books Essays

Louis Menand’s “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War”

“Cultures get transformed not deliberately or programmatically but by the unpredictable effects of social, political, and technological change, and by random acts of pollination.” So writes Louis Menand in his new book about culture (principally art, criticism, and political thought) during the Cold War. In detailing a transformation in Western attitudes on art, film, and literature during the tumultuous decades of the Cold War, Menand cements himself as a great storyteller about a time when stories were all the rage.

The term “Free World” is an important and ubiquitous one. Over the past few years, the term has been weaponized for domestic politics. It was not the first time “The Free World” has been wielded for political purposes. Going back to the Cold War era, Western states self-identified as free, liberal, and democratic in contrast to Soviet despotism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism. But what was the real spirit of “The Free World”? Louis Menand argues art, thought, and writing is what truly distinguished “The Free World” from the Soviet bloc. In the former, despite protest and opposition, “the free play of the mind” rushed free with renewed life and energy which contributed to that transformation of Western culture.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War is a book written by a liberal for liberals. In many ways, the book also reads as a eulogy to a liberal, liberalizing, and internationalist America. “This book is about a time when the United States was actively engaged with the rest of the world,” the opening sentence reads. It is hard not to read the book’s opening as an implicit condemnation of the Trump Administration’s supposed insular turn after the 2016 election. 

1945-1975 is the era in which Menand concentrates his story, stopping well short of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. From George Kennan’s “X Article” in the aftermath of the Second World War, establishing the Cold War political paradigm and President Harry Truman’s denunciation of Stalinism and the Soviet Union, to the Fall of Saigon in April of 1975, Menand provides a concise overview of the highlights of the social, political, technological, and random acts of societal change that augmented American (and European) attitudes and sensibilities toward art, cinema, literature, and politics…

Read my full review at Merion West: Review Louis Menand’s “The Free World” (14 June 2021). Read Merion West! A wonderful online journal of arts, culture, and politics. (Not just because I write for them.)

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