Louis MenandMatthew Valentine

“I believe that if you do what you want, and believe in doing things for yourself, without worrying about what everybody else seems to want from you, at some point the world will meet you halfway. You have to trust that.”

This was the advice with which Professor Menand left me at the end of our conversation; it is perhaps equally the underlying principle behind his own career. As well as being both Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at Harvard University, Menand is also a prolific staff writer for The New Yorker. His history of philosophical pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002; and in 2016 he was himself awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.

Now, in his most recently published book, Menand presents us with an exploration of American culture following the Second World War. “There is a change which I am trying to capture. In the years after 1945, the United States was widely regarded as a benevolent power that had led the fight against fascism and then helped rebuild Western Europe and Japan. But it was also regarded culturally as a somewhat peripheral or provincial place. People didn’t really think of America as a civilisation in the way they thought of France or Britain. Around 1965, that changed. That’s the year the United States intervened militarily in Vietnam, which led it to lose the political capital it had accumulated after the Second World War. But it gained a central place in an increasingly global world culture. That’s the transformation my book is trying to explain,” he says.

“The Cold War raised the stakes; it charged the atmosphere; it made everything matter in a way that they might not have mattered before that or later on”

What Menand is suggesting is that the ascendancy of American culture can be accounted for by an examination of the intellectual and cultural history of the Cold War. For him, this endeavour entailed the exploration of a very large cast of players, ranging from political activists and thinkers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Isaiah Berlin, and Betty Friedan, to writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, and musicians like Allen Ginsberg, Lionel Trilling, James Baldwin, and Elvis Presley. When asked about his writing style, Menand tells me, “my training as a writer came from magazine writing. Magazine writing is all about keeping the reader’s interest and making it fun to read. I try to write my book in exactly the same way, while adhering to all the requirements of academic history writing. So in a way it’s an enormous magazine piece with citations.”

In Menand’s view, it is difficult to generalise the twenty-year period between 1945 and 1965, and this explains the lack of a thematic throughline in his book. Nevertheless, a distinctive feature which Menand draws out is the fact that freedom was a term used by virtually everybody. “It was only about two-thirds of the way through writing the book that I realised that everyone was talking about freedom as a concept that justified or validated or legitimised whatever it is they were doing,” he says. But because freedom was invoked across the political spectrum, by both integrationists and segregationists, for example, Menand observes that there was “no single meaning of freedom” and hence it became in a sense “an empty term”.

“You know we have terms like that today, terms everybody uses all the time because it’s a good value to constantly have in your mind, or because it shows you’re on the right side; and freedom was the term of that period. I did not solve the problem of freedom—what does it really mean? It’s a very problematic concept—but I explore the careers of people who evoked it.”


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According to Menand, this was also a period which saw considerable interest in the nature of art. People were interested in asking questions such as: “What is a painting? What is a poem? How do we interpret a poem?”

Although they were doing “art for art’s sake”, Menand stresses the Cold War significance of artists during this period: “On the whole (there are obvious exceptions), they weren’t consciously interested in the political implications of what they were doing. But it mattered what they did because one of the things at stake in the Cold War was the defense of the principle of free expression, which would allow artists to represent anything they wanted and to use any style they wanted, against the official Soviet aesthetic, which was socialist realism. So part of what was at stake was living up to that ideal: to make art that was ‘free’.

“People were very concerned after 1945 with the possibility that liberal democracies such as the United States could tip over into totalitarianism. This is really what George Orwell’s novel 1984 was about; it was a work of fiction, of course, but behind it was a genuine anxiety about the way history might be trending. And this was repeated by Hannah Arendt and other writers on totalitarianism during the period.

“That people cared so much about the kind of painting you made or the kind of music you listened to and so on had something to do with this idea that, before we knew it, we could be sliding down the ladder to 1984. The Cold War raised the stakes; it charged the atmosphere; it made everything matter in a way that they might not have mattered before that or later on.”

Indeed, for Menand, it is important to situate art within the context of its creation. As he explained to me, “my approach to intellectual history is to combine biography and social history, because I see cultural production as arising out of an intersection between an individual life story and social conditions which are constantly changing. To put it in a ‘pop’ way, there’s sort of a moment when the world suddenly needs a Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol. I’m trying to capture these moments.”

Was American cultural ascendency in fact a legacy of the Cold War? What does freedom mean today, and how is the term being used? Does art still matter in the way that it did? These are the questions which Menand’s ambitious historical survey provokes for the present.

Professor Menand’s book, The Free World: A Cultural History of the Cold War, will be published in the UK by Harper Collins this September.