The book is constructed as a “great books” program of personalities, glued together by middlemen, all contributing to “an exceptionally rapid and exciting period of cultural change.” The curriculum runs chapter by chapter through George Kennan, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, Jackson Pollock, Lionel Trilling, Allen Ginsberg, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, Elvis and the Beatles, Isaiah Berlin, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael. Each biography opens a door to a school or trend of work. At first, the persona is squeezed for color and human interest. Here, pared down slightly, is the period’s best-known philosopher:
Sartre was five feet two inches tall … He was conscious of his ugliness—he often talked about it—but it was the kind of aggressive male ugliness that can be charismatic, and he wisely refrained from disguising it … He was also smart, generous, mildmannered, extremely funny, and a great talker … Sartre liked other people to like him—which, in social situations, can be almost as good as liking other people. He was a gifted mimic, he looked surprisingly good in drag, and he did a great Donald Duck impression. He enjoyed drinking and talking all night, and so did [Simone de] Beauvoir.
The disorienting trick of this approach is that these central figures are then popped inside out, and they, too, become intermediaries for, or transfer points to, many other personages, artists, thinkers, salespeople, propagandists. Menand’s is not a “great man” view of history, because no one seems particularly great. One gets a feeling for Sartre as a person, a limited knowledge of how Sartre made Being and Nothingness, and a vivid sense of how the book made Sartre a celebrity. Then one learns how a troupe of others came along and rode his success like a sled.
Menand zooms in and out between individual egomaniacs and the milieus that facilitated their ascent and profited from their publicity. The results—group biographies, in miniature, of the existentialists, the Beats, the action painters, the Black Mountain School, the British Invasion, the pop artists, and many coteries more—are enchanting singly but demoralizing as they pile up. All of these enterprises look like hives of social insects, not selfless quests for truth or beauty. Menand is a world-class entomologist: He can name every indistinguishable drone, knows who had an oversize mandible, who lost a leg, who carried the best crumbs. The caution is that you must not seek lasting value in their collective works. From this vantage, the monuments really are just anthills.
Menand is truly one of the great explainers. He quotes approvingly a lesson taken by Lionel Trilling from his editor Elliot Cohen: “No idea was so difficult and complex but that it could be expressed in a way that would make it understood by anyone to whom it might conceivably be of interest.” Menand puts his own practice to the test. He is accurate, he is insightful, and he is not a dumber-downer. It is notoriously hard to summarize Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, structural linguistics, serial composition in music, or the formation of Great Power rivalries in the period of decolonization. Menand’s account of each is an abbreviated tour de force. His explanations work at all levels: interpretation for scholars, review for general readers, introductions for neophytes. Where another writer would take 20 pages to tell us why someone or something mattered historically, Menand does it in two.