When critics write at length about the critics they admire, look out for self-portraiture. In a 2008 New Yorker essay, the critic and intellectual historian Louis Menand explored Lionel Trilling’s influence on the postwar era, during which Trilling was America’s preeminent literary critic and among its weightiest public intellectuals. One of the few aspects of Trilling’s career about which Menand had major reservations was the unfinished second novel Trilling began shortly after publishing his first, The Middle of the Journey, but abandoned about a third of the way through. This work, Menand found, “doesn’t have much literary interest, but it does have a lot of biographical interest, because it lets us see Trilling imagining his own world—the world of ambitious young critics, resentful middle-aged professors, pompous publishers and compromised foundation heads, intellectual femmes fatales, and the megalomaniacal editors of little magazines—as a nineteenth-century novel.”
Thirteen years later, Menand himself has finished writing such a book: a loose, baggy monster, set in a great Western metropolis and populated by an army’s worth of heroes, heroines, and grotesques. As in certain nineteenth-century novels (The Red and the Black, say, or Trilling’s beloved The Princess Casamassima), the characters make their way from the provinces (Arizona, Wyoming, Berlin, deep Brooklyn, Harlem) to the pinnacle of sophistication, also known as sub–125th Street Manhattan. With talent and luck, each of these characters attains great worldly success—Menand wouldn’t write about them otherwise—but not without worldly and spiritual costs.
The book is called The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, and is not, I should let you know, a novel, though it often reads like one. It’s a history of American culture in the first two decades or so of the Cold War, much of it adapted from Menand’s essays for The New Yorker, where he’s been on staff since 2001. The result is a portrait of an era as viewed through the monocle of Eustace Tilley. Some of the Trilling piece has been woven in, along with threads from articles on Jack Kerouac, Pauline Kael, Paul de Man, the Beatles, Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Elvis Presley. There are, sure enough, plenty of ambitious young critics and resentful middle-aged professors to be found (Trilling scurries across the street to avoid congratulating his ex-student Jack Kerouac for On the Road), along with stars in almost every other creative field, rarely Manhattan born but usually Manhattan based.
Much of what is new in The Free World, and there is a lot, is socioeconomic. “By the end of the 1940s,” Menand writes, “[the United States] had 7 percent of the world’s population and 42 percent of its income.” College attendance swelled, and with it, interest in art and ideas. The new middle classes spent its savings on paperbacks and Partisan Review subscriptions. Sociology and philosophy weren’t just news, but big news. In short, we’re told, “people cared” about culture, which sounds like pure nostalgia (Menand grew up in the ’50s and ’60s) until you take a gander at the fiction bestsellers of 1959 and find Nabokov, Pasternak, and D.H. Lawrence.
Minor chords threaten to drown out the triumphal march. Ellison and LeRoi Jones (who became Amiri Baraka in 1968) and Betty Friedan and Beauvoir mock the so-called free world for its hypocrisies. The era’s literary landmarks, from Howl to The Fire Next Time, wince at the present and weep for the future—isn’t there something strange, then, about longing for the culture that produced these works, no matter how high the premium on ideas? Menand’s characteristic answer is to split the difference. As his book’s title suggests, his approach is a little nostalgic and a little ironic, specific yet open ended. It’s about a place and time that thought itself free, but it’s also about freedom.
Any big, panoptic book of this kind is doomed to face a flurry of “why no’s.” As in, why is there no significant discussion of Bob Dylan here? Why no significant discussion of Truman Capote? Why no Joan Baez? Philip Roth? Saul Bellow, Stanley Kubrick, Helen Frankenthaler? Worlds are defined by their exiles as much as their citizens, and for such a novelistic text, The Free World banishes a surprising number of first-rate novelists. Reading Menand, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the preeminent littérateurs of the era were his fellow New Yorker contributors Kael, Trilling, and Susan Sontag. Maybe there’s no point in cheating on a Rorschach test. But a different question arises, one that Menand himself takes seriously enough to address at length: Why is this book so male?
“The book you have been reading so far,” Menand writes, “reflects the period it covers: It is mostly about men.” Postwar American women were underrepresented in universities, in business, in disposable income, in publishing, in editing. The disparities are multiplied by Menand’s decision to emphasize “the headliners, the artists, and thinkers who became widely known. I do not think their stories are the only interesting ones, but one of the things I was trying to understand is why certain figures became emblematic. Although this meant leaving a lot out.”
By “emblematic,” he often seems to mean well-selling, which in a book about postwar America means purchased by large numbers of middle- and upper-class white males. The Lonely Crowd, he notes with unmistakable paywall-era envy, sold a million copies; The Art of Loving, twenty-five million; Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, seventy thousand hardcover and another hundred thousand paperback. By the same token, most of the women Menand writes about at length (Friedan, Sontag, Hannah Arendt) wrote at least one blockbuster. Even so, an 800-page book on postwar American culture that has no time for Joan Didion, Lorraine Hansberry, Sylvia Plath, or Harper Lee, the author of the best-selling novel of the 1960s, is an odd book.
A subtler explanation for The Free World’s maleness shows up near the end:
[The New Yorker] pruned from its pieces anything that might come across as allusive or knowing, and it promoted, in its writing and cartoons, a sensibility that took urbanity to be perfectly compatible with a certain kind of naïveté. The New Yorker made it possible to feel that being an anti-sophisticate was the mark of true sophistication.
A staff writer for such a magazine, it follows, will specialize in a certain urbane-naive tone, cautiously erudite in some places and cavalierly blunt in others. In his twenty years with The New Yorker, Menand has got this tone down to a science. He writes gorgeously about things everybody’s heard of; he makes old hat sparkle with fresh insight (see, for instance, his essays on Dr. Seuss and J.D. Salinger). He qualifies and simplifies, sometimes in the same sentence. The unit with which he seems most comfortable isn’t the emblematic individual but the emblematic collective—the mythic oversimplification in want of some (but not too much) nuance. “This was a caricature,” Menand writes, strangely but tellingly, about Isaiah Berlin’s analysis of Marx, “although not an unfair one.” Menand is the master of fair caricature.
This, perhaps, is why The Free World feels so male: It’s dominated not so much by individual men as by groupings—Abstract Expressionism, the Beats, rock-and-roll, Pop Art—that were marketed as male whether or not they really were. The book’s emphasis on these sorts of groupings is both its greatest strength as a work of history and its greatest weakness. It’s illuminating to learn how much of our shorthand for thinking about culture began as public relations. Postwar New York painting, Menand shows, was a marvelous mess of abstract and representational, male and female, intimate and monumental, art and anti-art. Philip Guston had no patience for the label “Abstract Expressionism.” Jackson Pollock, the most famous artist ever associated with that label, made his drip paintings for less than four years. Willem de Kooning slid between abstraction and representation. His wife, Elaine de Kooning, painted some of the most ravishing abstract canvases of the time, as did Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. But “Abstract Expressionism,” with its macho, brown-liquor clichés, is the brand that stuck, because it’s the brand that sold.
Menand is smart enough to stray from easy branding, but in the end he always comes back. “The Beats weren’t rebels,” a typical journey goes, “they were misfits”—notice the unfair caricature, followed by the fair one. And there’s something unfair about a book called The Free World that makes almost no mention of free jazz or bebop: no Miles Davis, no John Coltrane, no Charlie Parker. Some omissions are unavoidable, but this is a confusing omission by Menand’s own standards. Chapter 16 begins with a discussion of hipster appropriation of black music, epitomized by the Norman Mailer essay “The White Negro,” but leaves unsolved the mystery of what, exactly, all those white hipsters were appropriating, so that Miles Davis ends up as a footnote in the saga of Norman Mailer. Even Mailer might have objected to that.
As a history of art and thought in the Cold War era, The Free World is enthralling but unsatisfying, inevitably so. As a novel—a nonfiction novel, maybe, instead of a nineteenth-century epic, the sort of book Capote could have written if he’d stayed out of rehab—it’s just enthralling. This isn’t as fanciful as it sounds: “The book I ended up writing,” Menand claims, “is a little like a novel with a hundred characters.” More than a little, I’d say. It ends, abruptly, with America’s humiliation in Vietnam, which only heightens the dramatic irony. The humiliation continues: prosperity dries up and take a good bit of art and thought with it, inequality worsens, social mobility is curtailed, culture is jealously clung to instead of embraced, and a smug ruthlessness takes over much of politics and pop culture. We know this is coming; Menand’s hundred young strivers have no idea. For all their creativity, they can’t imagine a future in which the most influential thinker of their time turns out not to be James Baldwin but Ayn Rand, a hack novelist whose name Menand can’t bring himself to type, whose disciples include Alan Greenspan, whose ideas (minus the atheism) become standard neocon talking points, and whose books sell thirty million copies.