By Louis Menand
Louis Menand describes the essays collected in American Studies as “exercises in historical criticism” because they try to put “things back into their context.” They are also exercises in biographical criticism, which means that the things that are being put into context are not just ideas but the people who came up with them. Sometimes the people are the context. T. S. Eliot and Laurie Anderson are of their time (of Anderson’s United States Menand concludes, a little too wistfully, “as the song said, that was the time, and that was the record of the time.”) In other essays, however, the people are out of joint. Norman Mailer is “possibly the last man” of the 1950s to be alive in 2002. Hunter Thompson is “practically the only person in America still living circa 1972.” Nor is the historical context itself, what the people and ideas are being put back into, always clear. A creature of the sixties, Menand is still trying to explain what that decade meant.
Where, then, does the historian of ideas fit in? Menand’s attitude is that of the detached, cool New Yorker New Yorker (he writes both for and about the magazine). It is the voice of the outsider, an intellectual aware of the world but not really of it. He describes himself, for example, as part of a generation seeking an art “not antagonistic to commercialism, merely indifferent to it.” The New Yorker magazine was the embodiment of this sensibility: a highly commercial venture crammed with advertising that was written for people who wanted to seem above (or indifferent) to such things. And it is that indifference, distance, coolness and objectivity that is both Menand’s charm and handicap.
The best essays are those on subjects where you either sense a genuine distance between Menand and his subject or where he confesses to being a creature determined by his own historical time and place. His literary introductions to Richard Wright and Norman Mailer and his cultural/political snapshots of Larry Flynt, Jerry Falwell, Al Gore and Rolling Stone are particularly valuable. But any collection of essays gathered together from several years of writing (just how long a span is involved is unclear, since only the last three are dated) is bound to have its ups and downs. The discussions of William James’s depression and the anti-Semitism of T. S. Eliot, for example, are too narrow in focus and reliant on academic sources to be involving. In other essays the New Yorker detachment is a pose that alienates the reader. America’s best essayist is Gore Vidal, a writer whose aggressive heat makes Menand seem timid. This isn’t to say that fiery rhetoric and the sort of loud opinionating and sarcastic offensiveness that characterizes today’s pundits is a good thing, only that there is a sliding scale. Beginning his essay on the magazine Rolling Stone, which deals with the watershed decade of the 1960s, Menand tells us “The subject could use the attention of some people who really don’t care.” This is playing it a little too cool. And while one can sympathize with his not wanting to fall into Pauline Kael-style hyperbole, his own critical judgments are sometimes nearly invisible. He can be categorical about Christopher Lasch but what, for example, does he really think of the importance or worth of Laurie Anderson’s work? I’m still not sure.
But I wouldn’t want to take criticism any further than this. American Studies is a great collection of essays and opinions. Menand is a beautiful writer of considerable intellectual depth with something interesting to say on nearly every subject he picks up as well as a way of luring us into deeper considerations. Take the following random reflections:
In the end, the only way to make the past usable is to misinterpret it, which means, strictly speaking, to lose it. . . . It [American culture] is the culture of modernity, where the highest praise one can receive after death is to be declared to have been “ahead of one’s time” – which, in life, is pretty much the definition of unhappiness.
All rock stars want to make money, for the same reason everyone else in a liberal society wants to make money: more toys and more autonomy.
It’s nice to know how people who strike it rich spend their money, and it’s also nice to feel that if we struck it rich ourselves we’d deserve it a little more and spend the money a little less selfishly. When we read of Babe Paley’s being driven by her chauffeur to Kennedy Airport so that she can pick up the freshly shot game bird she has had flown in from Europe for her husband’s dinner, our disappointment at being financially incapable of this sort of thing is exactly balanced by our satisfaction in feeling morally incapable of it as well.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is The Catcher in the Rye on speed: the lost weekend of a disaffected loser who tells his story in a mordant style that is addictively appealing to adolescents with a deep and unspecified grudge against life.
Politics is a battle against process, just as life is. It is a war against the tendency of things to take their natural course.
This is thoughtful, interesting stuff, and we could use a lot more of it.
Review first published online January 8, 2003.