Free in the Free World, Cool in the Cold War

louis menand’s the free world (new york: farrar, straus and giroux, 2021) and joel dinerstein’s the origins of cool in postwar america (chicago: university of chicago press, 2017).

x-posted from Society for US Intellectual History Book Review.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.

—lyrics by Dick Dallas, music by Billy Taylor, sung most famously by Nina Simone

Keep cool but care.

—McClintic Sphere, in V. by Thomas Pynchon

The traumas of World War II raised the stakes not only of geopolitics, but also of personal life. How to carry oneself and treat others in the face of apocalyptic global crisis? The aftermath of the war only intensified these matters. This was a time when “people believed in liberty, and thought it really meant something,” Louis Menand writes in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.[1] With their competing visions of economics, politics, and social organization, the United States and the Soviet Union made the question of freedom central to the Manichean struggle between the two nations. The wave of anti-colonial struggles in the postwar era intensified the issue of liberty. Was capitalism or communism the path to achieving it? Could postcolonial modernity prove emancipatory or was it merely a new sort of trap? What did the word freedom even mean in practice? How should one pursue it, enact it, and preserve it at individual as well as collective levels?

For Menand, the Cold War produced a hot house of debates about liberty, without any one position or person or scene providing a definitive perspective. That’s cool, Joel Dinerstein might remark. In his study, however, one particular style emerges as preeminent: what the poet Langston Hughes, borrowing the phrase from vernacular African American culture, called the effort to “play it cool.”[2] Or, as Thomas Pynchon’s Ornette Coleman/Thelonious Monk-inspired character McClintic Sphere phrased it in the 1963 novel V., the goal was to “keep cool but care.”[3] In Menand’s study, there is lots of friction. In Dinerstein’s book, by contrast, one answer to the Cold War’s atmosphere of potential nuclear annihilation, continued injustice, racism, sexism, the legacies of imperialism, and other ills was precisely not to rage and argue uncontrollably, but rather not to get too bothered about anything, yet to do so without giving in to total passivity or cynicism.

To try to make sense of the complexities of Cold War culture—the fiery disagreements about freedom, the pursuit of unflappability in the face of disaster—both Menand and Dinerstein have written sprawling books. Not counting endnote materials, Menand’s doorstopper weighs in at 727 pages of prose. By contrast, Dinerstein’s study comes in at a seemingly meager 459 pages. Are the two books worth all those trees and all that ink? Yes. They are impressive accomplishments. Their differences, however, make them even more intriguing as competing investigations of a crucial moment in American intellectual and cultural history when, emerging out of victory in World War II, the United States set out to remake both its own society and the world beyond it according to a tantalizing, but often problematic, notion of how it would feel to be free, what it might mean to keep cool but care.

To track the emergence of the so-called “Free World,” and what he believes to be its decline by the end of the 1960s, Louis Menand turns to dozens upon dozens upon dozens of biographical studies. He is particularly attuned to a kind of Zeliglike focus on supporters and connected participants as well as the obvious stars. We get the famous George Kennan, diplomat and framer of containment policy, but we also learn about Kennan’s mentors and colleagues, such as Robert Kelley, Charles “Chip” Bohlen, and other Soviet experts who shaped Kennan’s worldview.[4] We learn of the creative dialogue between painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but also of the forgotten presence of Rachel Rosenthal, who was present at the moments of their artistic breakthroughs before going on to her own career as a performance artist.[5] Behind the circulation of American novels to France, and then French existentialism to the US, were translators such as Maurice-Edgar Coindreau and editors such as Gaston Guillimard.[6] We discover that Clement Greenberg’s infamous essay for the small magazine Partisan Review about abstract art, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” actually grew out of intensive collaboration with editor Dwight Macdonald, who in turn wrote about a very similar theme in his own essay “Masscult and Midcult.”[7] Instead of concentrating on Andy Warhol when examining the rise of Pop Art, Menand turns his attention to the British scene: the Independent Group, Eduardo Paolizzi, Nigel Henderson, Alison and Peter Smithson, Lawrence Alloway, and Richard Hamilton.[8] When it comes to film, we learn as much about the deep history of dynamics between Hollywood and Paris through the figures of Henri Langlois and André Bazin as we do about Truffaut and Godard.[9] Then we follow the hidden story of how writers Robert Benton and David Newman wrote the breakthrough Hollywood film Bonnie and Clyde with Truffaut in mind as a director. Menand stitches yet another thread around the tale by detailing how Bonnie and Clyde in turn made the career of influential film critic Pauline Kael.[10] Overall, in The Free World, we get a kind of Cold War mise en scène. The famous names are there, but Menand is much more interested in arranging for view the sets of people around or behind the typical protagonists of the tale. This is a book littered with such figures: editors, curators, translators, scenesters, lesser-known political advisors, and friends who made the free world something more than just a space of isolated actors.

For Menand, there were worlds within worlds within the “Free World,” and each grappled with freedom differently. Even within particular spheres, there were fierce disagreements. George Kennan, for instance, imagined his Cold War foreign policy concept of containment as practical, flexible, realistic. Then he was critiqued by Walter Lippmann and others who thought it became ideologically rigid. Kennan was horrified. He had intended containment to be realpolitik. As Menand ruefully points out at the end of The Free World, containment ultimately led to the quagmire of the American intervention in the Vietnam struggle for national independence, precisely the kind of conflict Kennan wanted the US to avoid.[11]

Many others—George Orwell, James Burnham, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ira Berlin, James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, and Tom Hayden—continued these debates about politics, but increasingly the questions of containment and freedom also became dialogues about culture. What was actually existing freedom, not only politically but also personally? What was it not only in terms of policy, but also in terms of ideas, art, and lived experience? In the milieu of the visual arts, for instance, debates about representation, accuracy and their relationship to freedom raged as if they were as crucial as military maneuvers. Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and others took turns making art, writing criticism, and framing approaches that addressed the relationship of reality and freedom, seeking not to contain things, as Kennan wanted to do with the Soviet Union and communism, but rather to emancipate the eye and mind from false perceptions.[12] Kerouac and the Beats as well as DT Suzuki and John Cage embraced aleatory chance and improvisational spontaneity as paths to freedom.[13] So too, in his way, did Elvis Presley and the 1950s teenagers who heard his music as liberating. This included the Beatles, who then joined the rock and roll parade, this “mass-market commercial product” exported transatlantically to Europe and back again to the US as a “hip and smart popular art form.”[14]

Overall, Menand seems content to leave one large argument aside for a panoply of smaller observations. Nonetheless, core themes surface. One is the arc of a global story about two ongoing sagas: the Cold War struggle between the US and the Soviet Union on the one hand, and the worldwide struggle for decolonization on the other. These come together in the Vietnam War, the event in which, according to Menand, “the two dominant geopolitical phenomena of the postwar period, the Cold War and decolonization, intersected.” For Menand, “Vietnam was a duck and a rabbit.”[15] Another theme is the fundamentally transatlantic nature of the “free world.” Repeatedly, a cultural or intellectual position about liberty and its possibilities or limits got catalyzed by circulation between the United States and Europe. In this way, The Free World is very much an Anglo-American intellectual and cultural history, with a bit of French élan sparkling through it.

Most of all, a concern throughout Menand’s book becomes not liberty itself but its opposite: Menand describes this flipside as a continual anxiety about totalitarianism during the era. “But what is totalitarianism?” Menand asks early on in his study. “How does it arise? Why are people drawn to it? Most important: Could it happen here?” For Menand, “People disagreed about how to answer the first three questions, and this made the last question an urgent one.”[16] In the aftermath of World War II, politics and culture merged in fears of totalitarianisms both obvious and subtle. President Harry S. Truman’s stark Truman Doctrine speech, delivered in 1947, proposed a dramatic choice between democratic freedom and undemocratic totalitarianism that extended from foreign affairs to social practices and intellectual frameworks. The speech, according to Menand, “had the same effect on art and thought as it did on government policy” by turning “intramural disputes into global ones.” This “made questions about value and taste, form and expression, theory and method into questions that bore on the choice between alternative ways of life.”[17] The Free World was, Menand’s book implies, also a world held prisoner by ongoing fears about the loss of freedom. Liberty always threatened to collapse into its opposite. This is, in its way, a Frankfurt School argument that itself rose to prominence during the Cold War. Like Herbert Marcuse, who makes a few cameos in the book, so too Menand is deeply aware of the ways in which Cold War freedoms often became covers for new types of control.

Joel Dinerstein’s book is also quite concerned with the fate of freedom and the question of control in the “Free World,” but instead of Menand’s capacious exploration of the concept, Dinerstein concentrates more squarely (and also with great hipness) on the sensibility of “cool.” He wants to trace how cool arose both out of an American and as a transatlantic response to economic depression, war, fascism, genocide, imperialism, decolonization, racism, and other horrors in the late 1940s and subsequent decades.

If Menand’s book is a labyrinthine affair about a burning intellectual and cultural debate concerning freedom, Dinerstein’s book is an exhaustive taxonomy of cooler efforts to achieve liberation. Like a jazz saxophonist improvising a solo over a set of changes, Dinerstein states and restates and restates again what cool was in the years after World War II. In endless variations, he offers myriad angles on and phrasings of his core argument, which is that cool, in the postwar era, became “synonymous with authenticity, independence, integrity, and nonconformity; to be cool meant you carried personal authority through a stylish mask of stoicism.”[18]

But that’s just one of many riffs Dinerstein offers. He goes on: “To call a person cool in the postwar era meant that there was some internal harmony about his or her artistic voice, style, and physical being.”[19] Cool was “an alternative success system combining wildness and composure.”[20] Cool was “a public mode of covert resistance.”[21] In a capitalist society, it expressed the inability to be owned even if one lacked material wealth.[22] To be cool “represented an inquiry into the reassessment of conventional morality outside of Christian frameworks and Western philosophical grandstanding” at a time when “modernity had triumphed but without covering its losses.”[23] It “signaled an underground search for an ethics to guide individuals into an era of post-Christian imperfectability.” Cool was “a transitional mask of composure necessary for those rebels who realized that Western civilization had come to an end, at least in its European phase.”[24] To be cool “was to project a calm defiance,” a “stylish Stoicism,” a “reptilian aplomb.”[25] It “marked a person out as an enemy of all propagandists,” “the valorization of the individual against larger dynamic forces” and became “a myth invested in the recuperation of individual agency.”[26] To be cool was to express “self-possession with one’s vulnerability just visible enough to show the emotional costs of the stance.”[27] It “concerned the potential for self-transformation through risk, introspection, transgression, and the romantic potential of an ideal bohemia.”[28] Cool was “rebellious, tough, independent, scornful of social convention.” It expressed “pride in class, ethnicity, and origins, and thus true to one’s roots within fame.” It involved “acting with integrity and style on a situational basis.”[29] Cool “was defiance with dignity.”[30] Cool was “a subconscious method of negotiating identity in modernity through popular culture.”[31] For Dinerstein, “under the sign of cool, the rebel was reframed as a productive critic of society.”[32] These are just a few of Dinerstein’s definitions of the phenomenon of cool.

Despite the many incarnations that Dinerstein notices, he does not view the idea of cool as a “transhistorical concept.”[33] The stance of what Dinerstein describes as “relaxed intensity” arose from a particular “convergence of African-American and Anglo-American archetypal modes of masculinist behavior” in the postwar era.[34] There was the long-running aesthetic and cultural ideal of cool that arrived in the New World from West African cultures by way of the Black diaspora.[35] In these contexts, “cool” signaled a restoration of social order and community.[36] At the same time, there was the stiff upper lip of the upper-class gentleman found in Victorian Britain, a mode of restraint celebrated by no less a figure than Duke Ellington, who praised the English as possessing a “sense of balance.”[37] This style gave way in the twentieth century, however, to the “tough loner” of the working-class American city (think of the shift in crime fiction from Sherlock Holmes and Watson to hard-boiled “tough loners” such as gumshoe detectives Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe).[38]

These modes of cool served as resources for the postwar development of the style. For Dinerstein, cool only emerged in full with African-American figures such as the jazz saxophonist Lester Young, who, as jazz critic Ben Sidran put it, expressed a highly individualized “actionality turned inward” with his musical style as well as his in whole persona.[39] Young’s story, which Dinerstein tells in wonderful detail, demonstrates the central place of African-American culture in the postwar concept of cool. Young and others African-Americans transmuted the traumas not only of World War II, but also of the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow into brilliantly eccentric individual styles that also always contained the seeds of collective resistance.[40] The African-American mode of cool developed by Young and passed along to the likes of Charles Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and others came together with multiracial working-class investments in stylized rebellion, particularly among young men. And, as Dinerstein notes, with figures such as Billie Holiday, Simone de Beauvoir, Carole Cutrere (Woodward), and Lorraine Hansberry, a feminist approach appeared as well. Cool ultimately became, Dinerstein writes, an “emergent structure of feeling in postwar America,” the “hidden transcript of the postwar era.”[41]

Expertly unearthing these archeological layers, Dinerstein contends that their shared goal was to achieve the “syncretism of a cross-cultural mask of cool” (122) that was dedicated to “self-authorizing” (170). Cool was an assertion of individual existence in the face of systems that sought to erase, deface, ignore, dissolve, dismiss, or destroy the self. From here we get, according to Dinerstein, many forms and many faces of cool: the hardboiled skepticism of Hollywood noir, expressed by figures such as Bogart, Mitchum, Veronica Lake, and Barbara Stanwyk; the “existential cool” of Camus, Beauvoir, Sartre, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin; the interest in a more multicultural American cool in the writings of the often-misinterpreted French-Canadian Beat novelist Jack Kerouac; the more emotional cinematic approaches of Brando and Dean; and the variations on cool expressed by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Johnny Cash, Sterling Hayden, Paul Newman, and many others.

Intriguingly, and I think successfully, Dinerstein makes a fine-grained distinction between what he chronologizes as a Postwar I era of cool from 1945 to 1952 and a Postwar II from 1953 to 1963, split by the key event of the Korean War. The first phase emphasized “dignity within limits, a calm defiance against authority with little expectation of social change” while the later “inflected toward a certain wild abandon, a bursting of emotional seams reflecting a hopeful surge against obsolete social conventions.”[42] In this way, Dinerstein wants to argue that “cool is a matrix that changes according to generational desire.”[43] As the “makeshift period of recovery from war, social instability, and trauma” gave way to “a period of extensive middle-class prosperity and American triumphalism masking the underlying tensions of the Cold War,” an “anxious phase of instability and readjustment” was followed by a “slow-breaking prosperity” that “registered a new cohort of teenagers” and their cultural desires.[44] In short, the resigned, tense cool of Bogart, Bacall, Sinatra, and Mitchum gave way to “their seeming opposites” in Kerouac, Brando, Dean, and Elvis, who were much more expansive in their emotional expressivity.[45] What was cool in the first phase of the postwar era, a certain kind of internalized numbness, shifted after the Korean War into an embrace of externalized vulnerability.

The danger to Dinerstein’s approach in tracking cool’s many variations is that cool might become anything and everything in the postwar period. When are we talking about some other cultural formation or concept? At what point does cool turn vague? Thankfully, Dinerstein’s attunement to specific source material cools this potential interpretive crisis. He is content to leave aside other modes of postwar culture that might be cool-adjacent. For instance, there is no focus on camp style in the book. Susan Sontag makes no appearance, nor do figures such as Andy Warhol. Instead, in covering the careers of Young, Davis, Bogart, Mitchum, Lake, Stanwyck, Camus, Holiday, Beauvoir, Kerouac, Sinatra, Brando, Dean, Presley, Rollins, Newman, Poitier, Cutrere (Woodward), and Hansberry, not to mention dozens of other cool characters, Dinerstein shows us the subtler ways in which cool shifted in and out of the shadows of postwar life. Below the mushroom cloud, the cool cats.

Because Menand wants to glimpse the white-hot explosion of interest in freedom during the Cold War decades while Dinerstein concentrates on what became cool, what results from their books are almost opposite rhetorical styles. But the opposition is not what one would think. It is Menand who plays it cool and Dinerstein who sometimes gets a bit too excited. Menand provides a kaleidoscopic tour of the postwar era. He sees no need for coordinated contentions or consistent interpretive positions. He coolly insists, instead, on retaining his authorial freedom to explore the so-called Free World without containing it in a sole thesis. He declines to articulate a polemic, or even a particularly strong central argument. Dinerstein, by contrast, overdoes it sometimes with his circles upon circles of cool definitions. Unlike Menand’s quiet approach, he delivers a kind of roaring extended solo with a recurring point: here, there, everywhere we see the mask of cool appear and reappear as a mode of expressing collective rebellion in distinctive, individualized manifestations. Yet what keeps his book from getting too wild is Dinerstein’s capacity for masterful close analysis of specific artifacts. This makes for supremely cool cultural history even as Dinerstein sometimes has trouble tamping down his enthusiasm for the material.

Do these two books have straight, white man problems? Yes. How uncool! Both books tilt toward emphasizing normative masculinist dimensions of postwar culture. That said, Menand and Dinerstein do make efforts to widen the lens a bit. But only a bit. For example, Menand is attuned to the women obscured from view by the misogyny of the postwar era. These are figures who actually shaped the free world in decisive ways despite their roles as editors, curators, wives, and supporters. Despite sexism, unfree bystanders they were not. Similarly, Dinerstein notes the need for a full study of postwar female cool that might include not only his emphasis on Billie Holiday, Simone de Beauvoir, and a few other key figures, but also more extended examination of Anita O’Day, Bettie Page, Patricia Highsmith, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Graham, Veronica Lake, and Ida Lupino.[46] One might also ask if gay culture was more crucial to the Cold War years than either Menand or Dinerstein acknowledge. So too, one might wonder if ethnic variations on freedom and cool are important to address more intently within the United States, or if a more global rather than primarily transatlantic one is required. Menand’s treatments of the careers of Aimé Césaire and Franz Fanon as well as his attention to Richard Wright’s presence at the 1955 Bandung conference prove quite tantalizing in their moves toward a more far-reaching worldwide study of the free and the cool in Cold War life.[47] No book, even big ones like these, can do everything. Despite their imperfections, The Free World and The Origins of Cool in Postwar America are utterly engrossing historical smorgasbords that add much to existing studies of postwar US culture.[48]

But what do Menand and Dinerstein’s extensive investigations add up to in the end?

If we can say there is an overarching point to Menand’s book, it is that freedom dominated the postwar decades not as an achieved result, but rather as a nagging dream. In The Free World, the Free World was hamstrung by ongoing anxieties that fascism might rear its beastly head again, that the damaging dehumanizations of colonialism could not be undone, or, most worryingly of all, that totalitarianism might sneak in through the back door, disguised by the very emancipatory desires it sought to destroy, as demands for liberty busted the front wide open. For Dinerstein, cool became one way to respond to the pressures—and oppressive failures—to achieve freedom in the Free World. The cool solution was not to confront totalitarianism so much as to survive it through various tactics of deflection. The many figures in Menand’s book could be said to have tried, overall, to unmask totalitarianism, to show that the emperor had no clothes. The many in Dinerstein’s book (even when they are sometimes the very same ones that Menand mentions) could be said to have done just the opposite: they masked up, finding new disguises to subvert totalitarian’s drive to control or annihilate them.

The wide-ranging explorations by both authors therefore put pressure on the thesis put forward recently by Casey Blake, Daniel Borus, and Howard Brick that the Cold War era might be best characterized as a period of “centering.”[49] For Menand and Dinerstein, the devil is in the details and there, in the many people and events they examine, we discover numerous troublemakers interested more in their own specific approaches to liberation (or sometimes just survival) than in a coherent, unified, core path to freedom for all. In these two studies, Cold War culture was a dizzying fractal, not a consolidated consensus. Postwar culture in—and beyond—America was far more pluribus than unum.

[1] Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), xii.

[2] Langston Hughes, “Motto” (1951), quoted in Joel Dinerstein, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 23.

[3] Thomas Pynchon, V. (New York: JB Lippincott & Co, 1963), 366.

[4] Menand, 11.

[5] Menand, 263.

[6] Menand, 75-76.

[7] Menand, 128.

[8] Menand, 433-440.

[9] Menand, 648.

[10] Menand, 662-685.

[11] Menand, 26.

[12] Menand, 122-156; 227-271.

[13] Menand, 179-183; 235-259.

[14] Menand, 332.

[15] Menand, 721.

[16] Menand, 6.

[17] Menand, 6.

[18] Dinerstein, 5.

[19] Dinerstein, 4.

[20] Dinerstein, 7.

[21] Dinerstein, 14.

[22] Dinerstein, 19.

[23] Dinerstein, 18.

[24] Dinerstein, 28.

[25] Dinerstein, 9, 17. 24.

[26] Dinerstein, 25, 26.

[27] Dinerstein, 180.

[28] Dinerstein, 268.

[29] Dinerstein, 303.

[30] Dinerstein, 356.

[31] Dinerstein, 441.

[32] Dinerstein, 348.

[33] Dinerstein, 14.

[34] Dinerstein, 8.

[35] On the African origins of cool, see Robert Farris Thompson, “An Aesthetic of the Cool: West African Dance,” African Forum, 2, 2 (Fall 1966): 85-102; “An Aesthetic of Cool,” African Arts 7, 1 (Fall 1973): 40-43, 64-67, 89-91; Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit (New York: Vintage, 1984); and Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music, 2011).

[36] Dinerstein, 54.

[37] Dinerstein, 8.

[38] Dinerstein, 8.

[39] Dinerstein, 37.

[40] Dinerstein, 37-70.

[41] Dinerstein, 34, 19.

[42] Dinerstein, 13-14.

[43] Dinerstein, 310.

[44] Dinerstein, 14, 13.

[45] Dinerstein, 14, 13.

[46] Dinerstein, 184.

[47] Menand, 397-421.

[48] See, among others, W. T. Lhamon, Jr., Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s, with a New Preface (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990; 2nd edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); George Cotkin, Existential America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003; George Cotkin, Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Robert Genter, Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Grace Elizabeth Hale, A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Kevin Mattson, Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), Leerom Medovoi, Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Robert J. Corber, Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988); Lary May, ed., Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

[49] Casey Nelson Blake, Daniel H. Borus, and Howard Brick, At the Center: American Thought and Culture in the Mid-Twentieth Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2020).

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