cover image The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

Louis Menand. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35 (880p) ISBN 978-0-374-15845-3

Subversive culture flourished under geopolitical tension and nuclear anxiety, according to this sweeping cultural history. New Yorker contributor Menand (The Metaphysical Club) surveys a panorama of avant-garde movements that emerged between 1945 and 1965, including French existentialism; beat poetry; the second-wave feminism of Betty Friedan; and the antiracist writings of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Frantz Fanon. Scandalous art world scenes, from the abstract expressionists to Warhol’s Factory, and musical outrages like composer John Cage’s 4’33” are also explored. Menand excavates the socioeconomic roots of these developments, including how rising high school enrollment fueled the spread of rock ‘n’ roll, but above all he’s concerned with the tangled human relationships that nurtured them; he traces, for example, how the improbably intersecting passions and neuroses of Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady incubated “Howl” and On the Road. Menand writes with his usual mix of colorful portraiture, shrewd insight, and pithy interpretation, describing the “feeling of personal liberation achieved through political solidarity” of 1960s student activists as “a largely illusory but nevertheless genuinely moving sense... that the world was turning under their marching feet.” The result is an exhilarating exploration of one of history’s most culturally fertile eras. Photos. Agent: Andrew Wylie, the Wylie Agency (Apr.)