Saturday, September 22, 2012

Existentialism in America: black, white, left, right

On Richard Wright and Kierkegaard, an anecdote which C.L.R. James used to relate:
"Kierkegaard is one of the great writers of today. He is one of the men who, during the last twenty or thirty years, modern civilization has recognized as a man whose writings express the modern temperament and the modern personality. And Dick assured me that he was reading Kierkegaard because everything he read in Kierkegaard he had known before. What he was telling me was that he was a black man in the United States and that gave him an insight into what today is the universal opinion and attitude of the modern personality. I believe that is a matter that is not only black studies, but is white studies too. I believe that that is some form of study which is open to any university: Federal City College, Harvard, etc. It is not an ethnic matter. I knew Wright well enough to know that he meant it. I didn’t ask him much because I thought he meant me to understand something. And I understood it. I didn’t have to ask him about that. What there was in Dick’s life, what there was in the experience of a black man in the United States in the 1930s that made him understand everything that Kierkegaard had written before he had read it and the things that made Kierkegaard the famous writer that he is today? That is something that I believe has to be studied."

—— C.L.R. James, "Black Studies and the Contemporary Student" (1969)

Richard Wright and C.L.R. James were great thinkers of the modern condition in the mid-20th century. Their understandings became highlighted in the 1990s, notably by the Black British scholar Paul Gilroy (The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, 1993). Constance Webb, James's second wife and a remarkable personality in her own right, also recognized this about Wright in the 1940s.

Another major theme of James was the difference between "the old world and the new", i.e. Europe and the Americas. He did not cast this exclusively in racial terms, but as you can see, it is one factor he addressed. (A difference can also be argued regarding the appropriation of surrealism in the Caribbean and Latin America.)

But even within the United States, the appropriation of European thought has been widely differentiated, especially between left and right. This work is especially illuminating in this regard:

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Contents: The "drizzly November" of the American soul -- Kierkegaard comes to America -- A Kierkegaardian age of anxiety -- The vogue of French existentialism -- New York intellectuals and French existentialists -- The canon of existentialism -- Cold rage : Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison -- Norman Mailer’s existential errand -- Robert Frank’s existential vision -- Camus’s rebels -- Existential feminists : Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan -- Conclusion: Existentialism today and tomorrow.

Here is a review I cited back in 2006:

Adamowski, T.H. "Out on Highway 61: Existentialism in America," University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 74, Number 4, Fall 2005, pp. 913-933.

In Cotkin's book we can learn of the reactionary role played by the appropriation of Kierkegaard in the 1940s.  Here is one taste from Adamowski's review:
Cotkin never forgets the religious sources of existentialism, and thus Lowrie exists in his book as more than translator and editor. He had grown weary of the vapid ‘social gospel’ of 1920s and 1930s America, with its assumption that one might be virtuous and close to God merely because one held progressive social views. What does God care whether one is a progressive? Kierkegaard’s supreme indifference towards social moralizing offered escape from the anodyne social gospel, and Lowrie took up his own scholarly place in a tradition that would come to include, in Europe, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans (1968), as well as, in America, Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1945) and The Irony of American History (1952).

This is quite different from the leftist engagement with Camus and Sartre in the 1950s and '60s.  Existentialism was popular among black as well as white intellectuals in this period.  But then consider black existentialism in the 1940s, in particular Wright's engagement with Kierkegaard. I actually got some "oral history" (actually in correspondence) from Constance Webb on Wright's engagement with existentialism, which I will have to publish one day. I don't think anyone has made a study of Wright's appropriation of Kierkegaard compared to the generally reactionary role Kierkegaard's thought played in the USA in the 1940s. Wright comes to quite different conclusions in his 1953 novel The Outsider.

For more on Richard Wright, see my web sites:

Richard Wright Study Guide

The Richard Wright Connection (The C.L.R. James Institute)

Interestingly, the Richard Wright quotes collected in Wikipedia draw substantially on my work as a source:

Richard Wright - Wikiquote

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