As a graduate student in the Columbia English department in the 1970s, Louis Menand took a course with the literary critic Lionel Trilling. Menand didn’t think Trilling was a very good teacher, and he didn’t care much about the things Trilling then cared about, like Communism and the canon. But he did see in Trilling a model of how to think about culture and cultural change. From what he has called Trilling’s “darker, anthropological moods,” he learned that literature is “simply part of the cultural activity of making meaning.” It is “a report on experience,” as he later wrote in an essay on Trilling, but not “a privileged report on experience.” People write because they have something to say, not because they’ve been talking to God.
This insight accounts for part of Menand’s appeal as a writer. He took it in nearly the opposite direction from Trilling, but then that is often how history works. Back in the Thirties, Trilling’s supposedly sociological approach to literature had nearly gotten him kicked out of Columbia. To some extent, this charge was code for his Jewishness—then still unwelcome in elite universities—but it also named something distinctive in his criticism. He raised the stakes by saying that literature reveals or even shapes the inchoate assumptions and attitudes out of which society is formed. As Menand puts it in his new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, “Trilling thought that people’s literary preferences tell us something about the kind of human beings they wish to be and about the way they wish other human beings to be—that is, something about their morality and their politics.” To take one stark example from his work: “Dreiser and James: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” In this view, literary criticism is a serious business indeed, and that can make it thrilling to read: The Liberal Imagination, Trilling’s best-known book, sold seventy thousand copies in hardcover.
In his essay on Trilling, Menand noted that one weakness of Trilling’s writing is its lack of humor. Menand does not have that problem, because he does not take literature, or his own role as a critic, quite so seriously. He practices a kind of criticism that has been shorn of its pointier moral and political stakes. “If there are bloody crossroads out there calling for the attention of the critical intellect,” he wrote, “the novel does not appear to run through them.” Instead, criticism (like literature or any other cultural endeavor) is just one way people try to express themselves. “I don’t think there is anything particularly exalted or important about criticism,” he has said. It is simply a kind of writing.
That stance grows out of a particular set of philosophical convictions that distinguishes Menand’s approach from Trilling’s. In the 1980s, at a crucial moment of professional ambivalence, Menand was influenced by the philosopher Richard Rorty, who led a pragmatist revival around the end of the Cold War. In one essay that became a touchstone for Menand, Rorty counseled that we should remain “properly playful” about moral and philosophical differences, which can never really be resolved in a world without firm external foundations. “Crosstalk is all that we are going to get,” Rorty wrote. “No one can make sense of the notion of a last commentary, a last discussion note, a good piece of writing which is more than the occasion for a better piece.” All of Menand’s work is written in this spirit. It is a report on other reports on experience.
This description may sound deflating, but in practice it can be no less thrilling than Trilling: Menand won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling history of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club (2001), and received the National Humanities Medal in 2016. In part, this is because Menand is actually doing something different from Trilling. Despite having trained in Trilling’s department, Menand is less a literary critic than a cultural historian; for him, literature is one feature on a broader landscape. That landscape may look flatter from Menand’s perspective, without the same high peaks or dark valleys that one gets in Trilling, but he opens up big views, where it is possible to see dynamic connections between seemingly distant landmarks. Menand can, and does, write about everything from baseball to the Beatles, comic books to John Cage, pulp fiction to Betty Friedan, The Cat in the Hat to the Chicago Manual of Style, mapping the precise location of each one in our culture.
Still, ideas did mean something for Trilling because the consequences were real, and freedom was thrown into sharp relief by responsibility. The meaning of ideas and the significance of freedom become somewhat trickier to pin down if, like Menand, you see thinking as circular and history as a series of somersaults. Menand says he wrote his new book, The Free World, to help himself figure out “just what freedom is, or what it can realistically mean.” Yet the question is not a new one for him; it has been at the heart of his work from the start.
At Columbia, Menand wrote his dissertation on the reception of nineteenth-century literature among twentieth-century critics such as T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis. He didn’t plan to continue in academia after getting his Ph.D.—he just wanted to be a writer—but he easily landed a job at Princeton (as one did, apparently, in 1980) and discovered that he liked teaching. If he wanted to get tenure, however, he needed to write a book.
In the book he wrote, Discovering Modernism, he focused on Eliot, the most interesting of the critics he’d covered in his dissertation. Menand’s basic idea was that Modernists made a show of repudiating Victorian values, but in fact they recast those values in a new vocabulary. In framing his argument, Menand was influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which introduced a new way of thinking about progress in science (and, by extension, any other intellectual field). Science, Kuhn said, isn’t simply an accumulation of data and insights leading to the development of new theories that better fit the facts. Instead, science develops via disruptions (“paradigm shifts,” a term Kuhn coined) that displace what was previously accepted as “normal science” (Aristotelian physics, the miasma theory of disease) with a new paradigm (Newtonian physics, germ theory). This usually depends less on the overall accuracy of the new model—all models will have anomalies and unexplained data—than on its suitability for answering questions that “normal science” can’t address but have, for some combination of scientific and cultural reasons, come to seem like pressing concerns. The world hangs together in multiple ways, and part of what science does is provide us with an interpretation that fits the age.
Menand didn’t cite Kuhn in his book, but Kuhn clearly provided a model for how he discussed the shift in literature from Victorianism to Modernism. Menand said he was trying “to locate a point in literary history where the cultural solutions of the nineteenth century can be observed becoming the cultural problems of the twentieth.” At that moment of change, which lasted from roughly 1910 to 1922, “Eliot reinscribed the received set of literary values with a modernist surface.” The nineteenth century was still there, Menand claimed, but with a different set of names that allowed old ideas to be presented as the solutions to new problems. Eliot wasn’t articulating a coherent program so much as identifying a crisis in literary authority and deliberately exploiting it. He was a perfect hinge figure whose criticism helped define what was “old” as he opened the door to the self-consciously “new.”
In the book’s central chapter, Menand addressed the question of individual achievement in the face of cultural tradition and scientific determinism—“What is ‘mine’ about my poem?”—by analyzing Eliot’s composition of The Waste Land in the early 1920s. Eliot had recently published his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” “After everything in the poem that belongs to the tradition has been subtracted,” Menand asked, “what sort of value can be claimed for what is left?” He said that Eliot answered this problem with the interpretive notes he appended to The Waste Land, which read the poem from the distance of a cultural anthropologist. Whatever is “new,” the poem and its notes seem to suggest, “appears as the result of a misinterpretation of what is received.”
This is an important idea for Menand. Notably, the kind of misinterpretation that he attributed to Eliot has little to do with any “anxiety of influence” on the part of artistic genius. Instead, it’s just one of the ways culture works. Eliot did it (he considered writing a book called The Fruitfulness of Misunderstanding), but so do you and I: we read or watch or hear things as we go through life, and either we forget them, like much of what we do, or we remember them because we can interpret them in a way that’s personally meaningful. Sometimes this involves reading things exactly right, but often (probably much more often) it means reading them wrong. Willful or not, these misreadings can create distance from a fading paradigm (as with Eliot and the nineteenth century) or forge a new and supposedly more authentic tradition for an emerging paradigm (as with Eliot and the seventeenth century). For his part, Menand believes there is a distinction between right readings and wrong readings, and he’s not shy about pointing it out. Yet he’s never interested in judging people for their misreadings. He’s more concerned with how and why people misread, because that provides one key to how culture changes.
Discovering Modernism is clearly Menand’s book: in addition to carrying early expressions of ideas that recur throughout his work, it contains characteristically lucid explanations of complex topics such as the psychology of the mind and the ideology of professionalism, and it even has dashes of dry wit. Yet the book is also an outlier compared to Menand’s later writing: denser, more abstract, harder to follow. In part this reflects the fact that it was his first book and was intended to earn him tenure.
By this measure, it was a failure. Menand wallowed for years in notes and drafts, and by the time the book was published in 1987, Princeton had already denied him tenure. Luckily for Menand, he’d been writing some reviews for the New Republic, and the magazine offered him an editorial position. He went to Washington and liked the work, but returned to New York after a year, partly for family reasons. He taught at Queens College and began to write for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. By the early Nineties, he was gaining a reputation as one of the best book critics in America. He was named a contributing editor at the New York Review, where he wrote a series of distinctive pieces on movies and miniseries (“Ms. Ehle, even in a silly bonnet, is a deeply fetching actress”; still a sound judgment), as well as on big novels such as Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (“It is as though the story of Popeye the Sailorman had fallen into the hands of Richard Wagner”; this was actually a good thing). He also worked on his next book, a history of pragmatism.
Menand’s interest in pragmatism had begun at Princeton, where he happened to overlap for two years with Rorty. Having been trained as a somewhat old-fashioned literary historian, Menand found himself at a loss in the face of fellow English professors wielding competing “theoretical” frameworks. In search of his own theory, he picked up Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), where he read an essay called “Philosophy as a Kind of Writing.” In that essay, which focuses on Jacques Derrida, Rorty laid out the differences between the Kantian philosophical tradition, in which truth is seen as a relationship between a thing and its representation, and the Hegelian tradition, in which truth is seen as the culmination of reinterpretations of what’s come before. Citing Kuhn, Rorty described Kantians as working in the world of “normal science,” where the basic framework of science (or philosophy) is taken for granted, while Hegelians stepped back to see Kantian philosophy as simply “the practices of a certain historical moment.”
Reading Rorty was a life-changing event for Menand. “It was really an eye-opener,” he recalled. “Rorty had a way of talking about ideas that made it possible for me to do my work.” Instead of feeling like he had “to champion or critique a set of ideas,” he realized that he could “look at them as instruments that people used to cope with the world they find themselves in.” He found it exhilarating to discover “that all we need to do to lighten our load is drop the whole contraption over the side of a cliff and continue on doing what we want to be doing anyway.” By adding “ideas are tools” to your intellectual toolbox, Rorty showed how you could range widely across many realms of culture, analyzing and assessing how different forms fitted with their intended functions.
In particular, Rorty’s idiosyncratic rehabilitation of American pragmatism, based on a selective reading (maybe even misreading) of John Dewey, inspired Menand to explore its history. The result was The Metaphysical Club, in which Menand provided a pragmatic account of pragmatism as an idea that emerged in the late nineteenth century because it helped people cope with modern life. He did so by looking closely at the lives of four main characters: Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., psychologist and philosopher William James, polymath Charles Sanders Peirce and Dewey. “Pragmatism was the product of a group of individuals,” he wrote, “and it took its shape from the way they bounced off one another, their circumstances, and the mysteries of their unreproducible personalities.” This is a logical conclusion from pragmatism, since if ideas are tools that people use to cope with the world, then explaining those ideas requires showing the specific experiences and circumstances that led to them. Experience is culture; action is inseparable from ideas, which are themselves a way of working in and with the world.
Besides making for riveting reading, focusing on individual lives also seemed, for Menand, to be a specific solution to the problem of how to capture cultural change, which can be hard to see or describe. In a characteristically vivid image, he once compared it to watching demolition and construction:
You can watch for hours while workers move a few planks on a temporary scaffolding. Maybe a man with a blowtorch is laboring with apparent futility on a huge steel beam. Nothing else is going on. Two days later, a floor has disappeared. At the end of three years, the derelict structure has been obliterated and a new tower, whose erection was similarly mysterious, shimmers in its place.
Modern culture works the same way, with a lot of small, individually invisible changes accumulating constantly and nearly imperceptibly until suddenly you realize that you’re living in a different world. People read things, or see things, or meet other people, and the encounter sometimes makes a mark on their mind. “If it does,” Menand has written, “the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments.”
Holmes, for example, felt a moral obligation to enlist in the Union army during the Civil War, but his horrific experiences as a soldier (he was shot three times, in the chest, in the neck and in the foot, and once left for dead) led him to reject the moral certitude that lay behind violence and to develop a view of jurisprudence in which judges decide first and deduce principles later. (As he put it, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.”) James also rejected antebellum idealism, in his case thanks to the influence of Darwinian natural selection, which showed that the world was not the product of divine design, as well as his own experience with incapacitating depression, which led him to articulate his notion of belief as a basis for action. Peirce, a very unstable genius, experienced life as one crisis after another, and developed a theory, based on Darwin and the astronomical law of errors, that the natural laws we use to describe the world are really guesses or predictions on which we base our behavior. And Dewey, who had a Hegelian education, was inspired by his reading of James, his observations of the Pullman Strike of 1894, his friendship with Jane Addams and his experiences as a parent and teacher to develop a theory of life as a unified, organic circuit in which there is no distinction between knowing and doing because both are part of the same process of adaptation to the world.
In each case, these individuals moved from a world that thought in “types and ideas” to one that emphasized “relations and probabilities.” The key word of the book, in fact, is “invidious,” because for pragmatists, nearly all distinctions are inherently invidious: attempts to create a discrimination or hierarchy among supposed types when naturally there’s nothing but relations within the whole. Despite their differences, Menand noted, the men all “taught a kind of skepticism that helped people cope with life in a heterogeneous, industrialized, mass-market society, a society in which older human bonds of custom and community seemed to have become attenuated, and to have been replaced by more impersonal networks of obligation and authority.”
Along the way, Menand went down a number of rabbit holes—Swedenborgian religion, the American School of Ethnology, the decline of whaling, Maxwell’s demon, Dartmouth College—which he ended up tying together, because, as people like Peirce and Dewey believed in different ways, things really do tie together in the end.1 In this view of culture as a comprehensive, integrated whole, it’s reasonable to ask where, exactly, individual freedom resides—particularly for someone like Peirce, who saw all opinion converging inexorably on the truth, but also for Holmes and Dewey, who were indifferent to individual rights and whose descriptions of human reason are circular by design. “Since there is no way out” of culture, Menand wondered, what does it mean “to secure a degree a freedom within it”?
This is the culminating question of the book. For James, freedom resided in the individual will to believe. Holmes said that was too sentimental and easy, while Dewey, naturally, saw the distinction between individual and society as invidious. Yet it was Holmes and Dewey who helped lay the legal and intellectual foundations for academic freedom and freedom of speech in the United States. In the pragmatist view, these individual freedoms are essential not because some one individual might land on the truth, but “because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need.” If culture is a Rubik’s Cube from which we can’t escape, in other words, then we should make sure we have a really big Cube with lots of different possibilities to rearrange as we wish. This was a specifically modern way of looking at the world, and it was responsible, Menand noted, “for much of what is distinctive about American life in the twentieth century and after.”
Many works of history are smart, or witty, or elegantly written, and The Metaphysical Club is all those things, but it also supplies perhaps the most stirring affirmation of the idea and practice of modern liberal democracy that I have read. It’s not just that Menand shows how and why principles of pluralism and tolerance took shape; it’s also the way we see his mind at work, drawing connections between seemingly disparate movements and ideas, and remapping the relationships we thought existed between them. That, too, is a form of freedom.
Like pragmatism itself, The Metaphysical Club can be criticized for being too easy. It sometimes downplays the differences between its main characters, and it neglects several aspects of late nineteenth-century America that don’t quite square with its story: the drive for white domination; the rise of conservative, militaristic nationalism; the push for moral reforms aimed at purification. I think the story that The Metaphysical Club tells is the one that matters most, but then of course I would: it is a story that flatters liberal sensibilities, one where a handful of wealthy white guys in Cambridge can change the world and where the brutal racial violence of the postwar period rarely rears its head. Arriving at the end of the Clinton era, the book was a tremendous success. After The Metaphysical Club, Menand got about as close as most academics come to celebrity: best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize-winner, staff writer at the New Yorker and, starting in 2003, professor at Harvard (fitting, given the Cambridge-centricity of The Metaphysical Club), where his courses can sometimes attract more than three hundred students.
He also started to piece together a new book that dealt with “what is distinctive about American life in the twentieth century.” His original plan was to focus on the Sixties, but teaching a course on the decade at CUNY convinced him that “the only way to do a book about the sixties was to write a book about the whole Cold War period.” Students raised in the wake of the Sixties didn’t experience anything from the period as new, but as early versions of ideas they took for granted. To make it new again, he saw, he’d have to explain how the Sixties evolved from the Fifties, and also how sixties art and ideas rippled through the next two decades.
Now, after twenty years of work, the book that Menand wrote covers only half of the Cold War, stopping around 1967, when Vietnam transposed American culture into a different political key while also undermining American moral authority at home and abroad. Within that period, The Free World focuses on how American culture became “the center of an increasingly international artistic and intellectual life.” It fits perfectly with recent trends in transnational history, and its execution in that realm—covering Orwell and the Beatles, Sartre and Arendt, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin and Richard Wright, the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, Godard and Truffaut—is fantastic, showing both the larger forces (free markets, distribution networks, higher education) and street-level circumstances that allowed art and ideas to bounce around the world.
The Free World traces how our cultural Rubik’s Cube expanded to include new kinds of people and types of cultural production not only within the United States but globally. “Cultures benefit from contact with cultures that are different,” Menand writes, glossing the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. “Social groups invent cultural systems—languages, marriage laws, cuisine, mythologies—that are, in effect, gambles on survival. The greater the diversity of available systems, the better the odds of winning.” This is one reason why it mattered that Jews like Trilling and Meyer Schapiro started being hired at universities and that women like Susan Sontag and Blacks like Baldwin gained platforms from which they could speak to the whole society.
It is unsurprising, then, that Menand names “the right of free expression” as “the right most symbolic of the geopolitical stakes in the decades after the war.” Yet in the first decade after World War II, people across the West, and perhaps especially in America, worried that totalitarianism was a permanent tendency, maybe even the inevitable end state, of modern mass society, and they did what they thought was necessary to stop its spread: containment in foreign policy, purges of communists in cultural and political institutions, critical policing in art and literature. The intellectual tolerance of pragmatists like James and Dewey seemed more dangerous than the alternative when the United States was in what looked like an existential struggle over democracy and freedom.
That mindset started to change by the mid-Fifties. In the book’s central chapter, called “Concepts of Liberty,” Menand sets Soviet-style restrictions as seen through the eyes of Isaiah Berlin alongside a shift in American conceptions of freedom: from prioritizing “national security and domestic stability” to allowing for greater civil liberties. It was, Menand explains, in part because the threat of domestic communism was in decline, but also because of market demand for racy cultural products that America and Britain expanded their protections for free expression as they began to “define ‘democracy’ more expansively, or more existentially, as the name for a kind of society in which people feel that they are free to adopt and express beliefs and tastes and styles of life without fear of persecution.” Individual self-expression became a key marker, maybe the key marker, of the distinction between liberal democracy and totalitarianism.
This shift happened first in the realm of political speech, with a series of four Supreme Court rulings on June 17, 1957, which severely curtailed the persecution of people for their political beliefs (FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called it “Red Monday”). A week later, in Roth v. United States, the Court upheld the conviction of a publisher named Samuel Roth for obscenity but built in a new exception for “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance.” By the mid-Sixties, the meaning of the ruling was turned on its head, in part because books like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were already selling millions of copies (enforcement was left up to local jurisdictions). The Court recycled almost the same language it had used in Roth, but this time to say that nearly anything could be published, because nearly anything could be shown to have some redeeming social importance.
As crucial as they were, though, the Supreme Court cases served only as the central hinge in a much broader cultural transformation. Menand likes to quote a passage from the end of Lévi-Strauss’s memoir Tristes Tropiques (1955), in which the French anthropologist described civilization as a process that eventually collapses the cultural diversity that societies need to survive. “Lévi-Strauss’s idea,” he explains in The Free World, “was that the better people understand one another, the more alike they become, but this means that cultural differences, and therefore cultural possibilities, disappear. Culture evens out, becomes homogeneous. It suffers the equivalent of heat death in thermodynamics.” Lévi-Strauss even said that anthropology might better be called “entropology.”
This story is often told as the coca-colonization of the postwar world, but Menand traces it in several different registers, and never with the contempt that “coca-colonization” conveys. He does examine the export of American consumer culture, whose brightly colored magazine ads and “borageous” cars covered in chrome and tail fins inspired British Pop Art in the early Fifties, but he concludes that in the context of a stagnant British economy, Pop amounted to “an embrace of consumerism and free-market capitalism,” not a critique. Another giant chapter looks at Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Cage and Merce Cunningham to explain the internationalization of the art world, which became tied less to cities or nations (like Florence or France in earlier eras) than to individual artists, wherever they happened to be. Another foursome, the Beatles, helped make pop music global in scale. Cultural distinctions between countries were dissolving.
So were other distinctions. Gradually a new elite culture came into being that cared less about whether something was democratic or totalitarian, avant-garde or kitsch, highbrow or lowbrow, art or commerce, than whether it was smart and fun and at least a little sexy. Often these cultural productions took what was already in popular demand and put it in a slightly different package, with a European imprimatur that helped educated Americans see it as “art”—or elided the old distinctions entirely. This is the role Rolling Stone played for rock, and Pauline Kael for movies. As long as you had the right framework for interpreting it, anything could be art. In the Sixties, Sontag in particular stood for many people as a symbol of this “new sensibility” that collapsed, as she put it, “the beauty of a machine or of the solution to a mathematical problem, of a painting by Jasper Johns, of a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and of the personalities and music of the Beatles.”
Ultimately it was these new cultural productions and attitudes, not containment, moralistic critical policing or top-down cultural diplomacy, that made the Free World. Menand concludes, “The world was not colonized by Partisan Review or the Museum of Modern Art. It was colonized by Pop Art and Hollywood. Modernist literature did not provide moral sustenance to dissidents in Eastern Bloc countries. Beat literature did. Very few people knew who Lionel Trilling was. Everyone had heard of Elvis Presley.” And this is largely the world where we still live: when Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer and Bob Dylan got a Nobel, plenty of people were surprised but very few of them saw a cause for moral or political concern.
These changes happened through misreadings and misinterpretations, which, as Menand argued as far back as Discovering Modernism, are often the way people and ideas become useful. For him, “cultural appropriation” is not only not a term of condemnation; it is not even a meaningful term, because appropriation is how culture works. The twisted journey of Elvis Presley’s song “Hound Dog” provides a particularly good example: “The song’s chain of custody extended from the Jewish twenty-year-olds who wrote it for a fee, to the African American singer who had to be instructed how to sing it, to the white lounge act that spoofed it, to the hillbilly singer [Elvis] who performed it as a burlesque number.”
At the same time, cultural change also happened when people realized that the world kept turning even if they stopped repeating incantations about politics, philosophy or form that had seemed natural and necessary a few short years before. There are other ways of describing these shifts—as an adolescent disregard for tradition, say, or as ineluctable developments of previously articulated principles, or as eruptions of artistic or intellectual inspiration—but it should come as no surprise that Menand frames them as the dropping of old commitments; that is the characteristic pragmatist move. Already in the late Forties, Pollock and his critical champion, Clement Greenberg, were doing it. Within fifteen years, it reached a culmination of sorts in Andy Warhol, whose entire work was devoted to seeing what happened if he dropped the one element of an activity which was conventionally regarded as its essence: truth in interviews, writing in novels, moving in movies and so on. “He was only making a move in the endless game that is literary and artistic modernism, which is the game of trying to find out what art would look like if we had no illusions about it,” Menand explains. “And what does a completely demystified art object look like? It looks like a work of art.” People lined up to see it.
By the late Sixties, at least, the cultural heat death predicted by Lévi-Strauss had not come to pass. Truman initially framed the Cold War as a choice between two “alternative ways of life,” freedom and totalitarianism, but it turned out that American culture itself, which many early Cold War intellectuals saw as oppressive, actually gave rise to plenty of “alternative ways of life” within it.
“The nonchalance with which pragmatists tend to dispose of issues,” Menand has acknowledged, “has always struck many people as intellectually slipshod and morally dangerous.” I’m sometimes the kind of person who sees it that way, the kind of person who worries that without some solid foundation in nature or heaven, civilization will crumble and fall. Part of the value of Menand’s work, though, is the way it shows that if the business of culture is inevitably to misinterpret the past, the business of history is to recover it. In The Free World, Menand is particularly interested in showing that artists and critics who are popularly known for their spontaneous, anything-goes style were actually extremely disciplined about their work. In practice, freedom requires constraints. This was true of people as different as Pollock, the Beats, Rauschenberg, Cage, Derrida and Warhol. “Keeping concepts at bay does not mean relying on intuition,” Menand writes. “On the contrary, it requires constant discipline.” Rauschenberg’s White Paintings look blank but require regular maintenance; Cage’s chance compositions were done by methodically flipping coins or drawing cards, which could take months; Derrida believed in “play” but not “freeplay”; Warhol was devoted to art and knew exactly where his work stood in the tradition. Menand wanted to understand his own subjectivity, and worked for two decades on a seven-hundred-page book that takes in the world.
Culture, it turns out, is made up of many interconnected parts: a lot of them are intangible, but that’s not the same as being unreal. There might not be any solid foundation out there, but there is a supple web of relationships. People are remarkably good at finding and holding onto what works, provided you are willing to trust them. This is a fundamentally democratic concept of culture as an open-ended group project, and it forms at least part—perhaps the most important part—of what we mean when we talk about freedom. Admittedly, it is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but it is what made twentieth-century America different from societies where art was required to conform to a prescribed idea of where nature or history was headed. Change is never linear or inevitable. The screw always takes another turn. Framing history (and life) this way isn’t always comforting or satisfying, but then the whole point of pragmatism is to help people cope with it. In an uncertain world, we should use whatever works.
Maybe this is the moment when we need that lesson most, especially if, as pragmatists contend, knowledge really is a tool for shaping the world. Menand’s writing provides its own proof of concept. There’s no one else who captures the push and pull of life and ideas quite as well as he does, embedded in a way of looking at the world that is generous and humane. It’s a model for a self-aware liberalism that’s democratic and diverse without being smug or snobby. This kind of liberalism may not be especially exalted, and it will never lead us to any promised land. But perhaps it can carve out the space people need to pursue their own ideas of happiness. Menand frees us to see that that is enough.