The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

Louis Menand

A landmark history of the Western World we wanted and of the one we made

‘This is a book about what people thought and said and did because of the fact that, for more than forty years, the United States was at war with the Soviet Union. The book is a narrative, not an argument, but it has a premise, which is that the Cold War is the key to understanding the social and cultural history of the West between 1945 and 1989, and it has a point, which is that the great consequence of that history, the consequence everyone in the world is living with today, was the globalization of American culture.
The book is a narrative about individual thinkers and writers, books and their readers, events and their consequences. It tells the story of Western art and thought between 1945 and 1989 in the setting of the events that made them possible and that circumscribed their fates. It looks at western culture from the underside, so to speak, from The Cat in the Hat to The White Album via Bonnie and Clyde.’

Reviews of The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

    • “Louis Menand’s The Free World is at once an astonishing work of history and criticism and an essential road map to the middle decades of the twentieth century, from Sartre, Trilling, and Mailer to Sontag, Rauschenberg, and Baldwin. Every page is bracing; the whole amounts to an epic. In a landmark study of a time when art and ideas mattered, Menand’s very act of interpretation, the book itself, shows why they still do.” ―Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States
    • “This sweeping intellectual and cultural history resembles one of those vast Renaissance paintings that lets you see simultaneously both the curvature of the earth and the buttons on the soldiers’ uniforms. Louis Menand’s cast of characters and range of interests are enormous, from Allen Ginsberg to Zbigniew Brzezinski, from Hannah Arendt’s affair with Martin Heidegger to Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog.’ But coursing through this vast panorama is a sustained reflection on the hidden relation between global politics and the life of the mind.” ―Stephen Greenblatt, author of Tyrant and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
    • “What do Richard Wright, Betty Friedan, and Elvis Presley have in common? They are all pieces in the giant puzzle masterfully assembled by Louis Menand in this magnum opus. The result is a dazzling panorama of the Cold War but also a captivating case study in Menand’s great subject: how art and ideas matter in the world. A thinking person’s page-turner.” ―Martin Puchner, author of The Written World and The Language of Thieves