When Ideas Mattered

How “freedom from” became “freedom to”

The Beatles in Treslong, the Netherlands, in 1964 (Poppe de Boer/Wikimedia Commons)
The Beatles in Treslong, the Netherlands, in 1964 (Poppe de Boer/Wikimedia Commons)

THE FREE WORLD: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 880 pp., $35

The Free World is the sort of book that reviewers call “magisterial.” In this follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001), 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. “The artistic and intellectual culture” of post-1945 America, he writes, was the product of a larger democratic milieu, much of it French in origin. Indeed, as scholars have demonstrated, “American culture” often merely means culture made or emerging in the United States, not necessarily native to it. Geography, then, not inherent Americanness, is what makes it American.

Menand demarcates major shifts in his story. Initially, figures like Lionel Trilling worried that “the line separating liberalism from authoritarianism is much less bright than liberals assume.” Around 1956, the balance between protecting liberty and promoting civil liberties “started to tip the other way,” as “freedom from” gave way to “freedom to”: toward words that “promised something more, something existential.” Another shift came with the failed U.S. war in Southeast Asia, which ushered in America’s declining political influence in the world even as its cultural power endured. “The war in Vietnam disrupted the artistic and critical avant-garde,” Menand writes. “Preoccupations changed from formal and aesthetic questions to political questions,” although many of the people Menand chronicles were preoccupied with politics before Vietnam, if not with elections and state policies. Menand has trouble here. “American presidents who pursued a policy of engagement [an evasive word for war] in Vietnam were not imperialists,” he asserts. They did not see themselves as imperialists, but many contemporaries and later scholars understandably did.

Menand’s book is almost encyclopedic in scope and scrupulously documented in some 85 pages of tiny-print endnotes. 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. You don’t need to read the whole book—each chapter makes sense on its own. Yet it leaves out a good deal, which I point out not to flog Menand but to alert readers to what they will miss. It’s the “art and thought” that interests him, which is a lot, but hardly the whole story.

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. And sometimes Menand doesn’t get it quite right: “Homosexuals were frequently caught up in these [Red Scare–era] ‘investigations,’ on the theory that they were susceptible to blackmail.” In fact, they were not merely “caught up” but explicitly targeted for reasons beyond presumed susceptibility to blackmail. Likewise, gender appears largely through biography and anecdote, though his material on how the Beatles and other pop artists played with gender is delicious.

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. Yet those forces are almost timeless and abstract, lacking the historical specificity that would account for women’s plunging place in creative life in the 1940s and ’50s. Surely immediate circumstances—endless militarization and repeated wars—privileged male authority and ideals, while the 1944 GI Bill gamed the system to male veterans’ advantage. 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 (what critic Dwight Macdonald sneeringly called “Midcult”), 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 (1957)—check out the Polish and Hungarian versions on YouTube—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 (1967), but movies Americans (and others) saw by the millions—say Giant (1956), or the scads of films derived from Tennessee Williams’s work—do not. Perhaps Menand does not see them as speaking interestingly to questions of “freedom,” or springing from the transnational currents of the “free world,” or operating on the cutting edge of the avant-garde. But many people encountered freedom through middlebrow culture. Menand leaves the impression that the figures he examines shaped the free world more than they actually did.

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.” But he writes little about why he chose some stories and not others and why he regards some figures as “emblematic” but not others: they are emblematic because he says they are.

Menand and I simply have different preferences. His is for the history of ideas and the people who make them—intellectual history. Mine is for cultural history that includes those ideas and people but then goes beyond them. 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. “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.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Michael Sherryis 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.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up