Allen Ginsburg, Beatles, Charles Sanders Peirce, Charlie Watts, Chuck Berry, Claude Levi-Strauss, Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton, Frances Stoner Saunders, George Kennan, Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jimmy Page, John Cage, John Dewey, John Lennon, Keith Richards, Kim Stanley Robinson, Louis Menand, Merce Cunningham, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Ringo Starr, Willard van Orman Quine, William James
I recommend, wholeheartedly, Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I am reading it very slowly because, (a), it is massive, and (b), it is so stuffed with facts and information that I need time to take it all in. Nevertheless, every day when I pick it up, it is with immense pleasure, and with the certainty that I will add to my knowledge.
Even so, there are a couple of points worth making. Not necessarily negative points, but things that might bear on your understanding and appreciation of the book.
For a start, the subtitle is misleading. Cold War is used here almost exclusively as a chronological identifier. The book covers the years from 1945 to the end of the 1960s, so roughly the first half of the period known as the Cold War. It deals with art and ideas that emerged during those years, but it does not deal with the way those arts and ideas engaged with the Cold War, or were shaped by the Cold War. Anyone recalling Who Paid the Piper? by Frances Stoner Saunders, for example, which looked at how the CIA used the arts as a weapon in their secret war against the Soviet Union, will find little if anything on that subject here (Encounter does not appear in the index). The Korean War is barely mentioned, though the Vietnam War which sparked a huge artistic response at the end of the 1960s does fare somewhat better (it would have been unforgiveable if it had not). But in general this is about what art was going on at the time of the early Cold War, but not how or why it was occurring in those circumstances. Over the first 300-or-so pages of the book the Second World War plays a far more influential part in shaping the subject of the book than the Cold War does.
The second point is that the book is largely focussed on American art. This is not unexpected (post-war American art is a massive enough subject for anyone) and he does nod towards what was going on in the rest of the world. There are chapters on Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Levi-Strauss, for instance, but these are almost lost amid the flurry of chapters on George Kennan, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Allen Ginsburg, and so on. The non-Americans who figure most prominently in this study are those who came to America as refugees during the war, or whose greatest success was achieved in or cemented in America. Those intellectual and artistic areas that were not so prominent in America get less attention. For instance philosophy in the post-war world remained a largely European endeavour, and the leading American exponents (Willard van Orman Quine) largely worked in a European model. So, despite the fact that Menand’s previous best book was on the American Pragmatists (Peirce, James, Dewey), here he makes no mention of the topic other than the chapter on Sartre.
Which brings me to what prompted these thoughts: pop music. This is a response to youth culture, and he makes the telling point that for such a culture to flourish there had to be space for it. Teenagers were effectively created when official efforts were made to encourage people to stay in school longer. This created a space between elementary education and work, and the United States was far more successful at creating that space. He’s got the statistics to back this up: in 1955, 84% of Americans between 14 and 17 were in school; in 1957, just 9% of British seventeen-year-olds were still in school. Youth culture started in America, created its first stars in America: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and so on. Then he asks a very telling question: in that case, why were the most popular entertainers in the world in the 1960s British?
I had an instant answer to that question, and Menand did not. But then, I’m not aware of any Americans who would have come up with the same answer. The obvious answer, to me, was class.
(As an aside, many years ago I was on a convention panel with Kim Stanley Robinson and some others, I was the only Brit. During the panel, Stan and I got into a discussion on class, and I realised very quickly that we were talking an entirely different language. For Stan, and for every other American on the panel, class was inextricably related to, and indeed defined by, wealth. The more money you have, the higher your class; the less money you have, the lower your class. And that is just not the way it works in Britain; here class is a far more complex thing. For several years, the Beatles were the highest paid entertainers in the world, but that did not make them upper class. Indeed, being working class was emphatically a part of their self-image, their creativity (I suspect neither “Strawberry Fields Forever” nor “She’s Leaving Home” could have been written out of anything other than working class sensibility), and their reception.)
We are twenty-odd pages into Menand’s discussion of the Beatles before he uses the word class, and this is only to note that Ringo’s drollness — Q: What do you think of Beethoven? Ringo: Great. Especially his poems. — can be traced to his working-class Liverpool upbringing. (As Menand says, cuttingly but accurately, “If Elvis Presley had had a month to think about it, he couldn’t have come up with that line.”) Which actually rather misses the point. By this stage, Menand has already made great play of the fact that John Lennon, like Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ray Davies and a host of others had gone to art college, as if the British pop scene emerged as a result of this rather arty, middle-class milieu. But the British art school of the 1950s and 1960s had virtually no academic requirements for entry, so it became a haven for those who were too creative or rebellious to want to go into the jobs market, but were “not academically gifted”, which at the time was often a euphemism for “working class”. Every single one of these art school pop stars saw music as an interval before they had to get a proper job. The music emerged not from the art school, but from the dread of following their fathers into another dead-end job. The space that Menand talks about, the space in which youth culture flourished, had given people a desire for something better, but the British class system permitted no route to achieve that desire. So the reason why British pop music dominated the world in the 1960s, why the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks and the Who and the Hollies and the Move and the Yardbirds and the Animals and all the rest emerged there and then, was because of class.
That Menand gets this wrong is not a criticism of the book. Rather it is a sign that what is going on here is far larger, far more complex, than even this huge book can accommodate. And there is much else of great value here.
I am not intending to add more to this post with each new chapter I encounter, but this is worth saying if only because it contradicts something I wrongly implied above.
The very next chapter takes us into the heady realms of philosophy, and directly addresses the connection between the Cold War and the development of ideas. The focus of this chapter is Isaiah Berlin (not generally a philosopher who is highly thought of these days). There is a passing reference to logical positivism (though not, so far at least, logical atomism or any of the subsequent linguistic philosophy, despite J.L. Austin being namechecked), but the main focus is on Berlin’s critique of Marxism, which, as presented here, seems to tie in remarkably closely to the critique of Soviet policy as propounded by Berlin’s friend, George Kennan (see Chapter One). I suspect that the central point of this chapter will revolve around Berlin’s famous distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, though Menand has not so far included that formulation. He has actually spent rather more time talking about Berlin’s time in America during the war, and his encounter with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Which raises another point: each chapter has one or two central figures around which the story is woven. These central figures, at least so far, are all men. Women appear as followers, wives, or muses. Of course he might confound me by next including a chapter on science that revolves around Rosalind Franklin … but no, I don’t think so.
If this chapter runs true to form I expect to see Karl Popper making an appearance, but if so it will be for The Open Society and its Enemies rather than for The Logic of Scientific Discovery and falsifiability. We might even see Bertrand Russell, but I can’t imagine how Ludwig Wittgenstein might fit into this account.