Books

Louis Menand’s New Book Revisits Familiar Subjects. It’s Still Revelatory.

In The Free World, the New Yorker writer attempts a history of just about everything.

A collage of various cultural objects mentioned in this review, from James Baldwin to 1984.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Art Seitz/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images, Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images, Stuart Lutz/Gado/Getty Images, Louis Liotta/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images, Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images, Charles Rotkin/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images, Amazon, and Getty Images Plus.

Freedom might be the most loaded word in the American civic vernacular. In moments of consensus and togetherness, American citizens imagine themselves bound to one another by a shared love of freedom; in moments of intense national division, opposing sides define themselves in terms of competing commitments to the same. FDR sold the New Deal as a commitment to freedom, and a half-century later, the Reagan Revolution sold its dismantling as a renewal of freedom. Pro-choice activists speak of “reproductive freedom” at the same time that anti-contraception advocates invoke “religious freedom.” Freedom means everything, always, which might be another way of saying it doesn’t really mean anything.

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Freedom meant even more than usual from the end of the Second World War through the 1960s, the period chronicled in Louis Menand’s remarkable new book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. The Free World explores one of the most consequential and transformational periods in American history, a time of affluence and influence, upheaval and fracture. Menand was born in 1952 and grew up in this time when “the word was invoked to justify everything,” as he writes in the book’s preface. “As I got older, I started to wonder what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean. I wrote this book to help myself, and maybe you, figure that out.”

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Figuring it out is of course an impossible task—it’s hard to imagine a redder herring than the meaning of freedom—but The Free World is an engrossing and often revelatory book, a capacious, ambitious, and wonderfully crafted synthesis of intellectual and cultural history. In the immediate postwar years, freedom was prized as an ideological counterweight to totalitarianism, the boogeyman that allowed Soviet Russia to conveniently replace Nazi Germany as the United States’ foil on the world stage. In an early chapter, Menand writes of the enormous success of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, which many stateside readers assumed was about Stalinism. (As Menand notes, it was actually meant as a dystopian warning about the Cold War–era technocratic managerial state, thus inaugurating a long and venerable tradition of Americans misreading Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

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And yet freedom also became the wellspring of a rising current of cultural upheaval in these years, a swell of liberation not from Soviet menace but from homegrown tyrannies of conformity and tradition. This revolution could be seen in the artwork of Jackson Pollock and Jasper Johns, the compositions of John Cage and choreography of Merce Cunningham, the essays of Susan Sontag and James Baldwin, and the youthful political insurgencies of the New Left. In the same period that freedom was invoked as a rationale for the urgency of global U.S. hegemony, the question of what freedom meant within “the Free World” was contested and always evolving.

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“The Free World” is an old-fashioned phrase that once connoted the United States, its allies, and their spheres of influence, and The Free World is in some ways an old-fashioned book. It’s a sprawling biography of an era, a work that often feels more like an enormous mural than a linear narrative, a connective and allusive act of creative assemblage. Menand is a historian and a critic, and The Free World openly approaches the writing of cultural history as an act of critical interpretation itself, which it is.

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The Free World is also at times a history of criticism. Some of the critics taken up here might seem dated on first glance, but by placing them in the context that shaped them, Menand manages to breathe new life into them. In the 21st century, Lionel Trilling’s attachment to “great books” curricula and canon maintenance can easily come off as elitist and exclusionary, and many who’ve taken those causes up in his wake have done so in exactly that way. But, as Menand writes, Trilling’s belief that callow undergraduates should read Homer and Dante came from a conviction that you didn’t need specialized expertise to read such authors—their work was for everyone—and his interest in the canon was similarly humanistic, rooted in a belief that the literature that a society valued offered insights into that society itself. “Trilling thought that people’s literary preferences tell us something about the kind of human beings they wish to be and about the way they wish other human beings to be—that is, something about their morality and their politics,” writes Menand.

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As a critic himself, Menand boasts a sharp observational wit and a knack for a turn of phrase. “Pop Art is the representation of representations,” he writes during a discussion of Eduardo Paolozzi. “The Beats were men who wrote about their feelings,” he declares later, a pithy but pretty exact description. Or a characterization of literary deconstruction as being “like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water.” Much of what’s in The Free World first appeared in Menand’s essays in the New Yorker over the past couple of decades, and regular readers of his work there will find it rewarding to see disparate pieces syncretize here. (I instantly remembered reading the “shovel made of water” line in a 2014 article on Paul de Man. I’d enjoyed it so much it I’d apparently committed it to memory.)

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One of the pitfalls of writing a combined cultural and intellectual history is that there can be a tendency to privilege culture made by people who most readily self-present as intellectuals, and in the period Menand is chronicling, those people were overwhelmingly white men. To his credit, Menand is upfront about this and often works diligently to counteract it. A later chapter on James Baldwin’s fraught relationship to both the civil rights movement and white liberals is one of the strongest in the book, and The Free World also dedicates extensive attention to Betty Friedan and the rise of second wave feminism, as well as such towering critics as Sontag and Pauline Kael.

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Still, The Free World at times feels a bit blindered when it strides past paths not taken. During a discussion of Jack Kerouac, Menand remarks on intriguing similarities between Kerouac and Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton Place, which was published one year before On the Road and spent 59 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But the connection comes in a parenthetical and feels like it vanishes as abruptly as it appears; Metalious only shows up again once, and briefly. Parts of the book also feel like tours through territory that’s already well-trod. A chapter on rock ’n’ roll focuses primarily on Elvis Presley and the Beatles—not exactly underexamined figures—but spends almost no time on Motown Records, another epochal musical happening that actually strikes me as much more relevant to the story The Free World is telling. Motown founder Berry Gordy was a proselytizer for the liberatory power of capitalism, a zealous believer in the power of the free market as an engine for integration and social progress.

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But to nitpick the omissions of a book like The Free World is to miss its point, and its length (more than 700 pages, plus endnotes) shouldn’t be confused with an aspiration to comprehensiveness. It’s a work of historical and intellectual curation that in its best moments has the elegance and evocative power of art itself. The book’s final chapter reintroduces a couple of figures from the book’s opening pages, George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau. Both were foreign policy realists who’d been hugely influential on Cold War “containment” doctrine, and yet both ended up critics of the Vietnam War, a conflict waged by the U.S. ostensibly in the name of that very strategy. But Kennan and Morgenthau saw the war as hubristic and blindly ideological, and were appalled by what they believed it would do to the United States’ moral credibility. They were right. The Vietnam War was someone’s war of freedom, but that someone wasn’t “the Free World,” and that’s the right place for this story to end.

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In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! —Forrest Wickman, culture editor