Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Louis Menand’s Cultural Death March

The critic’s American intellectual history, ‘The Free World,’ spurns strong convictions for meandering cocktail party chatter

David Mikics
April 27, 2021
© Rene Burri/Magnum Photos
© Rene Burri/Magnum Photos
© Rene Burri/Magnum Photos
© Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

Too big to fail? a friend asked when I told him I was going to review Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. A massive book, long awaited and heavily publicized, The Free World comes with blurbs calling it “sweeping,” “epic,” and “astonishing.” Menand, the author, is a staff writer for The New Yorker who holds not one but two distinguished professorships at Harvard. In 2016, President Obama awarded him a National Humanities Medal. He’s also quite smart.

The Free World fails, and it fails big. Unlike The Metaphysical Club (2001), his lively, authoritative history of American pragmatism, Menand’s new book lacks a plot. The Metaphysical Club remains a classic because Menand loved his subject, and because he masterfully balanced biography and ideas, made a clear case, and depicted a rather small cast of characters. In short, the earlier book was everything that The Free World is not.

Weighing in at over 800 pages, The Free World shows what can happen when an intellectual confuses fancy cocktail party chatter with ideas and books. Menand can tell a story, unlike most academic writers, and he gives entertaining accounts of the paperback revolution, the battle over pornography, and various other cultural matters. But mostly he just wanders back and forth through the post-1945 pop culturescape, a pedigreed tour guide without much of a plan.

Much of Menand’s book has little to do with freedom, a word he never pauses to define. Discussing foreign policy, literary theory, avant-garde music, pop art, and other topics, he doesn’t explain what links these things together, aside from the fact that they might all be subjects familiar to a well-bred graduate of Brown. We’re never quite sure why we’re being told so much about some figures, and little or nothing about others. Astonishingly for a book about, or sort of about, the Cold War, Ronald Reagan is absent from the index—as are Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Fidel Castro.

Menand is a prominent member of a vanishing species, the liberal, as opposed to leftist, humanities professor. Downplaying the communist threat is common in today’s academy (as is, increasingly, the outright defense of communism), but Menand is thankfully having none of it. He reminds us that in the mid-’40s, the French Communist Party controlled 12 daily newspapers and 47 weeklies. Fear of a communist takeover in Western Europe was not paranoia but a sane response to reality.

Menand also debunks the silly idea, much beloved on the left, that abstract expressionism, with an assist from the CIA, was simple propaganda for American capitalism. The Black Panthers are fashionable right now, but Menand plainly dislikes the rapist, author, and Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who accused James Baldwin of wanting to have a baby by a white man. He ends The Free World with an old chestnut about the journalist James Fenton, who wanted the North to win the Vietnam War but was appalled by what he saw after Saigon fell. “The victory of the Vietnamese,” Fenton remarked, “was a victory for Stalinism.”

From time to time, Menand does stoop to curry favor with academic leftists, though he never embraces their intolerant radicalism. He complains that the University of Chicago’s Great Books were all written by “white men”—a charge that would make no sense to Homer, Plato, and Thucydides, who all lived long before whiteness was invented. Menand faults C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956), since “there is no mention of patriarchy, or, for another, heteronormativity.” Here, Menand is in glass house territory, since The Free World omits the gay rights movement—Stonewall gets half a sentence, and that’s it. Menand also ignores the American Indian Movement, as well as Chicano and Puerto Rican activism.

A handful of au courant gestures, like the swipe at Mills’ heteronormativity, will suffice, Menand might think, to establish his cred with the social justice contingent. Right on, brother liberal!

Yet after politely doffing his hat and making obeisance to the local gods, Menand then offers the reader the same group of artists and thinkers that would populate a copy of The New Yorker or, let’s be honest, Life magazine 50 years ago. Pollock, Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol are the visual artists. Sontag and Kael are the critics; Trilling and Clement Greenberg appear in a nod to old Partisan Review days. There is a heavy stress on Paris and New York, which were, according to Menand, the dual centers of culture after 1945. If anything was happening in Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Berlin, Rome, Dublin, or New Delhi during the Cold War, you wouldn’t suspect it from Menand’s book. Lacking the conviction or inspiration to pursue an argument of his own, the author falls back on the comfort of repeating things that have already been repeated often enough. Which is not the way that intellectuals behave, or should behave.

Apart from its omission of nearly everything that wouldn’t feel at home in a 30-year-old PBS special about “Culture and the Cold War,” The Free World features some bizarre misreadings that make one wonder whether the tour guide hasn’t mixed up pages of his guidebook. Waiting for Godot, Menand writes, is really about “happiness. And Beckett has only one thing to say about happiness: seize the day.” He says about Orwell’s 1984 that “its purpose was not to anatomize Stalinism,” but instead “was intended as a warning about what the Cold War might turn the world into.” Yet Orwell endorsed the Cold War: The moral of 1984, Orwell said, was that “totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.” Menand even cites Orwell’s line without seeing how it contradicts his own reading.

Menand dotes on existentialism—existentialism is certainly an important idea, as well as being congruent with liberalism—except he radically misconstrues it. He wrongly says that “Sartre’s definition of freedom … is the definition used by Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and Marx.” But that’s simply not true: For Sartre, freedom means simply deciding to act while throwing away a priori principles. Kant, for one, couldn’t disagree with this definition of freedom more.

Menand also gives a muddled account of Sartre’s politics, though the contradictions there are really Sartre’s fault. “Sartrean existentialism was anti-ideological,” he argues, while also citing Sartre’s dictum that “writers must always be held responsible for the political effects of what they write.” He adds, “Confronted with the choice between East and West, existentialism said only: Choose; that is, invent.” This doesn’t seem to fit the Sartre who was ardently pro-communist until 1956, when he denounced the Soviet tanks rolling through Budapest.

The contradictions of Sartre’s life and thought offer plenty of grist for a man with an opinion, any opinion, about the larger currents of 20th-century politics and art, which continue to roil the waters of our own time. Menand just isn’t that man, despite having written a very long book whose subtitle is “Art and Thought in the Cold War.”

Menand’s sweeping statements about culture and politics—more often presented as factual statements about reality than as arguments with a point to them—are often questionable. After 1965, Menand writes, “liberal attacks on commercial culture virtually disappeared,” ignoring Neil Postman, Christopher Lasch, and, further to the left, Herbert Marcuse and his legions of worshipful late-’60s dropouts. Menand claims that JFK’s speech on civil rights in June 1963 “made it possible for his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to get the Civil Rights Bill passed.” The Civil Rights Bill was stalled in committee when Kennedy was shot; it got passed because Johnson spent long hours twisting arms and shouting into the phone while also using the dead president he hated as a cudgel to beat recalcitrant lawmakers.

More serious than the wild swings and misses are the opportunities that Menand lets fly past on his gallop through what must have seemed (at some point, one hopes) like too many decades and thinkers. Menand gives a standard Wikipedia-style summary of Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, instead of discussing Lévi-Strauss’ moving account of how he fell in love with anthropology or the vituperative condemnation of Islam that concludes his book. The chapter on movies is actually a chapter about French film critics, except for a few odd pages on Bonnie and Clyde. Menand could have related the movie to the idea of the outlaw as hero, which became resurgent in the ’60s. Instead, he spends much time arguing that Dunaway, as Bonnie Parker, is imitating Brigitte Bardot (“She was the hips that launched a thousand faces. One of them was Faye Dunaway’s”). There’s a grain of truth to this, although the image of hips launching faces is anatomically a bit confusing. Except also, Bonnie’s taunting, underhanded style is pure noir femme fatale, not kittenish like Bardot. I don’t mean to quibble, but a book composed of hundreds, or thousands of such judgments invites the reader to bite a few of the coins to judge whether they are gold or brass.

Even Menand’s intermittent focus on money, fame, and sex is boring because he has no feel for those as categories of human experience; rather, they are markers of status in a universe where being an ‘intellectual’ is an equivalent kind of distinction.

About the birth of rock ‘n’ roll Menand is competent but predictable—but let’s face it, who pays money to read Louis Menand on rock ‘n’ roll? The Beatles, we are told, astounded listeners with their chord changes—and as a result, Dylan abandoned folk music for the electric guitar. Menand has no feel for the wild, surging ambitions of rock. One worries about his taste. He seems to like Yoko Ono’s ululations, which is enough to make any reader suspicious.

The most dispiriting moments in The Free World are when Menand drags out the sociologist’s damp mop to wipe away our thrills. Hitting the open road, he says, is a self-frustrating ideal, since, though “many people feel free driving a car … few everyday activities are more heavily regulated. Autonomy, independence, and self-realization are correlates of ‘freedom,’ but they are all relative states within a regime—human life—that is heteronomous through and through.” It’s enough to make you prohibit your children from attending college.

There is a reason that Menand has no room for American individualism in all its ornery stubborn craziness. Being a conformist at heart, he fails to see conformism as a danger. Though he dutifully runs through the New York intellectuals’ time-honored arguments against kitsch, middlebrows, Stalinism, and McCarthyism, he fails to see the common thread that unites these obsessions: the need to rebel against the deadening force of conformity, whether it takes the form of commercial culture’s fakeness or the lies of communism’s defenders.

The Free World sometimes envisions intellectual history as a special issue of Vanity Fair. More time is spent trying to decide whether Isaiah Berlin slept with Anna Akhmatova than wrestling with Berlin’s thought. Menand takes the gossip route even when the gossip is wrong. There is no real evidence, Menand tells us, for the rumor that Susan Sontag had a menage à trois with Norman Mailer and Maria Irene Fornés (Sontag’s girlfriend). Then he retails Benjamin Moser’s baseless claim that Sontag “possibly wrote much of” Philip Rieff’s book on Freud. Moser in fact went much further, insisting that Sontag was the author of the book. But Sontag knew next to nothing about Freud, and cared less, and her style does not resemble Rieff’s. This is warmed-over cocktail party conversation at its worst, the equivalent of yesterday’s pigs-in-a-blanket. Menand’s account of Miles Davis is somehow even worse: Though his image was rough and “sexualized,” his family was “affluent,” and he went to Juilliard; he later lived in Paris and fell in love with Juliette Greco. For Menand, Davis’ music doesn’t exist, while his life has meaning in terms familiar from Page Six of the New York Post.

Even Menand’s intermittent focus on money, fame, and sex is boring because he has no feel for those as categories of human experience; rather, they are markers of status in a universe where being an “intellectual” is an equivalent kind of distinction. It is hard to imagine such a world as anything other than a museum of received ideas and dreary conformism—the kind of place that the writers, thinkers, and artists named here would have wanted to smash into pieces.

What’s so troubling about this book isn’t the fact that it wasted years of Louis Menand’s time; it’s that it displays such a comprehensive misunderstanding by Menand and the editor and publisher who enabled this work of what artists and intellectuals actually should do, namely make distinctions that help cut through the clutter that otherwise suffocates thought and expression. Menand too often does the opposite. He spotlights Sontag while admitting that she got America completely wrong, rather than introducing the infinitely more interesting Robert Warshow, Albert Murray, or A.J. Liebling—critics who deeply understood American culture and have urgent things to say to the present. Sontag’s snobbery and her celebrity status appeal to Menand, though he also upbraids her for being a snob—a quality that he in fact seems to admire. Which is fine—just say so instead of misleading readers and scuffing the furniture.

The Free World deploys some freakonomics-style ingenuity. Britain’s art schools, which fostered oddball creativity, led to the British Invasion. Art house cinema thrived in America because audiences wanted to see sex. Washing machines and other household appliances may have helped sustain the baby boom. This is a tired sort of cleverness, and Menand’s points are most often recycled (from Greil Marcus, for instance, on art schools and British rock).

Menand obsessively racks up facts that may seem suggestive but lead nowhere. He informs us that D.T. Suzuki’s Columbia course on Zen Buddhism, attended by John Cage, “was taught from four to seven on Fridays on the seventh floor of Philosophy Hall in a room containing a photograph of John Dewey.” Northrop Frye, we’re told, returned from England to Canada “on August 23, 1939, the day the Nonaggression Pact was signed.” At times Menand’s trivia is cute: The success of Bonnie and Clyde revived the French beret industry. The linguist Roman Jakobson escaped from the Nazis by hiding in a coffin, and also on skis. But in the end, the book’s mountain of information is merely stultifying.

Sometimes Menand pauses to describe a book or an artwork, but usually not. He seems more interested in how much a painting costs than what it looks like. Menand references the great art critic Leo Steinberg, but he lacks Steinberg’s grasp of art as a challenge to our minds and senses. Instead, Menand relies on old slogans that explain nothing. On Rauschenberg, he mumbles something about randomness being the point. Steinberg, by contrast, showed how Rauschenberg’s collages agitate and inspire. A curious pilgrim facing the artist’s vision, he delved into his own responses. Menand just isn’t a delver.

The Free World should have been a book with an argument, by a critic with feelings. Instead, it is a bloated, repetitive catalog of kibbitzing by a man who has lost the plot, in part by distancing himself from the greater landscape in which his story is set. Menand neglects the American heartland, in its vulgarity and greatness. The Beats, hipsters with intellectual pretensions, are welcome guests in The Free World. Cowboys, gangsters, and honky-tonk heroes are not. He prefers Greenwich Village and North Beach, Soho and Fifth Avenue. Menand doesn’t consider Broadway musicals, country music, or (except for a brief mention) R&B. Oh, for a 30-second glimpse of Aretha Franklin or Hank Williams, rather than Charlotte Moorman, who played the cello topless for Nam June Paik, and who gets pages of attention from Menand. (As does Yoko Ono. “Someone offstage flushed a toilet at designated intervals,” he says about one of her performances. You had to be there.)

Menand’s mental hodgepodge is readable, even stimulating at times, but its monumental scope feels incommensurate with the absence of any strong convictions or organizing principles, turning what might have been a spritely tour culturelle into an aimless death march.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.