The Outsiders turns 50 today, but don’t let its age fool you: This book is a teenager, has always been a teenager, and always will be a teenager. It is adolescent in every way, from its creation story to its legacy to — most especially — its contents.
S.E. Hinton started writing the book at age 14, using the working title A Different Sunset. At 17 she sent it to a publisher, and she received her book contract on the day of her high school graduation. But The Outsiders, initially marketed to adults, flopped. It nearly went out of print — until, Hinton says, her publishers found a better audience for it: “Teachers were using it in classes. All of a sudden, they realized that there was a separate market for young adults.”
The Outsiders appeals so strongly to teenagers because it’s written in what is plainly a teenager’s voice: very earnest, very convinced of its own alienation, very convinced of its own profundity. Ponyboy, our hero, is deep because he likes reading and sunsets, and this information is presented to us as though it is the rarest thing in the world for a teenager to enjoy such things. The passage pertaining to this “reveal” is designed to give its teenage reader a little glow of pride: I like books and sunsets, too! So I must be deep and special, too, just like Ponyboy.
“You read a lot, don’t you, Ponyboy?” Cherry asked.
I was startled. “Yeah. Why?”
She kind of shrugged. “I could just tell. I’ll bet you watch sunsets, too.” She was quiet for a minute after I nodded. “I used to watch them, too, before I got so busy …”
I pictured that, or tried to. Maybe Cherry stood still and watched the sun set while she was supposed to be taking the garbage out. Stood there and watched and forgot everything else until her big brother screamed at her to hurry up. I shook my head. It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.
Fifty years after The Outsiders was first published, there still has never been a passage so teenaged as this one. Even Catcher in the Rye, with its iconic voice, isn’t quite as adolescent: Holden Caulfield’s tone is polished and sparkly and lively, even when he’s being morose, but Ponyboy’s comparatively clunky prose sounds exactly like a 14-year-old trying to be profound, because that’s exactly what it is. The naiveté is downright endearing. Where Holden can get infuriating, you want to pat Ponyboy on the head and tell him that he doesn’t have to try quite so hard.
Fifty years from now, when The Outsiders turns 100, it will still be cringingly teenaged. It always has been and it always will be, because that idea is embedded in the ethos of the book: to stay gold, which means to stay young and naive and uncynical.
The Outsiders, at 50, is still gold.