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Existential America Paperback – March 25, 2005
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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)
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.
- Publisher : The Johns Hopkins University Press (March 25, 2005)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 380 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0801882001
- ISBN-13 : 978-0801882005
- Item Weight : 1.2 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.38 x 0.86 x 9.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,167,514 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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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.