The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

Farrar. Apr. 2021. 880p. ISBN 9780374158453. $35. HIST
This sweeping intellectual history examines the flowering of European and American art and thought during the two decades after World War II. Culture became a Cold War battleground, ostensibly pitting liberal democracy against totalitarianism. Menand (English, Harvard Univ.; The Marketplace of Ideas) tackles art and music, literature, philosophy, and theory, showcasing the cross-pollination between thinkers and artists on both sides of the Atlantic. He generally sticks to the canon and to luminaries such as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, novelist George Orwell, critic Lionel Trilling, painter Jackson Pollock, and poet Allen Ginsberg. Menand covers French and German cultural figures, sometimes in depth, but chiefly to the extent that they influenced or were influenced by Americans. Peripheral to Menand’s grand narrative are Latin Americans, Asians, and southern Europeans. A few women and Black intellectuals are featured, and the misogyny rampant in literary circles is addressed. Menand is an academic who writes accessibly despite his book’s extensive citations and overall length.
VERDICT Readers of The New Yorker or The Atlantic will appreciate this detailed look into the Cold War. This sweeping synthesis evinces a polymath’s range and grasp but treads familiar ground with its focus on the Western canon.
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