From Pulitzer-winning scholar and New Yorker staff writer Menand (The Metaphysical Club, 2001), 15 essays: always intelligent, frequently interesting, sometimes tedious.
A fascinating bit of sleuthing about William James’s mental health (“William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient”) could have been a part of The Metaphysical Club, as might “The Principles of Oliver Wendell Holmes,” the latter familiar indeed to Menand’s readers. A piece on Richard Wright allows one of Menand’s most valuable kinds of aperçus (“For culture is not something that just comes with one’s race or gender. Culture comes only through experience; there isn’t any other way to acquire it”), and “The Long Shadow of James B. Conant” fascinates for the history it offers both of Harvard University and of the cold war. Dishing a little gossip on William S. Paley (“The Last Emperor”), Menand produces also a wonderful primer on the cynical history of network TV; he is candid and incisive on Norman Mailer (“Norman Mailer in His Time”), whose perhaps silly ideas about sex and power were stopped dead in their tracks by feminism (“If a vibrator is as good as a penis, life has no meaning”); a piece on Christopher Lasch is dense and ambitiously theoretical (“Christopher Lasch’s Quarrel with Liberalism”), while “Lust in Action: Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt” reveals those two moralists to have come from the same pod. By volume’s end, though, with, say, “The Mind of Al Gore,” an exhaustion sets in, less from hard mental work than from a sameness of tone, an unflappable, always-perfect, almost professorial poise. Menand comments that Pauline Kael (“The Popist”) wrote always at fever pitch, “as though souls [were] being saved and lost down at the cineplex every night.” With passion, that is to say. If only Menand were to do the same. His intellectual range is limitless, his emotional range narrow.
Brilliant thinking, though in a tone never given the reins.