The book’s moral centerpiece is philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s encounter—Menand’s detective work suggests it may have been a brief affair—with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in 1945. Kennan knew Berlin and thought him “undoubtedly the best informed and most intelligent foreigner in Moscow.” (Menand’s ability to trace this sort of connection is uncanny.) To have survived war and famine in Leningrad, as Akhmatova did, after her husband had been executed, her son sent to the Gulag, and her poetry suppressed, was to have survived a great deal. Berlin took from the encounter a deep commitment to civil liberties often derided on the Left as bourgeois conventions. His “Two Concepts of Liberty,” first given as an Oxford lecture and then published as a pamphlet in 1958, made the case for what Berlin called “negative” liberty, or the right to be free from coercion in one’s personal life, politics, and morals. Indeed, “liberty is liberty not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.” “Freedom” became liberty’s popular synonym. In 1963, when John F. Kennedy spoke before an almost delirious crowd in West Berlin, a city newly divided by snipers monitoring a deadly wall, he used the term “freedom” fifteen times in a 674-word speech.
A second dot, or pair of dots, is Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. This French couple offered influential meditations on freedom in society (Sartre) and freedom as a member of the “second sex” (de Beauvoir). The postwar vogue for existentialism derived in part from their work and influenced artists ranging from Samuel Beckett to Norman Mailer. Sartre was a Marxist, and while his political choices, including excusing Stalin’s Gulags and celebrating Chairman Mao, were often spectacularly wrong-headed, he did recognize the importance of decolonization. The independence of the Philippines from the United States in 1946, India from the British in 1948, Indonesia from the Dutch in 1949, Vietnam from the French in 1954, and the independence of thirty-three countries—including Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda—in sub-Saharan Africa did not move at a single tempo. But here the Cold War often became hot, as in Vietnam, with differences between freedom and totalitarianism becoming less clear the farther one traveled from Moscow or Washington. Sartre modestly influenced an emerging pan-African movement, from Ghana to Martinique to Atlanta, which used the language of the Cold War for its own purposes. James Baldwin met pan-African activists in Paris during the 1950s and these encounters shaped his writing on Black identity. Martin Luther King Jr. used the term “freedom” twenty times in the “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
Much of The Free World dazzles. Menand excels at the quick character sketch, the ability to situate a person in her milieu and explain her significance in a few lines or paragraphs. Virtually nothing is superficial. He knows the secondary literature on dozens of figures and topics and has even dipped into archival sources for the telling quotation or fact. Virtually nothing is boring. Menand is a Harvard professor but also a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker. The discipline cultivated there through the crisp review or concise profile marks every page. He is illuminating on the careers of Susan Sontag and Andy Warhol, and fine-grained in his analysis of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” My attention flagged only a few times—with Menand’s dissection of the arts curriculum at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, for example, or his detailed exegesis of an apparently important piece of performance art in New York in 1966 (complete with live chickens, women in their underwear posing as models, and actors hurling rotten apples at the audience).
Menand’s aesthetics, as opposed to his omnivorous knowledge, are more elusive. For a book on art and thought, The Free World contains surprisingly few judgments. Menand is terrific on the mechanics of cultural production, and how the paperback revolution, the LP, and the dissolution of the old movie production code created new artistic possibilities. Warren Beatty could not have produced Bonnie and Clyde—with its violent conclusion and frank sexuality—five years before he did. The Beatles, in Menand’s telling, took a mass-market product, the American rock-and-roll song, and made it an art form. Between 1961 and 1966, they moved from playing cover songs in Liverpool’s dingy Cavern Club a numbing 292 times in a single year to becoming the biggest pop phenomenon the world had ever known. They composed songs for thematically cohesive albums—and abandoned touring—while hiring sophisticated art directors to design their album covers. John Lennon left his wife and fell in love with Yoko Ono, a significant figure in the New York experimental music and art scene.
Why we should listen to the Beatles—or read Susan Sontag or watch, God help us, films by Andy Warhol—is not spelled out. Most of Menand’s canon is, well, canonical. The key figures are overwhelmingly located in New York City—disputes among the doyens of the Columbia University English department and among contributors to New York’s little magazines receive letter-by-offended-letter analysis—and one could read The Free World more or less unaware that Texas, Chicago, or even much of California exists. (About Paris, on the other hand, we learn a great deal.) The scales are tilted toward the fine and visual arts, and within them the avant-garde. Composer John Cage receives several pages, Broadway musicals barely a mention. The Hollywood classics of the 1950s—surely Menand’s first draft contained a section on Twelve Angry Men and its encomium to Henry Fonda’s conscience—are conspicuous by their absence.
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