Existential America

Existential America

by George Cotkin
     
 

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Europe's leading existential thinkers—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus—all felt that Americans were too self-confident and shallow to accept their philosophy of responsibility, choice, and the absurd. "There is no pessimism in America regarding human nature and social organization," Sartre remarked in 1950, while Beauvoir wrote that

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Overview

Europe's leading existential thinkers—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus—all felt that Americans were too self-confident and shallow to accept their philosophy of responsibility, choice, and the absurd. "There is no pessimism in America regarding human nature and social organization," Sartre remarked in 1950, while Beauvoir wrote that Americans had no "feeling for sin and for remorse" and Camus derided American materialism and optimism. Existentialism, however, enjoyed rapid, widespread, and enduring popularity among Americans. No less than their European counterparts, American intellectuals participated in the conversation of existentialism. In Existential America, historian George Cotkin argues that the existential approach to life, marked by vexing despair and dauntless commitment in the face of uncertainty, has deep American roots and helps to define the United States in the twentieth-century in ways that have never been fully realized or appreciated.

As Cotkin shows, not only did Americans readily take to existentialism, but they were already heirs to a rich tradition of thinkers—from Jonathan Edwards and Herman Melville to Emily Dickinson and William James—who had wrestled with the problems of existence and the contingency of the world long before Sartre and his colleagues. After introducing this concept of an American existential tradition, Cotkin examines how formal existentialism first arrived in America in the 1930s through discussion of Kierkegaard and the early vogue among New York intellectuals for the works of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus. Cotkin then traces the evolution of existentialism in America: its adoption by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison to help articulate the African-American experience; its expression in the works of Norman Mailer and photographer Robert Frank; its incorporation into the tenets of the feminist and radical student movements of the 1960s; and its lingering presence in contemporary American thought and popular culture, particularly in such films as Crimes and Misdemeanors, Fight Club and American Beauty.

The only full-length study of existentialism in America, this highly engaging and original work provides an invaluable guide to the history of American culture since the end of the Second World War.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
No other book engages existentialism in America so broadly or seeks to make it so central to American intellectual life.

— Terry A. Cooney

Weekly Standard
Cotkin is at his best in tracing the recognition of the dark side of the human soul that characterizes the best of American literature in Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Dickinson, and others.

— Werner J. Dannhauser

National Post
Cotkin... makes the unusual argument that existentialism, despite its reputation as quintessentially French, was an equally American phenomenon... Cotkin does a good job showing how much the French thinkers' ideas resonated among prominent Americans.

— Andy Lamey

Village Voice
In Existential America, intellectual historian George Cotkin proves existentialism's relevance by showing that it was never just a fad; existential sensibilities run deep in our history. Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, who all toured the United States after the war, saw only the country's exterior, its consumerist boosterism. But would it be so surprising if the land of the free were also the land of the searching, the anxious, the alienated? This is, after all, the country of Herman Melville and Edward Hopper... Along the way [Cotkin] drops fascinating anecdotes about how existentialism touched everyone from FDR to MLK, from Whittaker Chambers to Betty Friedan... An engrossing, readable account of a major current in our cultural history.

— Richard Polt

Reason
One of the great pleasures of reading George Cotkin's brilliant study Existential America is that it explains why existentialism has proved so deeply appealing and enduring in an American context.

— Nick Gillespie

Rain Taxi
A useful reference volume for students of philosophy and American culture.

— Christopher Luna

Philadelphia Inquirer
Entertaining, insightful cultural history... Cotkin's welcome addition to this picture [of the history of existentialism] is to recognize, as too few ever have, America's participation in existentialism and special contribution to it.

— Carlin Romano

Guardian
Lively and readable... A fine survey of existential 'notions' in America, from the 1600s to the 1970s, when various new forms of French thought became more fashionable. It is quite discerning in the way it separates the various strands of the actual movement known as existentialism and locates its antecedents in various early American authors.

— Jay Parini

Cercles
A timely and compelling account of America's engagement with, and involvement in, what might otherwise be seen as a quintessentially European conversation.

— John Fagg

Washington Post Book World
Cotkin excels... in tracing the reception, in these optimistic, practical, can-do United States, of those European ideas and art forms that have mounted a challenge to our received world view.

— Joshua Glenn

American Literature
This sweeping survey traces the genealogy of existential philosophy in the United States.

Reason - Nick Gillespie
One of the great pleasures of reading George Cotkin's brilliant study Existential America is that it explains why existentialism has proved so deeply appealing and enduring in an American context.

Guardian - Jay Parini
Lively and readable... A fine survey of existential 'notions' in America, from the 1600s to the 1970s, when various new forms of French thought became more fashionable. It is quite discerning in the way it separates the various strands of the actual movement known as existentialism and locates its antecedents in various early American authors.

Philadelphia Inquirer - Carlin Romano
Entertaining, insightful cultural history... Cotkin's welcome addition to this picture [of the history of existentialism] is to recognize, as too few ever have, America's participation in existentialism and special contribution to it.

Washington Post Book World - Joshua Glenn
Cotkin excels... in tracing the reception, in these optimistic, practical, can-do United States, of those European ideas and art forms that have mounted a challenge to our received world view.

Village Voice - Richard Polt
In Existential America, intellectual historian George Cotkin proves existentialism's relevance by showing that it was never just a fad; existential sensibilities run deep in our history. Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus, who all toured the United States after the war, saw only the country's exterior, its consumerist boosterism. But would it be so surprising if the land of the free were also the land of the searching, the anxious, the alienated? This is, after all, the country of Herman Melville and Edward Hopper... Along the way [Cotkin] drops fascinating anecdotes about how existentialism touched everyone from FDR to MLK, from Whittaker Chambers to Betty Friedan... An engrossing, readable account of a major current in our cultural history.

Rain Taxi - Christopher Luna
A useful reference volume for students of philosophy and American culture.

Cercles - John Fagg
A timely and compelling account of America's engagement with, and involvement in, what might otherwise be seen as a quintessentially European conversation.

American Historical Review - Terry A. Cooney
No other book engages existentialism in America so broadly or seeks to make it so central to American intellectual life.

National Post - Andy Lamey
Cotkin... makes the unusual argument that existentialism, despite its reputation as quintessentially French, was an equally American phenomenon... Cotkin does a good job showing how much the French thinkers' ideas resonated among prominent Americans.

Weekly Standard - Werner J. Dannhauser
Cotkin is at his best in tracing the recognition of the dark side of the human soul that characterizes the best of American literature in Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Dickinson, and others.

Hazel E. Barnes
As a richly detailed account of the reception of existentialism in America, this book is unequaled. But it is more than the history of a particular philosophical movement. Cotkin explores the independent expressions of what he calls 'the Existentialist mood' in the work of Americans anticipating or paralleling the thought of European writers. Impeccable in its scholarship, Existential America is also a delight to read. The writing is lively and engaging and reveals, where appropriate, its author's ironic sense of humor.
James Hoopes
An excellent book by virtue of its breadth of approach. The author has aspired to do far more than write the history of existentialism in America. He uses the subject of existentialism, important enough in its own right, to give a fresh synthesis of much of American intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century.
Library Journal
Cotkin (history, California Polytechnic State Univ.) presents an involving and cogent discussion of the connections among the trenchant concepts in American philosophy before World War II, the articulated theories and postures of French existentialism as it was imported here after the war, and late 20th-century American literature and film, which have been shaped by existentialist aesthetics. The essential tenet of existentialism-that each human is condemned to be free seems to have been realized in American cultural history, from Jonathan Edwards to William James to Walter Lowrie's obsessive translation of Kierkegaard for American readers after the Great War. Cotkin provides an excellent gloss on the discrepancies among the existentialisms Americans met in the works of Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir, just as he describes how American culture affected these French existentialists. Though existentialism became a fainter force here after 1970, films like Fight Club and American Beauty (both 1999) concern themselves and thus their viewers with existential questions as well as American iconography. Cotkin's intellectual history will engage any American who remembers identifying with Camus's The Stranger as an adolescent, as well as offering students a compelling theory of American culture.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley P.L., CA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801882005
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
03/25/2005
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
368
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.95(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Bruce Kuklick

George Cotkin's Existential America is an outstanding new work. It is original in the best sense of the word, for no one has before examined how existentialism was received in the United States. The book is also compelling in its wide-ranging treatment of the academic accommodation of Sartre and the appropriation of his ideas by writers and artists.

Bruce Kuklick, University of Pennsylvania, author of A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

Hazel E. Barnes

As a richly detailed account of the reception of existentialism in America, this book is unequaled. But it is more than the history of a particular philosophical movement. Cotkin explores the independent expressions of what he calls 'the Existentialist mood' in the work of Americans anticipating or paralleling the thought of European writers. Impeccable in its scholarship, Existential America is also a delight to read. The writing is lively and engaging and reveals, where appropriate, its author's ironic sense of humor.

Hazel E. Barnes, American translator of Sartre's Being and Nothingness

James Hoopes

An excellent book by virtue of its breadth of approach. The author has aspired to do far more than write the history of existentialism in America. He uses the subject of existentialism, important enough in its own right, to give a fresh synthesis of much of American intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century.

James Hoopes, Babson College, author of Community Denied: The Wrong Turn of Pragmatic Liberalism

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Meet the Author

George Cotkin is a professor of history at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He is the author of Reluctant Modernism: American Thought and Culture, 1880–1900 and William James, Public Philosopher, the latter published by Johns Hopkins.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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