S. E. Hinton | Critical Essay by Michael Malone

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of S. E. Hinton.
This section contains 4,033 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Michael Malone

SOURCE: "Tough Puppies," in The Nation, Vol. 242, No. 9, March 8, 1986, pp. 276-78, 290.

In the following essay, Malone argues that Hinton's novels are not representative of average American teenagers or as realistic as they have been alleged to be, and he asserts that the appeal of Hinton's works among teenage readers is due mainly to their action-packed narratives, simplistic plot structures, intense emotional tone, and well-defined principles. Malone also examines the societal trends which make Hinton's works popular among American youngsters, ponders books for young adults as a literary category, and makes comparisons between Hinton's works and the James Dean films of the 1950s.

America at its saddest and dangerously silliest has the adolescent soul of a grade-B cowboy movie—violent and sentimental, morally and mentally simplistic. No doubt that's why a grade-B movie star still sits tall in the saddle of the Oval Office, sometimes quoting Dirty Harry and sometimes teary poems. And no doubt that's why the four Young Adult novels of S. E. Hinton have sold millions of copies and have made their rough-tender way into successful Hollywood movies, usually starring Matt Dillon, one of teen-age America's heartthrobs. The novels—The Outsiders; That Was Then, This is Now; Rumble Fish; and Tex—are touted on their covers as heroic tales of "the young and the restless," as "strikingly realistic portraits of modern kids trying to make it in a rough world." S. E. Hinton is the nom de plume of an Oklahoma woman, Susan Eloise Hinton, who publishes under her gender-anonymous initials because her books are first-person narrations of male teen-agers and, according to librarians, are read mostly by sixth-to eighth-grade boys. M. E. Kerr, another popular young adult novelist, uses the same strategy.

Hinton was 17 when she wrote The Outsiders and the characters, she says, were "loosely based" on people she knew. "When I was growing up, most of my close friends were boys," she remarked in an interview in The New York Times. "In those days girls were mainly concerned about getting their hair done and lining their eyes. It was such a passive society. Girls got their status from their boyfriends. They weren't interested in doing anything on their own." They certainly don't do anything on their own in Hinton's books—indeed they scarcely put in an appearance, although the male narrators frequently comment on how nice their hair looks. Nor are adults much in evidence. In this world the stories, like the streets, belong almost exclusively to tribes of adolescent males, to accounts of their tender camaraderie, reckless rebellion, macho warfare and often tragic fates.

It is difficult, if not horrifying, to think that the millions of 12-year-olds reading these "strikingly realistic portraits of modern kids" find any more in them than the most remote connections to their own lives, for Hinton's boys are usually impoverished, are often thugs and thieves, are variously abandoned by parents, brutalized by policemen, jailed, stabbed to death, shot to death, burned to death and so routinely beaten nearly to death that they think it's a drag to have to rush to the hospital for something as trivial as a fractured skull. When his chest is cut so deeply in a gang fight that he can see "white bone gleaming through," Rusty-James of Rumble Fish grits his teeth ("Ain't all that bad") while his brother douses whiskey on the wound ("He's been hurt worse than this"). These are "lean hard" "tough as nails"—or rather "tuff" as nails—"cool" 14-year-olds. Misery, lawlessness and violence are served up matter-of-factly to palates presumably so jaded by screen violence that it seems there are no squeamish stomachs left among the prepubescent. "The Dingo is a pretty rough hangout; there's always a fight going on there and once a girl got shot" (The Outsiders). "The last guy who was killed in the gangfights was a Packer. He had been fifteen" (Rumble Fish). Bryon, narrator of That Was Then, This is Now, comments blandly: "We fought with chains and we fought Socs and we fought other grease gangs. It was a normal childhood…. So that was how we lived, stealing stuff and selling stuff." Other boyish pastimes mentioned are drunken poker games, car theft, drag racing, pool hustling and "jumping hippies and blacks." The horrendous life of Bryon's former girlfriend is summed up in a paragraph and dismissed as nothing unusual: "Her husband didn't have a job, her brothers were both in jail, her old man was drunk all the time, and her father-in-law was always slapping her bottom…. They weren't so different from most of the families in our neighborhood."

Tragedy is parenthetical, introduced in a dependent clause: "Since Mom and Dad were killed in an auto wreck…." (The Outsiders). Even in Tex, the most recent, the least riddled with gang romance and the best of the books, Tex (a pleasant fellow, given to believable classroom pranks and adolescent worries) is forced at gunpoint to drive an escaped killer to the state line. He rolls the truck into a ditch, enabling the pursuing police to blow the young convict away in a barrage of crossfire. Only a week or so later, Tex himself is critically shot in the stomach while accompanying a friend on a drug deal. Tex has only gone along for the ride because he's upset. He's upset because his brother has just blurted out that their Pop is not really Tex's father; his real father was a no-good rodeo cowboy with whom Mom had a one-night stand to spite Pop when he was in prison for bootlegging.

In That Was Then, This is Now "golden dangerous Mark," the narrator's best buddy, also discovers that he is mistaken about his parentage—his real father turns out to be another rodeo cowboy. Bryon tells us about it like this: "Mark had lived at my house ever since I was ten and he was nine and his parents shot each other in a drunken argument." Later we learn the argument was over Mark's parentage; the shots were fatal, and the child, hiding under the porch, heard it all. As Mark recalls: "And then they start yelling and I hear this sound like a couple of fire-crackers. And I think, well, I can go live with Bryon and his old lady…. I didn't like livin' at home." The desire to leave home is a sentiment with which most teen-agers can empathize, but few are given so graphic an opportunity to do so. Nor do the majority, I hope, respond to family indifference like Dallas Winston of The Outsiders, who "lied, cheated, stole, rolled drunks, jumped small kids," even if they occasionally feel the same way about their parents: "What do they matter? Shoot, my old man don't give a hang whether I'm in jail or dead in a car wreck or drunk in the gutter. That don't bother me none."

What is clear from the recurrent themes of Hinton's novels, like the discovery of mysterious parentage, is that despite their modern, colloquial tone, they are fairy tale adventures (Luke Skywalker's father is really Darth Vader), and their rumbles as exotic as jousts in Ivanhoe or pirate wars in Treasure Island. What is curious is that grown-ups insist on the books' veracity. Hinton announces, "The real boy like Dallas Winston [the role Matt Dillon plays in The Outsiders] was shot and killed by the police for having stolen a car." Tim Hunter, director of the film Tex, says he was drawn to Hinton's work because of the way she weaves social problems "into the fabric of a realistic story."

In fact, the fabric is mythic. There are no verisimilar settings. Presumably the books take place near Tulsa, Oklahoma (the films do), but place names are never mentioned, and were it not for occasional references to rodeos, one would have little notion of the Western ambiances so evident in the movie versions. Characters live in "the neighborhood"; sometimes they go to "the city" or to "the country." The city is bacchanalian: "There were lots of people and noise and lights and you could feel energy coming off things, even buildings" (Rumble Fish). The country is pastoral: "The clouds were pink and meadowlarks were singing" (The Outsiders). Temporal location is equally vague. The Outsiders, published in 1967, might as easily have been written ten years earlier, in the fifties of its real progenitor, James Dean movies. True, some parenthetical hippies are up to some druggy no-good in That Was Then, This Is Now (1971), but the Motorcycle Boy in Rumble Fish (1975) might have ridden right off the screen of The Wild One. Far from strikingly realistic in literary form, these novels are romances, mythologizing the tragic beauty of violent youth, as the flashy surrealism of Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, with its film noir symbolism and spooky soundtrack, all too reverently attests.

Moreover, while praised for its "lean Hemingway style" and natural dialogue, Hinton's prose can be as fervid, mawkish and ornate as any nineteenth-century romance, although this is less true in the later books, especially Tex. The heightened language of her young narrators intensifies the glamour and sentiment of their stories, but it will not strike readers as everyday school-locker lingo. Ponyboy, 14, and Bryon, 16, fling adjectives and archaic phrases ("Hence his name," "Heaven forbid") around like Barbara Cartland. Bryon notes that his friend Mark's "strangely sinister innocence was gone." Ponyboy describes his brother, Sodapop, as having "a finely drawn, sensitive face that somehow manages to be reckless and thoughtful at the same time," as well as "lively, dancing, recklessly laughing eyes." Ponyboy is also given to quoting from memory long snatches of Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay," and to using words like "merrily," "gallant" and "elfish." Of course, Bryon and Ponyboy point out to us that although they seem to spend all their time hanging out with the gang, they are both honor students: "I make good grades and have a high IQ." But even Rusty-James of Rumble Fish, stuck in "dumb classes" and, by his own admission, no student ("Math ain't never been my strong point"), waxes poetical: "I wouldn't have her to hold anymore, soft but strong in my arms." Sententious moralizing coats the pages: "That was what he wanted. For somebody to tell him 'No.'… If his old man had just belted him—just once, he might still be alive." "You start wondering why, and you get old." "We see the same sunset."

The lyricism, the lack of novelistic detail, the static iconography of Hinton's books keep the clutter of creation from interfering with the sources of their obviously persistent appeal—their rapid action (mostly violent) unfettered by the demands of a plot, their intense emotions (mostly heavy) and their clear-cut moral maps. Hinton's fictional universe is as black-and-white as an old cowboy film. The Outsiders is the ur-text. In it there are Socs (Socials) and there are greasers; unlike that of the warring Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets, Jets and Sharks, this eternal enmity is neither familial nor racial, but financial. Socs are rich, greasers are poor; Socs are "the in crowd," greasers are "the outsiders." Socs always wear madras and English Leather and drive Mustangs or Corvairs. They always "jump greasers and wreck houses and throw beerblasts for kicks." That's pretty much all we get to know about Socs; they're just the enemy. A Soc girl, Cherry Valance, makes a brief appearance to point out to Ponyboy, "We have troubles you never even heard of," but those troubles are not explored; instead she schematizes neatly: "You greasers have a different set of values. You're more emotional. We're sophisticated—cool to the point of not feeling anything." Given this fundamental difference (and despite the fact that they see the same sunset), Cherry is obliged to warn Ponyboy:"If I see you in the hall … and don't say hi, well, it's not personal…. We couldn't let our parents see us with you all."

Our heroes, greasers, are also initially defined by their appearance and their style of antisocial behavior: "We steal things and drive old souped-up cars and hold up gas stations once in a while … just like we leave our shirttails out and wear leather jackets." But popular culture has taught us to interpret this style with sympathy, if not rabid infatuation. The narrators pay continual, indeed obsessive, attention to their own and their friends' appearance. We hear constantly about "strange golden eyes," "light-brown, almost-red hair," faces like "some Greek god come to earth." They are always asking and reassuring each other about their good looks, particularly the beauty of their hair.

Funky costume and flamboyant hairstyle have long been the outward signs of inward romantic rebellion—from [Percy Bysshe] Shelley's flowing locks and open collars through [Alan] Ginsberg's sandals to Elvis's sideburns—and Ponyboy's identifying himself through his hair oil ("I am a greaser") announces his place in a tradition that goes back to Brontë's crush on Heathcliff, and associates him with such suffering gods as James Dean. It's significant that many of the young men who played in Coppola's 1982 film of The Outsiders were to become adolescent idols within the next few years: Dillon, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze. A leather jacket, bloody knuckles and a sensitive soul is an irresistible combination. Pain and sadness help too.

There is no sweeter sorrow than the self-pity of our teens, no pain more rhapsodized than our adolescent anguish; adults simply lose the will to sustain such Sturm und Drang. Like the protagonists of all Bildungsromans, Hinton's leather-jacketed young Werthers are lyrical on the subject of their psychic aches and pains. Tough as nails on the street, yeah, hey—but alone in the dark, they're as naked and afraid in a world they never made as any Herman Hesse hero. Confused, lonely, slighted, they share with, they feel for, their readers that most profound pubescent emotion: "I don't belong." In the classic apprenticeship novel, the youngster—Tonio Kröger, Stephen Dedalus, Paul Morel, Eugene Gant—experiences and reflects on this sense of alienation and so grows to understand the particular difference that is his self. When, in The Outsiders, Ponyboy tells us, "I cried passionately, 'It ain't fair that we have all the rough breaks,'" his cri de coeur, like the novel's title, suggests the tribal rather than personal thrust of Hinton's use of the theme, as well as its simplistic economic nature. ("You can't win because they've got all the breaks.") In Hinton's books, selfhood is subsumed in the tribal gang. "It was great, we were a bunch of people making up one big person" (That Was Then, This Is Now). "Why did the Socs hate us so much? We left them alone." "It wasn't fair for the Socs to have everything. We were as good as they were" (The Outsiders). So magically does the gang incorporate its members that in the opening of The Outsiders it miraculously appears out of the night to save Ponyboy from the motiveless malignity of a carful of Socs: "All the noise I had heard was the gang coming to rescue me." "Somehow the gang sensed what had happened."

The gang is the family: "We're almost as close as brothers." And in contrast to "a snarling, distrustful, bickering pack like the Socs," greaser gangs are unfailingly loyal and free of rivalry. Maybe they have "too much energy, too much feeling, with no way to blow it off" except through marauding violence, but with one another they are as gentle as maidens on a Victorian valentine, innocently sleeping with their arms around each other, choking with tenderness for one another's pain. Johnny in The Outsiders is the most vulnerable, most pathetically hurt gang member (the Sal Mineo part in Rebel Without a Cause; for his film of The Outsiders, Coppola even found in Ralph Macchio an actor who looks just like Mineo). Ponyboy's solicitude for him is shared by even the toughest of the greasers. He is "a little dark puppy that has been kicked too many times and is lost in a crowd of strangers…. His father was always beating him up, and his mother ignored him…. If it hadn't been for the gang, Johnny would never have known what love and affection are." Like Mineo's Plato, Johnnycake is clearly pegged for tearful sacrifice. And sure enough—having accidentally stabbed a Soc to death and then redeemed himself by saving some children from a burning church—he dies from burns and a broken back after a series of heart-rending hospital-bed scenes. As might be expected in fiction for adolescents, the blood brother bond supersedes all other emotional commitments. That Was Then, This Is Now opens, "Mark and me went down to the bar"; and Bryon's love for Mark, like the love of Beowulf or Roland for their companions, runs like a lyric refrain through the novel.

These characters do sometimes have girlfriends, but their erotic relationships come nowhere near the power of male camaraderie. Hinton reports she almost didn't agree to sell Tex to Walt Disney Productions because she "thought they'd really sugar it up, take out all the sex, drugs and violence," but there is actually far less sex in her books than in the films made from them. Her instinct, conscious or not, that young readers could take endless physical violence and heartbreak but would be embarrassed by physical passion is quite sound. On the page of Rumble Fish, Rusty-James tells us of his visit to Patty, "I just sat there holding her and sometimes kissed the top of her head"; on the screen this becomes a torrid tumble on a couch. Rusty-James's description, "There were some girls [at the lake] and we built a fire and went swimming," becomes on screen an orgiastic montage of naked bodies. Similarly, unlike the films, the books are as free of profanity as Heidi. We are told people "talk awful dirty," but the only curses we hear are almost comically mild: "Glory!" "Shoot!" "Oh blast it!" Indeed, gang members warn the younger ones to avoid "bad habits" like cursing. They may smoke cigarettes, integral to the image, but they don't much care for booze and are leery of drugs. As well they might be. M & M, That Was Then, This is Now's counterpart to the doomed Johnnycake, takes LSD, goes psychotic, is hospitalized (the doctor announces solemnly, "He may have lost his mind forever") and is told that his chromosomes are so messed up that he must forget his dream of a large family.

In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean is trying to cope with a new society, with a new girl, with his parents, with adult authority. He copes in part by means of wry humor, a detachment that is missing in Hinton's books and in the films made from them. Rather than ask her characters to cope with adults, wryly or otherwise, Hinton either removes them or removes their authority. The Oedipal struggle is displaced to older siblings. Ponyboy's parents are dead; he lives with and is supported by his big brother, Darry, a football star who gave up college to keep the family together. Ponyboy fears and idolizes him. Tex's mother is dead (after a fight with his father, she walked off in the snow to go dancing, caught pneumonia and quickly succumbed), and his father forgets for months at a time to return home or to send money. Tex lives with and is supported by his older brother, Mace, a basketball star, whom he fears and admires. Rusty-James's mother ran away; his father, once a lawyer, is a hopeless drunk on welfare who wanders in and out of the house mumbling, "What strange lives you two lead," to Rusty-James and his idolized older brother, the Motorcycle Boy (about whom Hinton seems to feel much as Lady Caroline Lamb felt about Byron: "Mad, bad and dangerous to know"). Like Dallas Winston, the Motorcycle Boy is shot to death by the police, leaving the hero to inherit his romantic mantle—even to the extent of going color-blind. Bryon has no father but does have a mother, depicted as a model of saintly virtue. She behaves, however, with a remarkable lack of maternal responsibility or even curiosity. Not only do Bryon and Mark sometimes not "come home for weeks" without being reprimanded but their being beaten black and blue elicits little concern. Mom notices ten stitches in Mark's head: "How did that happen?" "And Mark answered, 'Fight,' and the subject was dropped. That was a good thing about Mom—she'd cry over a dog with a piece of glass in his paw but remained unhysterical when we came home clobbered…. Parents never know what all their kids do…. It's a law." The laws of Hinton's books are the laws of the cowboy movies, the laws of romance.

According to a children's librarian in Connecticut, Hinton and Judy Blume have long been the most popular authors of "reluctant readers" in the junior-high age group, youngsters who generally "wouldn't be caught dead in a library." Hinton's books "go out by themselves," without having to be recommended by adults or assigned by teachers or cleverly packaged ("Swiss Family Robinson is about survival—just like Rambo"). At the Philadelphia Free Library I was told that the four novels enjoy a "highly active shelf-life," greatly enhanced by the release of the filmed versions. When my 16-year-old niece told me she'd read Hinton "as a kid," I asked her why. "I liked Matt Dillon," she answered.

In the Young Adult section of the Philadelphia library, I spotted eleven paperback copies of Tex (the hardcover copy was in Adult Fiction), sandwiched with twelve paperback copies of Star Wars, "by George Lucas," three of Pickwick Papers and two of Gone With the Wind. Browsing through this area I could come to no clear sense of what constitutes Young Adult fiction. The Seven-per-Cent Solution was there, so was Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, so was Reynolds Price's A Long and Happy Life and novels by Ella Leffland, Ernest Gann and John Knowles. As a specific marketing category Young Adult fiction ("Y.A." for short) appears to be about twenty years old. I have no memory as a child in the 1940s and a teen-ager in the 1950s of any such literary label. One read baby books (mostly pictures), and then one read books. "Books" meant a melange of everything available that told a story—[Alexandre] Dumas, [Charles] Dickens, Hardy Boys, [Robert Louis] Stevenson, [Louisa May] Alcott, sea books, horse books, mystery books. Adult fiction meant Lady Chatterley's Lover or Peyton Place or By Love Possessed. Rereading as an adult Huckleberry Finn, Gulliver's Travels, David Copperfield, Animal Farm and other classics, I of course read them differently, just as I now know what the A in The Scarlet Letter stands for (the seventh-grade teacher who assigned us this novel never bothered to explain), but at the time of my first acquaintance, I was never under the impression that I was reading literature packaged for my "age group."

The successful marketing of Young Adult fiction to teen-age consumers is defended by some, who point out that the choice is not between an adolescent's reading Tex and reading Sons and Lovers but between reading Tex and reading nothing. Librarians are deeply concerned about the drop in reading once children reach high school or even junior high. "They come to the library only when it's time to research a school assignment," one told me. The causes are doubtless varied, but the hope is that those who did acquire the habit of reading for fun in grade school will rediscover it in their later teens. Meanwhile, the spinning stands of Harlequin Romances and movie tie-ins may keep the idea of reading alive and the books of S. E. Hinton in circulation. Asked if she would ever consider branching out into adult fiction as Judy Blume has, Hinton said she didn't find adults as interesting, because adolescence is "the time of the most rapid change, when ideals are clashing against the walls of compromise." That she is able to evoke for her audience how teen-agers feel about those clashes is indisputable. She once remarked, "Ponyboy is how I felt at 14." There are millions of Ponyboys out there, soulfully dreaming, sentimental, cool.

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