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George Cotkin, Existential America

George Cotkin, Existential America. (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

In Existential America George Cotkin writes a cultural and intellectual history of what he considers as an American "existential awareness." Cotkin's extremely well-researched study functions on two levels: first, it presents us with valuable and well-documented evidence on the American public's complex response to European existentialism as a sustained system of philosophical ideas ranging from Soren Kierkegaard to Albert Camus; second, it makes a case for an indigenous American existential tradition which, as Cotkin claims, has sunk deep roots in American thought and culture since the days of Puritan colonization.

Existential America attempts to provide a counter-argument to French existentialists' proclamations that, given Americans' rampant optimism and materialism, as well as their lack of "feeling for sin and for remorse," in Simone de Beauvoir's phrasing, there was no hope for the development of a genuine existential consciousness in America. However, according to Cotkin's analysis, alongside America's tradition of optimism and swaggering confidence, there has always been an intense consciousness of death and despair in the American spiritual landscape: "The history of existential thinking in America began before Sartre first uttered the word 'existential.' Existential concerns have long colored the American intellectual temper. Dread, despair, death, and dauntlessness helped frame the existential imperatives of figures as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, William James, Edward Hopper, and Walter Lippmann" (6).

Cotkin informs us that America's fist contact with European existentialism was effected through the efforts of Episcopal clergyman Walter Lowrie, who flooded the presses with translations of Soren Kierkegaard's works in the late 1930s. Documenting in impressive detail the reception of the Danish philosopher's religious existentialism by American intellectuals, Cotkin is able to show us the "speed with which Kierkegaard … entered into the conversation of American intellectual and cultural life" in the post-war years: by the mid-1940s "everyone, from soldier to statesman, seemed to be reading and talking about Kierkegaard"(54). The Kierkegaardian confrontation of life in terms of paradox, irony, and tragedy struck a resonant chord in Americans for whom dread and angst came to function as metaphors not only for their age, the "Age of Anxiety", but also for the human condition. As Cotkin characteristically puts it, Kierkegaard's "religion of dread" promised post-war Americans a "curious escape from chaos" (55).

The chapters dealing with the Kierkegaardian influence on the American mindset in the Cold War era present us with valuable historical information on the subject, even though they do not clearly indicate the extent of that influence. At times, Cotkin appears to be suggesting that Kierkegaardian philosophy may have been a fashion rather than a lasting influence: "a degree of fashion and faddism had attached itself to the initial reception of Kierkegaard. By the mid-1940s, many were commenting upon the 'vogue' of Kierkegaard in America." Simultaneously, he states that Kierkegaardian thought left an indelible mark on American intellectuals primarily: "however, Kierkegaard's popularity remained confined largely to intellectuals, theologians, writers…" (91).

The chapter on the infiltration of French existentialism into America by the end of the 1940s is rich in detail and succeeds in showing the conditions under which Americans made their acquaintance with the provocative ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The dynamic invasion of Sartrean existentialism, facilitated by American fascination with French cultural capital, took place at the levels of both popular and elite culture: "fashion, chatter, and journalism relating to existentialism occurred simultaneously with serious considerations of it by American intellectuals" (91). The most fascinating aspect of Cotkin's analysis at this point has to do with his presentation of the context of conflicting visions within which the introduction of French existentialism into America was effected: on the one hand, "the middle brow publications of this period trumpeted a vision of America as a land bathed in the bright light of growth and contentment" (93); on the other, existentialism clearly appealed to a growing sense of pessimism in Cold War America.

Cotkin's emphasis is on the broad spectrum of responses to French existentialism in post-war America: public fascination evident in the insistent preoccupation of the American popular press with Sartre and Beauvoir's ideology and private lifestyle; rejection of existentialist philosophy as a mere instance of European affectation; serious debates on existentialist topics in the academic and literary circles; presentations of existential doctrines as the temporary side-effects of postwar European hardship and scarcity: "The dismal pessimism of Europe would vanish once, thanks to American largess, the postwar European economic recovery began"(104). When it comes to the bottom line, however, Cotkin tells us, French existentialism, even while being ridiculed by the popular press, became a dynamic element in the conversation of post-war culture, by appealing to the young, and to those outside the consensus, and by permanently affecting the discourse of such literary figures as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Norman Mailer.

In Richard Wright's and Ralph Ellison's fiction, existentialism merges with the blues tradition. Cotkin proclaims both of them to have been disciples of existentialism, but he also points out the degree of their appropriation of the existentialist vocabulary in their construction of a unique literary discourse capable of articulating the paradoxes and absurdity of African American experience: "in both Wright and Ellison, existentialism performed a host of functions. It offered them a language of engagement, a philosophical grounding to confront the vicissitudes of the human condition without forfeiting the specifics of the African American milieu that served as a foundation for their writing" (183).

Cotkin offers enlightening analyses of Richard Wright's The Outsider and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Still, he appears undecided as to whether Wright and Ellison found in existentialism a discourse that supported their experience of life as racial outcasts, or whether their vision of life was given shape by existentialist discourse: "Richard Wright was an existentialist before he knew such a thing existed. Once he confronted the work of existentialist writers, he was hooked"(167). It is also rather curious that André Malraux, whose brand of existentialism Ellison himself admits to having adopted in Invisible Man, is only casually dealt with by Cotkin.

Cotkin's discussion of Norman Mailer's philosophical vision aims at proving the existence of an indigenous vein of existentialist thought in America, rather than tracing lines of European existentialist influence on the American literary imagination. Mailer, Cotkin informs us, "had read little of Heidegger and only a smattering of Sartre" (185). So what is it that makes Mailer an 'existentialist'? According to Cotkin, Mailer "created for himself a persona of the writer as rebel, a sort of modern antinomian"(184). It is precisely his "antinomianism," his uncompromising individualism, that makes Mailer 'an American existentialist', according to Cotkin: his "view of transcendence through heroic transgression, [his] ideal of the destructive, the liberating, the creative nihilism of the Hip constituted the core of his American existentialism"(188).

Not even the impressive analysis of Mailer's "White Negro" can save this section of Existential America from the charge of irrelevance. Mailer's connection to existentialism, a philosophical body of ideas that Cotkin appears to be taking for granted, remains problematical and is bound to confuse the reader: "the closer [Mailer] came to French existentialism, the more he needed to distance himself from it"(193). Equally problematical and confusing appears to be Cotkin's attempt to locate in Mailer's fiction an "existential theology" which he considers as being akin to Kierkegaard's theological vision. The transgression of Mailer's phychopath-as-existential-hero can only very tangentially be associated with Kierkegaard's "leap into faith."

Another section of the book which presents the reader with valuable source material on America's response to French existentialism is the one focusing on the tension-filled relationship of the New York intellectuals with French existentialism. Even though New York intellectuals were initially taken by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir's ideas, they finally rejected them. Cotkin argues that this rejection can be accounted for by the New Yorkers' squeamish reaction to the pop press which was turning Sartre and Beauvoir into fashionable celebrities, as well as by their anti-communism which found Sartre's Marxism offensive. Still, Cotkin says, "in their own manner, some New York intellectuals worked in a thoroughly existential mode, albeit without designating it as such"(106). Once again Cotkin argues for an American existential(ist?) awareness which antedates the advent of European existentialism and which is reflective of the uniqueness of American experience: "while New York intellectuals rejected the literary theory and personal politics of the French existentialists, they hardly refused to traffic in their own brand of existential thinking"(125). Cotkin discusses Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, and art critic Harold Rosenberg as quintessential New York intellectuals of the post war years to suggest "affinities" rather than "direct influences" between them and French existentialism.

In the final sections of Existential America Cotkin undertakes to trace the connections between existentialist philosophy and the 1960s social movements, such as the New Left, the Civil Rights Movement, and Feminism. Behind the New Left ideology Cotkin locates Albert Camus's determining influence: "in many ways Camus became the philosophical radical of choice for the New Left generation of activists and thinkers." Sartre's impact on American radical politics was also considerable: "Sartre remained an important presence among student activists through his anti-imperialist rhetoric and work in war crimes tribunals against acts committed by the U.S. in Vietnam. His influence, however, slanted more toward the radical left"(226). Cotkin focuses on such philosophical statements by Camus as The Rebel and The Plague whose message of social solidarity served to inspire activists such as Tom Hayden of the New Left and Robert Moses of the Civil Rights Movement.

Through his discussion of the feminist visions of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, Cotkin argues that, as in the case of the New Left and of the Civil Rights movement, feminist consciousness in the American 1960s, largely shaped by Beauvoir and Friedan, possessed an existentialist foundation: "both of them approach women's questions through an existential perspective"(253). Despite their profound theoretical disagreements, Beauvoir and Friedan share a common existential view of women's experience: "Existentialism, by questioning the 'givens,' the polite presumptions of power and privilege, and by returning time and again to the ultimate questions of life, death, and the potential for freedom, must challenge the status quo"(258). By granting agency to the individual while suggesting that the individual assume responsibility for his/her oppression, Cotkin argues, existentialism became the motor force behind those political and social initiatives that marked the radical 1960s.

Existential America is bound to impress the reader by the sheer of volume of research that George Cotkin has undertaken in his exploration of European existentialism's impact on various facets of American culture, from literature, to photography and movies, to politics. The thoroughness of Cotkin's research is occasionally compromised by his attempt to simultaneously prove that there is a strain of 'existential' thought in American culture: "much of the best in American thought and culture for the last two hundred years has come from thinking existentially, from a willingness to confront death and finitude with a spirit of critique and rebellion. Many intellectuals and artists of influence found their voice through existentialism . . . Many of them were able to create art, the ultimate existential testament to overcoming the despair inherent in the human condition"(8). Perhaps what many reviewers of the book have complained about as lack of cohesion, is due to Cotkin's failure to see the difference between "existential awareness" as a general, and transnational, stance to experience, and "existentialism," as a relatively well-defined body of philosophical ideas. All the same, George Cotkin's Existential America remains a tremendously rewarding book that will definitely serve as reference for future studies on America's cultural dialogue with Europe.

Helena Maragou
The American College of Athens, Greece

 

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