Book Reviews

Elvis Was in the Building

Many Cold War-era manifestations of American high and pop culture were great, for sure. But what if any thematic thread binds them?

By Jordan Michael Smith

Tagged ArtCold WarCulture

The Free World: Art And Thought In The Cold War By Louis Menand • Farrar, Straus & Giroux • 2021 • 857 pages • $35

During George W. Bush’s presidency, the linguist George Lakoff identified freedom as America’s central idea. Yet it has always been especially salient for conservatives, dating back to at least Herbert Hoover. Writing in his 2006 book Whose Freedom?, Lakoff singled out “the constant repetition of the words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ by the right-wing message machine.” Donald Trump severed this tradition. Unlike his Republican predecessors, he rarely spoke about freedom. Instead, he frequently talked about attacks, strength, toughness, winning—the language of power.

Trump’s linguistic choices signaled more than the speech of an idiosyncratic leader. Their resonance among Republican voters revealed a fondness for authoritarianism among a sizable chunk of the population. They marked a shift away from the valorization of the open society that was intertwined with the liberal internationalism predominant in the mid-twentieth century. Those years were, as Louis Menand puts it in his readable but unfocused new book The Free World, “a time when the United States was actively engaged with the world.” Largely because of Cold War priorities, the two decades following World War II introduced America to the world, and the world to America, in unprecedented ways. Mass affluence, which had been produced by the postwar economic boom, wise social investments and broad, progressive taxation, led to huge new markets for art and culture, some of it produced overseas. After decades of war and depression, austerity and sacrifice were out. Consumerism and higher education were in. And in the eyes of Menand, a New Yorker writer and Harvard professor of English, “freedom was the slogan of the times.”

Unfortunately, there is not much to the book’s argument beyond this. “The artistic and intellectual culture that emerged in the United States after the Second World War was not an American product,” he writes. “It was the product of the Free World.” In the opening pages, Menand briefly explains how President Harry Truman fashioned what became known as the Truman Doctrine: “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” One might say that America marketed freedom, and the market performed well overall. Menand doesn’t expend much energy examining the concept of the “Free World” because he is interested in the concept only insofar as it serves as the backdrop to culture happenings, his real subject. McCarthyism, for example, figures little into Menand’s story, although its implications called into question how free “The Free World” actually was. Instead, the book, he writes, “is about an exceptionally rapid and exciting period of cultural change in which the existence of the Cold War was a constant, but only one of many contexts.”

There are half-hearted attempts at linking the idea of freedom to the cultural currents throughout the book. For instance, midway through, Menand points out that Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned “equality” just once in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, while he repeated the world “freedom” 20 times. That’s an interesting factoid perhaps. But Americans’ greater receptivity to arguments based around individual liberty than to appeals based around equality isn’t Cold War-specific and doesn’t necessarily signify anything all that meaningful. The brief mention of King leads Menand to lengthier discussions of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and the Bandung Conference in 1955, at which 29 nations discussed shared interests and potential areas of collaboration. The chapter is compelling and fluid—few writers can match Menand’s ability to discuss weighty matters breezily but clearly and substantively. However, reducing the events surrounding decolonization and racism to Cold War debates about freedom dilutes their importance, complexity, and allure.

The Free World opens with an account of early Cold War policymaking by the curmudgeonly diplomat George Kennan. He is something of an odd choice. Politics and foreign policy appear little in the hundreds of pages that follow and, as Menand notes, Kennan disliked American freedom. He preferred benevolent autocracy along the lines of the Habsburg Empire. But Menand’s capsule biography of Kennan is elegant, accurate, and thoughtful. In that sense, it sets the tone for most of the book. The subject choices are arbitrary to the point of random—Kennan figures in much more than Dwight Eisenhower, for example, while Betty Friedan and Elvis Presley get much more treatment than Helen Gurley Brown or Chuck Berry—and do little to support The Free World’s flimsy thesis. But Menand is such an engaging writer that the pages flip by quickly, the many mini-essays adding up to little truly cohesive but serving as compelling reading on their own terms.

After Kennan, the Cold War recedes into the background, and sub-chapters are devoted to Hans Morgenthau, James Burnham, and George Orwell. Menand reminds readers why French existentialism mattered so greatly to Western culture in the postwar years. Paris “represented a set of values that had supreme status in mid-century art and thought: it was capital of the modern.” The passages on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are solid, if unoriginal, and lead to better passages about French appreciation for American novelists and films. Menand explains how an obscure French émigré at Princeton University named Maurice-Edgar Coindreau almost single-handedly brought U.S. literature to France, where it had a huge impact that then reverberated back onto American culture. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury had sold but 500 copies before the French got hold of it. Within a few years, the Swedes had awarded him the Nobel Prize. “A myth of primitivism figured in the French reception of American culture,” Menand rightly notes. In describing Sartre, he wryly observes that, “he was conscious of his ugliness—he often talked about it—but it the was kind of aggressive male ugliness that can be charismatic, and he wisely refrained from disguising it.”

Although filled with compelling anecdotes, this same chapter on Paris, called “Freedom and Nothingness,” also illustrates the thinness of Menand’s central argument. Sartre and most other French intellectuals (Raymond Aron most notably excepted) were sloganeering not about freedom but about “the vortex of Communism,” as the great historian of French intellectual culture Tony Judt put it. “The issue of communism—its practice, its meaning, its claims upon the future—dominated political and philosophical conversation in postwar France,” Judt wrote in his book, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956. Menand is admirably cosmopolitan. So it’s disappointing when he ignores the particulars of the French environment, with its complicated contexts involving Communist resistance to Nazism and widespread desires to remain separate from the U.S.-led Western bloc, in favor of squeezing all these nuances into a box mislabeled “Freedom.”

The Free World closes with a chapter on the Vietnam War, which he calls “a huge cultural inflection point.” He argues that, “Much as the First World War did for European modernism, the War in Vietnam disrupted the artistic and critical avant-garde of its time.” He cites Susan Sontag’s newfound political commitment to anti-imperialism as evidence and explains how revelations of the CIA funding cultural groups and philanthropies scattered its beneficiaries. Kennan appears again briefly to recommend withdrawing from Vietnam, testifying before Congress in 1967.

Many young Americans were preoccupied by the war, but Lou Reed wasn’t among them. He was busy with heroin and transgressing gender norms.

It’s a nice callback, but actual events did not proceed nearly so cleanly. Take rock music, which Menand touches upon well. The Velvet Underground, arguably the most important and impactful avant-garde group ever, gets a few mentions in connection with John Cage and Andy Warhol. But while the Velvets performed and recorded their full albums from 1967-1970, at the height of the country’s divisions inspired by the war, the group never mentioned Vietnam or indeed any political issues at all. Many young Americans were preoccupied by the war, but Lou Reed wasn’t among them. He was busy with heroin, electro-shock therapy, and transgressing every imaginable gender norm. Although more established in the 1970s, rock was as experimental during the so-called Me Decade as it had been in the ’50s and ’60s, especially in New York and London. The same thing happened with literature and film. Thomas Pynchon’s book Gravity’s Rainbow, which has been called the definitive postmodern novel, appeared in 1973. It was the same year Congress cut off funding for the war. Protests had long died down. Similarly, the New Hollywood movement that commended in the late ’60s proceeded uninterrupted until the 1980s. This problem highlights a tension that Menand never quite resolves. He writes about Paris and London enough to suggest that the book is about European and Western culture, but his focus is mostly American. However much the Vietnam War impacted America—and it wasn’t comparable to the First World War in Europe, which wiped out an entire generation of men—its influence in European countries was far less pronounced. Youth protests in 1968 in the United States might have been mostly about Vietnam, but things looked very different in Berlin and Paris.

Fortunately, buying into The Free World’s arguments isn’t necessary to find it enjoyable. Menand mostly leaves his thesis by the wayside so readers can enjoy the ride through mid-century culture. Menand is an enviable driver. He devotes ink to everything from the Beats to The Beatles, Jackson Pollack to Pauline Kael. He is as sure-footed in writing about painting as he is on film:

“The Beat moment was created by the intersection of the fortunes of On the Road with the fortunes of ‘Howl,’ and a key player in that moment was the most mainstream news organ in the United States, the New York Times. Perhaps this made Trilling’s point that the adversarial is a place the mainstream culture sees its own values reflected upside down in the exciting but essentially harmless guise of ‘rebellion.’ The Beats were the kind of rebels the straight world (or most of it) was comfortable with.”

He is particularly valuable in connecting the commerce of art to cultural movements. “The New Critics adapted to the university system self-consciously and programmatically,” he writes, in showing how a new form of criticism was inseparable from the needs of expanded English departments and new academic journals around the country.

Similarly, the way that rock music filled a niche was made possible in 1948 by cheap phonographs released by RCA, and by Columbia Records’ introduction of the vinyl LP. Something was going to pour into the ears of tens of millions of young people with disposable incomes born after the war, and rock was “the first music specifically aimed at a teenage audience,” Menand writes. That was combined with the newfound power of television and Elvis’s ability to steal from Black music while being a polite, Southern white boy who wasn’t very transgressive, despite his suggestive dancing and legions of screaming teenage girls.

The sheer volume of Menand’s knowledge, his ability to write confidently and knowingly on a wide range of artistic and cultural people and events, is impressive and entertaining. The Free World suggests that Americans’ affinity for richer cultural artifacts was a unique product of the postwar environment. “Book sales, record sales, and museum attendance soared.” Obscenity laws were weakened and the federal government invested in artistic endeavors to an unprecedented degree. All those factors were buttressed by a generation of soldiers who had served in Europe and been exposed to broader horizons.

The United States has always had an authoritarian streak. But the country’s two political parties had always been led by men who were rhetorically committed to freedom, even as their actions were sometimes illiberal. Trump’s ascendency and continued influence show the fragility of America’s commitment to an open society. “The Free World” was always a fraught construction. But as The Free World reveals, it was always better than the Fortress America that conservatives wish to provide.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing editor at The New Republic. He received the 2023 Richard J. Margolis Award for social justice journalism.

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