Episode 431 – Louis Menand

Virtual Memories Show 431:
Louis Menand

“Writing a book like this is like an advent calendar: each day you open a little window and there’s somebody in there. You hadn’t known about them before and you learn a fascinating story.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and cultural critic Louis Menand joins the show to celebrate his phenomenal new book, THE FREE WORLD: Art And Thought In The Cold War (FSG). We get into his process for chronicling the artistic, cultural, intellectual, technological and literary movements of the postwar era, the stories of the lives behind those movements and how he threads them together, what we mean when we talk about freedom, why writing can be like kicking open a rolled-up carpet, and the toughest art form to write about. We talk about the influence of John Cage (whose work we both dislike), the amazing creative lineage of Black Mountain College, the ~75,000 words he had to cut (the book is plenty hefty as is) and why he would have liked to include a chapter on Japan’s art scene, the role of the CIA in funding movement and artistic venues, and the one person he regrets not interviewing for this project. We also discuss his pandemic life, the One More Book he wants to write, his father’s anti-anti-Communist stance, the book’s original title and why it had to change, and why his students at Harvard seem more interested in the ’50s than the ’60s. Give it a listen! And go read THE FREE WORLD!

“The word ‘Freedom’ was everywhere, but then you start to think, ‘What does it actually mean?’ It could be used to describe a musical composition, or the condition of racial segregation, or what the US stood for in the Cold War. If you could use it for such varied purposes, did it mean anything?”

“The movement with the greatest impact was decolonization. We’re still living through in the consequences of that moment. It’s like a Big Bang in reverse. Between 1945 and 1970, dozens and dozens of countries came into being that were former colonies. That changed the geopolitical map forever.”

“Our culture was so dominant, we could’ve conquered the world without all the deception of CIA funding and cutouts.”

“What made the Cold War an intense period intellectually was that people didn’t really know what side they were on. There were a lot of intellectuals and artists who were sympathetic to the Soviet experiment. That fades with Stalinism, but doesn’t get replaced completely with capitalism.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Louis Menand is professor of English at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. His books include The Metaphysical Club, which won the Pulitzer Prize in history and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. In 2016, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. His new book is THE FREE WORLD: Art And Thought In The Cold War.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Louis by Matthew Valentine. It’s on my instagram.

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