The Free World

Art and Thought in the Cold War

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You would think I'd eat up a book titled The Free World, with a picture of the Statue of Liberty on the dust jacket. Eat it up, and say "More, please." Instead, it's another "Wish I'd liked it better" books. It's especially sad because the text runs to 727 pages, so it not only was a slog, but a long one.

For better or worse, I have a self-imposed rule: if I start a book, I finish the book. (Even if "finishing" means, more or less, "looking at all the words on every page for a decent amount of time.") Fortunately, my Reading Schedule Generator kept me on track at a steady 34-35 pages/day, for three long weeks.

The author, Louis Menand, is a Harvard prof, and New Yorker writer. The book is wide-ranging, but is not so much history as it is a series of biographical vignettes, about American and European artists, writers, critics, and intellectuals that were of import during (roughly) the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Just skimming through the book where small black-and-white pics introduce each chapter: George Kennan, George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Jackson Pollock, Neal Cassady, The Family of Man, Merce Cunningham, Alan Freed, JFK, white guys rioting against racial integration efforts, pop art, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Andy Warhol, Charlotte Moorman, James Baldwin, Pauline Kael, Marines in Da Nang.

Those are just the pictures, but there's also Jean-Paul Sartre, Lionel Trilling, Jack Kerouac, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Isaiah Berlin, Richard Wright, Elvis, the Beatles, Betty Friedan, Susan Sontag, Martin Luther King Jr., Bonnie and Clyde, Truffault, Tom Hayden, Ralph Ellison.

And many, many more. A lot of politics, almost entirely left-wing, occasionally Marxist/Communist, but occasionally Fascist. A lot of sexuality, both hetero- and homo-, with heavy doses of infidelity and perversion. Professional jealousies and bitchy spats. All often described down to mind-numbing this-can't-possibly-be-important, why-should-I-care-about-this detail.

But that's probably on me, rather than Menand. His chapter discussing the Beatles, Elvis, and the Sixties music scene was very good! As far as it went. Menand generally ignores Motown, only mentioning it as a source of songs covered by the Beatles. And Bob Dylan? He "had virtually nothing particularly interesting to say about American life." The Beach Boys? Nope.

Such blind spots percolate into other parts of the book. Anthropologists are discussed, notably Claude Lévi-Strauss. But the field of economics is pretty much ignored, and you'd think that might warrant a mention in a long book about the "free world" and the Cold War. No Hayek, no Friedman of course. But also no Keynes, and just a couple of John Kenneth Galbraith shout-outs. The creation and operation of Students for a Democratic Society is lovingly described; its Weather Underground offshoot is ignored, with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn MIA.

So I didn't care for the book, but you might. If your interests roughly track those of Louis Menand.