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Like so many things from France, existentialism was introduced to America via the pages of fashion magazines. The “controversial French philosophy” (Vogue, 1946) was the next new post-war thing, the ideas less important than the look and style projected by world-weary heroes of La Résistance. Who were, of course, smoking.

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In the person of Albert Camus, existentialism was not dissimilar to Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat wreathed in an aura of cigarette smoke. Another version came from Simone de Beauvoir in her 1946 Harper’s Bazaar profile of her partner Jean-Paul Sartre: for all the “morbid, depressing, and dark” aspects of his writings, Sartre was really “full of youthfulness, optimism, and almost childish high spirits.” Right down to being repulsed by raw foods like oysters and strawberries.

It’s no wonder English-speaking philosophers had such a hard time taking l’existentialisme seriously or that Camus disliked the label. Perhaps more importantly, as scholar Anne Quinney explains, publishers’ marketing of existentialist writings in the United States from the end of World War II to the early 1950s played through this initial celebrity/style matrix. “Misperceptions, misreadings, and misunderstandings” were the result.

“Editorial and marketing decisions that would lead to mischaracterizations, delays in translating and publishing Camus’s work, and textual omissions that in turn formed his readership: his work was read eagerly and dismissed readily,” Quinney writes.

Editor and publisher Blanche Knopf, who did so much to canonize the trinity of Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir in America, declared existentialism dead in 1951. She may have been premature. The fad faded in the bright lights of the next new thing, but sales of the books only increased through the 1950s. The English version of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, “probably the most influential work to emerge from the existentialist movement,” didn’t come out until 1953, in what Quinney calls a “problematic” translation.

Quinney concentrates on Camus, whose non-fiction wasn’t given the attention of his novels in America. The Rebel, for instance, which Camus wanted published together with The Myth of Sisyphus, was released as a separate volume that was “poorly translated.” An astonishing 80,000 words were cut from the manuscript. It was published without much advertising and none of the hoopla that accompanied The Plague, which was promoted with post cards of the Grim Reaper emblazoned with quotes like “The Plague is coming!” “It has already struck Europe!” and “More than 100,000 in France have been swept up by it!”

But even in a “form almost unrecognizable from its original” The Rebel “still managed to speak to a multitude of readers over time,” writes Quinney.

Robert Kennedy, as a famous example, came out against the death penalty after reading Camus, while Civil Rights warrior Bob Moses was inspired by reading Camus in Mississippi jails. Quinney wonders what Camus’s reception would have been if the spectrum of his work had been available earlier in better translations, not to mention unabridged. She notes that a full half century had to elapse before Camus’s Algerian writings were published in translation. (Knopf sold Camus as a French writer, but he quite specifically wanted to be known as a “Frenchman from Algeria”—a category he didn’t live to see become a historical footnote at the end of the Algerian War in 1962, when a million people of European-ancestry fled Algeria.)

Meanwhile, it took about two decades for English-speaking philosophers to accept existentialism. Introduced as a literary fad, buffeted by the perennial problem of American anti-intellectualism (Time called it “excrementalism”), and focused on personalities, the ideas had to break through the beclouding Gauloises haze.

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Yale French Studies, No. 135/136, Existentialism 70 Years After (2019), pp. 31–45
Yale University Press