Across the street from Louis Menand's new office, the Empire State Building gleams; across the hall, on a sunny Sunday morning, stand empty tables and chairs. Inside, Menand ("Luke" to his friends and acquaintances) sits comfortably amid books from all sorts of eras and fields—new poetry abuts 19th-century novels; John Rawls's philosophical classic A Theory of Justice faces the biologist Ernst Mayr's magisterial tome on adaptation. The inviting and interdisciplinary space seems exactly appropriate to Menand, who has become one of America's most versatile, and perhaps one of its busiest, public critics. A contributing editor at the New York Review of Books and a staff writer for the New Yorker, Menand also teaches in the English department at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, whose big new edifice holds his working space. Menand began as a scholar of T.S. Eliot; his essays and reviews range in subject matter from the future of baseball to the history of modernism. He has also assembled and edited several well-known anthologies, among them The Future of Academic Freedom (Univ. of Chicago, 1996).
Menand's pathbreaking new book, The Metaphysical Club (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Forecasts, Mar. 12) lays out the concepts and the major players behind the philosophical movement called pragmatism, which helped to shape American law, education, science and politics. Pragmatists maintain that ideas are not keys to eternal truths, but tools by which we do work in the world: they believe, in Menand's words, "that there is no one way that things must be." The volume tracks the triumphs and setbacks of pragmatist thinking from 1861 to 1919 through a cast of fascinating characters—William James, John Dewey, the social reformer Jane Addams, the cantankerous philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce, the Harvard conversationalist Chauncey Wright and the Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose skepticism about goals and ideals emerged from his bloody experience as a young man in America's Civil War.
The pragmatists' flight from New England traditions holds faint echoes of Menand's own career. Graduating in 1969 from a prep school in Massachusetts, Menand "wanted to go to California," and did, to Pomona College: "I transferred to Berkeley, didn't like it, went back." As an undergraduate, Menand concentrated on writing and reading poetry. Afterwards, "I went to Harvard Law School, didn't like it, stayed for a year, took a leave of absence," and applied both to Columbia University's School of Journalism and to its doctoral program in English. "When I was admitted to both of them, I went to talk to the dean of the journalism school. I said, 'Should I go to your school or should I go to get a Ph.D. in English?' He said, 'What kind of writing do you want to do?' and I said, 'I want to write for the New Yorker.' And he said, 'You don't need journalism school for that.' So I went to graduate school for English instead."
Menand did make it to the New Yorker, but it took a while. "I always wanted to work in magazines," he says. "But like many people who start Ph.D. programs and imagine themselves not teaching, I decided that actually I like to teach." Menand earned his doctorate in 1980 with a thesis on modernist critics' views of the Victorians. He then spent seven years at Princeton, where he was turned down for tenure. "I was sitting in my office about a month after I was told I wasn't going to be promoted, and the phone rang and an editor at the New Republic called and said she was going to go on leave for a year." Could Menand replace her? "I said, 'Are you kidding? I'll do it in a second.' It was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. Everything worked out." Menand found himself working both on book and film reviews—the so-called "back of the book"—and on political coverage. "I had a good time," he says, but he and his wife missed New York. "Without thinking about it, I applied for a job at CUNY Queens and they hired me. I wrestled with staying in Washington and finally decided to come back [to New York]," he says. About magazines, he adds, "I'd written for TNR before, I'd written for other magazines, but [that year] got me into that world."
What about the New Yorker? His involvement there began, he says, "about 10 years ago, when Robert Gottlieb was the editor. I started writing for him, and I wrote quite regularly for him." In 1992, its new chief Tina Brown asked Menand to join the staff; he became a full-time editor, then decided not to stay. "When I left I was asked to be a contributing editor to the New York Review. So I spent about six or seven years writing for the New York Review. Then last year I started writing for the New Yorker again. I signed a contract to be a staff writer, which means that I have to write a certain number of words" per year; for the current New Yorker head, David Remnick, Menand writes "book reviews, especially, and anything else that I want to do. That's been great."
Menand's dual career in journalism and academia took a long time to come together. Could he have done it anywhere but New York? "Probably not," he says. "It's helpful to have personal relations with people—it's nice to go out to lunch with them and to know what's happening. I like to be involved with magazines more than just as a writer. I like to have a sense of what they're up to, that's part of the fun of it. Somewhere else I probably would have become more academic as a writer." Menand says he could imagine writing someplace else: "New York is very distracting, very stressful, very expensive. There's a side of me that has a fantasy of a cottage somewhere on the beach. But this is where I live, this is where my family lives."
Menand is hardly the first Manhattanite—or even the first CUNY prof—to make his name as a public critic. Yet he rejects comparisons to New York intellectuals of the '40s and '50s. "When I was growing up and getting started as a writer," he says, "I read all of Irving Howe, of [Lionel] Trilling, of [Alfred] Kazin. I also knew Kazin because he was a colleague of mine and he was a friend." These men were "part of the reason I came to New York and to Columbia." And yet, Menand continues, "I was never able to write thinking of myself as a sort of descendant of that tradition. I just couldn't do it." Instead, he looks to "New Yorker writers. Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Pauline Kael. Those are the people who really inspired me. I don't think of myself as an academic who writes for a larger audience the way that Irving Howe did. I think of myself as a magazine writer.... I'm not interested in being a moral authority or a cultural authority or the conscience of a generation. I'm much more interested in writing stuff that seems to be able to be entertaining and interesting." Magazine writing, Menand says, creates "a conversation about something that's happening right now": "you're trying to keep the public engaged through your voice."
That engaging voice controls not only Menand's many magazine pieces, but the anecdotes, explanations and historical panoramas in his new volume. "I'd always wanted to write the kind of writing I'm doing now," Menand says: "I don't think of there being any division between my academic career and my career in journalism. To me, I'm just a writer... the New York Review is very different from the New Yorker, and for scholarly writing, obviously, you're assuming a whole bunch of different things. But as far as the writing itself goes, I don't think there is any difference in what I'm doing; it's just the way I write. And it happens that some of my interests are relatively scholarly and some are not."
The Metaphysical Club combines dozens of those interests—some as juicy as a trip to the Amazon, others as abstract as the nature of truth. "It was a challenge," Menand explains, not to "skate over the difficult philosophical problems that these writers had to deal with or explain." The book started not with philosophy, but with Holmes and the law. Menand named his tome for a short-lived discussion group that brought together Wright, James, Holmes and Peirce. After he read about the club in a law journal, Menand says, "I got interested in Holmes, and then later on I got interested in pragmatism independently of that, and about 10 years ago I decided to try writing this book." "I put off starting it for a long time," he continues, "because I was afraid it was too much to do. Then about five or six years ago I had a summer, and I wrote the three Holmes chapters, which were the first three chapters." The rest of the book required more work: "there were all kinds of things I had to look up. One of them was the history of biology and evolutionary theory; the other which I knew nothing about was probability theory. It was a pleasure trying to condense the explanation of those into my narrative." Menand tried throughout "to recreate the intellectual environment for the origins of pragmatist thinking," but he took care in the book "to be very agnostic about the usefulness of this 19th-century way of thinking in the 21st century."
Do Menand's graduate students at CUNY yearn to emulate his journalistic success? Do they expect him to show them how to achieve it? "I could make a living not teaching, just by writing," he says. "And I don't want to do that. I'm very happy teaching. But I think students who imagine that a Ph.D. program is a route to success as a magazine writer" suffer from "an illusion. It's my job to disabuse them. If you want to be a scholar, you have to go through training in graduate school, and then you're sort of wise enough to teach. That's true of anything. It's true of magazine writing—you have to get up to speed with it, to learn the ins and outs."
The Metaphysical Club took 10 years. What's next? "I'm going to write a book about the Cold War period," he says. That book will use "some biography, some social history, a lot of intellectual history" to tell "the story of how American culture became global culture." "Forties and '50s Americans," Menand says, "had a cultural inferiority complex and they tended still to defer to European standards for art and for philosophy and so forth. And... that changed into a cultural superiority complex, which we now have. We think we have a culture everybody should want.... I'm trying to tell the story of how that happened." That story will include the women's movement; Pop Art and pop music; American B-movies, French art films, and the American directors of the '70s; and the Yale English Department, which once trained American spies. It will also cover the writers who inspired Menand's own career, the creators of the New Journalism; writers like Mailer and Tom Wolfe were, Menand opines, "of a piece with Pop Art and Pauline Kael's movie criticism, which is a way of trying to break down divisions."
Menand says his own work on cultural change gives him no special insights into the future of books. "I do think, as a reviewer of books, that the culture is less book-driven than it used to be, in the '60s especially. A new book by Philip Roth or Norman Mailer or Betty Friedan was the occasion for a huge cultural moment." Now, though, "books and movies seem less central.... What's replaced them are these big televised long-running real-life dramas, like the Florida recount, the Simpson trial. You have views about those things, you want to talk about them." If Menand hints at mild pessimism about the fate of books in general, he seems delighted about the fate of his own. Farrar, Straus & Giroux "has been fabulous, they've been very enthusiastic... they did all these illustrations. I think it looks fantastic." FSG even followed his wishes about fonts: "I asked them to use a type design that would be appropriate to biography, because I wanted people to feel they were reading a biography rather than history. It's a little bigger, and so it would make the book a little longer, but they were fine about it. I wanted it to be very readable."
The Metaphysical Club, in sum, reflects all of Menand: its broad topic gives him room both for scholarly reflection and for feature-length, narrative-driven reportage. "It's also meant to be the kind of book you can mainly read if you're interested in people, if you want to read a biography. Or you can read it if you're interested in political and social history, and American history. Or you can read it if you're interested in ideas. If you feel, 'I wouldn't read a book about history of ideas, but I'd read a book about a guy who fought in the Civil War and became a Supreme Court justice, and about his friends,' I want you to feel you can read the book and not get bogged down by Kant and Hegel. But if you feel you want to read it philosophically and figure out where these guys came from, I hope there's enough Kant and Hegel to satisfy you."