LOUIS MENAND'S The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, out in April from FSG, begins and finishes with global geopolitics: at one end, the carving up of Europe into Soviet and American zones of influence after the Second World War; at the other, America's catastrophic invasion of Vietnam. But the bulk of the book is concerned with the history and the global circulation of ideas: Lionel Trilling at Columbia University; Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris; Claude Levi-Strauss in Paris and New York; Aime Cesaire in Paris and Martinique; Hannah Arendt in New York; Isaiah Berlin in London and Leningrad; James Baldwin in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and the South of France. This is a very partial list of the book's cast.
There's an art-historical through-line, too, from Clement Greenberg's championing of Jackson Pollock to Pop Art in England and the U.S. (Menand is especially good on the sometimes contentious collaborative partnership of Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage.) While The Free World is attentive to the role of the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies in disseminating American culture abroad, it is not, as Menand explains, a study of the "cultural cold war," the sponsorship of American culture as a kind of soft power. For Menand, American arts and culture are not in any simple way determined by state ideology.
That doesn't mean he is reverent. Menand's tone is one of dry, semi-sociological remove. At its best, it is as witty as it is informative. Here he is, for instance, on Trilling's skepticism toward the putative anti-establishment force of poets from Arthur Rimbaud to his student Allen Ginsberg: "Trilling imagined culture--in the anthropological sense--as a Mobius strip. You can invert mainstream values, but it is the mainstream values that give the inversion meaning.... There is, in the end, no right or wrong side of the strip, just different ways of fooling yourself about where you are."
Menand is concerned throughout to describe the rapidly changing institutions in which art and culture happen: the paperback-books business; transformations in First Amendment law; the relationship between radio and the record industry.
And above all: the ballooning American university, which was in its period of greatest expansion. The university was an incubator of talent, a switching station for European and American intellectuals and artists, and an increasingly accessible purveyor of the cultural products of a postwar world to a large public.
I spoke with Menand, who is a professor of English at Harvard, about the Cold War university, whether ideas still matter, and the state of liberal education now.
You discuss two periods of "explosive growth" in American higher ed: 1880-1920 and 1945-1975. In the latter, undergraduate enrollment increased by 500 percent, graduate-student enrollment by almost 900 percent. What did this expansion mean for the cultural history you're tracing?
It expanded the audience for serious books--Grove Press...