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Existential America [Hardcover]

George Cotkin

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Book Description

23 Dec 2002

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.

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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 Reason)

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 Guardian)

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 Philadelphia Inquirer)

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 Washington Post Book World)

An involving and cogent discussion... 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.

(Library Journal)

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 Village Voice)

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

(Christopher Luna Rain Taxi)

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 Cercles)

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

(Terry A. Cooney American Historical Review)

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 National Post)

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 Weekly Standard)

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)

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)

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)

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

(American Literature)

About 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.

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First Sentence
NEARLY EVERYONE, it seemed, coming of age in 1950s and 1960s America danced to the song of French existentialism. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing and highly entertaining read 17 Sep 2008
By Juneko J. Robinson - Published on Amazon.com
George Cotkin has written a fascinating history of the existential themes and concerns that have run throughout the course of American intellectual history.

Drawing from sources ranging not only from philosophy and religion but from literature, art, photography, theater and, surprisingly, even politics and popular social criticism, Cotkin reveals that, far from being merely a European concern, existentialism was already deeply embedded within the American psyche by the time Sartre visited the U.S. in the 1940s. Indeed, existential concerns informed the works of American pragmatist philosopher William James, as well as Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (who are also both featured in Louis Menand's excellent work The Metaphysical Club) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Cotkin himself locates the beginnings of our own existentialist tradition in the Calvinist tradition and the psychic ravages experienced by the nation as a result of its experiences with the Civil War, slavery, and the mass annihilation of Native Americans, and daily grind associated with life in the 1800s.

Despite our reputation for liberal optimism, nineteenth century American culture was deeply steeped in moral contradiction and death and the resulting anguish is evidenced in the works by many early American writers such as Herman Melville, the so-called American Dostoyevsky.

Hence, when Kierkegaard was finally translated into English in the 1940s, the American academic audience was receptive and the impact was immediate, particularly in religious and social criticism circles. Interestingly enough, Sartre and Beauvoir had only limited influence in the 1940s and `50s in large part due to their leftwing politics, which alienated the staunchly anti-communist New York intellectuals.

In a systematic yet exciting fashion, Cotkin traces the chronology of European existentialist influence upon American thinkers, beginning with Kierkegaard on through Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, and Heidegger on American thinkers, artists, and activists.

The breadth of Cotkin's analysis is amazing.

Novelists Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and writer Norman Mailer are featured at length, with briefer treatments of works by Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Dorothy Sayers, and William March (The Bad Seed), and hardboiled detection fiction writers such as James M. Cain (whose work inspired Camus' The Stranger), and Dashiell Hammett.

In addition, novelist and dramatist Thornton Wilder are given broader treatment, while the works of playwrights Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, and poets W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson are briefly discussed or mentioned in passing, as is Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra.

Especially delightful are Cotkin's discussions of painters Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, photographer Robert Frank (whose works appeared in the famous Family of Man exhibition), and art critic Harold Rosenberg's analyses of the American Action Painters, including Jackson Pollock. Cotkin also offers brief analyses of films such as The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, noir-classic D.O.A., as well as the work of director Woody Allen.

There are some interesting surprises as well. It was clergyman Walter Lowrie, we're told, who helped popularize the newly translated Kierkegaard in the 1930s, a move that shaped American political discourse and religious thought from the 1930s on through the post WWII era.

Some of the leading public figures of the 1930s, `40s and `50s were influenced by Kierkegaard. Leading religious thinker and moralist Reinhold Niebuhr is discussed at length, as are cultural critic Walter Lippman, political commentator and founder of Americans for Democratic Action Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and conservative thinker and communist apostate Whittaker Chambers.

Much briefer treatments are given to cultural critics Joseph Wood Krutch, social philosopher Will Herberg and mention is made of sociologists C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite, White Collar) and David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd), theologian Paul Tillich, and existentialist psychologists Rollo May and Erich Fromm

Finally, activists Tom Hayden, Robert Moses, and Betty Friedan are discussed at length in addition to philosophers William Barrett, Walter Kaufman, Hazel E. Barnes (Sartre's original translator).

Although his treatment of many of the figures mentioned above is often brief, it is pointed. His short discussion of Melville was just enough to inspire me to read Moby Dick and Bartelby the Scrivener.

In sum, Existential America is an excellent survey of the trajectory of existentialist thought in the U.S. Although hardcore philosophers are likely to wish for more in depth philosophical analysis of the thinkers, the book's strength lies in its historical analysis. All in all, Existential America is an engrossing and highly entertaining read.
17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book, Important Subject 12 April 2003
By Stephen Tootle - Published on Amazon.com
Cotkin has done a wonderful job of taking a very complex subject (one which seems to attract bad writers as well) and turning it into a good story. Best of all: He writes in jargon-free English. Perfect for a Senior seminar in American intellectual history. How was existentialism received in America? Read the book.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite Simply Amazing 4 Jun 2012
By History, Theology and the Life of the Mind - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is a must read for any student of U.S. Intellectual or Religious history. I recommend this book to professional and lay historians, pastors, public intellectuals, and artists. It is quite simply amazing.
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