Connecting the Dots

‘The Free World’
The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport, February 7, 1964 (United Press International/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons).

“The book I ended up writing,” Louis Menand tells us in the preface to The Free World, “is a little like a novel with a hundred characters.” This is not quite right. My tally of surnames in the book’s index reached one hundred by the B’s (Bergson, Henri). The list includes Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Gene Autry, Harry Belafonte, and Saul Bellow. I scrupulously did not count—although Menand mentions—the Beverly Hillbillies.

How to justify including roughly two thousand names in a survey of American art and thought covering just twenty-five years? Menand’s answer is straightforward. He aims to tell the story of culture during the Cold War, which he dates from just after World War II (conventionally) to the Vietnam War and the late 1960s (oddly). Do not despair, Menand tells his readers, “the dots do connect.” The first dot is George F. Kennan, the austere American diplomat and author of the famous 1946 telegram from Moscow often cited as the beginning of the Cold War. Kennan is one of the parents of “containment,” or the idea of containing but not attacking an expansionist Soviet Union. One method of containment was cultural, heightening those aspects of American art and thought that contrasted most obviously with the evident absence of free expression in the Soviet Union.

This contrast does not fully explain or determine phenomena as disparate as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But comparing life in the West and life under Stalinist totalitarianism (a term coined in the 1930s) did focus the mind. Above all else, Kerouac desired freedom—from a nine-to-five job, from clinging women (except as sexual conquests), and from domestic tedium—and in that desire Menand spies a worldview.

One method of Cold War containment was cultural, heightening those aspects of American art and thought that contrasted most obviously with the evident absence of free expression in the Soviet Union.

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.

As Menand puts it, “Ideas mattered. Poetry mattered. Movies mattered. Painting mattered.”

Menand is especially disappointing on religious ideas and people. If nothing else, culture during the Cold War drew much of its energy from a perceived confrontation between the Judeo-Christian West (a term coined in the 1940s) and an atheist Communism. Reinhold Niebuhr gets one reference, Billy Graham and Abraham Heschel none. Theologian Paul Tillich—who influenced Alfred H. Barr Jr. (the founder of the Museum of Modern Art), Students for a Democratic Society, and a young seminarian named Martin Luther King Jr.—is nowhere to be found. Alioune Diop, the Sengalese founder of Présence Africaine, the leading journal of pan-African thought, does appear to good effect, but not in the context given us recently by historian Elizabeth Foster, who positions Diop not only as an anti-colonial proponent of Négritude but also as a Catholic reformer.

Another historian, James Chappel, has recently provided us with a history of Menand’s key term—“totalitarianism”—that ties it to explicitly Catholic debates in interwar Europe, but Menand appears to be unaware of this lineage. Commonweal readers brace yourselves: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene do not make the cut.

Criticism of this sort has its limits. The book is already 727 pages of text and another 83 pages of notes. This returns us to Menand’s periodization. The Free World ends with the war in Vietnam, but the Cold War lasted another generation, as residents of Poland and Nicaragua would be happy to inform you. Menand knows this of course. He views the art and culture produced during the first decades of the Cold War as superior in quality, more meaningful, precisely because of the era’s heightened eschatological stakes. As he puts it, “Ideas mattered. Poetry mattered. Movies mattered. Painting mattered.”

 

Menand ends, brilliantly, where he began. George F. Kennan testified before the first congressional committee to seriously challenge President Johnson and the Pentagon on the conduct of the Vietnam war in 1966. Chastened, Kennan now insisted that back in 1946 he had not meant to convey “the belief that we could necessarily stop Communism at every point on the world’s surface.” Had American policy makers misunderstood containment from the beginning? Investigative journalists were at the same time revealing that the CIA had funded much cultural activity during the preceding two decades, as Kennan knew. Even if artists were not aware of these subsidies—and they usually weren’t—thought and culture in the Free World proved to have been less autonomous than it first appeared.

These misjudgments and hypocrisies explain some of the sour aftertaste of the 1970s and ’80s. But rash condemnations would be a mistake. The last paragraphs of The Free World describe American helicopters taking off from Saigon in 1975. But Menand also notes that the new Vietnamese government proved just as totalitarian as the clumsy or corrupt officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations had predicted it would be. More than eight hundred thousand Vietnamese fled the country in the late 1970s, risking their lives on boats in the South China sea. Roughly two hundred thousand drowned.

One of Menand’s superb set pieces is on the 1955 blockbuster exhibition, The Family of Man. Some of the world’s leading photographers—including Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Gordon Parks, and Robert Frank—displayed photos of ordinary people in moments of grief, war, play, and death. The aim was to demonstrate “the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” The exhibit drew unprecedented crowds—ultimately 9 million people in thirty-seven countries—and led to a bestselling book that remains in print. One photo was of a hydrogen-bomb explosion. In Japan it was substituted for a photo of survivors at Hiroshima. Another controversial photo was of East German workers tossing rocks at tanks in 1953. 

The dominant message, though, came through. The exhibition’s sympathies were self-evidently with people of color and decolonization, and in acknowledgement of the new nuclear threat. Most of the pictures of people living in poverty came from the United States.  Our tendency now is to dismantle such universalisms, beginning, understandably, with the term “man.” That the United States Information Agency sponsored the exhibition generates predictable suspicions. But perhaps we need a second naïveté. The effort to conjure global solidarity at the height of the Cold War had its own daring, even grandeur. Having survived a depression and then the most savage war in human history, a generation yearned to believe, as Menand puts it, in the “common humanity of everyone on the planet.” Menand’s achievement is to capture this artistic sensibility. He also makes us wonder whether we will see its like again. 

Published in the June 2021 issue: 

John T. McGreevy teaches history at the University of Notre Dame. He is completing a study of global Catholicism from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, to be published by W. W. Norton.

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