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The critic's eye, clear and cool

American Studies, Louis Menand, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 306 pp., $25

November 10, 2002|Stephen Metcalf | Stephen Metcalf is a writer whose work has appeared in Slate, The New Republic and The New York Observer.

Last year, Louis Menand won a Pulitzer for his history of American pragmatism, "The Metaphysical Club." "The Metaphysical Club" was an attempt -- a largely successful attempt -- to join company with America's greatest cultural journalist, the Edmund Wilson of "To the Finland Station" and "Patriotic Gore." For a book of such unembarrassed intellectual ambition, "The Metaphysical Club" was a huge hit; and if it fell short of Wilson's standard, it's only because no one could breathe the same lucid fire into the scrupulously undogmatic pragmatism that Wilson once poured into his studies of socialism and the literature of the Civil War.

Now Menand has published "American Studies," a collection of essays written over the last decade, covering everything from America's founding modernist, William James, to America's favorite smut magnate, Larry Flynt. For all the success of its award-winning predecessor, "American Studies" should not be mistaken for an afterthought: It represents the heart of Menand's work (he is essentially an essayist) and demonstrates his status as his generation's premier critical talent. It is easily among the finest collections of essays by an American critic since Lionel Trilling's "The Liberal Imagination."

"American Studies" charts the trajectory of Menand's own career, from a well-behaved academic to a somewhat cheeky magazine eminence. In an industry where the average lead paragraph often seems styled to wake the dead, Menand writes with a deceptive lack of pizzazz; but his is a deep talent. He unites the spirit of roving amateurism with a patient, scholarly demeanor; he is very clever, without once looking up to see if you're laughing; and he has that rare ability to say something utterly fresh and unexpected, and yet to have it strike the reader as true on contact. The first four or so essays, superb as they are, still have something of a demure, quarterly feel to them. But by the heart of the collection, once Menand has started to write about media stardom, about Norman Mailer and William Shawn's New Yorker, he has hit a groove; and suddenly the noiseless, patient writer has you in his thrall.

One after the other, Menand slowly takes apart various enthusiasms that have flattered the educated middle classes in decades past -- Norman Mailer (the 1950s), the counterculture (the 1960s), Pauline Kael and Christopher Lasch (the 1970s). The effect, I warn you, is not always salutary. For reading Menand is a little like watching Tiger Woods play golf: The skill is incomparable, but the suaveness and efficiency are perpetually on the verge of driving you mad. You keep thinking, if only something of the maudit or slovenly would invade the prose, if only for the space of a dependent clause.

The key to such rhetorical control is the excess of others; and many of the writers Menand selects for disassembly seem mostly guilty of being anti-Menands. None more so than poor Kael, whom Menand clearly loves, but whom he finally cannot abide: "The writing is all in the same key, and strictly molto con brio," he tells us. "There is no modulation of tone or (which would be more welcome) of thought. She just keeps slugging away." She is prone to "garrulousness and compositional dishevelment." Where others have been garrulous and disheveled, there Menand brings a signature coolness. The 1960s, he tells us, presumably laying out his own qualifications, is a subject that "could use the attention of some people who really don't care."

Menand's favorite technique is what we might call "liberal domestication": He likes to show how the seemingly radical breakthrough was in retrospect mostly a media or middle-class fad. Thus the counterculture "had all the attributes of a typical mass culture episode: it was a lifestyle that could be practiced on weekends; it came into fashion when the media discovered it and went out of fashion when the media lost interest; and it was, from the moment it penetrated the middle class, thoroughly commercialized." Or Mailer's worldview, advertised as outre, is in its essence "comfortably inside the realm of liberal middle-class culture. Everyone within that culture salutes the principles of moral freedom and intellectual honesty, and loathes the idea (without necessarily foregoing the convenience) of plastic."

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