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Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction
The Cold War was not just a contest of power. It was also about ideas, in the broadest sense - economic and political, artistic and personal.
In The Free World, the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar and critic Louis Menand tells the story of American culture in the pivotal years from the end of World War II to Vietnam and stresses the rich flow of ideas across the Atlantic.
How did elitism and an anti-totalitarian scepticism of passion and ideology give way to a new sensibility defined by experimentation and loving the Beatles? How was the ideal of ‘freedom’ applied to causes that ranged from anti-communism and civil rights to radical acts of self-creation via art and even crime? With the wit and insight familiar to listeners of The Metaphysical Club, Menand takes us inside Hannah Arendt’s Manhattan, the Paris of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and the post-war vogue for French existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism.
He also shows how Europeans played a vital role in promoting and influencing American art and thought, revealing how America’s once neglected culture became respected and adored. With unprecedented verve and range, this book offers a masterly account of the main characters and minor figures who played part in shaping the post-war world of art and thought.
“Louis Menand’s The Free World is at once an astonishing work of history and criticism and an essential road map to the middle decades of the twentieth century, from Sartre, Trilling, and Mailer to Sontag, Rauschenberg, and Baldwin. Every page is bracing; the whole amounts to an epic. In a landmark study of a time when art and ideas mattered, Menand’s very act of interpretation, the book itself, shows why they still do.” (Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States)
"This sweeping intellectual and cultural history resembles one of those vast Renaissance paintings that lets you see simultaneously both the curvature of the earth and the buttons on the soldiers’ uniforms. Louis Menand’s cast of characters and range of interests are enormous, from Allen Ginsberg to Zbigniew Brzezinski, from Hannah Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger to Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog’. But coursing through this vast panorama is a sustained reflection on the hidden relation between global politics and the life of the mind." (Stephen Greenblatt, author of Tyrant and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern)
"What do Richard Wright, Betty Friedan, and Elvis Presley have in common? They are all pieces in the giant puzzle masterfully assembled by Louis Menand in this magnum opus. The result is a dazzling panorama of the Cold War but also a captivating case study in Menand’s great subject: how art and ideas matter in the world. A thinking person’s page-turner." (Martin Puchner, author of The Written World and The Language of Thieves)