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 "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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Existential America Reviews
Slow and intricate at times, fast-paced and lively in its criticism at other times, "Existential America" succeeds on two fronts. The book shows the longstanding existential attitude in American culture, even before the word "existential" entered the English lexicon, and it shows in great detail the effects of European existentialism on twentieth-century American culture. Cotkin largely succeeds at making the thought of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, and others accessible, although I don't feel as though I came away with a solid grasp of the differences between Sartre and Camus.
existential america is a history of ideas book. i had heard about such studies and i recognized their usefulness but i don't think i have ever read one. i loved this book. i loved the brevity of the discussions. i feel they are accurate and i can use them as a guide to broadening my understanding of the existential viewpoints i make use of in my life. i have a strong sense of revolution being grounded in thought and not life; i opt for a more organic recipe for social change. i had no idea camus deals with this and look forward to reading him. the sections on wright and ellison touched on the blues as an existential response to life. making art as a rebellious response to suffering. i had always seen this music in a cultural context but now understand it as being for me at the very deepest level. for me a simple,straightforward but important book.
Cotkin's history of American existentialism is well written and researched from a concept of personal knowledge meeting academic framework. Cotkin demonstrates that existentialism thrives in America because of its via media value between traditionalism and radical postmodernism. According to Cotkin, existentialism is found everywhere from religion to modern film. He references existentialism as a way to critically understand the human condition in late modernity. Good read.
An excellent cultural history on existentialism in America. Existentialism was misunderstood by many in America but had a great impact on my others - in areas ranging from Prostestant theology to film noir. Definitely a must-read for anyone interested in existentialism.