Stranger in a Strange Land: The Enduring American Appeal of Existentialism

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Stranger in a Strange Land: The Enduring American Appeal of Existentialism


Gillespie, Nick, Reason


Of course I remember my first time. Only a true cad--or a true liar--doesn't.

When I look back on it, I was way too young--just 14. It happened, of all places, in the musty basement of the house I grew up in, during a lazy summer afternoon when for one reason or another my parents and siblings were gone and I had the place all to myself.

A square beam of dust-filled light streamed in from a small window, and I stumbled across a box filled with books whose pages were alternately brittle and yellowed and mildewed.

I picked up a small paperback with an odd cover and a cracked binding and squinted to read the book's first few lines, among the most famous in 20th-century literature: "Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure ..."

I spent the next two hours sitting on the basement's cool concrete floor, ripping through Albert Camus' seminal existentialist novel The Stranger. By the time I had finished that relentlessly compelling tale of gratuitous murder and vague redemption--"all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration," read the book's last words--my sense of the world had been shattered into a thousand pieces.

I didn't really understand The Stronger (I confess I still don't), but somehow it spoke to me, and I went on to devour Camus' other fiction and philosophical works, including "The Myth of Sisyphus" and The Rebel (another great opening line: "What is a rebel? A man who says no."). From there, I dug into the two other French figures most associated with existentialism in these United States: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Soon enough, I firmly believed that "existence precedes essence" (something else I've never quite understood) and embraced the four Ds that the critic Walter Kaufmann said defined existentialism: "dread, despair, death, and dauntlessness."

One or the great pleasures of reading George Cotkin's brilliant study Existential America (johns Hopkins) is that it explains why existentialism has proved so deeply appealing and enduring in an American context this, despite haughty claims by Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir that we were too shallow and upbeat a people, too lacking in metaphysical anguish, to get what they were saying. Cotkin, a historian at California Polytechnic State University, details how existentialism in its French and Kierkegaardian forms hugely influenced people ranging from Whittaker Chambers to Richard Wright to Betty Friedan to Tom Hayden. …

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