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.
Menand serves up a vast, rambling, exhaustively researched, and highly personal helicopter survey ... Menand’s blizzards of dates and statistics bury the reader under deep drifts of Too Much Information. No one can accuse the author of not doing his homework, but maybe he spent too much time in his office in the stacks of the Widener Library (for which he expresses gratitude in his acknowledgments) and not enough making sense of the thousands of books and articles he has consumed ... He has committed the fatal sin of biographers and historians: falling in love with his sources ... The only way I could make my way through this massive tome was in very small doses, like reading separate entries in an encyclopedia ... There are some bright spots. His chapter on Hannah Arendt...conveys both the drama of her life (a last-minute escape from Nazi-occupied France through Lisbon to the United States) and the prophetic power of her ideas ... Unfortunately, Menand seems himself to have disregarded what he describes as one of the principles of the historicist hermeneutics she practiced: 'History is not facts, but the meaning of facts.'