Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction
Longlisted for the Cundill History Prize
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 residencies 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.
"[The Free World] is an engrossing and impossibly wide-ranging project—as idiosyncratic as it is systematic—written by an author confident that the things that interest him will interest his readers, too. And he’s right . . . Menand’s digressions hardly digress; they are essential to the story . . . I was sad to reach the end. Even Menand’s footnotes are delightful . . . in The Free World, every seat is a good one."—Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post
"Menand’s style is reliably crisp and lively, and he has a great eye for the incongruous anecdote."—The New Republic
"[The Free World] fits perfectly with recent trends in transnational history, and its execution in that realm [. . .] is fantastic, showing both the larger forces (free markets, distribution networks, higher education) and street-level circumstances that allowed art and ideas to bounce around the world . . . Menand’s writing provides its own proof of concept. There’s no one else who captures the push and pull of life and ideas quite as well as he does, embedded in a way of looking at the world that is generous and humane. It's a model for a self-aware liberalism that's democratic and diverse without being smug or snobby . . . [and that] can carve out the space people need to pursue their own ideas of happiness."—Scott Spillman, The Point
“Magisterial . . . Menand offers lucid, exactingly crafted, deeply informed accounts of the artists, intellectuals, and tastemakers who, during the Cold War, sought freedom from prevailing intellectual, artistic, political, and commercial systems . . . For the task he takes on, he succeeds brilliantly. What most comes across is the protean creativity of the period, the globe-spanning connections that promoted it, and Menand’s mastery of large slices of it.”—Michael Sherry, The American Scholar
"A sumptuous canvas of postwar culture and global politics, impeccable scholarship paired with page-turning prose. Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Jackson Pollock, Susan Sontag: all spring to life here, flawed individuals as well as intellectual titans, with Cold Warriors such as George Kennan pulling the planet’s puppet strings against a curtain of potential nuclear annihilation."—Oprah Daily
“Louis Menand’s The Free World is at once an astonishing work of history and criticism and an essential road map to the middle decades of the twentieth century, from Sartre, Trilling, and Mailer to Sontag, Rauschenberg, and Baldwin. Every page is bracing; the whole amounts to an epic. In a landmark study of a time when art and ideas mattered, Menand’s very act of interpretation, the book itself, shows why they still do.”—Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
“This sweeping intellectual and cultural history resembles one of those vast Renaissance paintings that lets you see simultaneously both the curvature of the earth and the buttons on the soldiers’ uniforms. Louis Menand’s cast of characters and range of interests are enormous, from Allen Ginsberg to Zbigniew Brzezinski, from Hannah Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger to Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog.’ But coursing through this vast panorama is a sustained reflection on the hidden relation between global politics and the life of the mind.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of Tyrant and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
“What do Richard Wright, Betty Friedan, and Elvis Presley have in common? They are all pieces in the giant puzzle masterfully assembled by Louis Menand in this magnum opus. The result is a dazzling panorama of the Cold War but also a captivating case study in Menand’s great subject: how art and ideas matter in the world. A thinking person’s page-turner.”—Martin Puchner, author of The Written World and The Language of Thieves
“It’s hard to know which to admire more in Louis Menand’s book on the culture of the Cold War: the range of his interests and the depth of his understanding, the calm complexity of his judgments, the genuine passion for disinterested historical understanding, or the quiet, delicately deadpan wit that illuminates his prose. Whether he is writing on the Beatles or the CIA, the reader can never anticipate, beginning a chapter, where it will go, or what judgment will end it, or what sentence will crown it. Minds as coolly independent as Menand’s come along once in a generation, and this long-in-the-making book was worth the wait.”—Adam Gopnik, author of A Thousand Small Sanities and Paris to the Moon
“A lavish synthesis of the world of art, ideas, and politics from the Depression to Watergate, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War chronicles the liveliest skirmishes at the heart of twentieth-century American intellectual life. I both learned from and argued with Louis Menand’s choices and sizzling interpretations on every page. Probably no encounter with an 850-page book could be any more satisfying. With a special feeling for New York and Paris, this colossal achievement of imagination will bring erudition, controversy, and pleasure to readers for many years to come.”—Lawrence P. Jackson, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960
“Louis Menand’s The Free World is a tour de force—clear-sighted, brilliantly written, and full of surprises. It will change the way you think about everything from containment to consumerism, the Beats to the Beatles.”—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction and Under a White Sky
"Brilliantly conceived and executed . . . Menand deftly blends social and intellectual history . . . Menand is a lucid and engaging interpreter of the times . . . Essential.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] sweeping cultural history . . . Menand writes with his usual mix of colorful portraiture, shrewd insight, and pithy interpretation . . . The result is an exhilarating exploration of one of history’s most culturally fertile eras.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Reviews from Goodreads
INTRODUCTION: WHAT THE COLD WAR MEANT
Red Army soldiers Alyosha Kovalyov and Abdulkhakim Ismailov raising the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag building in Berlin, May 2, 1945. A flag had been raised there on the night of April...