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 year, 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.