At each step of this journey through American cultural history, Louis Menand has an original point to make: he explains the real significance of William James's nervous breakdown, and of the anti-Semitism in T. S. Eliot's writing. He reveals the reasons for the remarkable commercial successes of William Shawn's New Yorker and William Paley's CBS. He uncovers the connection between Larry Flynt's Hustler and Jerry Falwell's evangelism, between the atom bomb and the Scholastic Aptitude Test. He locates the importance of Richard Wright, Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael, Christopher Lasch, and Rolling Stone magazine. And he lends an ear to Al Gore in the White House as the Starr Report is finally presented to the public.
Like his critically acclaimed bestseller, The Metaphysical Club, American Studies is intellectual and cultural history at its best: game and detached, with a strong curiosity about the political underpinnings of ideas and about the reasons successful ideas insinuate themselves into the culture at large. From one of our leading thinkers and critics, known both for his "sly wit and reportorial high-jinks [and] clarity and rigor" (The Nation), these essays are incisive, surprising, and impossible to put down.
The success of The Metaphysical Club, which won last year's Pulitzer Prize for History, surprised few regular readers of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, where Menand has contributed many of the most thoughtful review-essays of the last decade. This book collects some of the most cogent and clearly articulated of those pieces, and reaffirms Menand's position as a preeminent historian of American liberalism's cultural incarnations. The opening pieces, on William James's depression (or "sadness") and Oliver Wendell Holmes's "bettabilitarianism," further the brilliant profile of pragmatism developed by Menand in The Metaphysical Club. The review-essay "T.S. Eliot and the Jews" is a sharp extension of the debate surrounding Anthony Julius's T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (and it might just entice someone to bring Menand's Eliot monograph, Discovering Modernism, back into print). Considerations of Richard Wright and Pauline Kael offer assessments of their achievements, showing why they still matter. The long New Yorker pieces on Al Gore and architect Maya Lin show Menand's rigorous disinterestedness working less well in the context of interview journalism, but essays that portray Hustler's Larry Flynt and evangelist Jerry Falwell as "working opposite sides of the same street," or exploring Christopher Lasch's flirtations with populism, throw that technique's power, and Menand's mastery of it, into bold relief.