Driving-a-Car Freedom: An Interview with Louis Menand

by Christian Schlegel

Professor Louis Menand has taught English at Harvard College for decades. He’s also a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of books on T. S. Eliot, the American pragmatists, and issues in contemporary higher education. His book The Metaphysical Club won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History, and his newest, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In a Zoom conversation with his former student (and current Harvard Review book review editor) Christian Schlegel, he talked about John Cage, Leon Trotsky, disinterestedness, and how cultural historians separate fact from fabrication.

Christian Schlegel: I have a feeling people are going to want to compare this book to The Metaphysical Club. Do you think that’s a reasonable comparison, and did these books gestate in the same way?

Louis Menand: Well, I think they’re comparable in the historiographic sense of trying to capture an era through biography on the one hand and social history on the other hand, not just relying on texts speaking to texts.

But The Metaphysical Club is basically a linear narrative, taking you from the origins of pragmatism after the Civil War through Holmes’s dissent in the Abrams case in 1919. Along the way, there are a lot of little stories that are a part of that narrative, but basically I was just kicking a carpet and it kept on rolling to a predestined climax.

The Free World isn’t quite like that. There is a predestined climax, which is Vietnam, but instead of trying to tell a linear story I made vertical cross sections, each chapter taking up a different topic and exploring that topic using the same methodology—social history, biography, and interpretation. The challenge was trying to keep those chapters more or less independent, so they’re almost separate books, but at the same have a through line, so that the reader sees what the overall story is.

CS: Was this methodological change because you wanted to make the change, or did you think there was something different about the world you are trying to capture that necessitated the different structure?

LM: Yes and no. The yes part is that the cultural history of this period is much more international. You just can’t tell a story about four guys in American universities; there aren’t four such people, and it doesn’t really work that way. So you want to capture the cultural circulation, or “cultural mobility,” of the era.

On the other hand, one thing that happens when you work on a chunk of time, twenty or thirty years, is that the number of primary actors is actually relatively small, and they tend to interact with each other. John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, George Kennan, Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir, Baldwin, Sontag, it turns out they’re all part of more or less the same world. I’ve often wondered about that: in any particular cultural moment, how many key actors form the glue? In the end, in this story, there were a large number, but they all fit together. Like a crossword puzzle.

CS: Maybe that connects to this other question I have. There were a lot of moments of delight for me, in reading this …

LM: That’s the idea, Chris.

CS: … On the one hand, I really did get a sense of the centrality of some of these figures. But I’m also reminded of a Sarah Koenig phrase about reporting: “stray voltage,” little bits and pieces of a narrative. How did you manage the resistance to tidiness in historical narratives?

LM: That’s right, you have to capture that. You can’t make that go away. The original draft of The Free World was 75,000 words longer, because I would get interested in what you’re calling stray-voltage figures, and I’d follow them and tell their story. In the end, I had to cut away a lot of that underbrush, even though I was delighted to find all this underbrush there. But the reader would get lost in it. I tried to keep enough in the finished book so that you feel what you’re describing.

Ultimately, what you’re trying to do as an historian is to capture what it was like to be alive and making art or poetry or doing politics in a particular moment, and that includes a lot of stuff that’s peripheral, that’s accidental. You want to give readers a feel for that, so that they get a sense of what it was like on the street, so to speak.

CS: Is there anyone who comes to mind as being especially painful to cut?

LM: Yeah. [Smiles.] I had to cut all the stuff on Trotsky, and he’s really an important figure, particularly for American intellectuals in the thirties and forties, because he’s the alternative to Stalin. He represented the Communist ideal in its benign form, and Trilling, Greenberg, Macdonald, many others were Trotskyists at one point. The whole James Burnham story is tied up with his relations to Trotsky and the Fourth International, which I had to cut. But Trotsky was killed in 1940, so it was all backstory.

And there were also some things that I didn’t get to because I didn’t have space. Japan, for one thing, because Japanese avant-garde art was way ahead of American avant-garde in the 1950s, and it had a big influence on the American avant-garde and vice versa. I was only able to give a little bit, Yoko Ono, a few other people, but I just didn’t have the space to do that story.

CS: I have a wise poet friend who once said, “Sometimes people give you so much, you get mad when they don’t give you everything.” And while I never got mad here, I had this feeling when I got to the end that I wanted it to continue. I think a lot of people are going to feel that. Part of that relates to something you said years ago that I’ve never forgotten—and I don’t know if I believe it—you said that to write something you have to write from the beginning to the end.

LM: That’s right.

CS: Did you do that in this book? Or did you create that effect post facto?

LM: I just wrote from beginning to end. I didn’t go back, except to cut when it was all finished and we knew it was too long. Same with The Metaphysical Club. When I was done, I was done. That’s the way I write. Because to me, that’s how you create a feeling of continuity, of time passing. Once you start to move stuff around, you lose that. As I wrote, I learned more about what I was trying to do, and that’s one reason you do it that way. You need to feel, when you finish a section: this has to come next. But I really just started at the beginning and stopped at the end.

CS: Do you know anyone else who does this?

LM: No. [Laughs.] You want the reader to feel the kicking the carpet sensation, that the story is unfolding in a way that feels inevitable, like (to me) the notes in a Beethoven sonata. And to get that, you have to follow the thread of your own sentences. You might end up as you’re writing deciding, I’m gonna cut this part, it doesn’t really fit, but if you have to go back and do too much rewriting, you’re in trouble.

CS: I have an image of you halfway through the book, and there’s a blinking cursor on the screen for two weeks while you’re waiting … Are you doing this with a steady compositional rhythm, or are there places where you realize, wait a second, I’ve written myself somewhere I know I want to be, but I don’t know how to get out of it. Does it produce those moments?

LM: I don’t feel compositional blockage. But there was a huge amount of research that went into this book. Each chapter took a year to write, or many of them did. I had to learn a lot and figure out how to make sense of it. Also, in The Metaphysical Club, I dealt with a little bit of the secondary literature on the pragmatists, but I wasn’t really interested in intervening in a scholarly debate. Here, I wanted to be more inclusive of what other scholars have done and the research that’s being done now because, in a certain respect, Cold War scholarship is part of the Cold War. We’re still fighting it.

CS: To the extent that there are guiding debates in English departments now, it seems that one of them is the disciplinary or methodological question, what do we do, why do we do it? Do you see this book as an implicit or indirect intervention in that? Because I think your methodology is fairly unique. Or do you think of yourself as really an American Studies person, really an intellectual historian? Is there an ultimate descriptor for what you do?

LM: I would say I’m a historian. I don’t think of what I’m doing as an intervention in our discipline. I think I do what historians do. I’m trying to bring a vanished world to life on the page.

CS: Your close reading, in this book, of Orwell’s 1984 reminded me of your reading of Conrad in your first book. This work is a history, but you’re also doing the pure close reading thing that you impute to others in the book. How do you see that fitting in? You give a very persuasive reading of 1984, and of Conrad; it’s hard to forget those frameworks after you build them.

LM: I’d call what I do critical history, because I’m not just trying to tell the story. I’m also interpreting. A lot of the book is trying to explain what things meant. What are Rauschenberg’s White Paintings about? What’s the soup can about? What was 1984 about? I interpret the way a critic would interpret. But I think that’s part of the job of being a historian. You can’t just describe things. Those things meant something. What was it? What did Orwell have in mind when he wrote that book? What was he thinking about?

CS: Early in the book you say something like, if you’d been asked as a young person to account in a word for a high human ideal, it would have been freedom. After doing the historicizing work, teasing out the strands of what freedom meant in these different communities, did you feel that the concept still worked in its unreconstructed liberatory way at the end? Or was it always the discursive production of a moment?

LM: It’s hard to answer that question. I’d say yes, oddly. I started very skeptical of this idea, certainly of the idea of autonomy, which I think is a ridiculous concept. [Laughs.] I mean, speaking sociologically. I can more understand what I call driving-a-car freedom, feeling free. But then, I have to say, I was sort of persuaded by Sartre and Beauvoir, and their existentialism was the spirit of the New Left. I quote Tom Hayden saying something like, we are free to the extent that we know what we are about. Hayden was actually paraphrasing Dewey. You can’t free yourself from social structures or social roles, but you can understand them, and understanding them is, to a certain extent, constitutive of freedom. I believe that demystification is a liberating exercise.

That’s why I’m an educator. You’re trying to get students to understand what they’re doing in the world, where they are in the social system, what college is for, where they’re going. You’re not telling them what to do with that knowledge, but you want them at least to have it. The job of writing history is to explain how social roles emerge, such that you and I are playing them right now.

CS: I want to talk a little about the future. Do you have any interest at all in accounting for the Vietnam-to-whatever period?

LM: The Metaphysical Club is the book God wanted me to write. The Free World is the book I wanted to write. The book my dad, who is no longer alive, probably wanted me to write is Vietnam, 1965–1975. I’m not sure I can face it. But we’ll see.

CS: The speaking presence here is present and also kind of invisible. Do you feel that the “you” in here is you, Luke? Or is there a persona?

LM: I would put it this way. Luciano Pavarotti, when he used to go on stage at the Met, they would give him an apple, and he’d bite into it and spit it out, then walk out and start singing. That was to get in touch with his voice. Writing for me is the same. The person in my writing is not the person you’re talking to. It’s somewhere inside the person you’re talking to, and I need to get in touch with that person before I can write. That’s the voice, that’s my writing. I always enjoy hearing what it has to say. But it’s not a persona in the sense that I’m acting a part; it is a persona in the sense that it’s not identical to everyday me.

CS: Do you think that separation helps you do the work you’re doing? I’m struck by the critical-history phrase you used earlier. There’s something you do in the book where, it feels like you’re saying what happened, but in that same voice you’re interpreting. But what that discloses to me is that saying what happened and interpreting are always the same enterprise, you’re choosing what to put in. I don’t know what that tone is exactly—it’s not archness, but a slight ironism, a little distance.

LM: I would say disinterestedness. I have a view, but I am also trying to help people think for themselves. Detached. That’s a little bit my normal personality, but it’s an important part of the voice.

CS: I think you do a good job in the book of rendering several of your characters as people. I felt like I knew Warhol, as an unknowable, and Cage. I liked and respected Cage’s complete incorrectness about the facts of his own life.

LM: You liked that? Not if you’re a historian.

CS: It must have been annoying; I’m thinking particularly of Warhol and Cage.

LM: They just straight-up lied! But people took what they said at face value. There’s all this misinformation that gets built into the history of this period, and part of the challenge, part of the fun, of writing the book was trying to debunk stories that aren’t true or are unverifiable, and there’s a lot of them. Some of these characters, Pollock too, didn’t really care for or have any regard for the facts. And why should they?

CS: It’s a joy for the reader, but it must be a huge consternation for the writer.

LM: It’s fun when you nail it. But you can never be sure. A lot of history is just gossip.

Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War is out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Published on April 21, 2021