Back in the late 1930's, when Philip Rahv made that famous distinction between American literature's ''redskins'' (yawping Walt Whitman) and ''palefaces'' (finicking Henry James), he was talking about contrasting sensibilities, not armed camps. But in the 50's, all hell broke loose. With the publication of ''On the Road,'' ''Howl'' and ''Naked Lunch,'' the Beat writers and the establishment (which might have been smug enough not to have realized it was any such thing) declared war on each other, and the Beats were cast -- and certainly cast themselves -- as the rebel-angels of a perpetual insurrection, recruiting from beyond the grave (Blake, Rimbaud), trying to enlist neglected, potentially sympathetic elders (Pound, Williams) and potential fellow travelers (the Black Mountain school), proselytizing the young. Earlier American misfits, from Melville through Robinson Jeffers, had probably figured neglect was just their personal tough luck. Now misfits had a movement, even if they were too cantankerous to sign up: a literary counterculture with an alternative -- at heart, a Miltonic -- reading of literary history. The entrance exam was largely a background check, and nobody graded the written portion.
That's a short version of the history behind ''The Outlaw Bible of American Literature,'' a new anthology put together by the writer Alan Kaufman, the editor Neil Ortenberg and the seminal publisher Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press and Evergreen Review gave a brand -- and more important, a home -- to writers once deemed, for whatever reason, too dangerous to handle. Some of the foreigners Rosset supported (Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco) have long since become respectable, if no less formidable. But most of the Americans he published (William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Terry Southern) remain outsiders. In part this is because of the work itself: sometimes semipornographic -- though seldom gamier than passages in John Updike and Philip Roth -- sometimes antiestablishmentarian, sometimes hard to read, sometimes all of the above. But in part it's because the idea of literary outlawry -- any kind of outlawry -- is irresistible to the American imagination, which may never outgrow its Puritan-Manichaean origins. In fact, for two cents, I'd say ''The Outlaw Bible'' is a quintessential document of the Bush Era, but that would hurt everybody's feelings.