White Outlaws, Black Stetsons: The Rhetorical Presence of the African-American “Stagolee” Trope in White Outlaw Myth and Literature

By Kenneth DiMaggio.

Published by The International Journal of Literary Humanities

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

From Hunter S. Thompson’s book “Hell’s Angels,” to songs penned or sung by country and western singer Johnny Cash, the untamable White outlaw has been a staple of modern American myth and art. The conventional wisdom is that these bikers and two-fisted drinking and guitar playing singers have their mythic origin in the 19th century hillbilly or cowboy. You can’t deny the resemblance of a motorcycle run of Hell’s Angels on their Harleys to a sheriff’s posse of horse-riding cowboys. Yet the way a biker will kill for his colors or a drifter murder for his honor is also reflective of, and even influenced by, another specific incident and real life character, the 19th century pimp, Lee Shelton (also known as “Stagolee”) who got into a fight with a rival who tried to take his Stetson hat away from him. Before Shelton was convicted of murdering this rival, heroic legends, tales, and songs about it were circulating throughout the late 19th century African-American community. But just as African-American rhythm and blues along with gospel music influenced White rock and roll, I also feel that the African-American Stagolee trope has also helped shape and influence the myth of the White outlaw in modern culture and literature.

Keywords: Outlaws, Hell’s Angels, Country and Western, Stagolee

The International Journal of Literary Humanities, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp.37-44. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 422.156KB).

Kenneth DiMaggio

Professor of Humanities, Humanities, Capital Community College, Hartford, USA

I am professor of humanities at Capital Community College (CCC) in Hartford Connecticut. CCC is an urban community college where students are often reading and writing at a level that is below traditional college course work, thus making literacy a prime issue that constantly needs to be addressed. As a teacher of literature and writing, I am constantly looking for texts, other forms of media, and new pedagogies to help address the above issue.