As an initial matter, before addressing why the book was banned in certain schools, it is useful to summarize the plot generally. The protagonist in this story was Pony Curtis. Pony was a young boy whose parents had died in a car accident; as a result, he was cared for by his twenty year old brother, Darry. Pony was poor, though clever and a good student, and he did what all boys in this neighborhood did. He joined a gang, named the Greasers, and hung out with his gang as if they were an extended family. There was a rival gang, the Socs, made up of rich boys from a another neighborhood. A gang rivalry existed between the two, and one day a fight ensued in which Pony's good friend killed a member of the Socs gang in self-defense. Pony's friend later died, and another friend was shot by the police after going crazy and trying to rob a store with a gun. Pony, however, did not suffer the same fate as his friends; rather, after being inspired by a letter from Johnny, he decided to reconcile with his older brother and to try and improve his life. In short, Pony decided to reject the outsider lifestyle and to participate more productively in his society and community. Given the hopeful ending, the transcending of obstacles, it seems odd that the book was so heavily criticized.
The first The first basis for criticism was that the novel promoted gangs. More specifically, this line of reasoning argued that the novel, by including both rich and poor children in gangs, glamorized and encouraged young readers to pursue similar affiliations. In this way, the novel's critics believed that the novel was divisive, socially destructive, and immoral. It was socially divisive because it pitted rich boys against poor boys; it was socially destructive because violence was used as a conflict resolution tool for disputes; and, finally, it was immoral because the gang lifestyle promoted laziness, substance use, and revenge. Indeed, the central role of gangs in the novel was a central foundation for the criticism which ensued.
A second criticism was the use of violence by young boys. One can distinguish between clubs with mild-mannered rivalries and gangs with deeper notions of rivalry and revenge. It is one thing to portray youthful pranks; in the minds of the novel's critics, however, it was quite another thing to portray children and adolescents intending to cause serious physical harm and genuine emotional trauma on their rivals. A particular example was the use of weapons in the novel. These gang members, for instance, carried knives, bats, and guns. Rivals weren't simply embarrassed. Quite the contrary, as in the case of Johnny's conflict with Bob, some people were killed. Thus, in addition to the portrayal of gangs, the vivid depiction of violence also furnished a strong basis for the subsequent criticism.
A third criticism was the prevalence of substance use and abuse by underage boys. The references to cigarettes and alcohol were also found objectionable. These boys were underage. By associating public figures, in this case fictional characters from a popular novel, with substance abuse, many people argued that schoolchildren would be influenced to behave similarly. Today's cigarette-smoking adolescents will become tomorrow's marijuana users was the fundamental criticism. These