The 1960s have gotten a thorough going-over from Baby Boomer historians and filmmakers, and the 1970s are beginning to get the treatment with a rolling wave of 50th anniversaries. One of the most significant history titles of 2021, though, is Louis Menand’s kinetic reexamination of the 1950s in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.
Menand, a Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, has written an intellectual and cultural history that moves among the ideas (like the doctrine of containment), art (Jackson Pollock), books (On the Road), music (Elvis Presley), and criticism (Pauline Kael) that defined the American century in those years between World War II and the Vietnam War. The book recently made the longlist for the 2021 National Book Award.
“My hope,” Menand says, “was to present a fresh take—not necessarily a revisionist take—by talking about the social, political, and economic conditions that allowed people to paint those paintings and write those books.”
Menand, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Metaphysical Club, an intellectual history of the post-Civil War era, sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about how he wrote The Free World.
I’ve been more curious about the writing process with The Free World than anything I’ve read in a long time. It’s a big book with a big range, and you spent a long time on it.
The idea was to write a history that starts in 1945 with the end of the Second World War and ends around 1965 as the United States is getting more involved in Vietnam. The first chapter is about George Kennan and the doctrine of containment, which sets up U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union for the next 20 years.
How did you get grounded? Did you grab the eight or ten George Kennan books off the shelf and start reading?
Each chapter of the book has a tentpole character, and Kennan was the central figure of the first chapter. I usually start by reading a biography, and there’s the great biography of Kennan by John Lewis Gaddis, which I had read. And then I read Kennan’s memoirs, which are also great, and his American Diplomacy, which has been very influential in foreign policy.
And then I got into the secondary literature—I did this with all of the major characters—to try and understand how people make sense of Kennan today. I realized that the way to think about the doctrine of containment is in the context of international relations theory and in particular a theory called realism.
Do you have the discipline to avoid going down rabbit holes, or are the rabbit holes the book? How do you think about how much time you can spend on one story when you’re covering this much territory?
I went down a lot of rabbit holes and I cut a lot of that stuff. I cut 75,000 words from this book.
That’s a really inefficient way to write a 750-page book.
Well, it’s true. [Laughs.] I wanted to say everything that I found to say. Sometimes that involved more backstory or more characters. In the George Orwell chapter, for example, there’s a lot of stuff about Leon Trotsky because he’s a very important figure for a lot of these people who become anti-Stalinists. It’s important backstory, but Trotsky died in 1940 and I just couldn’t keep a lot of that.
I didn’t want to leave stones unturned. If I found something interesting, I’d research it and see if I could work it into the story. When I finished, I had created this huge canvas, and I had to cut some of it. After three or four chapters, I could see where I was going and what I needed to do. The main thing was to find stepping stones to get from 1945 to 1965 and create a pattern that readers could follow.
Do you write in big chunks? Do you outline your chapters?
I never make an outline. I just write the first sentence of the chapter and then figure out what the next sentence is supposed to be. I usually have an idea where I want to end a chapter, and I follow the breadcrumbs to get there. Sometimes that gets me there; sometimes it gets me somewhere else. I didn’t try to plan too much because I wanted the story to emerge out of the material.
You used Naifeh and Smith’s Jackson Pollock a good bit because it’s the most extensive text on Pollock, and there were books like Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism that were part your actual story. Did you have a sense from the beginning which books were going to be important for you?
Yes. The Origins of Totalitarianism was definitely on that list. Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination. Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Topiques. Those are books I had always been interested in writing about and they fit into the story, so I knew I wanted to spend some time on them.
How long did it take you to write The Free World?
A lot of the books you used, like Gaddis’ George Kennan, came out since you started writing, right?
The Gaddis book came out in 2011 right after I started—I reviewed it for The New Yorker—and that helped me organize a lot of things I had been researching piecemeal. I have Susan Sontag in a later chapter, and Benjamin Moser’s Sontag came about two years ago after I had already written a lot of that.
It’s a good time to revisit this period because it’s dead now. I teach undergraduates, and they don’t know this stuff. They don’t know about Andy Warhol or Hannah Arendt, so it was a good time to go back and see if I had something fresh to say about this period.
The 1960s have gotten significantly more recent attention than the 1950s.
The ’60s and ’70s are more familiar to people today than the 1950s. I thought people—especially people my age—might be more interested in a book about a period they don’t know as well or think they know but don’t know as well.
I’m much better read on the ’60s than I am the ’50s, so a lot of the first half of the book was new to me. JFK and civil rights and feminism are more epic than Dwight Eisenhower.
That’s definitely the accepted view, but the 1950s were incredibly interesting. These incredible works of art are being made, these incredible books are being written, these really interesting people are arguing with each other. The 1950s may have been a boring period for middle-class life, but the world of art and ideas was as lively then as any other period.
The abstract expressionist painters of the ’50s—Pollock and Rothko and that group—have been covered with some great biographies and histories. Were there other people or other areas that you were surprised to find were not as well covered?
No, all of the main characters I wrote about—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Elvis Presley, Lionel Trilling—have had books written about them. That didn’t scare me off because I wanted to have my own way of explaining these people.
There’s a lot of political history, economic history, history of higher education, etc., that’s meant to provide a larger historical context for the ideas that emerge in this period. I’m not so much saying Pollock came along and was a genius and created this incredible art—and his drip paintings are incredible—but that there’s a reason why he was able to do that at the moment that he did it.
A lot of the history of American art in this period has to do with the fact that there were very few art galleries in the United States at that time that sold contemporary art. Most galleries sold European art, Old Masters. Unless you have galleries and collectors, it’s hard to have an art movement. The abstract expressionists had to hang onto the few galleries that would show and sell their art. By the time you get to pop art there were galleries all over the place, and pop art had a much easier time getting accepted. The infrastructure was there by that time.
The same is true of publishing. The same is true of music. The same is true of Hollywood. Culture industries create conditions that make it possible to do the things that these people are doing. Part of what I hope makes this book fresh is the historical context that allows for these artists and these writers to do what they were able to do.
Your publisher sent me a hardcover of The Free World, but I actually read most of it on my iPad. Are you using digital books much in your reading and research?
I like to read the print version of the book. For research, though, I’m definitely doing more online. There are so many archival materials I used to have to fly somewhere to see that are online now or that libraries will digitize and send to you.
There’s a famous letter that Neal Cassady wrote to Jack Kerouac that was supposed to have inspired the style of On the Road. It’s this huge, 13,000-word document. For a long time, it was believed to be lost. Some publisher discovered it five or six years ago, and it now belongs to Emory University. I was dying to see it and wrote to Emory and asked if they could digitize it. They sent me a PDF of the letter, which is fantastic, and I quote it in the book.
A lot of things I used were already digitized. Hannah Arendt’s letters were already digitized.
I’m surprised at some of the older titles that are available as ebooks. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), which you wrote about, is available on Apple Books for $9.99. And you can find a lot of cheap, used hardcovers on Amazon.
I buy a lot of used books on Amazon and bought a lot of Evergreen Review and Partisan Review from the 1950s online at Ex Libris and other sites. Bruno Rizzi wrote a book called The Bureaucratization of the World in French in 1939, which may have been a big influence on James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which was an influence on George Orwell’s 1984.
I had a whole section in my original draft on Bruno Rizzi, which I cut, but as part of that I was about to buy the 1939 edition of The Bureaucratization of the World for 400 Euros and have it shipped from France. I actually used it. I get a huge kick out of having the original edition.
Rick Perlstein has told me he likes to use publicly available sources, which I think comes from a place of wanting readers to see the actual text or watch the actual speech. Do you see more resources becoming not just digitally available but freely available?
I hope so. I had to cut a lot of pictures from The Free World because it would have made the book too long, and I hope people will look up some of the artists online and see their work. When I teach this material, I can show you Truman’s Cold War speech. There’s a lot of material out there, and I really agree with Rick on that.
You have a chapter on the Beat poets. Why them and not J.D. Salinger?
I felt like Salinger—and I felt this about a lot of other people—was not a stepping stone to 1965. He’s an important author, but he’s not someone who played a big role in the development of people’s idea of literature. Ginsberg and Kerouac changed people’s ideas about what literature should be, and Ginsberg continued to be a big factor in later debates about the future of poetry. I tried to find people who played that role. Someone like Vladimir Nabokov is super interesting, but he’s not really a part of this story.
Did critics like Clement Greenberg and Pauline Kael have a big influence on what we think matters now, or do their writings just leave you a good breadcrumb trail for going back and looking at critical reception of art, books, films, etc., at the time?
Those two critics in particular are really important. You need someone to say what an artist is doing and why it’s interesting. Clement Greenberg was one of the people who explained why abstract painting was worth paying attention to. A lot of people didn’t take Hollywood seriously when Pauline Kael came along, and she took movies seriously.
Critics played a much bigger role in this period than they do today. We don’t have tastemakers in the same way today. I don’t think that’s bad; it’s just different.
You don’t think we have critics or tastemakers today?
No, not really. Who are they?
I write a lot about film and TV, and I definitely see conversations among critics and journalists and people in the industry on Twitter and podcasts forming consensus around particular titles.
Taste is definitely getting made, but it’s not getting made by individuals. Clement Greenberg and Pauline Kael were singular voices that drove taste in a way that happens more in a collective today.
How much of the book is this nexus of art and intellectualism vs. just things that fascinate you about this period?
I had a history with some of the characters as an intellectual or a writer or a student, and I didn’t have that history with some others. I took a class that Lionel Trilling taught at Columbia and I read a lot of his work vs. James Baldwin who I never really understood and wanted to get to know better. So some of the people had figured into my life, and some of them really hadn’t.
David Oshinsky wrote in his New York Times review of The Free World that you should have included Alfred Kinsey. You can’t include everybody in a book about 20 years of American history, but is Kinsey someone who didn’t fit the narrative or someone you weren’t that interested in writing about?
I wouldn’t consider Kinsey a top-flight intellectual, exactly, whereas most of the other people I included are, but he would have been interesting to put in the book. People’s ideas about sexuality changed a lot, and he’s one of the key figures in that. As I say in the preface, I had to be super selective because I wanted to have enough space to get into the people I was writing about. I didn’t want to write a survey from 30,000 feet; I wanted to be on the street, so I had to leave a lot out.
Oshinsky says at the end of that review that he wants you to pick up where you left off and write about Vietnam. Are you thinking about it?
I am thinking about it. I deliberately stopped short in The Free World, and I do feel like I have something to say about that period.
You sound like you read a lot for this book. Do you read fast?
I read a lot; I don’t know that I read very fast. I like to read a whole book instead of just the chapter I think I need. I like to feel like I understand what the author is trying to do, and you can’t get that by reading a chapter or two.
When you’re reading something you’re not writing about or teaching, what do you read?
For my entire career, almost every book I’ve read is because I had to write something or because I had to teach something. I almost never read for pleasure. When I finished writing this book and we got into the pandemic, I started reading the books that I never got to. I read Elena Ferrante, Hillary Mantel, Karl Ove Knausgård. It’s been great.