Louis Menand on Art and Thought in the Cold War: “What Most Comes Across Is the Protean Creativity of the Period”

From a review by Michael Sherry on theamericanscholar.org of the book “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War” by Louis Menand:

The Free World is the sort of book—at 880 pages—that reviewers call “magisterial.” In this follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Louis Menand offers lucid, exactingly crafted, deeply informed accounts of the artists, intellectuals, and tastemakers who, during the Cold War, sought freedom from prevailing intellectual, artistic, political, and commercial systems—be they totalitarianism, the strictures of concert music, or the rigidities of high art. Together, these cultural arbiters created much of the art and thought of “the free world”—something “not accomplished entirely by Americans,” Menand notes, although often by transplants to the United States….

Menand’s book is almost encyclopedic in scope and scrupulously documented….Readers who don’t care to get into the weeds with composer John Cage or dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham may turn to the next chapter, on Elvis, the Beatles, and other music icons. Not keen on Claude Lévi-Strauss and structuralism? Try Isaiah Berlin, the Russian-British diplomat and essayist….

In his highly narrative book, large categories of analysis hover at the edges. We get no clear definition of “the free world,” and the “cold war” in the subtitle disappears for long stretches. The sexuality of many figures gets noted but not analyzed as a broad dimension of free-world culture. We learn that Cage and Cunningham were queer but not whether their queerness informed their creativity, although few readers will know that Cage “became a television star” in Italy during the 1950s, especially on a popular quiz show there….

Women, aside from the usual suspects like Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir, rarely appear in his story until he gets to Betty Friedan and Susan Sontag in the 1960s. Few appear earlier, he asserts, because patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny denied them a role….Menand might have looked harder for women’s contributions (those of Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Mead, and Rachel Carson, for example) rather than assuming they were few. Race he treats much more thoroughly.

Also neglected, curiously, is World War II, the launch pad for much of postwar culture. Menand starts his story in 1946, although he often backtracks to the war and earlier. How the vast scale of its death and destruction shaped art and thought for creators, commercial and state enterprises, and audiences is rarely captured. For that, go to William Graebner’s concise, smart book, The Age of Doubt: American Thought and Culture in the 1940s, on “the culture of contingency.”

Menand also leaves out much of middlebrow culture, which did not necessarily seem middlebrow at the time to its creators, critics, and audiences. There is a lot on Cage, but nothing on Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein. Work of enduring cultural and commercial appeal across the world, like West Side Story…does not rate treatment. Ralph Ellison gets his due, but not John Updike, perhaps because literary fiction doesn’t much interest Menand, although a fascinating chapter on mass-market paperbacks shows the legal and commercial challenges they presented.

There’s much on Samuel Beckett; not a word on Edward Albee. Cinema gets robust examination, especially Bonnie and Clyde, but movies Americans (and others) saw by the millions—say Giant, or the scads of films derived from Tennessee Williams’s work—do not….

None of those limits would bother me—one hardly wants a longer book—had Menand explained them better. He offers “a series of vertical cross-sections rather than a survey,” he acknowledges, and he does not believe that the “stories” he tells “are the only interesting ones.”…

What most comes across is the protean creativity of the period, the globe-spanning connections that promoted it, and Menand’s mastery of large slices of it. “People cared. Ideas mattered,” Menand writes. “People believed in liberty, and thought it really meant something.” It would be silly to say that people no longer care about such things, but perhaps they no longer do with as much vigor and coherence.

is the Richard W. Leopold Professor of History at Northwestern University and the author, most recently, of The Punitive Turn in American Life: How the United States Learned to Fight Crime Like a War.


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