"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
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.
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.
The scope of this book is majestic in its breadth, and the level of detail on the artists and figures you know is remarkable. That same level of detail on the figures you didn’t know is what keeps you engrossed through the 1500 pages.