hero'' as it comes. Johnny's half mechanical, half sublime parsing of Frost's ''Nothing Gold Can Stay'' is reminiscent of Mick Kelly's response to Beethoven's Fifth in ''The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.'' And of course Pony, witness to and chronicler of his friends' demise, could be the Midwestern cousin Nick Carraway left behind. If there's a reference to ''To Kill a Mockingbird,'' I can't find it, save perhaps in the Boo Radleyesque names (although Hinton has said that ''Peanuts the Pony'' was the first book she ever checked out of the library, so who knows). The text even presupposes judgments about appropriate reading material for a 14-year-old: ''I'd read everything in the house about 50 million times,'' Ponyboy informs us, ''even Darry's copy of 'The Carpetbaggers,' though he'd told me I wasn't old enough to read it. I thought so too after I finished it.''

The intertextual musings come to a head when Johnny tells Pony that Dallas reminds him of the Southern men in ''Gone With the Wind,'' which the two boys have been reading to combat boredom while they hide from the police. In Johnny's view, Dally's refusal to turn in his friend Two-Bit for vandalism is like the Confederate rebels' ''riding into sure death because they were gallant.'' Pony initially rejects this reading, but something about it nags him: ''Of all of us, Dally was the one I liked least. He didn't have Soda's understanding or dash, or Two-Bit's humor, or even Darry's superman qualities. But I realized that these three appealed to me because they were like the heroes in the novels I read. Dally was real. I liked my books and clouds and sunsets. Dally was so real he scared me.''

This is good stuff -- great stuff for a teenager. Dally's ''realness'' is made apparent by characters in a book; by contrast, the other members of the gang, who've limited themselves to playing roles they've picked up elsewhere, are suddenly seen as less real, enabling Pony to understand why, at the beginning of the novel, Cherry Valance shyly declared, ''I kind of admire him.'' What goes unsaid until the end of the story is that Pony, like Dally, needs a book to explain him, but is forced to write it himself.

In his introduction to ''Slow Learner,'' Thomas Pynchon remarks that the appropriate ''attitude toward death'' that characterizes serious fiction is usually absent in young-adult literature; but one feels ''The Outsiders'' would pass Pynchon's test. Dally is fearless, which Pony recognizes as heroic but also foolish. That Dally's death scene is a mesh of two of the most enduring moments in American cinema is beside the point. The question is not where the material comes from (''West Side Story'' is based on ''Romeo and Juliet,'' after all, and James Dean's antihero is a latter-day Bartleby or Raskolnikov) but what the writer does with it. The test comes when Ponyboy sums up the conflict between Socs and Greasers as ''too vast a problem to be just a personal thing.'' Salinger couldn't get away with that line, and neither could Pynchon, because their books are too idiosyncratic, too distinct. But Hinton, earnest teenager that she was, wrote to reveal the universality of her Greasers, just as Wright and Ellison did for African-Americans, or Paley and Roth did for Jews.

Each time I came across another borrowing, the success of her strategy was impressed upon me. And at the same time I was reminded of 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan, who was flayed last year for borrowing excessively from various sources for her own novel. If some high-minded, plagiarism-wary reader had persuaded S. E. Hinton to remove all references to the books and movies that inspired her, ''The Outsiders'' probably wouldn't have slipped past the internal (let alone official) censors that governed '60s adolescence. Forty years on, we may see the seams of its gilding, but the heart of Hinton's groundbreaking novel is still, indisputably, gold.

Dale Peck, who has written for adults and children, is currently at work on his first young-adult novel.

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