“Everyone Was Talking About Freedom”: Louis Menand on American Culture of the Cold War


Louis menandMatthew Valentine

“I believe if you do what you want to and believe in doing it for yourself, regardless of what everyone else seems to want from you, at some point the world will meet you halfway. path. You have to have confidence in it.

That was the advice Professor Menand left me at the end of our conversation; it may also be the underlying principle of his own career. As well as being both an arts and science professor and professor of English at Harvard University, Menand is also a prolific writer for The New Yorker. Its history of philosophical pragmatism, The metaphysical club, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002; and in 2016, he was awarded the National Medal for the Humanities and Social Sciences by President Obama.

Now, in his latest published book, Menand presents us with an exploration of American culture after WWII. “There is a change that 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 considered culturally to be somewhat peripheral or provincial. People didn’t really think of America as a civilization like they thought of France or Britain. Around 1965 that changed. This was the year the United States intervened militarily in Vietnam, which caused it to lose the political capital it had accumulated after World War II. But it has gained a central place in an increasingly global world culture. This is the transformation that my book tries to explain, ”he says.

“The Cold War raised the stakes; he charged the atmosphere; everything was so important that maybe they hadn’t mattered before that or later “

What Menand suggests is that the rise of American culture can be explained by an examination of the intellectual and cultural history of the Cold War. For him, this endeavor involved the exploration of a very large number of actors, 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 told me, “My training as a writer came from writing magazines. Magazine writing is all about keeping the reader’s interest and making them enjoyable to read. I try to write my book in the exact same way, while meeting all the requirements of academic history writing. So in a way it’s a huge magazine article with quotes.

For Menand, it is difficult to generalize the twenty-year period between 1945 and 1965, which explains the lack of a thematic common thread in his book. Nonetheless, a distinguishing feature that Menand brings out is the fact that freedom was a term used by virtually everyone. “It wasn’t until about two-thirds of the time I wrote the book that I realized that everyone was talking about freedom as a concept that justifies or validates or legitimizes everything they do,” he says. . But because freedom has been invoked across the political spectrum, by both integrationists and segregationists, for example, Menand observes that there was “no one-sidedness of freedom” and that it is thus become in a sense “an empty term”.

“You know we have terms like that today, terms that everyone uses all the time because it’s a good value to keep in mind all the time, or because it shows that you are good. side; and freedom was the end of this period. I haven’t solved the freedom problem – what does that really mean? It’s a very problematic concept, but I’m exploring the careers of the people who brought it up.

According to Menand, it was also a period that saw considerable interest in the nature of art. People were interested in asking questions like, “What is a painting?” What is a poem? How to interpret a poem? “

Although they practiced “art for the sake of art,” Menand emphasizes the importance of the Cold War artists during this period: “Overall (there are obvious exceptions) they were not consciously interested in the political implications of what they were doing. But what they did mattered because one of the issues of the Cold War was defending the principle of freedom of expression, which would allow artists to represent whatever they wanted and use whatever style they wanted. they wanted, against the official Soviet aesthetic, which was socialist realism. Part of the challenge was therefore to live up to this ideal: to make “free” art.

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

“The fact that people care so much about what kind of painting you do or what kind of music you listen to etc. has something to do with this idea that before we know it we might slip on the ladder for 1984. The Cold War raised the stakes; he charged the atmosphere; it made everything matter in a way that maybe wouldn’t have mattered before that or later.

Indeed, for Menand, it is important to situate art in 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 from an intersection between an individual life history and constantly changing social conditions. To put it in a ‘pop’ way, there’s kind of a moment when the world suddenly needs a Jackson Pollock or an Andy Warhol. I try to capture these moments. “

Was America’s cultural ascendancy in fact a legacy of the Cold War? What does freedom mean today and how is the term used? Does art still matter as it did? These are the questions that Menand’s ambitious historical inquiry raises for the moment.

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

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