Louis Menand, the New Yorker critic and Harvard professor, has written a history of ideas and culture during the Cold War decades that is somehow missing an arm and a leg, but has everything else, unto 800 pages, which adds up to a perplexing achievement, encyclopedic in its reach, heroic in its research, lucid, readable, and frustrating. The missing limbs consist of the Cold War itself and the Soviet oppressions and dynamism that were its fundamental cause, which are topics that Menand seems fairly avid to avoid, except in a number of opening passages and some dismissive comments on writers in the Western countries who, back in the day, did want to contemplate the tragedies of the East. But he happily discusses an extraordinary number of other themes, political, philosophical, literary, and musical. He does it well, too. Louis Menand is, after all, a mighty polymath. He is a formidable explicator of complexities. And he is an amusing writer, wry, sly, and humane.
Twenty years ago, he brought out a study of American intellectuals of the late 19th century and after titled The Metaphysical Club, in which, by recounting the careers and disputations of perhaps a half-dozen very clever and learned persons, he described the emergence of the distinctive philosophical doctrine called “pragmatism” and its influence on modern thinking. The Metaphysical Club was a marvelous book. It won the Pulitzer Prize. And in The Free World, Menand deploys the same multi-biographical narrative technique, except on an epic scale, by assembling many dozens of thinkers and artists from the Cold War era, mostly American, but also French and British, and sending them rolling by, as if on parade floats.