American Studies

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Over, Under, Sideways, Down: On Louis Menand’s ‘The Free World’

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Louis Menand has generated an uninterrupted flow of far-ranging critical commentary in the pages of the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and his books, one of which—The Metaphysical Club—was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. American Studies, published almost 20 years ago, is a wonderful, representative sampling of his magazine writing. Many readers would like a sequel.

The Free World is Menand’s newest book, which bears the almost audaciously broad subtitle Art and Thought in the Cold War. The Free World, though, emphatically makes good on its promise: It is a Herculean, revelatory examination of this vast historical terrain. Within its pages are a far-ranging dramatis personae that include—to name but a very few—Susan Sontag, Elvis Presley, Jasper Johns, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt.

Did he feel any inhibition about attempting a work of this scope? “I didn’t really know what I would include until I had written three or four chapters,” Menand says via email. “Then I was able to see where the trend lines were that would get me to my predetermined terminus, Vietnam. It was then a matter of deciding which stepping-stones would get the reader to see the changes I was trying to document.

“Things included were things that gets us there (U.S. as center of increasingly global culture, international exchanges, opening up of American society and the arts), so generally not conservative thought or other ‘backlash’ tendencies—though of course they are there and are part of the story,” he says. “I feel I could have written 18 more chapters, if I could live forever.”

The Free World is wisely structured into discrete, yet cross-pollinating, loci. By dint of narrative sweep, analysis, a judicious use of statistics, and some not-inconsequential dollops of humor, the book presents a comprehensive picture. The Free World also—crucially—provides the space for readers to draw their own conclusions.

Drawing one’s own conclusions about this large swath of history makes sense for many reasons. “[I]n general,” Menand says, “as a historian, you are giving readers the tools to analyze for themselves topics you did not take up.”

The era of the Cold War was undergirded by apocalypse. World War II was in the very recent past. With the advent of the atomic age, there was the real prospect of another apocalypse, this one capable of ending sustainable life on the entire planet. America’s insidious notions of racial superiority were legally codified. The CIA, as Menand amply documents, was unleashed. And The Free World is unflinching in chronicling the era’s “deeply entrenched ideology of gender difference” that manifested itself in vicious, often violent misogyny.

At the same time, the United States went through a cultural and intellectual big bang. Higher education expanded to unprecedented levels. One could function on minimal income and still be able to write, paint, make music. Magazines proliferated. Ideas mattered.

There was also an envy-inducing dose of serendipity. The legendary movie critic Pauline Kael, we read, “started out writing plays, but one day in 1952, she was sitting with a friend in a coffeehouse in Berkeley talking about Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. The discussion was overheard by Peter Martin, who was the co-founder, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights Book Shop. Martin also edited a movie magazine called City Lights. He invited Kael to write up her reviews on Chaplin. She did.”

The sweep of advancement was stunning, but just as stunning was the plethora of so many hideous elements. How can one properly assess this wide, complicated swath of history? Or do we live with the contradictions?

“Gotta live with them, but with regret,” he says. “I was a little surprised to see how small a role Cold War politics played in the art and poetry (apart from Howl) world, actually. It’s there, but it does not really impact the creative elements. The success the U.S. had as an emerging cultural power does make one think that the ‘hideous’ elements were unnecessary. But the government was hawkish all through the period (and beyond). We wasted not only a lot of money in the arms race but a lot of political capital as well.”

So much of Louis Menand’s oeuvre has focused on the craft and practice of writing? What was his practice in the crafting of The Free World? “You just roll out the carpet,” he says. “You want every sentence to follow, as though inevitably, the last sentence, same with paragraphs and chapters.

“Because that is how you want the reader to experience the book, as a continuous whole.”

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