Review: The Free World

The Free World, Louis Menand. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Summary: An intellectual and cultural history of the forces and figures whose creations contributed to the emergence of the United States as an intellectual and artistic leader in the years between 1945 and 1965.

The years between 1945 and 1965 were a time of transformation in the United States. The return of servicemen from the war fueled a boom in university education. An influx of intellectual and artistic refugees from Europe sparked a dynamic mix of ideas and artistic development. The boom in education and culture was accompanied by an economic and technological boom, fueling a widespread interest in music, art, books, museums and and the rapid growth of publishing and music and film industries. Something had happened in the country, where ideas mattered, and culture engaged, with an urgent and widespread interest.

The Free World is an account of the institutions, the people, and the cultural movements and moments of this period. The title is significant in two respects. One is an emphasis on the United States, fueled by Western Europe thinkers and artists, becoming a center of intellectual and artistic culture in a way it had never before. The second is the idea of freedom, that in a variety of ways was a theme running through the “slices” as Menand calls them of this history.

Menand’s approach to this sprawling intellectual and cultural history is to take slices, focusing on a particular aspect of that history and a particular network of key figures and their relationships. He begins with the advent of the Cold War, and the intellectual architect of America’s doctrine of Cold War, George Kennan, and the “Wise Men’ surrounding him, transitioning into a discussion of thinkers about power, anti-totalitarian George Orwell, and anti-communist James Burnham whose The Managerial Revolution foresaw the rise of the bureaucratic totalitarianism of mass culture.

Meanwhile, in occupied and post-war France, the existentialists (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus) looked into the void, seeing nothing but absurdity, developing the philosophy of authenticity and radical personal choice and responsibility. Political and social theorists continued to wrestle with the connection between mass culture and totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt, influenced by Heidegger and the horrors of the Nazi camps wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism and sociologist David Riesman The Lonely Crowd on group conformity and how this would undermine personal autonomy, little realizing it also made room for alternative visions. Meanwhile, Claude Levi-Strauss, a pioneer in anthropology joined Roman Jakobson in developing Structuralism, a system for analyzing languages and cultural systems, eclipsing the concepts of freedom on which existentialism rested.

In the arts, a constellation of individuals led by Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg, along with other artists like Willem de Kooning, were trying to break out of the strictures of painting and art criticism (in the case of Greenberg). Menand chronicles the introduction of Pollock’s drip paintings and other similar works and the galleries and shows and the patronage of figures like Peggy Guggenheim that made this revolution possible. Meanwhile, the thinkers and writers were at work, a circle that included professor Lionel Trilling of The Liberal Imagination, poet Allen Ginsberg, and beat writer Jack Kerouac. Menand returns in a later “slice” to these figures and the further development of their work into the early post-modern deconstructive thought of Barthes and Derrida and the literature that followed.

Another arts movement, centered at Black Mountain College sought to implement a hands-on experimental approach, breaking with the strictures of theory in art, music, and dance under the influence of Josef Albers. Visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and dancer Merce Cunningham all were part of this circle. Menand does a masterful job describing the innovations of each of these figures. Meanwhile, rock ‘n’ roll was breaking onto the scene. Menand chronicles the unpremeditated recording of “That’s All Right, Mama” that launched the career of Elvis Presley and the intersecting growth of the record industry and disc jockeys who got them air time, often for pay, and the growth of television. He explains how all these factors created the environment for the surprising U.S. success of the Beatles. A later chapter on consumer sovereignty shows mass culture applied to advertising by McLuhan and the marketing of everything from pop art to cars with fins.

One of the most interesting chapters is the one on “Concepts of Liberty,” moving from the high philosophy of Isaiah Berlin in “Two Concepts of Liberty” exploring both negative and positive freedom (“freedom from” and “freedom to”) to the paperback revolution, and their covers and content and what constraints can be placed on this form of expression. This is followed by a discussion of the embrace of “freedom” as a key rallying cry in the Civil Rights movement.

In later chapters, Menand traces further developments in feminism and pop art and the central figures of Betty Friedan, Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, the freedom literature of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and the shift of cinematic artistry from Europe to America, advocated by critic Pauline Kael, who wanted films both smart and entertaining and how Bonnie and Clyde was a watershed film in this regard.

The last chapter comes full circle with George Kennan testifying in the Senate against American expansion of the Vietnam War in 1965, which he and the other Wise Men thought contrary to not only American interests but unnecessary for “containment” of communism in a country trying to free itself from colonialism. But the real story of “This is the End” was that the diversion of intellectual and cultural energy from the intellectual and cultural awakening of the previous twenty years.

Menand does us an incredible service in chronicling this intellectual and cultural history in “just” 727 pages. It could have actually taken far more, and with commendable concision he summarizes complex ideas and multi-faceted movements and the contributions of a variety of key people. The one thing I miss is the religious element of the country’s intellectual culture. Reinhold Niebuhr is mentioned in one line on a single page but was a formidable influence on Kennan and many others. Howard Thurman played a key role in shaping Martin Luther King, Jr. Paul Tillich and Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel did major intellectual work during this era, addressing the themes of freedom in this work.

Menand concludes his preface musing, “As I got older, I started to wonder just what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean. I wrote this book to help myself, and maybe you, figure that out.” He does not draw conclusions as he ends the work. He challenged me to think. Arendt, Riesman, and Berlin all have concerns about how mass culture, under the guise of expressive individualism can lead to tyranny. Yet by and large, the freedom of thinkers and culture-makers in this work, is the freedom of throwing off of constraints. And when we are indeed shackled physically or by unjust practices like colonialism, racism, or sexual discrimination, removing constraints is necessary to human flourishing. But the religious outlook would also recognize some constraints enable us to flourish both individuals and societies to flourish–constraints upon evil or unchecked and undisciplined affections, that in extreme form can lead to tyranny. But Menand is spot on in identifying freedom as an important theme for our cultural life, and one worthy of consideration. His intellectual and cultural history certainly points toward the sources of our contemporary ideas of freedom. It seems to me an urgent matter to discern whether these ideas are the best for both individual and societal flourishing.

Review: Religion and American Culture

religion and american culture

Religion and American Culture (3rd edition), George M. Marsden. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the interaction of religion and American civil culture from the nation’s beginnings up to 2016.

“The United States is both remarkably religious and remarkably profane.”

The opening line of this survey of the history of the interaction of religion and American culture is an accurate thesis summary of this work. In part, it reflects the point of view of the author, George M. Marsden. He notes in the introduction to the work that his thinking is shaped by an Augustinian outlook that recognizes both the dignity of humans in God’s image and the reality of human evil, the parallel cultures of “City of God” and the “City of Man,” and that Christians inhabit both cities.

Marsden traces this interaction from the Protestant heritage of the early immigrants, which held sway in the country until the Civil War and the conflicted engagement with Native Peoples–from uneasy coexistence, to violent displacement, to occasional mission efforts–a conflicted record. He examines the different streams of thought contributing to the American revolution–and how they converged and diverged. He examines the heritage of dissent, the secular and deist founders, and the ideas shared in common by Locke and the Puritans. He notes a paradox of high ideals of liberty and justice, and the beginnings of manifest destiny and the use of power to displace native peoples, and hold Africans in servitude. These threads continue into the nineteenth century with the revivalist spread of evangelical culture, marked by increasing levels of education as frontier denominations establish colleges. This culminates in institutions like Oberlin College, motivated by religious revival, enrolling female students, and advocating abolition in an increasingly divided evangelical church along the geographic lines of north and south.

The post-Civil war era on its face seemed to reflect a continued advance of Protestantism, including Protestant missions. At the same time developments of both social progressivism, and the advent of Darwinism and higher critical theories brought the first cracks in the established position of both mainline and evangelical Protestants. They also faced an increasingly plural situation with the immigration of large numbers of Catholics and Jews, as well as the growing influence of the African-American church, which in turn, made its contribution to the rise of pentecostalism.

The fault lines become more pronounced in the early twentieth century with divides in mainline denominations between north and south, a rise of fundamentalism in reaction to liberal scholarship. John Dewey’s secular ideals prevail in the educational establishment. The Niebuhr brothers and Karl Barth offer a neo-orthodox alternative to liberal scholarship in more mainline contexts while those of evangelical belief retreat into fundamentalism.

Marsden notes another great reversal post-World War 2 with the rise in church membership, the baby boom, the ministry of Billy Graham, a re-framed culturally engaged evangelicalism, as well as the growth of Jewish and Catholic influence in the country. The African-American church led by Dr. King awakens and asserts its call for justice and civil rights. Then a rising evangelical movement becomes increasingly politically engaged and Marsden traces this history from the rise of Jimmy Carter to the election of 2016, chronicling an increasingly fragmented, secularized, and polarized country.

This “brief history,” as the subtitle calls it, covers extensive ground, and various movements, sects, and various religious communities, in a history at once descriptive, and illustrative of the “religious and profane” theme. Marsden particularly portrays the conflict between religious ideals and our treatment of native peoples and African-Americans, the changing face of Protestant privilege, the unholy alliances that have existed between Christians and our government throughout our history, the growing pluralism, both religious and irreligious, and the perennial tension between the country’s religious and secular ideals.

Marsden concludes with a few thoughts on preserving a truly pluralistic society, which he believes begins with clarifying the rules that protect free speech and genuine diversity within various sub-communities, protecting them from the tyranny of the majority. He concludes by noting why knowledge of our history is so vital to this project:

“This book is a history, and it is much easier to describe how the United States got to the point it has reached with respect to its secular and religious diversity than it is to prescribe exactly how its future with respect to those diversities might be improved. Still, we can safely say that there will be no improvement without historical understanding of how we got to be where we are. One lesson is sure. When it comes to religion, it will not do to resort to easy generalizations; evaluation of its roles must always be nuanced. Such nuance will help us see that religion, even at what we may regard its best, appears in human affairs almost always as a mixed blessing.”

Marsden has given us the resources for that nuanced “understanding of how we have gotten to be where we are.” This seems critical for religious and political leaders alike, to enable wise and humble decisions that avoid the hubris and folly that sadly has too often characterized our history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.