I heard many stories growing up, ghost stories, buried treasure stories, and stories about family members. I have even heard my share of outlaw legends. Most wouldn’t figure that a young boy in Louisiana would hear many stories of outlaw robbers or gun fights, but throughout America outlaw legends abound, especially the “good outlaw” or heroic criminal. Most, though, do not exactly fit the pattern people are used to seeing in old western movies, but if people learn how to look, the legends are here. In Louisiana, the outlaw might not be a cowboy but a boat captain, and the loot might not be a stagecoach box but bootlegged alcohol. The outlaw may be an oilfield or sawmill worker, an old trapper, or even a computer hacker, but the core story is the same. An underdog fights some oppressive force for the benefit of the common people. That doesn’t mean people are still afraid of these people or that they embrace the life of an outlaw, but they are still fascinated by them and tell their stories. One of my students once wrote an essay about heroes, and his hero was the group of people he grew up with, “river rats,” for him people who live on Louisiana’s rivers and swamps. One of the group’s characteristics he found so appealing was their ability to evade the law, to skirt the rules and regulations that the government established but that the group did not embrace, such as hunting licenses or boat permits. One of the most detailed portions of the essay, and I must admit one of the most fascinating, explained how some of his relatives had developed a method for growing marijuana under the government’s nose by placing the plants in hollow trees trunks located in the vast marsh. He even referred to these figures as “our own Robin Hoods;” after all, in his mind they are defying the rules of an oppressive system for the benefit of the common people.
In American Folklore (1959), Dorson attributes the popularity of the most notable "American Robin Hoods," like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Sam Bass, to exposure in the mass media. Still, other outlaws in varying forms have been popular because, it seems, they embody a part of our national mind-set. The national legends simply remind of local examples which represent the variety of cultures to which people belong. The West has undoubtedly provided the most subjects for novel, newspaper, and film, but outlaws, or perhaps what they represent, transcend this region and geographic boundaries and extend beyond a single form. Pirate, gunman, gangster, union buster, union organizer, fugitive, guerilla, and even hacker exist in the spectrum of characters that fulfill this role.1 It seems no place is void of such figures, and these nationally known double-headed characters exist within and without civilization, live a complex life crossing borders, physical and mental. Due to their very natures, these outlaws stand as expressions of people’s own conflicts.
Still, outlaws rarely act alone and don’t exist in a vacuum. People and communities surround them, and a complex interplay develops between the outlaws and their surroundings. To understand these outlaws, as well as any item of folklore, a scholar must embrace the social context from which folklife springs and the revealing relationship between folklife and the culture that produces it.2 What I have found most interesting is how aspects of these characteristics vary to meet regional needs or local economic influences. What is also quite interesting is the persistent presence of the local community through the legend. The outlaw comes from this community or is like its members; he remains uncaught because of their help; and in some way finally meets his end because of a something they have done. The presence of the common folk throughout all this seems to connect to the outlaw figure’s function. The outlaw becomes a symbol of power. In a sense, he exists as a mechanism of anxiety or tension release, and maybe the figure functions in some way as wish fulfillment.
The interest in the American outlaw and outlaw studies has a long history, and scholars have considered the importance of the American outlaw in the construction or development of the American mind-set. They have considered the importance of this figure throughout history and its emergence in literature, film, music, and art. However, the work in outlaw studies seems to have taken on three major directions. First, a great many of the studies have focused on the life and exploits of a single outlaw figure, major or minor—Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa, Pretty Boy Floyd, Railroad Bill, so on. Second, other works, while they have considered more than one outlaw, have focused on a specific region of the American landscape—most often the American West, but also the Southwest, the Mexican/American border, and in rare cases other non-western regions, the Pennsylvania region for instance. Finally, some scholars have considered the progression or development of the outlaw figure in literature and art, discussing the outlaw as a figure or type, even though often this discussion limits itself to one artistic form. This last approach has lead to a few discussions of the creation of outlaw through memory and the media, of the components or characteristics within the type itself, and of the outlaw figure’s function within community. This works attempts to offer a comparative look of the outlaw figure as it occurs in various locales and forms. In particular, the work considers modern or contemporary manifestations of the outlaw figure, especially as it emerges in various forms of popular culture.
The outlaw figure’s presence in the American cultural landscape remains even if the western outlaw has seemed to fade. American culture’s fascination with the figure continues and, more importantly, its use of the figure. For even though an actual outlaw (an historical legendary figure) emerges less frequently in contemporary society, the persona occurs no less frequently. American culture continues to embrace and appropriate the folktype in various situations. The heroic criminal seems to be, if not a distinctively American folktype as Richard Meyer might argue,3 a folktype so embedded in our national subconscious that it is continually employed to epitomize American values, ideals, and popular cultural myths. This volume offers new insight in the important relationship between the outlaw figure and the contemporary American cultural landscape, especially as they manifest in popular cultural. The volume traces which elements of the outlaw figure remain intact over place and time and traces which features can be adapted to fit specific concerns of specific situations and which features must remain intact. The volume questions how the folktype emerges in different forms, changes from one form of popular culture to another, is appropriated and adopted by various groups. The volume progresses from the more traditional examples to the avant-garde, from perhaps the more recognizable examples to the obscure, from the national landscape to the localized, from mainstream culture to those who have been marginalized.
Article One, “Political Outlaws: Beat Cowboys” by Kurt Hemmer, begins the collection’s focus on literature. In his essay, Hemmer examines the specific historical moment of the Beat Generation (1950-1965) and how these people appropriated thee outlaw figure “to fend off the Eisenhower-era containment culture.” Hemmer contends that the “Beat movement, like Camus, promoted the rebellious position as a survival tactic. In order to survive in a world where radicals on both sides were equally dangerous, the only option was to create a new space for the rebel to dwell.” The essay explores how the Beats created this space in the 1950s. In a universe made up of the Zeitgeist following World War II, The Lone Ranger’s mask, what The Shadow knows, and even Castro, the Beats used the liminal space the outlaw creates as a refuge. Throughout the essay, Hemmer details how the Old West outlaw became a significant symbol to the Beats. This “Good Badman” filled their imaginations as children who grew up with Hollywood westerns and radio serials and embodied their political position as adults who chose to occupy a unique political stance. Arguing that the Beats adopted a similar position Camus does in The Rebel, Hemmer explains that the Beats were unwilling to join mainstream American culture and unwilling to be completely revolutionary. They needed a rebellious space, a space where one does not need to follow unjust laws nor need to create new ones. The Beats reveled in the myths and folklore of America, and some of their highest admiration seems to have fallen on the Good Badman, the figure who lives outside the law. In this regard, the Beats embraced the American Western outlaw as a political symbol unique to their political agenda and employed it in various forms. In order to truly understand the Beat Generation and the climate that surround them, Hemmer illustrates how one must understand the outlaw figure and specifically how that outlaw figure changes in this period to express these writers’ sense of themselves.
Article Two, “I Fought the Law and the Law Won” by Kristen A. Williams, considers the manner in which Civil War-era Southern secessionists illustrate a “defiantly postcolonial, iconic and decidedly mainstream ‘outlaw’ American political performative,” which exists as a quintessential American concept of patriotism. Williams argues the outlaw mind-set, manifested in politics as an anti-governmentality, is founded in documents such as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist (and Anti-federalist) papers. As a result, throughout American history the outlaw persona has been adopted as a political style that is a central practice of American politics. Williams argues that “in historical narratives and at local fairs, reenactments, and other events commemorating the Civil War and the Confederacy,” female Confederate spies capture this political style. Williams explores how these spies (Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Belle Boyd, and Ginnie and Lottie Moon) rebelled against typical “idyllic antebellum and war-era conceptions of gender performance” and instead not only embodied and appropriated the outlaw persona but also, in Greenhow’s and Boyd’s case, cultivated it in the compilation of their own memoirs to conduct the most dramatic and successful fight they could for their cause. These figures become only one example of the appropriation of the outlaw persona as a political style. As a result, Williams’s case study explores the manner in which this reoccurring political style becomes a mainstay in American politics as a performance of patriotism and acceptable citizenship. In the article, Williams argues that “indecorous or infamous notions of citizenship” are “justified by a paradoxical paradigm of American political style fashioned over time from founding and, most frequently referenced over the past few years by radical partisans on both sides of the American political spectrum, the Declaration of Independence.” A theatre and performance studies scholar, Williams focuses on which American legends are mobilized to justify outlaw behavior as itself a quintessentially American political style, a political style that appeals to the fringes of American civic life.
Article Three “’Wanted Dead or Alive’: The Female Outlaw and Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise” by Linda Rohrer Paige, focuses on the a recent example of the outlaw persona emerging in film and considers the female imagination’s fascination with the “woman outlaw,” drawing comparisons to the outlaw Belle Starr who had violated acceptable codes of behavior for late nineteenth-century American women. Employing the an analysis of the “Bandit Queen” persona, Paige discusses which components of the outlaw figure are manipulated and which remain intact as the outlaw is made feminine and rejects not only conventional law but also the patriarchal conventions of womanhood, conventions established in the world these outlaws inhabit.
Article Four, “Bonnie and Clyde’s ‘Other Side’: the Good-Bad Outlaws of Larry Buchanan” by Mary Elizabeth Strunk, considers the outlaw persona and its mystique in the American consciousness by addressing one of the most popular depictions of American outlaw, Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. This article continues the collection’s discussion of the outlaw figure’s emergence in cinema. However, despite Bonnie and Clyde’s popularity and the substantial amount of criticism conducted on the subject, Strunk does offer a fresh approach. In fact, she confronts the movie’s popularity itself and its existence in the American mind-set. As she does, she considers an oppositional view of the couple, one existing in the folklore of the residents of the area and not depicted in the film. To do so, she presents and examination of a documentary film, The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde (1968). Directed by Larry Buchanan, considered by Struck to be an outlaw figure himself, the film is narrated by Burl Ives and wascommissioned by the family of the Texas Ranger who was the villain of Bonnie and Clyde villain. In her analysis of The Other Side, Strunk analyzes several directorial and editorial choices to examine the perception of the outlaw folktype the film creates and simultaneously explores the complex and often controversial outlaw personas developed and perpetuated through various forms of popular culture and folklore.
Article Five, “Against All Odds—‘Sam Hall’ and ‘The Man in Black’: From British Social Disparagement to American Defiant Individualism” by Eva-Sabine Zehelein, leaves film for music and begins a three-article discussion of the appropriation of the outlaw folktype in music. This article analyzes “Sam Hall,” an established folksong in Britain, Ireland, and American, to uncover the persistent traits of outlaw figures that remain despite its transmission across continents and the malleable traits that change to fit specific cultural contexts. Zehelein’s comparative analysis of the “Sam Hall-topos” traces the development of the song from its appearance in the early eighteenth century to Johnny Cash’s rendition in the 1960s. Cash altered certain elements of the song, Zehelein argues, to represent specific aspects of America’s cultural landscape. For example, in the original version, Sam Hall is a chimney sweep, but since this figure does not exist as a cultural symbol in American, in Cash’s version he is simply an outcast. Zehelein claims that as a result of these changes, Cash’s version embodies the “ur-American myth of the West and the concomitant core values America has valued since day one.” Zehelein essay offers a detailed look at the transmission and transformation of one outlaw figure as he moves through time and space and attaches himself to specific social ills and critiques. Most importantly, the changes Sam Hall experiences offer a brief indication of the universal applications of the outlaw persona and the dynamic characteristics of the figure.
Article Six, “Brujeria and the U.S.-Mexico Border Outlaw” by Rachel Conover, explores a musical genre less well known. In her essay, Conover examines how the death metal band Brujeria appropriates the traditional outlaw persona and more contemporary outlaws to criticize U.S.-Mexico border politics. Conover explains that though the group is comprised of professional musicians based largely in California, they have invented fictional personas as "Satanic Mexican Druglords." These fictional outlaw personas provide the freedom the members need to critique American politics or politicians and even advocate a form of “rebellion.” In addition to common death metal themes of blasphemy and murder, thrashes about immigration, drug trafficking Pancho Villa, SubComandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, and the figure of the narcotraficante, the Mexican drug trafficker featured as a protagonist in narcocorridos (contemporary forms of the traditional Mexican corrido ballads that sing the exploits of heroic outlaws). This analysis offers an intriguing look at complex appropriation of the outlaw tradition. Conover explains how the songs themselves are often modernized outlaw ballads that praise in their lyrics and forms both traditional and contemporary outlaw figures. Moreover, she explains how the band itself found it necessary to appropriate the outlaw figure to communicate these messages as freely and truthfully as possible as well as to heighten the acceptance and credibility offered by the listening audience. Conover’s exploration of “the tenacity of the outlaw paradigm as an expression of resistance” can be used as a representative example of the outlaw figure’s importance of and use by “subordinate groups in situations of social inequality throughout the American cultural landscape.”
Article Seven “A Meanness in This World: The American Outlaw as Storyteller in Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska” by Ryan Sheeler, tackles Bruce Springsteen, who some might claim is the most quintessentially American musician in popular music. Sheeler addresses one of his many critically acclaimed albums, though Nebraska seems to be lesser known. This 1982 album presents a series of character sketches dealing with the poor and vagrant, the downcast, the criminals, and the outlaw, all connected by the cultural landscape the Midwest offers America. The article examines the collective narrative formed by the ten tracks of Nebraska in an effort to understand how this one album, through its connection of various scenes, may reflect a certain aspect of American culture. Encountering the outlaw figure in one form after another in popular culture and immersed in a long tradition of outlaw ballads in American music, Springsteen embraces the figure and form and captures the outlaw mind-set by presenting the Nebraskan cultural landscape through the outlaw’s eyes. Sheeler explains that using only his voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica, Springsteen’s collection of songs are “rough-around-the-edges but nonetheless very poignant and engaging,” a interconnected piece where each song’s lyrics, structure, and raw musical style build on each other until a complex outlaw narrative is made. The album presents both “the stories of law-abiding citizens in desperate circumstances” (such as “Highway Patrolman” in which a trooper must chase his own brother) and those of “criminals, outlaws, vagabonds, and also-rans” (such as the title piece “Nebraska” which offers a foray into the mind of Charlie Starkweather). Springsteen’s first-person perspective in these songs provides a startlingly clear understanding of the circumstances surrounding the figure and the outlaw mind-set that develops because of them. In his essay, Sheeler argues “American culture, on some level, seeks to understand the outlaw characters in terms of causation,” and through his argument the reader realizes the manner in which Nebraska traces the links in this casual chain with a poignant musical style and haunting lyrical detail.
Article Eight, “From Subterranean to Suburban: The Landscapes of Gay Outlaw Writing” by Martin Dines, explores and assesses the aesthetic and political implications of urban and suburban landscapes in the work of sexual dissidents who have been described as “outlaw writers.” Dines contrasts the urban public space with suburbia in an attempt to understand the freedom gained from the existence of suburbia as a contemporary frontier culture. In this article, the outlaw figure inhabits a new frontier in a new form, yet he still seeks freedom from unjust laws and is in conflict with an oppressive system. Focusing on John Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw and Dennis Cooper’s Try, Dines explores the outlaw figure’s place in gay culture and his navigation through vast, sterile, urban landscapes. In both works, the outlaw figure seems to exist outside not only mainstream heterosexual culture but also mainstream homosexual culture. More importantly, Dines explores how the outlaw figure progresses from an urban environment to a suburban one. In the later, the outlaw’s connection to this non-defining space illuminates those attributes of the outlaw connected to specific locales and those characteristics inherent in the figure.
Article Nine, “Outlaw Artists and the Urban Landscape: Does One Have to be Bad to Be Good?” by Teresa Paschke, is the most personal example of appropriating the outlaw folktype. Paschke recounts the lives of eight artists living and working on the third floor of the Berman Buckskin Building in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District. These artists all lived with an acute awareness that, at any moment, their landlord, the Fire Marshal, or the city inspectors might raid the place, discover they were living in a building that wasn’t zoned for such a thing, and give them the boot. The article explains how these people came to envision themselves as outlaws. And focuses on the real life stories of this specific group of artists who, during the mid-1980’s, lived (illegally) and worked in a Minneapolis warehouse, a contemporary garret in an attempt to understand the common phenomenon of the gentrification of this and other thriving artist communities. As she does, Paschke comments on mainstream society’s use of marginalized figures needed to occupy unwanted positions, exist in negative space, or fill in certain gaps left empty and unoccupied by the rest of society.
1 See Frank Prassel, The Great American Outlaw (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,1993). Prassel's The Great American Outlaw expands on this very topic. Providing "an outlaw chronology" documenting figures from Hereward the Wake in 1071 to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in 1992 and grouping these outlaws as "bandit, pirate, highwayman, desperado, rebel, bugheway, hoodlum, gunman, gangster, renegade, moll, patrio (patriot), mobster, badman, and fugitive" (5–10), Prassel uses travel accounts, local histories, and images in mass media to document the enduring presence of the outlaw in the world and in our minds. 3 See Richard Meyer, “The Outlaw: A Distinctive American Folktype" Journal of the Folklore Institute 17 (1980): 94–124.
1 See Frank Prassel, The Great American Outlaw (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,1993). Prassel's The Great American Outlaw expands on this very topic. Providing "an outlaw chronology" documenting figures from Hereward the Wake in 1071 to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in 1992 and grouping these outlaws as "bandit, pirate, highwayman, desperado, rebel, bugheway, hoodlum, gunman, gangster, renegade, moll, patrio (patriot), mobster, badman, and fugitive" (5–10), Prassel uses travel accounts, local histories, and images in mass media to document the enduring presence of the outlaw in the world and in our minds.
3 See Richard Meyer, “The Outlaw: A Distinctive American Folktype" Journal of the Folklore Institute 17 (1980): 94–124.
Keagan LeJeune is an Associate Professor of Folklore and English at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His research interests include the outlaw figure, Louisiana folklore, and Louisiana’s Neutral Strip.