Louis Menand’s “The Free World” is a world found, and lost
The book critic at an alternative newspaper should take shots at an Ivy League professor and New Yorker columnist when he comes out with a big new book, right? Especially when said professor has had tenure since said reviewer was wearing the proverbial short pants? When a village in New York is named after the writer’s family? When the publication of the book is a big event in the publishing industry—that sitting duck of a target for semi-employed scribblers? When the writer is praising established bulwarks of culture from a mainstream liberal position, and when the critic is an avowed socialist? The critic should be lambasting, clowning on the old man, right?
Well, when that writer is Louis Menand and that book is The Free World and that critic is this critic, there won’t be any lambasting or clowning. Sometimes the publishing industry gets it right. The Free World is an event, a great big humdinger of a book and spectacularly timed. Menand’s last historical monograph, The Metaphysical Club, an examination of transcendentalism and philosophical pragmatism, came out in 2001, on the precipice of the W Bush years. The Free World comes at a time when the Trump administration has ended, but whether the Trump era is over is an open question. The book explores the culture of the liberal consensus period running from 1945 to 1965, in all of its glories and ironies. The feeling of conjuncture that comes when reading it now, when American liberalism is either in its death throes or in a highly ambivalent new dawn, at a much more chaotic cultural moment than the one Menand depicts, is an experience worth the price of admission in and of itself.
Menand does not directly claim, in The Free World, that the two decades between 1945 and 1965 were uniquely artistically productive. He doesn’t have to—the cavalcade of luminaries he brings to life, from George Orwell to Jackson Pollock to Merce Cunningham to James Baldwin to the Pop artists to early rock and roll, on and on, in both “high” culture and pop culture registers, makes the argument for him. The Cold War, as Menand argues in the introduction, “raised the stakes” of cultural production. Everything the two sides made was an argument for their system, the logic went. Questions of freedom in the face of a “totalitarian” enemy took on enormous importance that no art, no matter how formalist or how commercial, could avoid. The Free World is remarkably thesis-light, especially considering the great, honking train of thesis-reminders so many contemporary nonfiction writers append to their prose, but what comes through is arresting: American artists of the first two Cold War decades called the raised stakes of history, and won the pot.
This would not have been easy to predict from the vantage point of 1945. Each of Menand’s eighteen chapters deal with a linked set of subjects, and unusually for a cultural history, we begin with George Frost Kennan, diplomat and architect of the strategy of “containment” of the Soviet Union. It’s an odd choice, but inspired—out of all of the “Wise Men” who directed early American Cold War strategy, Kennan was probably the most “intellectual” (and least practical, at least where American politics were concerned). He is a bridge figure. Kennan held many of the anxieties of the early 20th century, such as fear of democracy, anxiety about “degeneracy.” Between them and his association with the “long twilight struggle,” he doesn’t seem like a figure to promise a cultural renaissance. But above all, Kennan was a foreign policy “realist.” Much of realism, like its emphasis on the purely military aspects of great power competition, did not fit Cold War strategy. But one part of it did, and found echoes in the Cold War culture Menand canonizes: realism abjures moralism. An actor in a realist world needs principles to maintain a sense of self, but cannot prejudge situations based on them or insist everyone else follow them.
Misprision—here used as a critical term, meaning something like self-interested, generative misinterpretation—defines much of the cultural transmission in The Free World, especially that which occurs across borders and oceans. A multi-layered back and forth occurred between the United States and France before and during the early years of Menand’s period. American literature, especially “folksy” southern writing (Erskine Caldwell held, for the time, in almost the same esteem as William Faulkner), came in vogue in French literary circles before World War II for its supposedly romantic, gritty, apolitical character. Odd interpretations of these books by French critics, combined with wartime pressures and (depoliticized) appropriations from German existentialists such as Heidegger formed much of the gestalt that was the wave of enthusiasm for French existentialism and its leading postwar figures: Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus.
It’s difficult to overstate how popular the existentialists were, in and outside of France, especially today where the closest thing one sees to philosophical celebrities are Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson. People didn’t pile into a crowded theater in still-austere post-liberation Paris to hear Sartre give the address “Existentialism is a Humanism,” or buy millions of cheap paperback translations of his work, because they understood or cared about all of the nuances of his thought. Existentialism as a popular phenomenon was a stance towards the world, flexible and easily copied- specific programs, of morality or ideology, mattered less than the free choice of actions undertaken by individuals. In another strange misprision, the three major existentialist superstars would all go on to embrace political programs of one kind or another not long after the existentialism wave began in the late 40s, but that part of their respective agendas did not stick the way the basic existentialist posture did.
These early chapters set the tone for what is to come in The Free World. In every cultural field Menand examines, a new freedom comes into existence due to a mixture of material circumstances and the often-fortuitous intervention of new ideas. Ironies and misprisions abound. Classicists (to say nothing of antisemites) like T.S. Eliot develop theories of literature that lead, after a game of critical “telephone,” to some of the first Jews admitted into the American academy to emphasize value-neutral readings of literature. Everyone involved, from Eliot to “New Criticism” figures such as Lionel Trilling to Trilling’s student, beat poet Allan Ginsberg, thought that literature did have an inherent value to it. They just disagreed as to what it was, how to access it, what a worthwhile culture would look like, and none of the three, or anyone else, were capable of dominating the conversation. Deconstruction (Jacques Derrida shows up in a latter chapter, and not as the harbinger of corrosive relativism he’s so often depicted as) was not about art’s pointlessness, but about its ability to self-reflect, and this is true from abstract expressionist painting to atonal music to modern dance.
Popular art forms also experienced an explosion of creativity and interest in this time, and here the material factors are somewhat more prominent in the explanatory mix. The manufacture of paperback books became cheaper and easier, and censorship laws were struck down—for every cheap Sartre or Faulkner you could buy, you could slip dozens of equally cheap erotic novels into your briefcase or pocket. So, too, did radio stations, record companies, and cinema expand, in the US and worldwide. Entertainment companies came to understand the amount of money in teenage pockets, and Elvis and the Beatles helped part those teens from it. More than a deliberate effort to blur color lines on the part of any of these bands (or managers), there was the sort of shrugging indifference, shading into deliberate blurring of, boundaries—between black and white, between adult and child, between “high” and “low” art—on the part of rock and roll. Something similar obtained in film, where towards the end of Menand’s period a sort of fumbled-at agreement between movie studios, a new breed of filmmaker inspired by (misprisions of) French filmmaking, and critical tastemakers like Pauline Kael ushered in a new age of cinema with Bonnie and Clyde.
Relatively few of these stories are truly new, but brought together with Menand’s perspective, they feel fresh and exciting. The Free World as Menand presents it feels both big, with great things waiting to be done, and small—everyone seems to know each other, to have dated each other’s exes, written for the same small magazines, run into each other on the New York-Paris circuit. This world had, to put it lightly, warts. Menand doesn’t hide the hand of the CIA in funding much of the art he praises. Race and gender issues often got short shrift, especially in circles where meaningful political participation was understood as a betrayal of an artist’s purpose. Norman Mailer nearly stabbed his wife to death and nearly the entire roll call of the brilliant New York cultural scene of the era comes out to insist he be let off. James Baldwin performed a more literary, but arguably longer-lasting, knifing of his mentor, Richard Wright, denouncing his elder as an unartistic political hack, only for Baldwin to be turned on by the literati after Baldwin took an interest in the burgeoning black freedom struggle. Menand’s refusal of cheap nostalgia isn’t the smallest miracle he pulls off in The Free World. Some special generational magic now lost to mankind didn’t make the culture of midcentury. People did.
People make history, but they don’t make it just as they please, as an ideologue who’d be shown the door at any of the parties Menand depicts once put it. Menand is sufficiently canny to discuss the material circumstances behind this flowering of creativity. But a historically-informed reader has to wonder about emphasis. The United States was so disproportionately wealthy and powerful at the end of the Second World War, and its potential cultural rivals so badly wounded, that it seems inevitable that its culture would produce unprecedentedly big things in the decades thereafter. Perhaps the intellectual groundings for midcentury culture that Menand emphasizes, the formalist freedom from moralism, politics, and the past that found its way into so many fields, was less a cause than a condition. Without these ideas, “plain old Americanism” might have been the dominant culture of those decades, much like how the period after America’s victory in the First World War saw a thin crust of experimentation form over a culture dominated by old ideas.
At the very end, Menand’s light touch in terms of imparting a thesis or moral becomes somewhat baffling. 1965 comes, and with it, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. America gets sucked further into Vietnam (against aging Cold Warrior George Kennan’s advice) and loses. Both Vietnam and many of the students protesting the American war there turn Stalinist, and that’s where Menand ends. It seems too much to say that Menand thinks American culture, or even the renaissance he depicts, was destroyed by the shared cupidity of warmongers and communist students. But it is a jarring moment, both in reality and in the text, and Menand chooses not to clarify it.
Could it be called a waking up? The mid-60s is also when America’s industrial rivals in Western Europe and Northeast Asia begin competing with the US again, and when the automation and communication technologies that will irrevocably alter the global mode of production begin to come on line. Not long after, politicians like George Wallace and Richard Nixon learn to channel the white backlash against civil rights and the peace movement, and evangelical religion begins to supplant “mainline” denominations and become a potent political force. We all know where that road leads—to the world so different from The Free World, possessing many of its cultural treasures in some form but in a radically different context. Maybe the period after the Second World War wasn’t so different from that of the period after the First after all, with a small elite trying out new cultural things for a while before old certainties—and old hatreds—reasserted themselves. The destruction of the second war was deeper, the potential for reconstruction was too, so the moment lasted longer, but here we are again, in a world of scarcity, terror, and ideologues.
To his credit, Menand does not place the decades he writes of—uncoincidentally, the decades in which he was born and grew up—above our time, or other times, morally or artistically. Many of the figures with whom he lingers, like art critic Clement Greenberg, are profoundly unlikable and often wrong-headed from a contemporary perspective. The Free World is a history, not a polemic. That said, given the context of its publication, it’s hard to wonder whether the author might not see it as pointing a way past our current impasses. It’s easy to see how a certain kind of liberal, scared of rising tides on the right and the left, might look to the commitment to commitment (but not any commitment in particular) and to culture that Menand’s Americans adhere to as the way forward. An uncautious reader of The Free World might fall into a sort of filial piety (like an uncautious viewer of Mad Men) towards the midcentury and its accomplishments. But given the roles accident, irony, and unintended consequence play in his book, it is unlikely that Menand thinks that the era can or should be recaptured. This is not a nostalgia piece- it is closer to an elegy.
Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2021. 880 pp, $35.00
Peter Berard is a writer and organizer who lives in Watertown, MA. For more of his work, check out peterberard.substack.com.