Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

National Post -- January 18, 2003

American Studies

Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 306pp, $39.95

by Ian Garrick Mason

It is probably safe to assume that a Pulitzer Prize brings a moment of profound economic joy to both author and publisher. Not only are sales of the winning book bound to increase, but a tacit right is granted to tap a second, often weaker, source of profits: the Post-Pulitzer Freebie.

Earlier this year, Louis Menand was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Metaphysical Club, an intellectual history of American philosophical pragmatism. American Studies, a recently published collection of Menand's essays, is his Freebie.

Most of the pieces in the collection are "review essays" -- the kind of long, multi-book reviews that serious literary periodicals like to publish. They are biographical in character, and the book's wide scope encompasses such literary giants as T.S. Eliot and Norman Mailer, establishment icons such as Al Gore and CBS chairman William Paley, and artists such as Laurie Anderson and Maya Lin.

Menand's interest is not purely biographical, though, for he uses his subjects to illuminate the larger issues that surround them. The opening essay, which tackles the long-running debate over the philosopher and psychologist William James, is a good example. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, James quotes a letter from a man afflicted by fear after seeing an epileptic patient in an asylum and perceiving that nothing but luck separated his own condition from the epileptic's.

Later, James admitted he had written the letter himself, and, since he did actually suffer a nervous breakdown around 1870, biographers have seized on this admission as a key to understanding him. Most books on James have also claimed he eventually recovered from his breakdown by applying a theory of free will he had encountered in a work of contemporary philosophy.

Menand finds this simplistic. Reinterpreting the evidence in the light of James's own intellectual environment, he argues that, contrary to the "crisis and recovery" thesis, the meaning of the epileptic patient lies in James's own lifelong struggle with depression and in his many unsuccessful attempts to use philosophy to help him overcome it.

James ultimately came to recognize that a sick man mired in feelings of helplessness cannot be cured by philosophy, which offers only the comfortless claim that man is alone in the universe, and that, as he feared, it is indeed only luck that separates the healthy man from the epileptic. Though he believed deeply felt religion could provide the afflicted with strength and comfort, as a non-believer, James knew he could not benefit from this himself. "James was too wise to believe that true melancholy can ever be overcome by a theory, and he was too honest to pretend to a spiritual satisfaction he was never able to feel," Menand writes. It is a touching and convincing conclusion, and this essay is easily the finest in the book.

Unfortunately, subsequent pieces fail to rise to this level. An essay on the role of anti-Semitism in T.S. Eliot's work displays Menand's understanding of intellectual and historical context, but one senses the writer feels no sympathy for his subject. In marked contrast to the nuanced treatment granted to William James, Menand veers toward the judgemental in his essay on James B. Conant -- president of Harvard, chief civilian administrator of U.S. nuclear research in the Second World War, founder of the SATs. Conant is presented as a befuddled icon of Cold War establishment naiveté, and the meritocratic principles he helped to enshrine in higher education -- principles that have by now partly collapsed -- are dismissed as "historically specific."

Menand also likes to show off. He stocks an essay on Rolling Stone and the Sixties with so many offhand references to obscure musicians that he sounds like a pretentious guest at a cocktail party. In another piece, Menand explains that reading Norman Mailer's review of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho "is a little like watching Ernst Gombrich trying to elucidate the iconography in a work by Jeff Koons." Make that a pretentious and incomprehensible guest. Ironically, Menand's perceptive essay on the strengths of the "Old" New Yorker -- which he lauds for its "hatred of knowingness, which is indeed the bane of much of the higher journalism in America" -- shows that he knows this kind of nonsense is not good writing. So why does he indulge in it?

For all this, the book is worth reading. Even the weakest of the essays contains its share of entertaining insights and new perspectives. This collection proves that, at his best, Menand is capable of painting vivid, perceptive, original portraits of important people and the contexts that shaped them. But it also proves that Menand's biggest challenge will always be to keep himself out of the pictures he paints.