Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of S.E. Hinton’s cult classic The Outsiders. Hinton wrote the novel while still attending high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and when she signed the publisher’s contract in May 1966, her mother had to co-sign because the author was still a teenager.
At the time, the book’s prospective title reeked of dreamy abstraction. The back matter of Penguin’s recently published 50th anniversary edition, which contains reproduced archival documents and photographs, reveals an interesting tidbit: The Outsiders was originally titled A Different Sunset and went through a number of suggested name changes in the months leading up to publication.
In a July 1966 letter, Hinton’s editor, Velma Varner, advocates new names for both author and title—modifying Susan Eloise to S.E. in order to hoodwink boy readers who might be resistant to reading a female author and changing the title to The Greasers. In September, Hinton replies to the title change, telling Varner, “I don’t like ‘The Greasers’ because for one thing, they’re not known as ‘greasers’ all over the country.” She concludes her typed letter with a plea: “And please help me think of a title.”
Hinton must have dashed off three new ideas soon thereafter, because the next letter from Varner on Sept.r 22 responds to them, calling them too poetic; they were based on the Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which features prominently in the story. Varner counsels, “They will not attract many teenage readers.” (As Ponyboy or Johnny Cade might have put it, they weren’t tuff enough.) Varner mentions a few other contenders in the same letter: North of Division Street, The Long-Haired Boys, and The Boys in Blue Jeans, none of which thrilled. “The consensus here,” writes Varner, “is for ‘The Switch-blade Boys.’ ”
On October 3, a last-ditch telegram from New York arrived in Tulsa. It read in full: “How about The Leather Jackets?”
Ten days later, when Varner wrote again, author, agent, and editor had finalized the title The Outsiders. Hinton’s story of a gang of friends from the bad part of town fighting (or rumbling, as it were) with the rich kids captivated American adolescents. According to Jon Michaud, Hinton “single-handedly brought the Y.A. genre into being.” The 1983 film adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola starring Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, and Matt Dillon created a new generation of fans, and the book has sold more than 10 million copies.