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What to Make of Louis Menand’s Cultural-Political History, ‘The Free World’?

Louis Menand’s articulation of the relations between people, ideas, and forms in his work of Cold War history, The Free World, does not rely upon hierarchy.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War
Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
April 2021

Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar and critic Louis Menand would sell himself short was he to tell a simple story. The Free World entangles dozens of subjects in the web of art and ideas permeating the post-World War II western world. Critics reacted to a cast of characters larger than HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones. Menand’s new book stretches beyond 700 pages and requires a plurality of people to thoroughly tell the story. But some also say he’s missing a big idea, or that if “freedom” really is the connective tissue in this work, it doesn’t adequately conjoin each section.

Refreshingly, Menand doesn’t follow causality or the cascading effect of actors and events. Instead, he uses feedback loops, throughputs, and a sympathetic timeslot to anyone who had a new or bold idea. These may also be the defining features of the Cold War-era avant-garde, so it makes sense that he’d tell his story in this way, although it may at times feel a tad too complicated.

The Free World carries a twist of branding as an advertisement—this book is personal. Menand is a Baby Boomer who grew up with the Beatles, Baldwin, and phrases like “the free world”. Menand, who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for three decades, often studies the behind-the-scenes of what’s entered the American zeitgeist. That is; he isn’t known for writing about his personal relationship with his subjects.

In The Free World, the only hint of the close-to-home appears in a downbeat section on the distinction between mid-brow and middlebrow. In it, he describes The New Yorker’s target audience, or rather, his intended readership, “intelligent people who were extremely wary of being out-browed. They were eager not to like the wrong things, or to like the right things for the wrong reasons.” There’s nothing wrong with personal narratives—but The Free World isn’t one. Branded incorrectly, it is surprising that reviews still focus on the “personal” angle. But reviews also question what this work is really about.

Menand’s history of Cold War America begins with familiar post-war stage directions: the Marshall Plan, reconstruction, and what we’d expect to be a more central theme to his story—East-West power dynamics. By the word “freedom”, Menand invokes the existentialist framing; the work is less about European reconstruction and post-war geopolitical alignments than artists and philosophers playing with the boundaries of possibility, or the heliosphere of comfort, wisdom, and social norms.

In any of the subjects, long teleological tendrils connect the Hicklin Rule, a test for obscenity, to D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) to Henry Miller’sTropic of Cancer (1934) to Allen Ginsberg Howl (1956). Where subjects push possibility with multiplicity, there are often larger forces pushing back, creating brands of singularity. For example, Menand explains the survivability of Rock n’ Roll artists beyond the pandering to the new “youth culture”, European haircuts, or the appropriation of Black blues artists. It’s like cutting and pasting an artifact (song, book, or otherwise) onto what we know of social movements—using them to describe rather than to truly understand the standpoint of artists and ideas. Some of the most important facts boil off, and we’re left with a reduction of two-cent heuristics to explain the complexity of the past. 

The 50-or-so page sections introduce key figures like Susan Sontag, the Beatles, and Andy Warhol and the essays, albums, and soup cans that define their output. After their appearance, subjects only pop up in subsequent chapters like surprise features on an album. For example, 300 pages elapse between the introduction of Jacque Derrida and his key influence, Claude Levi-Strauss. But this structure hedges any hierarchy of particular ideas or artists. As constellations lose or gain their brightness by our position in relation to them, Menand’s articulation of the relations between people, ideas, and forms, is a system where the point is not to hierarchize major and minor characters. Linearity is downplayed, there is little reference to today’s “topical” themes, and there are few 100-character aphorisms to offer simple guideposts.

Menand swaps hagiography for refreshing candor, even for inviolable figures such as James Baldwin. Susan Sontag wrote that Baldwin transmutes “too readily into stately language, into an inexhaustible self-perpetuating oratory.” Menand also exhumes Baldwin’s “tortured artist” defense of Norman Mailer after Mailer brutally assaulted his wife, thereby framing his essays, novels, and advocacy with the nuances of his relationships with other significant figures.

This critical lens is saved for more than Baldwin. After an early chapter on William Faulkner’s novels making the rounds among the French existentialists (novels that bleached out “markers of race, region, and class”), Faulkner appears later to caution integration after 1948’s Supreme Court Decision in Brown vs. Board of Education: “Go slow.”

Entertainingly, subjects trade blows throughout Menand’s book. After Allen Ginsburg sent Lionel Trilling a collection of his poems, the latter responded, “I’m afraid I have to tell you that I don’t like the poems at all.” Warren Beatty screened Arthur Pen’s 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, to its primary financier, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, relating that the film was an “homage” to the original Scarface. Warner was unimpressed, “What the fuck is an homage?”

Occasionally, you’d expect Menand to go further with illustrating the connections between characters. He writes about Jose Orozco’s influence on Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943), but there is no mention of the anarcho-syndicalism that may have influenced him. In other instances, you realize that political figures, artists, and critics of the time may be myopic, and therefore, only tangentially conscious of what’s going on outside their own stratum. Then again, it may be too much to ask for the author to find Chief Justice Earl Warren contemplating the significance of Pollock’s Mural, as he writes the majority opinion for Watkins v. United States(1957).

Menand only occasionally trades an analysis of the shifting tides of identarian consciousness with the language of today’s discourse. The stories here don’t need this type of genuflection to popular heuristics because they are already ripe with meaning. In July of 1961, the ambassador from Chad, Adam Malick Sow, was refused service at a Maryland diner while on his way from New York to Washington. President Kennedy responded, “Can’t you just tell the Africans not to drive on Route 40?” In a fiery meeting between Kennedy and James Baldwin, Kennedy said that a black man would be president in 40 years. He was only off by five years.

Additional Work Cited

Various. The Free World–Reviews. Literary Hub.

RATING 8 / 10


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