‘The Free World’ Explains How Culture Heated Up During the Cold War

Amanda Claybaugh, a close colleague of Menand’s in Harvard’s English department before she became the school’s dean of undergraduate education, said that embedding ideas in stories is an “analytical mode” for Menand. “If you tell a story, you have to think in very concrete and specific terms about how culture works in a particular moment, how certain ideas, influences, encounters shape a person.”

How was Menand shaped?

He grew up in the Boston area, where his father was an administrator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His great-grandfather, also Louis Menand (the author is technically Louis Menand IV), was a French horticulturalist with a successful flower business in upstate New York. Today, a village hugging the Hudson River just north of Albany is called Menands, after the author’s ancestor.

Menand left the East Coast for the only extended period of his life to attend Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., where he wrote poetry and ate meals under a large mural, “Prometheus,” by the Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco, which appears in “The Free World” as inspiration to Jackson Pollock. After a year of law school, Menand studied English at Columbia, earning a doctorate in 1980. He taught at Princeton before arriving at CUNY Grad Center in 1988, and landed at Harvard in 2003. He contributed to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books before becoming a staff writer at The New Yorker in 2001.

It is a life story that would not be out of place in, well, “Doonesbury.” But the boomers — who started being born in 1946 — were not really the ’60s generation, Menand said. Hayden and Mario Savio, the student activists of his final chapter, were born in 1939 and 1942, respectively. Menand, who is in the older half of his generational cohort, turned 18 in 1970.

Menand knew several of his book’s figures personally, such as Susan Sontag, who died in 2004. But his relationship to its events might best be exemplified by the literary critic Lionel Trilling. Menand went to Columbia in 1974 to study under Trilling and his acolytes, but ended up taking just one class with Trilling — a seminar on the poet William Wordsworth — before he died in 1975.

Menand’s timing might in others be a recipe for blinding nostalgia, even resentment. But he appears untroubled by the thought that he came too late.

He was compelled as a young man to contribute to the New York-centered “little magazines,” as Trilling and Sontag had; his byline appeared in Partisan Review and Dissent. But his goal even then was to appear in The New Yorker and Esquire, and these days he does not consider himself, he said, “to be writing in, or as an heir to, some sort of New York intellectual tradition.”

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