‘The Free World’ by Louis Menand

Louis Menad
The author Louis Menand at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 2, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
In the spring of 1999, Louis Menand taught a class called “Art and Thought of the 1960s” at the graduate center of the City University of New York. He assigned Malcolm X, Joan Didion, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Toward the end of the semester, he told his students he was thinking of writing a book about the 60s.اضافة اعلان

Maybe he shouldn’t, they told him.

“So you can make a painting of a soup can — that’s not such a big deal,” Menand said, characterizing his students’ response. Sixties culture, he recognized, was a close ancestor of the culture of the day. “I realized,” he added, “that what they were really interested in was the 50s, which they didn’t understand as well.”

Menand took his students’ note. The result, “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War,” will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Tuesday. The book seeks to explain not the 60s scene (though Andy Warhol, soup cans and all, does appear), but how the ground was prepared for it by the West’s most influential thinkers, authors and artists between 1945 and 1965.

“This book is the backstory to contemporary American culture,” Menand, 69, said in a video interview this month from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a professor at Harvard. “It’s about the emergence of an American culture that became central in world affairs.”

He began work on it around 2011, nearly a decade after his last large history book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Metaphysical Club,” was published. He credited an office in the stacks at Harvard’s Widener Library — he secured it after 10 years on the waiting list; you can find him next to the Slavic periodicals — for helping him complete a book spanning more than 700 pages, not including endnotes.

While Menand, who goes by “Luke,” rejects the notion that his book tells the story of the baby boomers — “It’s 75 million people,” he said, “so they’re not all in ‘Doonesbury’” — writing “The Free World,” he conceded, meant writing about his own world.

“As you have probably guessed, this is the period I grew up in,” he writes in the preface. The book, he says, “was a way of filling in the blanks in my own story.”

Readers of “The Metaphysical Club” or Menand’s critical essays in The New Yorker, where he is a staff writer, will recognize the elegant, even-keeled prose in “The Free World.” He aspires to take readers by the hand and walk them through complex abstractions.

“The Free World” is more of a survey than “The Metaphysical Club,” which told an ambitious but contained story focused on four American thinkers of the philosophical school known as Pragmatism. Many major figures get the better parts of their own chapters in “The Free World”: Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin, James Baldwin. French intellectuals play significant roles, with sections on Jean-Paul Sartre, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and film theorist André Bazin. The artists Menand spotlights are reminiscent of the roll call offered by the bohemians in the musical “Rent”: “Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham, and Cage” (Menand’s pop-music chapter focuses on the Beatles).

“The Free World” does have a through line, gestured at by its title. Thinkers like Arendt and Sartre looked around the postwar landscape and concluded that freedom would be the era’s byword. And while they were certainly interested in political liberty, Menand in his telling focuses primarily on the era’s distinctive legacy of thinking about a freedom associated with self-knowledge.

“When you understand more clearly, in a demystified way, what your situation is, you have some agency, you have some freedom,” Menand said. “To me, that’s the right line to take.”

The quest for this kind of freedom recurs throughout the book — in the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida, the anti-colonial politics of Aimé Césaire, the feminism of Betty Friedan — before running aground in the tragic final chapter, which profiles New Left activist Tom Hayden, a student of European existentialism, and closes with the US involvement in Vietnam and Western intellectuals’ reckoning with the question of whose interests their talk of freedom had served.

“It didn’t all turn out the way we hoped it would turn out, and Vietnam became a communist totalitarian state,” Menand said.

Menand relentlessly grounds his analysis in a larger context. In his telling, Arendt’s bleak view of European civilization arose from her repeated displacement as a German-born Jew. “Bonnie and Clyde” could be made in Hollywood in the 60s not only because of the influence of the French New Wave but because of the lapsing of a rule that had banned movies from showing a gun firing and the bullet hitting its target.

Amanda Claybaugh, a close colleague of Menand’s at Harvard before she became the school’s dean of undergraduate education, said embedding ideas in stories is an “analytical mode” for Menand.

“If you tell a story, you have to think in very concrete and specific terms about how culture works in a particular moment, how certain ideas, influences, encounters shape a person.”

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