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The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (Hardcover)
"An engrossing and impossibly wide-ranging project . . . In The Free World, every seat is a good one." —Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post
"The Free World sparkles. Fully original, beautifully written . . . One hopes Menand has a sequel in mind. The bar is set very high." —David Oshinsky, The New York Times Book Review | Editors' Choice
One of The New York Times's 100 best books of 2021 | One of The Washington Post's 50 best nonfiction books of 2021 | A Mother Jones best book of 2021
In his follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand offers a new intellectual and cultural history of the postwar years
The Cold War was not just a contest of power. It was also about ideas, in the broadest sense—economic and political, artistic and personal. In The Free World, the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize–winning scholar and critic Louis Menand tells the story of American culture in the pivotal years from the end of World War II to Vietnam and shows how changing economic, technological, and social forces put their mark on creations of the mind.
How did elitism and an anti-totalitarian skepticism of passion and ideology give way to a new sensibility defined by freewheeling experimentation and loving the Beatles? How was the ideal of “freedom” applied to causes that ranged from anti-communism and civil rights to radical acts of self-creation via art and even crime? With the wit and insight familiar to readers of The Metaphysical Club and his New Yorker essays, Menand takes us inside Hannah Arendt’s Manhattan, the Paris of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Merce Cunningham and John Cage’s residencies at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, and the Memphis studio where Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley created a new music for the American teenager. He examines the post war vogue for French existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism, the rise of abstract expressionism and pop art, Allen Ginsberg’s friendship with Lionel Trilling, James Baldwin’s transformation into a Civil Right spokesman, Susan Sontag’s challenges to the New York Intellectuals, the defeat of obscenity laws, and the rise of the New Hollywood.
Stressing the rich flow of ideas across the Atlantic, he also shows how Europeans played a vital role in promoting and influencing American art and entertainment. By the end of the Vietnam era, the American government had lost the moral prestige it enjoyed at the end of the Second World War, but America’s once-despised culture had become respected and adored. With unprecedented verve and range, this book explains how that happened.
About the Author
Louis Menand is professor of English at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His books include The Metaphysical Club, which won the Pulitzer Prize in history and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. In 2016, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.
"The evenhanded approach of Louis Menand, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Metaphysical Club, is like a breath of fresh air. The Free World sparkles. Fully original, beautifully written, it covers the interchange of arts and ideas between the United States and Europe in the decades following World War II." —David Oshinsky, The New York Times Book Review
"[The Free World] is an engrossing and impossibly wide-ranging project—as idiosyncratic as it is systematic—written by an author confident that the things that interest him will interest his readers, too. And he’s right . . . Menand’s digressions hardly digress; they are essential to the story . . . I was sad to reach the end." —Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post
"Sweeping and searching, immensely informative, insightful, lucid and engaging, Menand’s magnum opus bolsters his reputation as a leading public intellectual in the United States." —Glenn Altschuler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"[A] joyous plunge into the cross-currents of Western culture in the 1950s and 1960s . . . Menand’s wit, precision, and skepticism are deployed at every turn to puncture pretensions and cut through all the accreted clichés . . . But for all his mastery of fine detail, his eyes are always scanning the horizon for power—who has it and how it is being used. And yet his book is never merely cynical. Like a great novelist, he creates a world. Even as he deletes so ruthlessly the self-serving adjective “free,” he fills the noun of his title with tumult and energy, with chaos and creation. This world is not so brave, but it is new, and Menand leaves room for us to wonder that it has such people in it.." —Fintan O'Toole, The New York Review of Books
"[An] epic book . . . [Menand] takes on eclectic subjects with dedication and imagination . . . When [his] tracings of lives and encounters are combined with the explication of some difficult ideas, the result can be unusually illuminating . . . This suggestive and densely researched book will be a fertile resource for later writers." —Edward Rothstein, The Wall Street Journal
"Menand gracefully and lucidly narrates the concentrically related stories of George Kennan and postwar containment, the Frankfurt School and the Bauhaus . . . [The Free World] is a kind of nonfiction novel with a hundred characters . . . Synthesizing biographical profile, historical scholarship, literary journalism, and cultural critique in dispassionate, brilliant prose, Menand gently corrects the accepted understanding of [the mid-20th century] rather than advancing case-closing judgements." —Walton Muyumba, The Boston Globe
"[The Free World] is a rather amazing compendium of the scholarly research, revision, and demythologizing that have been accomplished in recent decades . . . Menand is truly one of the great explainers . . . The book is so masterful, and exhibits such brilliant writing and exhaustive research." —Mark Greif, The Atlantic
"The Free World [is] something extremely rare in contemporary American culture, a work of history that is first and foremost a work of art . . . Beautiful, original, and idiosyncratic . . . The Free World is both a joy to read and an utterly original study of politics, foreign policy, and culture from the 1940s to the 1970s." —Michael Kimmage, American Purpose
“Menand is such a skilled narrator . . . that his indelible capsule portraits of the artists themselves drive the book . . . Even with artists and writers I know well, Menand always offers an unfamiliar detail, a telling anecdote that was new to me . . . [He] deploys intellectual history, economic indicators, and sociological studies with a light but effective hand . . . ‘Landmark,’ ‘sweeping,’ ‘encyclopedic’: all of the adjectives that one would expect to find on the back jacket of a book like this do, in fact, aptly describe it.” —Greg Barnhisel, Public Books
"Elegantly written, entertaining and bursting with information . . . The range and inclusiveness of The Free World are dazzling . . . [Menand] has undertaken what few writers of intellectual history would dare to do.” —Marjorie Perloff, The Times Literary Supplement
"A splendid book . . . It’s not possible, I’d say, to read [The Free World] without learning a vast amount about twentieth-century intellectual history . . . It will be a long time, I imagine, before a better account of art and thought in mid-twentieth-century America appears." —George Scialabba, The Baffler
"The Free World is a finely balanced book: not a history of culture as a reflection of cold war ideology, but a history of the culture that happened all around it. A starry cast of characters—from George Orwell and John Lennon to Betty Friedan and Malcolm X, Hannah Arendt and Jack Kerouac—bring personality to one of the most fascinating periods in western culture whose ideas of freedom are still felt profoundly today." —Alex von Tunzelmann, Financial Times
"The Free World dazzles. Menand excels at the quick character sketch, the ability to situate a person in her milieu and explain her significance in a few lines or paragraphs. Virtually nothing is superficial . . . Virtually nothing is boring." —John T. McGreevy, Commonweal
"Menand is not only an engaging critic. He is a superb thumbnail biographer. His book is bound to be required reading for anyone who wants to understand mid-20th-century America . . . By the end of The Free World, the pleasure that Menand has taken from assembling such a wide range of material is unmistakable.” —Nicolaus Mills, The Daily Beast
"[Menand] has taken one of freedom’s ancillary slogans—“the free world”—beyond its usual associations with foreign policy and presidential muscle . . . and endowed it with multiple meanings in this deeply researched and ultimately personal reckoning with midcentury America. In this wide-ranging story, he displays a gifted eye for the telling anecdote, an enviable ability to explain the complicated with clarity and economy and an impressive mastery of detail." —Andy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
“Remarkable . . . The Free World explores one of the most consequential and transformational periods in American history, a time of affluence and influence, upheaval and fracture . . . [It] is an engrossing and often revelatory book, a capacious, ambitious, and wonderfully crafted synthesis of intellectual and cultural history . . . Menand boasts a sharp observational wit and a knack for a turn of phrase . . . [The Free World is] a work of historical and intellectual curation that in its best moments has the elegance and evocative power of art itself.” —Jack Hamilton, Slate
"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." —Marc Tracy, The New York Times
"One function of literary journalism should be just what Menand does in The Free World: Remind us of how much we’ve forgotten or neglected . . . Good historians, like Menand . . . , seek to understand and interpret . . . The Free World presents a long, panoramic tour of a paradigm-shifting era." —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"[The Free World] fits perfectly with recent trends in transnational history, and its execution in that realm [. . .] is fantastic, showing both the larger forces (free markets, distribution networks, higher education) and street-level circumstances that allowed art and ideas to bounce around the world . . . Menand’s writing provides its own proof of concept. There’s no one else who captures the push and pull of life and ideas quite as well as he does, embedded in a way of looking at the world that is generous and humane. —Scott Spillman, The Point
“Magisterial . . . 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 . . . For the task he takes on, he succeeds brilliantly. 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.” —Michael Sherry, The American Scholar
"A sumptuous canvas of postwar culture and global politics, impeccable scholarship paired with page-turning prose. Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Jackson Pollock, Susan Sontag: all spring to life here, flawed individuals as well as intellectual titans, with Cold Warriors such as George Kennan pulling the planet’s puppet strings against a curtain of potential nuclear annihilation." —Oprah Daily
"Menand’s style is reliably crisp and lively, and he has a great eye for the incongruous anecdote." —The New Republic
"Brilliantly conceived and executed . . . Menand deftly blends social and intellectual history . . . Menand is a lucid and engaging interpreter of the times . . . Essential.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] sweeping cultural history . . . Menand writes with his usual mix of colorful portraiture, shrewd insight, and pithy interpretation . . . The result is an exhilarating exploration of one of history’s most culturally fertile eras.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Louis Menand’s The Free World is at once an astonishing work of history and criticism and an essential road map to the middle decades of the twentieth century, from Sartre, Trilling, and Mailer to Sontag, Rauschenberg, and Baldwin. Every page is bracing; the whole amounts to an epic. In a landmark study of a time when art and ideas mattered, Menand’s very act of interpretation, the book itself, shows why they still do.” —Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
“This sweeping intellectual and cultural history resembles one of those vast Renaissance paintings that lets you see simultaneously both the curvature of the earth and the buttons on the soldiers’ uniforms. Louis Menand’s cast of characters and range of interests are enormous, from Allen Ginsberg to Zbigniew Brzezinski, from Hannah Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger to Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog.’ But coursing through this vast panorama is a sustained reflection on the hidden relation between global politics and the life of the mind.” —Stephen Greenblatt, author of Tyrant and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
“What do Richard Wright, Betty Friedan, and Elvis Presley have in common? They are all pieces in the giant puzzle masterfully assembled by Louis Menand in this magnum opus. The result is a dazzling panorama of the Cold War but also a captivating case study in Menand’s great subject: how art and ideas matter in the world. A thinking person’s page-turner.” —Martin Puchner, author of The Written World and The Language of Thieves
“It’s hard to know which to admire more in Louis Menand’s book on the culture of the Cold War: the range of his interests and the depth of his understanding, the calm complexity of his judgments, the genuine passion for disinterested historical understanding, or the quiet, delicately deadpan wit that illuminates his prose. Whether he is writing on the Beatles or the CIA, the reader can never anticipate, beginning a chapter, where it will go, or what judgment will end it, or what sentence will crown it. Minds as coolly independent as Menand’s come along once in a generation, and this long-in-the-making book was worth the wait.” —Adam Gopnik, author of A Thousand Small Sanities and Paris to the Moon
“A lavish synthesis of the world of art, ideas, and politics from the Depression to Watergate, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War chronicles the liveliest skirmishes at the heart of twentieth-century American intellectual life. I both learned from and argued with Louis Menand’s choices and sizzling interpretations on every page. Probably no encounter with an 850-page book could be any more satisfying. With a special feeling for New York and Paris, this colossal achievement of imagination will bring erudition, controversy, and pleasure to readers for many years to come.” —Lawrence P. Jackson, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960
“Louis Menand’s The Free World is a tour de force— clear-sighted, brilliantly written, and full of surprises. It will change the way you think about everything from containment to consumerism, the Beats to the Beatles.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction and Under a White Sky