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Exploring America's cultural history
By Steven Martinovich
It's a testament to Louis Menand's skill as a writer that even if you disagree with him or don't care for the topic he's exploring, he still manages to be compelling enough that a reader will want to finish one of his essays to see where they are being taken. American Studies, a collection of Menand's essays from The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, casts a wide net over America's cultural history, exploring everything from T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism to the connection between Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and evangelist Jerry Falwell. While some of the essays fail to fulfill their promise, most are undeniably compelling.
American Studies opens with essays on a pair of figures, William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, familiar to readers of Menand's Pulitzer Prize winning The Metaphysical Club. Thanks to Menand, James and Holmes may now be better known to Americans as proponents of the failed philosophy of pragmatism than for their work in the fields of psychology and the law. Rather than tread the same ground covered in The Metaphysical Club, Menand instead explores James' famous "epileptic patient" episode and whether it was in fact an autobiographical statement and Holmes' "bettabilitarianism" and how it influenced his approach to the law.
From there he moves into Eliot's association with anti-Semitism, ones that Menand concludes were "all too worldly" and a profile of Native Son author Richard Wright and how his cultural experiences formed his worldview and influenced his writing. While the first four essays are interesting enough, American Studies doesn't begin to gain real traction until his profile of James B. Conant, best known for being head of the atom bomb program during the Second World War. Menand mostly ignores that legacy in favor of Conant's work in the field of post-secondary education which includes the SAT and a meritocratic approach to admissions, both under increasing fire today.
Similarly, Menand uses his look at William Paley, former chief of CBS, to examine the early days of television and how a web of government regulation and industry action combined to give Americans the three channel universe they lived with until the early 1980s. Although it's popular to refer to a Golden Age of Television as if it ever existed, Menand's look at Paley makes it fairly clear that popular tastes dictated what appeared in those early days something Paley was comfortable with given his self-proclaimed denial he was a highbrow creating a medium "of utterly respectable mindlessness."
Equally interesting is his eviscerating look at Normal Mailer, a man Menand describes as possibly the last man "of the 1950s." As Mailer's later work has born out, he is a man desperately out of his own time and has been so since the 1960s. The most passionate essay may be his paean to the late New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael who, not unlike Mailer, also suffered a brilliant early creative period only seemingly lapse into a shadow of herself near the end of her career.
If there is a star essay it may very well be "Lust in Action: Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt". Describing the polar opposites as two men "working opposite sides of the same street," Menand illustrates how Flynt and his exceptionally lowbrow approach to pornography and Falwell's socially conservative political agenda needed each other in order define themselves. Ex-members of the Moral Majority not to mention fans of Hustler may not appreciate or even believe in the symbiotic relationship between the two men and their causes but it is interesting to note that their rise and relative decline has mirrored each other.
Where American Studies works less well is in Menand's 1998 New Yorker profile of then U.S. Vice President Al Gore, a not too subtle attempt at humanizing the wooden future presidential candidate at a time when the contents of the Starr Report were hammering the Clinton administration. The collection of essays does recover some its steam with a look at Maya Lin, best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but unfortunately Menand's profile is curiously flat given the role Lin has played in changing what a memorial represents to society.
Despite those missteps, American Studies is an example of the remarkable skill that Louis Menand brings to his role as an examiner and writer of America's cultural history. Menand deserves his reputation for being able to illuminate the basic ideas that have come together to form the dominate trends seen in both America's recent past and today. American Studies is a true treasure from a master in the field of cultural history.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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