Louis Menand’s panoramic portrait of the Cold War years begins with a succinct overview:
This book is about a time when the United States was actively engaged with the rest of the world. In the twenty years after the end of the Second World War, the United States invested in the economy of Japan and Western Europe and extended loans to other countries around the world. With the United Kingdom, it created the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to support global political stability and international trade. It hosted the new United Nations. Through its government, its philanthropic foundations, its universities, and its cultural institutions, it established exchange programs for writers and scholars, distributed literature around the globe, and sent art from American collections and music by American composers and performers abroad. … Works of literature and philosophy from all over the world were published in affordable translations. Foreign movies were imported and distributed across the country.
The preface continues with this reminder of the Utopian efforts of the immediate postwar era, remarking on the exponential rise in college attendance, the closing of the income gap, the absence of substantive difference between the two major political parties, and the collapse of colonial empires around the world. “Most striking was the nature of the audience: people cared. Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered. The way people judged and interpreted paintings, movies, and poems mattered. People believed in liberty, and thought it really meant something.”
I read these words with a shock of recognition because the years in question marked my own coming of age: I graduated from high school in 1949, college in 1953, and received my PhD in 1965. I recall only too well those days when studying literature was considered an important and valuable pursuit, when – yes – ideas mattered, poetry mattered. But I also remember the downside to which Menand turns next. Soon, he suggests, the beautiful cultural dream was fading, what with McCarthyism at home and military interference abroad, the continuing dominance of white men in all spheres of life, the widening of the income gap, the commodification of culture – and a “foreign war of national independence from which [the United States] could not extricate itself for eight years”. After the sorry tale of Vietnam, large-scale disillusionment about the character and role of the US set in, both at home and abroad, even as its assured military position and dominance of the global art world remained secure.
How and why did so momentous a change occur in so short a period? The Free World does not attempt to formulate answers to this difficult question: Menand’s narrative is more descriptive than analytic.
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'I recall only too well those days when studying literature was considered an important and valuable pursuit, when – yes – ideas mattered, poetry mattered. But I also remember the downside to which Menand turns next.' – Marjorie Perloff https://t.co/qrnpZKNpnr
— The TLS (@TheTLS) June 2, 2021