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.