French Existentialism and American Popular Culture, 1945-1948

By Cotkin, George | The Historian, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

French Existentialism and American Popular Culture, 1945-1948


Cotkin, George, The Historian


The translation in 1947 of Jean-Paul Sartre's lecture, "Existentialism is a Humanism" (1945), insured that the term existentialism would enter into the vocabulary of American thought and culture. Existentialism is notoriously difficult to define, especially since it claims a varied philosophical background, drawing from Rene Descartes, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger. Moreover, as Gabriel Marcel and others announced, an existentialist could believe in God as mightily as a Sartrean embraced atheism. Sarte's existentialism, in its boldest outlines, came to rest on the assertion that man is free, and that in having the freedom to choose, man encounters anxiety and despair. While existentialism in Sartre's hands often dwelled on the absurd and problematic nature of human existence, the essential conclusion that the existential perspective drew was that our existence is of our own making; we are responsible for our fates. This "dreadful freedom" was at once exhilarating and frightening.(1)

In his introduction to Sartre's lecture on existentialism, translator Bernard Frechtman remarked that the American vogue for Sartre's "philosophy, which had begun in 1945 was ... one of those curious phenomena which might, if properly examined, illuminate some peculiarities of culture in America." Alas, Frechtman failed to develop this insight, although he did suggest that the popular press in America had focused too much on Sartre's personality and too little on his ideas.(2)

Examination of the initial dissemination of French existentialism in American popular culture reveals a number of intertwined themes. First, much of the American fascination with French existentialism was rooted in what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls "cultural capital," the power of certain cultural representations to command prestige and respect.(3) Thus, from the start, fashion and idea coexisted to define the dissemination of French existentialism in America. Second, American coverage of French existentialists such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus exemplified what historian Daniel Boorstin calls the predominance of the celebrity in modern American culture. The popular reception of existentialism in America was as much about the image of the intellectual as the content of existentialist ideas. Third, Sartre and other existentialists were portrayed in American popular culture as exemplary of "an erratic left-bank bohemianism,"(4) an image that fit poorly with postwar celebrations of the American intellectual as a sober minded, optimistic, and respectable citizen. By popularizing French existentialists as celebrities and associating their pessimistic philosophy with the trauma France had experienced in World War II, the popular press undermined their reception by the American intellectual community. Many considered existentialism a passing vogue, not centrally applicable to the life of the mind in America. Thus, the cultural politics for the dissemination of existentialism in America became complex, marked by tensions in control of the cultural capital associated with French culture and the image of the intellectual. It was nearly 20 years before existentialism was accepted as a viable philosophy relevant to the modern American intellectual community.

Americans in the 1940s highly valued French ideas, art, and fashion, less for any essential quality than for the prestige that came with their French label. These perceptions were satirized in two cartoons that ran in the late 1940s in the New Yorker, which apotheosized a certain popular, middlebrow style in America. In one cartoon, a rather disheveled street vendor selling ties at 25 cents each looks askance at his well-dressed competitor who is able to sell the same items, elegantly called cravats, at one dollar apiece (Figure 1). Another cartoon shows a doughty group of women, one of whom exclaims: "I know what! Let's have an Old-Fashioned before we start talking French" (Figure 2). …

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