The Outsiders Historical and Social Context
by S. E. Hinton

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Rise of Youth Culture

In the United States, the period from 1945 to 1963 was termed the "Baby Boom" because of the sharp increase in the number of children born during those years. By 1958, one-third of the country's population was fifteen years old or younger. The years after World War II had also seen an increase in wealth throughout the United States. By the time they became teenagers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, therefore, many of these "Baby Boomers" had plenty of spare cash to spend. Companies competed to attract the dollars of these new consumers. The film, music, television, and fashion industries created products especially for the increasingly influential teen market. Rock 'n' roll became the most popular music on the radio, and movies also reflected this new focus on adolescents. Actors James Dean and Marlon Brando became idols for portraying teenage anti-heroes in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and The Wild One (1954). Paul Newman, whose looks Ponyboy admires as "tough," followed in the footsteps of these actors by playing similarly cool characters in the films The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), and Cool Hand Luke (1967).

Teenagers' increased spending power also gave them a new measure of independence from their parents. Rebellion against adult authority became a notable theme in many teen films. Loud rock 'n' roll music became another way for teens to defy their parents' values. Some adolescents' rebellion turned violent, and teenage gangs sprouted in urban areas. The increase in the numbers of young people meant an increase in juvenile delinquents as well. These "JDs" became an urgent concern for law enforcement in the 1950s and 1960s. As The Outsiders demonstrates, however, not all of these delinquents were from poor neighborhoods. Children from supposedly "good families" also became drop-outs, gang members, and drug or alcohol abusers.

The Vietnam War and the Protest Movement

Teenagers were not the only Americans who challenged authority in the 1960s. The public in general had begun to question U.S. involvement in Vietnam's war against communist rebels. The United States had been providing military advisors to this southeast Asian country since the 1950s. In 1964, however, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam doubled. By 1967, almost half a million Americans were fighting in Vietnam. Nevertheless, many citizens had doubts as to the effectiveness and morality of American involvement. Protesters turned up in the thousands for anti-war demonstrations. The protesters came from all walks of life: groups included those made up of students, clergy, scientists, and women.

The year 1967 featured many notable protests. University of Wisconsin students destroyed university property while running recruiters from Dow Chemical (the makers of the defoliant napalm) off campus. The week of April 15 saw anti-war demonstrations in New York and San Francisco bring out 100,000 and 20,000 people respectively. A protest at the Pentagon led to arrests of several notable people, including poet Allen Ginsberg and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., proposed a merging of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. He declared the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."

Race Relations in the 1960s

Although all of the "greaser" characters in The Outsiders are white, the prejudice they endure recalls that suffered by African Americans and other non-whites during the same era. Several laws and court decisions of the late 1950s and early 1960s had outlawed public segregation. Nevertheless, discrimination was still part of daily life for many blacks in the 1960s. In some southern cities, public school integration had to be enforced by federal troops. Black students who attended previously all-white schools often faced ridicule and even physical abuse from their classmates. (This calls to mind how Ponyboy is called a "hood" by his lab partner when he uses a switchblade to dissect a worm in...

(The entire section is 2,607 words.)