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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 Men 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 residences 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.


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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 Men 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 residences 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.

30 review for The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

  1. 5 out of 5

    Tony

    This is a sprawling cultural history, American- and European-centric, of that time after the Second World War. The author, Louis Menand, won all the awards for his earlier book: The Metaphysical Club. I read that one and unlike most others found it numbing. But this new book spoke to my time, and I saw that he even mentioned The Beatles, so I had at it. The thing about sprawling books, though, is that they, well, they sprawl. So there were topics and figures that had me fairly engaged: George Ke This is a sprawling cultural history, American- and European-centric, of that time after the Second World War. The author, Louis Menand, won all the awards for his earlier book: The Metaphysical Club. I read that one and unlike most others found it numbing. But this new book spoke to my time, and I saw that he even mentioned The Beatles, so I had at it. The thing about sprawling books, though, is that they, well, they sprawl. So there were topics and figures that had me fairly engaged: George Kennan, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Andy Warhol, those Beatles, Jackson Pollock. But I slept through others: John Cage, James Baldwin, C. Wright Mills. But I learned things, like: -- All of Sartre’s works were put on the Vatican’s Index of prohibited books; Mein Kampf was not. -- Classified job ads in The New York Times were segregated by gender until 1968. And: In 1963, more than 80 percent of college faculty were men (a higher percentage than in 1920); 95 percent of physicians were men; 97 percent of lawyers were men; more than 97 percent of United States senators, members of Congress, and ambassadors were men. . . . In 1963, of 78 federal judgeships, none was held by a woman; of 307 federal district court judges, two were women. Of approximately 9,400 state legislators, 341 (4 percent) were women. Three states (Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina) did not allow women to serve on juries. -- Thurgood Marshall had this to say about Martin Luther King, Jr: I think he was great as a leader. . . . As an organizer he wasn’t worth a shit. -- Paperback publishers commissioned covers for books like Brave New World and The Catcher in the Rye from the same artists who did the covers for Strangler’s Serenade and The Case of the Careless Kitten. -- The star of Les Enfants du paradis, Arletty, was imprisoned for “horizontal collaboration” with an officer in the Luftwaffe. (Arletty had a memorable way of expressing her lack of repentance. “My heart belongs to France,” she said, “but my ass belongs to the whole world.”) -- Today, in America, everyone says, “It is what it is,” which is meant to sound profound but really just means the speaker can’t form an independent thought. Isaiah Berlin said it better: Everything is what is, liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience. This I already knew: As a campaigner John F. Kennedy was willing to align himself loosely with the civil rights movement, but ending racial segregation was not one of his priorities. In his inaugural address, Kennedy mentioned civil rights obliquely and only once, implied in a promise to uphold “those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.” The last six words were added at the request of two aides, Harris Wofford and Louis Marin, who told Kennedy that he needed to make a gesture to the Black voters who had supported him. . . . Kennedy had never heard of the Freedom Riders. He is supposed to have said to Wofford: “Can’t you get your goddamned friends off those buses?” There is only one thing that I disagreed with, when the author wrote this: The Beatles were never artists and never thought of themselves in those terms. That’s bullshit, and demonstrably wrong. John Lennon famously said this: I'm an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I'll bring you something out of it. And they quit touring, at a time when they were exploring music that had never been imagined. I don’t know how to grade this book by Goodreads’ stars. I suspect it will win a lot of awards.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bagus

    I could forgive the length of this book which is almost 944 pages for the rich contents inside it. Written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Louis Menand, this book offers an interesting point of view to the Cold War period beyond the spectrum of the political sphere. It focuses on two subjects which influence human’s lives, art and thought. It begins with a brief description of the origin of the Cold War, which could be traced by a recommendation sent by George Kennan who was a US diplomat in the So I could forgive the length of this book which is almost 944 pages for the rich contents inside it. Written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Louis Menand, this book offers an interesting point of view to the Cold War period beyond the spectrum of the political sphere. It focuses on two subjects which influence human’s lives, art and thought. It begins with a brief description of the origin of the Cold War, which could be traced by a recommendation sent by George Kennan who was a US diplomat in the Soviet Union and the person who first advocated a policy of containment of Soviet expansion soon after the end of World War II. His writings inspired Truman Doctrine and US foreign policy of containing the Soviet Union. However, many of the ideas in this book, both for art and thought originated even far before the Cold War. Some of them could be traced into European artistic influence (Paris as the world art capital in the 1920s) and the aftereffect of World War II (existentialism which gives the individual the power to change their own situations and gain freedom). Hence, I am in the opinion that this book is more about the styles of art and the thoughts that influence much of our lives in the 20th century rather than focusing solely on the Cold War since even the explanation of Cold War phenomenon only appeared in several chapters. It highlights several artistic movements, literary movements, and philosophical ideas in many parts of the world with really nice bridging from one idea to another. Besides the abnormal length, another problem that I have regarding this book is mainly about its tendency to focus on art and thought movements only in Western bloc during the Cold War. It doesn’t describe well some literary movements that are in place in the Eastern bloc such as Socialist Realism (in the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, mainly championed by Andrei Zhdanov and György Lukács), Epic Theatre (practised by Bertolt Brecht and his theatre company Berliner Ensemble in East Germany), dissident writers and artists in the Eastern bloc (I had some expectation like this book describes Václav Havel's role in overthrowing communism in Czechoslovakia), or even the curious case of Boris Pasternak who won controversial Nobel Prize of Literature in 1958 (this book at least mentioned the story of Anna Akhmatova’s brief relationship with Sir Isaiah Berlin, but it’s mainly told to highlight Berlin’s achievements). Nevertheless, this book is indeed interesting new research on the Cold War period. I like the way it provides me with rich intertextuality of ideas, which help me to expand my vocabularies of modern art and thoughts as well as providing me with further book recommendations to be read. Louis Menand writes articulately without making the readers confused about terminologies or historical facts. Each chapter of this book could be read independently. For example, readers who are interested with Sartre’s idea on existentialism could turn to Chapter 3 - Freedom and Nothingness, those who are interested with analysis on Kerouac’s On the Road and Beat generation could check Chapter 4 - Outside the Law, and those who are interested with John Cage’s musical invention which was based on the twelve-tone system could turn to Chapter 8 - The Emancipation of Dissonance. This book will be intriguing for people with interest in modern art, modern thoughts, politics, and even the reasoning for the rise of consumerism in the 1960s. Many of the ideas in this book are simply derivative from other books published in the past. However, the way the author could connect those ideas with geopolitical issues of the Cold War is a merit in itself which expand further the discussion that we could have regarding the Cold War beyond the political sphere.

  3. 4 out of 5

    J Earl

    The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War from Louis Menand is a sweeping survey that looks at how and why perceptions about the United States, both domestically and internationally, changed so completely during these years. First, as he makes clear in his Preface, this is neither a history of the Cold War nor is it about Cold War culture specifically. It is about "art and thought" during this period and how it helped to mold new ways of thinking and being. The Cold War was, as Menand says, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War from Louis Menand is a sweeping survey that looks at how and why perceptions about the United States, both domestically and internationally, changed so completely during these years. First, as he makes clear in his Preface, this is neither a history of the Cold War nor is it about Cold War culture specifically. It is about "art and thought" during this period and how it helped to mold new ways of thinking and being. The Cold War was, as Menand says, just one of many factors. So don't expect specifically a history of or explicit connections to the Cold War for every person or movement mentioned. The connections are there throughout and a perceptive reader will see them, but since the tensions between the "East and West" weren't the only, or even always the primary, factor it isn't overly emphasized. Also, if you're worried about the length of the book, don't be. First of all, by the Kindle measurement, the body of the text ends at 73%, so barely over 700 pages make up the body of the book. While all of the notes are useful if you want to read further, very few include additional commentary (there are actually some footnotes in the text for those types of notes) so the pages with the notes do not add to the amount of reading. In addition, each chapter is centered on a particular movement and/or group of people, so each can be read almost like a self-contained essay. This makes the book one that allows a reader to read chapters at their leisure and return to the book later without losing too much of the flow. That said, it richly rewards reading over a few days so you can better appreciate the big picture. Finally, and this is important, Menand doesn't treat the period as if in a vacuum. He discusses what came before and how it helped shape what happened during this period. Sometimes as a logical continuation, sometimes as a response to, but never as something created from nothing. If you expected a book to discuss a period of history, especially when focusing on art and thought, without delving into what came before, you haven't read many meaningful history books, at least not very well. Because the sweep is so broad, there will be some areas where Menand uses less than nuanced interpretations when making his point. Not so much wrong or mistaken, but things that don't take everything into account. I didn't find these to be particularly problematic, a person can only go in depth so far on this many topics, at some point he has to rely on previous work. I only noticed this in a couple chapters where I have done more research and reading, and I think that will be the case with other readers for whom some of these movements represent part of their personal scholarly past. It does not, however, detract from the larger arc of the book and doesn't make a reader feel that something has been misrepresented. I highly recommend this for readers who enjoy intellectual history, literary history, and art history. Art in this case is using the broad definition, music, painting, etc. I think a casual reader would enjoy reading this book essentially as a collection of connected essays. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Michael Reilly

    Menand sets out in this book to describe the intellectual and artistic scene in America and Western Europe from the end of World War 2 in 1945 to the rise of the hippies in 1967. This is intellectual history. Menand explains that "Intellectual history explains art and ideas by examining the condition of their production and reception." That is a misleading definition, at least for the way Menand does it. Menand doesn't start with art and ideas. He begins with the artist and thinkers. Where did t Menand sets out in this book to describe the intellectual and artistic scene in America and Western Europe from the end of World War 2 in 1945 to the rise of the hippies in 1967. This is intellectual history. Menand explains that "Intellectual history explains art and ideas by examining the condition of their production and reception." That is a misleading definition, at least for the way Menand does it. Menand doesn't start with art and ideas. He begins with the artist and thinkers. Where did they come from? How did they grow up? Where did they go to school or work? Then he tracks their ideas or their art and asks where it came from and what did it lead to. This is a fun book to read. Menand loves to capture the quirks and failings of his subjects. One of the running gags, (although this is not really a "running gag" kind of book) is that artist and thinkers keep claiming that they were moved or inspired by seeing things that Menand shows they could not have seen when they said they did. Thinkers are inspired by attending lectures that happened before they went too that school. Artists are inspired to paint a piece by art painted after the piece. Menand takes a genial attitude towards this kind of thing. It is just intellectuals being intellectuals. The scope of this book is amazing. Abstract expressionism, the political theories of Hannah Arendt and Isiah Berlin, Mercer Cunningham and modern dance, James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Norman Mailer and William Burroughs, the Beatles, John Cage, Andy Warhol and Pop Art, Goddard and Truffaut and French cinema, Alan Ginsburg, Susan Sontag, Jack Kerouac, Pauline Kael , Lionel Trilling, Sartre, Betty Friedan and a bunch more, all get detailed discussions outlining their life, art and thought. This is a book not an encyclopedia. Menand brilliantly weaves all of these stories together. He loves showing the connections across countries and specialties. For example, John Cage, the composer, seems to have known everyone. He had a major role in modern dance and avant-garde theater. The abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock and Rauschenberg in particular, inspired Cage and he inspired them. Menand carefully unwinds all of these complicated relationships. One of the striking features of most of his subjects is a complete lack of a sense of humor. The Beatles and Ginsburg where not really part of the high intellectual world. The rest of the crowd took themselves very seriously. Menand, in a low key way, pokes fun at much of the self importance. Menand is a great explainer. He manages to give as-clear-as-possible explanations of things like, the theories of abstract painters, existentialism, Sontag's theory of "Camp", or the auteur theory of film criticism. He is also appropriately skeptical of some of the dubious theories. One interesting strategy Menand adopts is his tone. This is not a debunking book. He treats his subjects as serious thinkers and artist. It is also not a hagiography. When he thinks Andy Warhol is being phony, he says it. He says it politely, but he says it. He has favorites like Cage, Baldwin and Pollock . He has people he is not as much a fan of, like Sontag, Trilling and Mailer. Menand loves odd facts. John Cage appeared on an Italian quiz show when he was doing concerts in the country. He won five million lira ($6,000) for naming the twenty four types of white spored mushrooms. He was, on the side, an expert in mushrooms. He names them in alphabetical order to show off. Or this trivia question; What educational background did at least one member of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, the Jeff Beck Group, The Animals and Donovan have in common? They each had a member who went to art school. Vocabulary word. In a section on the American car industry of the 1950s, Menand mentions that, "the industry term for all tail fins, hood ornaments , oversized bumpers, protruding tailpipes, chrome detailing-nonfunctional design elements on cars -was "borax" (adj. "borageous" ) One quibble. Menand says that Northrup Frye believed in the 1950s that "the critic's first task is to identify the memes". "Memes" is anachronistic. Richard Dawkins invented that word in the 1970s. It is a notoriously slippery word and it does not fit well into literary theory, but, in any case, it wasn't what Frye was thinking of in the 1950s. This is a smart, fascinating and serious book of intellectual history. Menand is a sprightly and clear writer. He is the perfect guide through this interesting and confusing territory.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    pedestrian analysis interspersed with interesting anecdotes––in short: a 700-page collection of extended, only tangentially related, New Yorker articles.

  6. 4 out of 5

    James Murphy

    I began The Free World with the idea the book would examine the free culture of the Cold War west set against the tightly-controlled culture behind the Iron Curtain. Instead I found a cultural history of the west during the 2 decades following WWII, particularly American culture, dominant at the time because American cultural institutions had been allowed to thrive during the war, unrestricted by the conflict. Postwar was a time of rapid social and cultural change in which the Cold War itself wa I began The Free World with the idea the book would examine the free culture of the Cold War west set against the tightly-controlled culture behind the Iron Curtain. Instead I found a cultural history of the west during the 2 decades following WWII, particularly American culture, dominant at the time because American cultural institutions had been allowed to thrive during the war, unrestricted by the conflict. Postwar was a time of rapid social and cultural change in which the Cold War itself wasn't so much a competitive field as an enduring product of the freedoms the west's cultural dynamic reflected. There are chapters on abstract painting, literary criticism, the civil rights movement, feminism, Beat literature, dance, film, and much more. These and other iconic groundswells in western culture are distilled into clear summaries bringing them into sharp focus as elements in themselves as well as shifting parts of the cultural whole for the period. Such analysis makes this invaluable history. Much of it is related as story, the story of how individual disciplines progressed fueled by those figures most influential. How did Jackson Pollock become Jackson Pollock? How did James Baldwin and Susan Sontag become the enormously important influences they were at the time and remain today? Menand describes how their intellectual and artistic ideas became the cultural history of the period. And they represented areas--rock and roll, painting, dance--whose trends followed the individuals driving them. His explaining Duchamp of Warhol or Kerouac as figures behind their respective movements is not only useful but often provides new ways of seeing them. There were some surprises for me. Menand cites Beat literature as being more influential to western ideas--rather than being literarily innovative--than I'd previously thought. The anthropology of the period, too, had a lot to teach us about freedoms. Most of us are familiar with the rise of rock and roll but few of us, perhaps, think of it as an export we imported back from Britain in a rejuvenated spirit. Movies, too. At the end of the war Hollywood was by far the most important producer of movies and was filling European theaters with them for populations hungry for popular entertainment. But Menand convincingly tells how French auteur methods, best personified in the film Bonnie and Clyde, re-directed American films away from the big, empty blockbusters of the late 50s and early 60s to give movies new life and style. There's a light dose of politics, too. Where America was headed in those years was Vietnam. The book gives a sobering assessment of why we should not have fought there. It fits with Menand's message that America's 20th century artistic freedoms--embodied in Kerouac, Pollock, Betty Friedan, Lionel Trilling and Susan Sontag and all the rest--acted as a foil against totalitarian thought and as inspiration to resist an authoritarian future. Our work was to set the example, not to confront directly. Ideas like this, whether completely right or not, fill the book and make it a terrific read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Marks54

    Louis Menand has written a fine book, although by the time I finished it - and it is a long book - I was unclear regarding what this book is about. Let’s start with the plot and its trajectory. I loved the author’s “The Metaphysical Club”, which was a four part intellectual biography, tied to a discussion group. You get four biographical stories, plus the interactions, all tied together with some well done context. In the context of other histories coming out around then, it was fascinating stuff Louis Menand has written a fine book, although by the time I finished it - and it is a long book - I was unclear regarding what this book is about. Let’s start with the plot and its trajectory. I loved the author’s “The Metaphysical Club”, which was a four part intellectual biography, tied to a discussion group. You get four biographical stories, plus the interactions, all tied together with some well done context. In the context of other histories coming out around then, it was fascinating stuff. What is the plot trajectory here? WW2 ends and many wonder whether our collaboration with the Soviet Union and Stalin will continue (Spoiler alert - it does not.). As the US adapts to the post-war world, cultural and intellectual activities break out again across a wide front in the US and Europe. …and then a bunch of stuff happens??? There follow eighteen long chapters about various aspects of “art and thought” developing from the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the 1960s. How can such a story line miss? How can it fail to engage? I am younger than Professor Menand but I came of age during this period and on good days I even remember what it was like - or seemed to be like. The book has the sense of being a reflective exercise, in which the author looks back at this time from a distance (he suggests this in the intro) and then wonders “what the hell happened?”. Each of the chapters seems to take this as a starting point and then off a deeper dive into some more specialized area. The result is a series of engaging essays that are sprinkled with some memorable trivia. (My favorite - “borax” in new car styling in the boom years of the 1950s). Each of these areas seems to be its own world that evolves until it reflects a bit more clearly its contemporary relationships. (This is good up to a point - the art and music chapters still leave me more perplexed than I care to admit.) But is this really a book or a good collection of essays/articles? I think it is more than a collection and am reminded of the apocryphal comment one hears from professors - Need to learn about something? Teach a course on it! The idea is that the preparation will help you make sense of it. For example, the chapter in “The Free World” on literary criticism seems to me to be one of the strongest in the book. In any event, I would love to see the exam for this course. The chapters are far from rehashes of what is generally known and appreciated on these topics. The broad question for me is what the relationships of the three parts of the title to each other are. Is the “free world” defined in terms of the categories of “art and thought” that Professor Menand reviews or is the “free world” defined into terms of the “Communist World” or the “Third World”. Are these intellectual/cultural domains independent of geopolitics or do they derive from the broader geopolitical order? …and while we are at it, just what do we mean by the Cold War? When did it end? What were its major chronological points? Professor Menand has a definite perspective on this, but art and thought continued to progress after the events in the book and to some the Cold War lasted into the early 1990s. It turns out that Professor Menand does not resolve the relationship of art and thought to geopolitics but leaves some tension. That is reasonable and appropriate. I realize that a book like this is of necessity a personal perspective on the period. That is OK with me. It is easy to look up details. It is much more difficult to think about what they mean. Professor Menand’s book makes a solid contribution and is well worth reading.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Alex Goodall

    As any good Cold Warrior might hope, Louis Menand gets his defence in first. This is not a book about the "cultural Cold War”, he explains in his preface - that is, the way that culture was mobilised by Cold War rivals as part of their efforts to get one up on each other. Nor is it a book about “Cold War culture”, the ways that the norms of the Cold War influenced cultural life. In fact, the book is not really much about the Cold War at all. It begins with a discussion of Kennan and realist thin As any good Cold Warrior might hope, Louis Menand gets his defence in first. This is not a book about the "cultural Cold War”, he explains in his preface - that is, the way that culture was mobilised by Cold War rivals as part of their efforts to get one up on each other. Nor is it a book about “Cold War culture”, the ways that the norms of the Cold War influenced cultural life. In fact, the book is not really much about the Cold War at all. It begins with a discussion of Kennan and realist thinking about containment in the late 1940s and ends with arguments about opposition to Vietnam in which Kennan returns, but between these points the Cold War appears only infrequently as a contextual theme. “Art and Thought in the Cold War”, the subtitle, is more a nod to the fact that the book is about art and thought that happens to happen in the first half of the Cold War than it is suggesting the Cold War itself made a lot of difference. Indeed, a lot of what Menand shows is how changes in this period result not from Cold War pressures but from a set of internal logics that often date back to earlier periods, especially the interwar years; and the unplanned effects of the massive disruptions of the Second World War, not least the mass migration of cultural figures from Europe to America. Even when artistic products get taken up by Western governments and promoted as evidence of the cultural fertility of Western democracy, Menand shows that most of the time the artists themselves were fairly indifferent to politics; art came first. Menand could have called this book “Art and Thought in Midcentury”, then - he’d have been as accurate and the book would have been just as interesting, though perhaps it would have sold fewer copies. If there is a driving force behind the incredible volume of cultural production in this exceptionally fertile period, Menand implies it is the extraordinary transformation of culture as an industry following the explosive growth of affluent bourgeois classes around the world. (Many artists and thinkers in this book often come across as canny entrepreneurs and self-promoters rather than anti-capitalist radicals.) Finally, this is not anything that we might describe as a global history of art and thought in the Cold War. Menand focuses almost exclusively on the Western bloc, and within that largely on the United States and, secondarily, France... although that still gives him plenty to work with. And this is the thing most to praise about the book: the sheer range of material he covers. Painting, literary theory, political theory, music, anthropology, literature, and huge amounts more are swept through at breakneck speed. There are around 150 pages of bibliography available on his website if you want to get a sense of how much reading this book is based on. At times he arguably goes too fast - the brief introduction to structuralism and Levi-Strauss was bravura, to my mind, but he struggled more to encapsulate existentialism and deconstruction in the few paragraphs he allotted himself, fairly understandably. But this book is plenty long enough and there isn’t much other choice if one picks such a massive picture to fill in. People might similarly complain that figures or movements are missing or that the emphasis is off here or there, but everyone would have their own preferences and personally I like seeing how each of our frames of reference are a little different. If I did have a complaint, it’s that I don’t really feel that the whole thing hangs together especially powerfully. He says in his intro that, “The book I ended up writing is a little like a novel with a hundred characters. But the dots do connect.” If that’s true, I think the reader has to do quite a lot of work in connecting them. At times, this book feels a lot like it’s been written by someone who has got very good at doing individual _New Yorker_ pencil portraits, which makes sense, since that’s what Menand does. At other times, it feels like it's the collected lectures from an accomplished professor delivering an undergraduate survey module, which also makes sense, since Menand does that, too. But at one or two moments it also feels like just one damn thing after another. If you like the history of ideas and culture you’ll probably enjoy reading Menand’s lively romp. You’ll probably feel smarter for reading the book. You’ll probably feel that Menand is smarter still. With a book of such ambition perhaps the whole thing should be a bit more than the sum of its parts, but nevertheless the individual parts do still add up to a lot.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Craig Werner

    I began this with very high hopes; Menand's The Metaphysical Club deserves its reputation and, as his work for the New Yorker shows, he can write well. But the more I read, the more my disappointment grew. It's much closer to two stars than four. The reasons are multiple. First, for a book that purports to be about the Cold War, the balance is extremely skewed. There's essentially nothing about the 1980s, very little about the 1970s and hundreds (I'm pretty sure that's literal, though I didn't c I began this with very high hopes; Menand's The Metaphysical Club deserves its reputation and, as his work for the New Yorker shows, he can write well. But the more I read, the more my disappointment grew. It's much closer to two stars than four. The reasons are multiple. First, for a book that purports to be about the Cold War, the balance is extremely skewed. There's essentially nothing about the 1980s, very little about the 1970s and hundreds (I'm pretty sure that's literal, though I didn't count) of pages about the pre-1945 period. Some of that's justified, context and all. But a lot of it is tied to my second criticism, which is that there's a huge amount of detail unconnected to any idea or cultural movement. We know much much more than I want to about who took what classes from who and who the teachers' teachers were and who they slept with and on and on. At times I felt like I was reading a gossip column writ large. It didn't help that Menand's notion of the world is organized so tightly around the New York/Paris axis. Important sites, obviously. The whole story, not even kind of. And his sense of who matters reflects the New York Intellectual consensus circa 1975, as do many of his judgements such as the infuriating stereotype of James Baldwin's work having gone down the drain after the mid-1960s. Finally, when Menand's writing about topics I know well, he's frequently just wrong. He can't decide whether Betty Friedan is first or second wave feminist or women's libber or what not. (And his excuse for more or less ignoring women who didn't sleep with major figures until past page 500 because that was the way it was at the time is beynond irritating.). His explanation that Baldwin went to see Elijah Muhammad because of the attention drawn to the Nation of Islam by Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali is just flat wrong--the dates don't work. By the end, I was gritting my teeth, but I got enough detail I didn't know--and I respect the rest of Menand's career enough-- that I can't, quite, bring myself to give it a thumbs down.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Miguel

    At one point in the book, Menand describes his endeavor as an intellectual history which he defines as explaining art & ideas by examining the conditions of their production and reception. That’s indeed what this book is, and at some parts it does risk being not more than a series of mini biographies stringed together. That said, I personally found these all to be quite interesting and very captivating, as Menand has a wonderful writing style and a very dry wit to capture these very diverse pers At one point in the book, Menand describes his endeavor as an intellectual history which he defines as explaining art & ideas by examining the conditions of their production and reception. That’s indeed what this book is, and at some parts it does risk being not more than a series of mini biographies stringed together. That said, I personally found these all to be quite interesting and very captivating, as Menand has a wonderful writing style and a very dry wit to capture these very diverse personalities and does an outstanding job painting an accurate portrait of the time, place, and milieu of these figures. Further, it’s not often to be so engaged in a work where one doesn’t necessarily agree with the author’s views, for instance his sniping on Arendt was annoying but at the same time kind of edifying as well. A lot of the overview and critique seems subtle to me, but in some parts, like the description of Trilling and Ginsberg’s relationship, are downright sad but darkly humorous as well. There were so many characters I didn’t know too much about and he spent just the right amount of time on (like Trilling). There did seem to be a major gap in coverage of post-war music without nary a mention of any jazz performers (Note: the audiobook version seems to have a cutoff of some portion of the final chapter [18], which was incredibly annoying given the prior 35 hour commitment. My guess is that it’s only shaving a small portion, but will hopefully be fixed by the publisher.)

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    I read a chapter from this book--the one on the Berkeley Free Speech Movement--in the New Yorker a couple of months ago, . At the time I didn't notice that it was a chapter from a book. The early 60s was a period of time when, one might say, I was experiencing my intellectual awakening. I was transitioning from being an unfocused, nonchalant working class reader whose best friend who attended a local private high school and Columbia University. His friendship led me to pursue a state college edu I read a chapter from this book--the one on the Berkeley Free Speech Movement--in the New Yorker a couple of months ago, . At the time I didn't notice that it was a chapter from a book. The early 60s was a period of time when, one might say, I was experiencing my intellectual awakening. I was transitioning from being an unfocused, nonchalant working class reader whose best friend who attended a local private high school and Columbia University. His friendship led me to pursue a state college education and, at $50 a semester, I could afford to do so. Reading this book I find myself in an absolute reverie of remembrance, hearing distant voices from the past that, in the past, were much louder...and contending. I was never an Ivy Leaguer but I was employed by Yale University in a program for disadvantaged but promising youth. For more than 50 years I have maintained wonderful friendships with four others who worked in the same program--all of them with Yale degrees--and we zoom monthly. The five of us are reading this astounding intellectual history that in various ways helped to create us all. It provided the grist of conversation then and continues to do so today. From George Kennan and Hannah Arendt to James Baldwin and Mario Savio, the cauldron continues to bubble and boil. Gotta go take a shower and get back to the book...

  12. 5 out of 5

    Stuart Miller

    Those interested in intellectual history will undoubtedly want to read this account of the various "isms" and new ways of thinking about art and culture that swirled about the U.S. from the end of World War II to the late 1960s. Structuralism, deconstruction, the New Criticism, existentialism, abstract expressionism, Pop Art--all this and more are presented through the lens of their primary proponents. These are esoteric concepts and I'm not sure that I have any better grasp of them than I did b Those interested in intellectual history will undoubtedly want to read this account of the various "isms" and new ways of thinking about art and culture that swirled about the U.S. from the end of World War II to the late 1960s. Structuralism, deconstruction, the New Criticism, existentialism, abstract expressionism, Pop Art--all this and more are presented through the lens of their primary proponents. These are esoteric concepts and I'm not sure that I have any better grasp of them than I did before reading this book--although more concentration on my part would probably have yielded better understanding. I'm also surprised that Menand--while he does discuss music composers such as John Cage and modern dance choreographers such as Merce Cunningham--never even mentions George Balanchine whose innovations to classical ballet during this period were enormously influential, not to mention his long partnership with Igor Stravinsky (also not discussed). All in all, an impressive work but not one for the casual reader.

  13. 5 out of 5

    John

    This is a well written and highly informative summary of the trends in art and thought that were prominent in the West, especially in the US. The structure is very similar to the one that Menand used in the Metaphysical Club, the book he wrote about in 2001 about the leading proponents of Pragmatism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chapters open with a brief discussion of the state of a particular subject area prior to 1945 and proceed with how the subject area changed over the next 20 This is a well written and highly informative summary of the trends in art and thought that were prominent in the West, especially in the US. The structure is very similar to the one that Menand used in the Metaphysical Club, the book he wrote about in 2001 about the leading proponents of Pragmatism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chapters open with a brief discussion of the state of a particular subject area prior to 1945 and proceed with how the subject area changed over the next 20 years or so with short biographies of the important actors. Menand is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. Not surprisingly, the book reads like a series of New Yorker articles on the art scene (both modern and pop), popular and classical music, literature, movies, politics, culture, the civil rights movement and foreign policy in that the chapters stand on their own. Though not obvious from the Table of Contents, the chapters are organized, more or less, in chronological order. One weakness (for me) is that how these trends fit in the Cold War's battle of ideas, other than being a reflection of our more individualistic culture permitted more artistic freedom than in the Soviet Union, where Socialist Realism was the dominant ideology.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Anand B.

    Menand's writing in the New Yorker over the years had me hooked and I am a fan. He does not disappoint when he tackles "Art and Thought in the Cold War." Writing as lucid as this, especially in essays that bring to life Arendt, Sartre, Pollock, Dylan, Trilling and more--I had to pace myself; putting the book down to rest and reflect between chapters. If you agree with the author's introduction that this book is "about a time when the United States was actively engaged with the rest of the world" Menand's writing in the New Yorker over the years had me hooked and I am a fan. He does not disappoint when he tackles "Art and Thought in the Cold War." Writing as lucid as this, especially in essays that bring to life Arendt, Sartre, Pollock, Dylan, Trilling and more--I had to pace myself; putting the book down to rest and reflect between chapters. If you agree with the author's introduction that this book is "about a time when the United States was actively engaged with the rest of the world"--the use of the past tense in the very first sentence will cut you down. But if you stay to savor the details in the chapters to follow you are likely to be filled with a sense of wonder, hope, and inevitably, awe.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Deborah

    An education. Menand covers innovations and trends in politics, philosophy, activism, fine art, music, film, literature, even comic books through the tumultuous mid 20th century. A huge cast of characters such as Sartre and de Bouvier, James Baldwin and the horrid Norman Mailer, Lionel Trilling and Pauline Kael, John Cage and Elvis Presley, Robert Rauschenberg and Nam June Paik, Allan Ginsberg and the Beatles, Tom Hayden and Betty Friedan are brought to life and contextualized. What should be an An education. Menand covers innovations and trends in politics, philosophy, activism, fine art, music, film, literature, even comic books through the tumultuous mid 20th century. A huge cast of characters such as Sartre and de Bouvier, James Baldwin and the horrid Norman Mailer, Lionel Trilling and Pauline Kael, John Cage and Elvis Presley, Robert Rauschenberg and Nam June Paik, Allan Ginsberg and the Beatles, Tom Hayden and Betty Friedan are brought to life and contextualized. What should be an overwhelming barrage of information instead develops into a cohesive view of the world as it was, and was becoming.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Terry Slaven

    Midway through, the author enlightens us: this is not a history of ideas, but a true “intellectual history”. That is, ideas in context. In the 700+ pages, there are many ideas, and much context. The ideas are, unremittingly, high brow. And the context is a thing in motion, both temporally and geographically. The survey covers a span that begins in the 1920s and concludes in the 1970s. The geographic focus is on Paris and New York. This book is meticulously researched, and is not averse to courtin Midway through, the author enlightens us: this is not a history of ideas, but a true “intellectual history”. That is, ideas in context. In the 700+ pages, there are many ideas, and much context. The ideas are, unremittingly, high brow. And the context is a thing in motion, both temporally and geographically. The survey covers a span that begins in the 1920s and concludes in the 1970s. The geographic focus is on Paris and New York. This book is meticulously researched, and is not averse to courting controversy. Quite frankly, I found parts of it to be obscure to the point of historical irrelevance: much philosophical inside baseball.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ribbqah

    I enjoy his New Yorker articles. I wanted to enjoy Menand’s book but could not understand or care about all he wrote about during the Cold War regarding the Artistic world and thinking, especially literary criticism. I am not a student of history, especially since I grew up in the latter 1950’s and all of the 1960’s. Menand’ writing re: Derrida and deconstruction left me sad about my college years and my so called liberal education. Had I known it was thin ice, I probably would have made other I enjoy his New Yorker articles. I wanted to enjoy Menand’s book but could not understand or care about all he wrote about during the Cold War regarding the Artistic world and thinking, especially literary criticism. I am not a student of history, especially since I grew up in the latter 1950’s and all of the 1960’s. Menand’ writing re: Derrida and deconstruction left me sad about my college years and my so called liberal education. Had I known it was thin ice, I probably would have made other life and career choices.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lloyd Fassett

    4/23/21 It found me through a review in the Wall St. Journal here: ‘The Free World’ Review: Cold War Culture - As the Americans and Soviets jockeyed for dominance, every page and painting was a potential battlefield. It sounds like a great way to understand the 50's, or more precisely cultural and intellectual history from 1944 - 1975. 4/23/21 It found me through a review in the Wall St. Journal here: ‘The Free World’ Review: Cold War Culture - As the Americans and Soviets jockeyed for dominance, every page and painting was a potential battlefield. It sounds like a great way to understand the 50's, or more precisely cultural and intellectual history from 1944 - 1975.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Christy-JC Carter

    I wanted to love this book. There’s so much detail, and I like stories of important intellectuals and how they knew each other. However, this felt wandering without a clear thesis. I wanted to use it for class, but it is too detailed for my students, and without a strong argument, it becomes less useful. I recommend for anyone who wants to take a deep dive into the important thinkers of the decade. You will find his research rewarding and fascinating.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lilian

    Sprawling series of antidotes. Bottom line the Cold War years were a lot of BS. Nothing seems to matter, even though famous people thought it did. Menand is probably making the point that lots of the art and thought he covers was much ado about nothing. He does not really develop an argument but offers a series of set pieces. Not satisfying. Not award worthy but he will probably get one because he is Menand.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Dale

    An in-depth look at the influence American culture had on the world during the height of the cold war era. Well written and flows through different mediums of influence such as writings focused on international relations, novels, and movies to highlight changes in American society and outlooks. Realpolitik, the Beat Generation, Civil Rights movement, and student activists all play a part in shaping what we are or are not today.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    This book was so fun to read. I learned a lot and I thought the analysis was very clever and sometimes incredibly insightful. I also love how Menand takes a swipe at everybody. I liked it less when he took swipes at Baldwin, but by then he'd cut everyone down to size so you can't expect him to leave Baldwin alone (though I sort of wanted him to). My favorite section was the one on Pollack and the art world. This book was so fun to read. I learned a lot and I thought the analysis was very clever and sometimes incredibly insightful. I also love how Menand takes a swipe at everybody. I liked it less when he took swipes at Baldwin, but by then he'd cut everyone down to size so you can't expect him to leave Baldwin alone (though I sort of wanted him to). My favorite section was the one on Pollack and the art world.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Schulof

    These types of intellectual histories are hands-down my favorite works of nonfiction. And Menand is probably the world's best at producing them. An absurdly wide-ranging tome, marked by Menand's characteristically clear prose and obsessive research. With a book like this you're always going to have some gripes with what got included and what didn't. But they're pretty minor here. A terrific read and a valuable resource. And it helped me to understand Derrida! These types of intellectual histories are hands-down my favorite works of nonfiction. And Menand is probably the world's best at producing them. An absurdly wide-ranging tome, marked by Menand's characteristically clear prose and obsessive research. With a book like this you're always going to have some gripes with what got included and what didn't. But they're pretty minor here. A terrific read and a valuable resource. And it helped me to understand Derrida!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Pknapp

    The scope of the book is pretty staggering. There are more than 70 pages of notes, and Menand seems to know all these sources--and many more--by heart. He makes the story fascinating, and I constantly felt the urge to go and read another book he references, or learn more about the people and ideas he describes.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Alex Cummings

    Menand’s erudition and engaging knack for prose make this a rewarding read, but ultimately the profiles of familiar subjects such as Isaiah Berlin, James Baldwin and Susan Sontag stack up like pallets, to the point that it feels like reading Wikipedia. Menand doesn’t seem to be able to explain what all these things have to do with each other

  26. 5 out of 5

    Joseph McAndrew

    Best book of the year As I look back on my 70 odd years, this book fills in the blanks of many of the cultural and philosophical kerfufels (sic) that I never seemed to have time for. The analysis of The New Yorker by itself was worth the price of admission.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mikaela Bichara

    Author’s way of storytelling is so good, I suggest you join NovelStar’s writing competition, you might be their next big star.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    Would be of great use to an Oldies Radio Station DJ. Boomer nostalgia plus trivia equals fun read.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bob Burnett

    Louis Menand is a Harvard English professor and New Yorker essayist. He writes digestible American cultural-history books. A thoughtful book about a complex, and important, period. Bravo.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Terry

    on p. 160 of 700 pages sprawling but usually entertaining. with access to personal, intimate letters Menand has many stories to tell and works hard at determining truth.

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