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Shortlisted for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize 2022
Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction
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 stresses the rich flow of ideas across the Atlantic.
How did elitism and an anti-totalitarian scepticism of passion and ideology give way to a new sensibility defined by 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, Menand takes us inside Hannah Arendt’s Manhattan, the Paris of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and the post-war vogue for French existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism.
He also shows how Europeans played a vital role in promoting and influencing American art and thought, revealing how America’s once neglected culture became respected and adored. With unprecedented verve and range, this book offers a masterly account of the main characters and minor figures who played part in shaping the post-war world of art and thought.
‘The Free World sparkles. Fully original, beautifully written’ New York Times
‘Like a great novelist, he creates a world’ Fintan O’Toole, The New York Review of Books
‘Elegantly written, entertaining and bursting with information . . . [Menand] has undertaken what few writers of intellectual history would dare to do’ Marjorie Perloff, TLS
’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 is an engrossing and often revelatory book, a capacious, ambitious, and wonderfully crafted synthesis of intellectual and cultural histor’ Jack Hamilton, Slate
‘Menand is a genial hand-holder and amazingly good company’ Leo Robinson, Prospect
‘Masterful, and exhibits such brilliant writing and exhaustive research . . . I learned so much’ Mark Greif, The Atlantic
‘An engrossing and impossibly wide-ranging project . . . In The Free World, every seat is a good one’ Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post
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.
Subversive culture flourished under geopolitical tension and nuclear anxiety, according to this sweeping cultural history. New Yorker contributor Menand (The Metaphysical Club) surveys a panorama of avant-garde movements that emerged between 1945 and 1965, including French existentialism; beat poetry; the second-wave feminism of Betty Friedan; and the antiracist writings of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Frantz Fanon. Scandalous art world scenes, from the abstract expressionists to Warhol's Factory, and musical outrages like composer John Cage's 4'33" are also explored. Menand excavates the socioeconomic roots of these developments, including how rising high school enrollment fueled the spread of rock n' roll, but above all he's concerned with the tangled human relationships that nurtured them; he traces, for example, how the improbably intersecting passions and neuroses of Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady incubated "Howl" and On the Road. Menand writes with his usual mix of colorful portraiture, shrewd insight, and pithy interpretation, describing the "feeling of personal liberation achieved through political solidarity" of 1960s student activists as "a largely illusory but nevertheless genuinely moving sense... that the world was turning under their marching feet." The result is an exhilarating exploration of one of history's most culturally fertile eras. Photos.