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Existential America
George Cotkin
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
£29. 50, 368 pages, ISBN 0801870372 (hardback).

John Fagg
University of Nottingham


In his previous book length work, Reluctant Modernists: American Thought and Culture, 1880-1900 (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), Cotkin showed himself to be adept at the art of synthesis as he traced a dialectic of resistance and acceptance of certain “modern” ideas through the American nineteenth century and across a range of materials. Almost inevitably, given its scope, this book suffered from a lack of detail and a tendency to generalise. In particular it took a rather simplistic approach in associating certain stylistic and thematic traits with a ‘modernist’ position so that, for example, Stephen Crane’s pessimistic attitude stands, unchallenged, as evidence of his modernism. Existential America follows a similar blueprint. Cotkin is as comfortable forging links between European and American intellectual traditions, and relating philosophical ideas to literary and political acts, as he had previously been at talking about anthropology, poetry, religion and evolutionary science in the same breath. However, problems created by the act of balancing a broad field of enquiry with the need to maintain accuracy and to preserve the rigidity of key terms (in this case “existentialism” in place of “modernism”) continue to undermine the fascinating history that this book explores.

Existential America divides roughly into two sections. The first details the way that American intellectuals and theologians met and embraced, assimilated or rejected the terms of European existentialism up to the point in the mid-1950s where a “canon” of “existential” works was established within the American academy and for a wider reading public. The second section concerns the way that American thinkers and activists took up and utilised this intellectual inheritance. Of the two sections, the latter is the more convincing as its subject is better suited to Cotkin’s mode of overview history and to his interest in the movement and reception of ideas “in the popular mind” (98). Unfortunately, some of the absences and unresolved tensions of the first section come back to haunt this account and so, before commending the strengths of Cotkin’s text, it is necessary to recognise its weaknesses.

At a relatively superficial level, the first section contains a number of localised contradictions that apparently stem from a desire to impose dramatic narratives onto the reception of philosophical ideas. Chapter 4 opens with the (admittedly irony inflected) claim that “By the mid-1940s, everyone, from soldier to statesman, seemed to be reading and talking about Søren Kierkegaard” (54). Conversely, in Chapter 5, which begins by arguing that, in America, the French existentialists built on and far exceeded the popularity of their Danish precursor, Cotkin states that “Kierkegaard’s popularity remained confined largely to intellectuals, theologians, and writers” (91).

The handling of this shift from the initial focus on Kierkegaard to the discussion of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus points to a more fundamental problem thrown up by Cotkin’s emphasis on the reception of ideas rather than their inception. There is a tension throughout the text between the need to preserve a chronological sense of the development of existentialist thought and the aim of providing a different kind of history that relates to the reception of these European ideas in the United States. In the case of Kierkegaard and Sartre, Cotkin resolves this tension by allowing a false narrative to suggest itself in which the American reception of these thinkers replicates the chronological order in which their work was originally produced. Although close investigation of Cotkin’s text and endnotes clarifies that, in fact, the two crossed the Atlantic at more or less the same time, the structure of the chapters and the development of the argument suggest otherwise.

While these contradictions remain relatively localised, pertaining more to the author’s method of argument than to his argument itself, rather more problematic contradictions are instigated in the “Introduction” and consolidated during the opening chapter on “The Drizzly November of the American Soul.” In the “Introduction,” a basic distinction is drawn between, on the one hand, the terms of French existentialism, which, as Cotkin states, is bound in a specific moment of history, and, on the other, a wider tradition of “thinking existentially,” which is defined as “a willingness to confront death and finitude with a spirit of critique and rebellion” (8). In the following chapter it is relatively clear that it is this second mode which is being located in the work of such disparate figures as Jonathan Edwards, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. However, in subsequent chapters the two meanings bleed into one another so that it is often unclear which version of ‘existentialism’ is being referred to.

This problem stems from Cotkin’s refusal to enter into a detailed exposition of the precise terms of French existentialism as conceived by Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus. While the constraints of space and the nature of the project would make an in-depth definition impractical, the absence of any such exposition causes its own set of problems. In lieu of a more rigid definition, readers unversed or rusty in Sartrean thinking are likely to revert to the loose definition of existentialism given by Cotkin. It therefore becomes difficult for Cotkin to express, and the reader to deduce, the difference between American thought directly influenced by the French existentialists and that which, either through a shared disposition or the effect of common cultural conditions, merely exhibits similar traits. Thus, responding to his own question “Did Mailer have a clue about what he was doing in bandying about the term ‘existential’?” Cotkin can only state that “The depth and provenance of [Mailer’s] existentialism are unclear” (185) where a fuller definition of the terms of French existentialism might have led to a more satisfying conclusion.

Not only does the lack of a clearly stated account of the central tenets of French existentialism leaves us without a frame of reference in which to make such distinctions but it also leaves Cotkin open to the charge of “bandying” the term. Woody Allen is an “existential” film director, Eugene O’Neill an “existential” playwright and Edward Hopper an “existential” painter. Albert Murray is a “blues existentialist,” Richard Wright “was an existentialist before he knew such a thing existed” (167), Jonathan Edwards and other expressed a “puritan existential awareness” (16), William James had “existentialist grandchildren,” an “existential ideal that defined his philosophy” and “essentially existential” “notions of God and faith” (20-21) whilst Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty (1999) (“an existential rhapsody on male midlife crisis”) experiences “a Camusian exultation on the rhythms of life” (282-3), JFK has “sharp existential recognitions” (228) and Cotkin identifies an “existential motherlode in American intellectual and cultural life” (23).

The problem of definition becomes acute when Cotkin approaches the career of 1960s radical Tom Hayden as an attempt to follow a “Camusian” path of moderation between the role of the victim and that of the executioner. Much of the evidence for this narrative comes from Hayden’s Reunion: A Memoir (New York: Collier, 1989) written at a time when Hayden had already been elected to the State Assembly and shortly before he ran for the State Senate. While not necessarily inaccurate, the narrative of a Camusian search for authentic forms of opposition could certainly be seen to aid Hayden’s contemporary concerns.

In a wider sense, Cotkin can be seen to be participating in the effort, instigated by Hayden, Todd Gitlin and others, to detach the student movements and political radicalism of 1960s America from the stigma of ‘hippydom’ and ‘freakishness.’ The association with the more obviously thought through work of Camus and Sartre acts to relocate this period not as a pop cultural aberration but as an event within the mainstream of twentieth-century oppositional thought and action. Without the grounds for a more rigorous comparison between the action and rhetoric of the New Left and Camus’s model of political commitment, the doubts and uncertainties raised here go unaddressed and Cotkin’s attempt at relocation can only go so far.

Seen from this perspective, Existential America is a text that dulls rather than illuminates our understanding of both its titular concepts. “Existential” becomes an imprecise, transhistorical term that may be claimed and applied with little concern for any rigour that it may once have held. At the same time, the approach taken is antithetical to a view of the twentieth century in which the overthrow of colonial rule in Africa, Asia and South America are seen to spring from the same points of origin and conditions of possibility as the civil rights Movement, feminism and the New Left in America. In the argument that Cotkin offers, this dynamic vision of history is replaced with the terms of individual influence and a game of philosophical ‘Chinese Whispers.’

At its best though, Cotkin’s work offers an insight into the climate in which this game was played, describing the operation of intellectual networks, the under-sung role played by Walter Lowrie and others as an “impresario of ideas,” and the way that philosophical concepts can shape actions and lives. The passages that describe the impact of Sartre and Camus on American readers including Hazel E. Barnes, Robert Moses and Richard Wright capture something of the direct and liveable nature of these authors’ texts. Elsewhere, there is an almost gossipy quality to the description of the welcome extended to the French existentialists by the New York Intellectuals. Cotkin’s approach here opens up and humanises a potentially intimidating circle and goes some way towards collapsing high/low distinctions by demonstrating the influence of fashion and prejudice on such rarefied company. (This section of the book works particularly well as, blessed with distance and hindsight, Cotkin is able to peel back the personal, political and even patriotic layers of disdain to argue that “Rejection of the existentialists among New York intellectuals co-existed with unacknowledged acceptance of many aspects of an existential perspective” (124)).

That the best and worst elements of the text overlap and share common ground suggests that the problems identified stem not from Cotkin’s practice but are, instead, the inevitable results of the approach that he has chosen to take and the price to be paid for the broad perspective that he offers. The breadth and internationalism of this perspective is to be admired and it should be pointed out that Existential America provides a timely and compelling account of America’s engagement with, and involvement in, what might otherwise be seen as a quintessentially European conversation.

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