The evenhanded approach of Louis Menand, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Metaphysical Club, is like a breath of fresh air. The Free World sparkles. Fully original, beautifully written, it covers the interchange of arts and ideas between the United States and Europe in the decades following World War II. Menand is no cheerleader; his assessment of America’s failures can be withering. But his larger point, backed by a mountain of research and reams of thoughtful commentary, is that American culture ascended in this era for the right reasons ... Authors are free to choose their characters, of course, and Menand, with 727 pages of text, is freer than most. There are finely tuned capsule biographies of Elvis, the Beatles, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan and Tom Hayden, along with a host of public intellectuals whose occupation no longer exists. Hundreds of names are mentioned, making it difficult at times to connect the dots. And there are some curious omissions ... One hopes Menand has a sequel in mind. The bar is set very high.
... remarkable ... an engrossing and often revelatory book, a capacious, ambitious, and wonderfully crafted synthesis of intellectual and cultural history ... is in some ways an old-fashioned book. It’s a sprawling biography of an era, a work that often feels more like an enormous mural than a linear narrative, a connective and allusive act of creative assemblage. Menand is a historian and a critic, and The Free World openly approaches the writing of cultural history as an act of critical interpretation itself, which it is ... is also at times a history of criticism. Some of the critics taken up here might seem dated on first glance, but by placing them in the context that shaped them, Menand manages to breathe new life into them ... As a critic himself, Menand boasts a sharp observational wit and a knack for a turn of phrase ... One of the pitfalls of writing a combined cultural and intellectual history is that there can be a tendency to privilege culture made by people who most readily self-present as intellectuals, and in the period Menand is chronicling, those people were overwhelmingly white men. To his credit, Menand is upfront about this and often works diligently to counteract it ... Still, The Free World at times feels a bit blindered when it strides past paths not taken ... Parts of the book also feel like tours through territory that’s already well-trod ... But to nitpick the omissions of a book like The Free World is to miss its point, and its length (more than 700 pages, plus endnotes) shouldn’t be confused with an aspiration to comprehensiveness. It’s a work of historical and intellectual curation that in its best moments has the elegance and evocative power of art itself.
... an engrossing and impossibly wide-ranging project — as idiosyncratic as it is systematic — written by an author confident that the things that interest him will interest his readers, too. And he’s right ... There are so many different people to watch and works to consider — readers can skip from George Kennan to George Orwell, from the Beats to the Beatles, from Richard Wright to Betty Friedan — and so much is changing all at once that everything competes for attention. If it feels that way reading it, how must the era have felt living it? ... Menand’s digressions hardly digress; they are essential to the story ... For all the detail he offers and detours he cannot resist, Menand is also good at pithily summing up movements and people ... lengthy — 857 pages does require some commitment from both reader and writer — yet I was sad to reach the end. Even Menand’s footnotes are delightful. It is a book that compels you to buy other ones and to scour the Internet for old essays that seem entirely relevant once again ... I wanted Menand to be more explicit, to tell me what it all meant. I wanted more interpretation, not less.