Louis Menand is a chronicler of the American mind, particularly in those moments when America is having second thoughts.
In "The Metaphysical Club” (2001), Menand told the story of the nation in the decades after the Civil War, as it groped for “a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of modern life.” He identified those concepts in the works of Charles Pierce, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey, who saw ideas as contingent and fallible, believed they develop in social contexts, and regarded them as adaptable tools more than immutable principles.
In the epilogue of that book, Menand hinted at his next stop. The pragmatists’ thinking, he wrote, came to be seen as naive in post-World War II America, a shift he linked to “the difference between the intellectual climate after the Civil War and the intellectual climate of the Cold War.” After all, the Cold War was a time of irreconcilable principles, a period, as Harry Truman put it in a 1947 speech declaring the standoff, when nations had to “choose between alternative ways of life.” Hardly the time for a worldview stressing tolerance and fallibility.
Now, with “The Free World,” Menand charts the transformations of cultural and intellectual life, primarily in the United States and Europe, during those early Cold War years. He examines and interprets the lives and works of scholars, essayists, painters, poets, novelists, dancers, singers, filmmakers and critics active in the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s. It is an engrossing and impossibly wide-ranging project — as idiosyncratic as it is systematic — written by an author confident that the things that interest him will interest his readers, too. And he’s right.
The Cold War-era cultural world prized freedom, Menand argues, in the most elastic sense of the word. Writers warned of the lurking dangers of totalitarianism and oppression — George Orwell and Hannah Arendt get plenty of attention here — and artists came to value the forms of their art over its social content, and authenticity over political obligations. The most vital freedom of this world was the freedom to experiment, to cast off old commitments “that had previously seemed sacrosanct or indispensable.” In an era of containment, the American mind was suddenly uncontainable.
The exercise of this freedom catapulted American creators to the center of mid-century artistic and intellectual life, even as the U.S. government, a superpower still trying out its new abilities, followed up a successful war of liberation in World War II with a failed war of domination in Vietnam. In “The Free World,” America simultaneously builds up enormous cultural capital and squanders vast political capital. It’s still not clear how such accounts have been settled.
One of the most memorable moments in “The Free World” is Menand’s retelling of “Theater Piece No. 1,” a multimedia creation by composer John Cage, which featured dance, lectures, piano, film projections and poetry readings, performed all at once at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in 1952. A true description of the event is difficult. There was no real stage — the audience sat in chairs facing one another while the performers occupied the aisles — so witness accounts differ dramatically. This effect was deliberate. The seating arrangement “de-centered the performance,” Menand explains. “The experience of each member of the audience was a function of the direction in which they were looking and the actions to which they elected to pay attention.” Cage was amused when an audience member arrived early, hoping for the best seat. “There was no best seat,” Menand writes, just different ones from which to choose and absorb some portion of the endless variations. Merce Cunningham was among the dancers, while Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Painting” hung overhead, the canvases white, uninflected, changing only depending on the light, the environment, the context and, above all, the spectator. The burdens and possibilities fell on the audience, as with so much of the art and thought Menand assesses.
“The Free World” can feel like “Theater Piece No. 1” at times. There are so many different people to watch and works to consider — readers can skip from George Kennan to George Orwell, from the Beats to the Beatles, from Richard Wright to Betty Friedan — and so much is changing all at once that everything competes for attention. If it feels that way reading it, how must the era have felt living it?
This was a period when artists radically challenged the subject, style and meaning of their work. It was when Jackson Pollock confronted the “essential attributes” of painting, posing, as Menand writes, the “persistent and unanswerable question of where the optimal viewing point might be.” (Again, no best seat.) Pollock did not just answer the challenge of surrealism — “the problem of rendering in visual form things that are supposed to be unconscious and intangible” — but also transformed the act of painting into an integral part of the art. With the artist dancing and flinging and dripping in and around a canvas laid upon the ground, the art became inseparable from the manner of its creation. Or as Menand puts it in one of his many memorable precis, “The idea of a ‘Pollock painting’ includes Pollock painting.”
Menand regards Andy Warhol and pop art as far more than a response to Pollock and abstract expressionism; the movement was an effort to question the nature of art itself, portraying it as one more commodity — or recognizing it as such. There is a market for soup cans, and a market for a painting of soup cans, too. “At that moment, art could be anything it wanted,” Menand writes. “The illusion/reality barrier had been broken.”
Pop’s commercial and critical success owes not just to the art itself but also to what Menand calls the “art-world infrastructure” — the galleries and dealers and collectors and critics, not to mention the audience — that had built up around the American art scene by the early 1960s. In “The Free World,” this broader cultural marketplace is as integral to the story as any painter or musician.
In particular, artists are inextricable from the critics assessing them. Menand cannot consider Pollock without noting the work of critic Clement Greenberg, whose landmark Partisan Review essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” made clear that art had become about art-making itself. He cannot explain the Beatles without considering the influence of Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone, which featured John Lennon on the magazine’s first cover. And he cannot describe the resonance of films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” without exploring the role of critic Pauline Kael, whose 7,000-word defense of the movie in the New Yorker embodied her argument that even so-called serious movies should meet the popular standard of, well, providing entertainment. “The critics let us know which angels are worth wrestling with,” Menand writes.
Those wrestling matches could become intramural. Menand, who is an English professor at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker, devotes great attention to mid-century debates in literary criticism. Lionel Trilling’s 1950 essay collection, “The Liberal Imagination,” is a particular fascination of his (Menand wrote an admiring introduction to the 2008 edition), in part because Trilling was unapologetic about using literature to understand politics, a tendency that his colleagues in Columbia University’s English department abhorred as excessively sociological. Yet Menand also hails New Criticism, the movement that professionalized literary criticism as an academic discipline — “a field in which professors write only for other professors” — for focusing solely on, say, the poem on the page and not any personal or political context, let alone the intentions of the poet or the emotional responses of the reader. Menand mitigates such differences by contending that the two approaches share a “cerebral” character and arguing that the theory-laden practice of criticism is really “an effort to figure out why we create such things, what they mean, and why we care so much about them.”
But such tensions reveal a deeper breach cutting through “The Free World.” The Cold War was a conflict over ideals as well as ideas, yet the art and thought of the era were as often apolitical as they were politically engaged. Was America’s global ascent to the heights of high culture, finally scurrying out from under Europe’s jagged shadow, a function of the politics of American art — or art’s distance from politics? “The War in Vietnam disrupted the artistic and critical avant-garde of its time,” Menand writes. “Preoccupations changed from formal and aesthetic questions to political ones.” If culture is what happens when you keep politics at a safe remove, if World War II and Vietnam form the bookends of your cultural moment, then the price of that art creeps ever higher.
Menand acknowledges in his prologue that this book is “a little like a novel with a hundred characters,” and that’s lowballing it. Each chapter introduces a whole new cast with numerous supporting roles, and the names to remember multiply. This proliferation flows from Menand’s tendency to explore not only influential artists and writers of the era but also their influences, and their influences’ influences.
What underground movie affected Susan Sontag’s thinking when she wrote “Notes on Camp” and “Against Interpretation,” her two most famous essays? Which nonfiction treatise was George Orwell freaking out about as he crafted “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” to the point that he parodied it in the novel? And what translated bestseller on women’s “lived experience” prompted Betty Friedan to take 70 pages of notes and jot the words “ ‘Mystique of femininity’ — why women believe it” next to the page number of a particularly memorable passage? (Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures,” James Burnham’s “The Managerial Revolution” and Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” respectively.) Art can begin with a blank canvas, but artists themselves are never blank slates. Menand’s digressions hardly digress; they are essential to the story.
Menand shows how art is invariably interconnected, co-created, appropriated, reinterpreted. Parisians’ reception of 20th-century American literature, for instance, was as rapturous as it was funny: Hemingway wrote like that because that’s just the way Americans are, French critics concluded; or maybe because American novelists like to imitate American movies. White American teenagers embraced R&B music because Black teens made it cool to do so, and soon, Menand writes, “a style of music identified with Black musicians . . . was taken up and eventually dominated by white performers and producers.” And the varied ancestry of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” reveals it to be a quintessentially American mutt. “The song’s chain of custody extended from the Jewish twenty-year-olds who wrote it for a fee, to the African American singer who had to be instructed how to sing it, to the white lounge act that spoofed it, to the hillbilly singer who performed it as a burlesque number,” Menand recounts. “Presley’s version of ‘Hound Dog’ isn’t inauthentic, because nothing about the song was ever authentic.”
For all the detail he offers and detours he cannot resist, Menand is also good at pithily summing up movements and people. “The Beats were men who wrote about their feelings,” he writes, picking apart the vulnerability in Jack Kerouac’s prose. Of James Baldwin: “He wanted to be respected for making it clear that he didn’t need anyone’s respect.” Of Kennan’s foreign policy views: “He thought that Americans needed to be realists because they could not trust themselves to be moralists.” These are the seemingly throwaway lines that become possible only after deep reading and careful synthesis.
“The Free World” is lengthy — 857 pages does require some commitment from both reader and writer — yet I was sad to reach the end. Even Menand’s footnotes are delightful. It is a book that compels you to buy other ones (Sontag’s “Against Interpretation and Other Essays” now sits on the shelf above my writing desk) and to scour the Internet for old essays that seem entirely relevant once again (“Everybody’s Protest Novel” by Baldwin tops that list).
Still, I wanted one more chapter. “The Metaphysical Club” features an epilogue that ties things together nicely. This book ends abruptly, with Kennan, the father of anti-communist containment, testifying before a Senate committee in 1966 and basically my-badding the Vietnam War: “I did not mean to convey . . . the belief that we could necessarily stop communism at every point on the world’s surface.” (Good to know!) I wanted Menand to be more explicit, to tell me what it all meant. I wanted more interpretation, not less.
Then again, if the art and thought of the Cold War placed that burden on the viewer, Menand has earned the right to do the same. And in “The Free World,” every seat is a good one.
Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: