Ideas in the Raw: American Modernist Fiction as a Source of French Existentialism

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Bradley, Jonathan
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Middle Tennessee State University
Despite the compartmentalization of academic fields, philosophy and literature enjoy an impressive amount of cross-fertilization. This interplay was especially notable during the early 1900s, when American modernism developed a conversation that carried over into French existentialism at mid century. This conversation, while not diminishing the creativity and thought of later French philosophers, reveals how ideas come into existence, develop into themes, and eventually become nameable as an established system of thought.
The American modernist themes that crossed the Atlantic did not appear spontaneously. They existed in rudimentary forms at earlier points in American literary history, manifesting to varying degrees in both major and minor works. Beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson, a survey of American writing that prefigures existentialism provides the foundation for an intertextual consideration of three major pairings: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jean-Paul Sartre; Carson McCullers and Simone de Beauvoir; William Faulkner and Albert Camus.
Fitzgerald's <italic>The Great Gatsby</italic> (1925) and Sartre's <italic>Nausea</italic> (1938) examine paradigmatic questions of authenticity in terms of an individual's relationship to the past. McCullers's <italic>The Member of the Wedding</italic> (1946) and De Beauvoir's <italic>All Men Are Mortal</italic> (1946) present the development of female self-conception, including the use of "phallus substitutes" to gain sovereignty in a patriarchal society. Faulkner's <italic>Light in August</italic> (1932) and Camus's <italic>The Stranger</italic> (1942) advance an absurdist worldview where innocents are punished not for their actions but for the social impressions of who they are.
These readings, while thorough, invite other pairings and provide space for further research, which should continue to highlight the many threads of this transatlantic conversation.
American literature, Existentialism, French literature, Interdisciplinary, Modernism, Transnational studies