'Tis a privilege to read Louis Menand. If this is (fair & balanced) admiration, so be it.
[x Harvard Fishwrap]
Who Is Louis Menand?
By Kevin Sun
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“I’m not happy that you’re writing this article, you know,” Louis Menand says to me. He laughs briefly after he says this—to make me feel at ease, I think—but quickly reverts to his default poker face: a calm, largely expressionless look that would wear equally well at boardroom meetings or at desert casino poker tables. He explains that he doesn’t like to talk about himself and his private life in a public capacity. As a journalist himself, he knows that I’m seeking an angle. I know he isn’t going to make my job any easier, isn’t going to help the pieces come together.
Louis ‘Luke’ Menand (“Louis” pronounced “Loo-ee”, en français; “Menand” pronounced “Men-and”, en American; “Luke” — what Menand’s parents called him, and what stuck) is Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard. He has a C.V. that would make most humanities majors drool: staff writer for the New Yorker, long-time contributor to the New York Review of Books, and the recipient of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book on American pragmatists, The Metaphysical Club. Menand is accomplished, but he prefers not to dwell on it.
He’s relatively soft-spoken and doesn’t dress loudly—slacks and collared button-down shirts without a tie seemed to be his preferred office wear. He doesn’t use unnecessarily large or obscure words in regular conversation. His voice is slightly on the nasal side, but it’s not distracting. When he walks, he keeps his back straight, but his good posture looks completely natural. A word to describe him might be “controlled.” I’ve heard him described as somewhat “Santa-like” when he keeps a beard, but without the beard, he looks like any ordinary, late-middle-aged white man.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Louis Menand seems like a perfectly nice, regular guy. But, he’s also very, very smart, and an excellent writer. Sometimes, people who are very, very smart and also excellent at communicating ideas can be controversial, or egotistical, or overwhelming personally, or underwhelming personally, but Menand is not really any of these. Speaking with him is interesting: on the one hand, he makes you feel comfortable by being a genial and pleasant conversationalist, but on the other hand, you can’t help but realize that he’s smarter than you, and that everything you say is being processed by somebody who’s spent a lot of time thinking about ideas, and words, and probably people, events, and cultural movements you haven’t heard of. Who is Louis Menand? To take a Menandian approach to this question, I propose an examination of the history.
LM: A BRIEF HISTORY
Louis Menand was born in Syracuse, New York in 1952, and grew up near Boston, in Bradford, MA. He attended Brooks, a private preparatory school, where he contributed to the school’s literary magazine and was a coxswain on the school’s rowing team. Menand began writing poetry in high school and continued to write at Pomona College, where he studied English with an emphasis in creative writing and poetry. He wrote poems that appeared in the student newspaper and was involved with the literary magazine. He also played piano in a rock band called “Pomona Today”—taking the name of the school’s alumni magazine.
After graduating from Pomona in 1973, he attended Harvard Law School for a year before taking a leave of absence. Menand recalls several reasons for his leave:
“One, Harvard Law School was much bigger than Pomona, and the classes were much bigger. Two, I didn’t think I was intellectually prepared: I felt I was lacking a background in social thought.”
While on leave, he began studying English in the Ph.D program at Columbia University, and liked it so much that he never went back to HLS. He was encouraged to attend by Richard Fader, a teacher of his at Pomona and a Columbia alumnus. In retrospect, Menand could not have found a better place to cultivate his interest in literary and cultural history.
“Columbia’s very literary-historical, and also very ‘history of ideas.’ So, they teach literature as part of ‘history of ideas’ and they teach ‘history of ideas’ as part of literary history. That appealed to me a lot, and that’s kind of what I do,” says Menand.
Menand earned his doctorate in 1980 and began his career as a writer, contributing regularly to publications like The New Republic and The New York Times Literary Supplement shortly thereafter. He’s best known today, however, for his writing that appears in The New Yorker. He got the job, curiously enough, while writing a story about the famous publication for another magazine.
“The New Yorker had a very famous editor named William Shawn for 35 years, and he had been replaced in 1986 or 1987 by Bob Gottlieb. Anyway, Bob Gottlieb read it and liked it, and had me come in to discuss writing for him,” says Menand.
As it turns out, Menand ended up turning down the first story he was pitched and didn’t write his first New Yorker piece until he got a pitch he liked a year later, but the rest is history.
IN THE CLASSROOM
“Look, when I hear him talk, I think—‘I ought to be more like that!’” says Professor Stephen Greenblatt, with whom Menand co-teaches English 110 (formerly known as Humanities 10). The course is known as a “Great Books” class, with a heavy-hitting syllabus that is known to include Homer’s The Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses, with Dante and others in between.
Menand garners consistently high scores on the CUE (i.e., > 4.0) for the undergraduate courses he teaches, which in recent years have included English 110/Humanities 10, US in the World 23: Art and Thought in the Cold War (which boasted an enrollment of 330 students last spring), and English 158: The Novel in Europe, which he co-taught with English Professor Leah Price. Both his colleagues, like Greenblatt, and his students find Menand to be an exceptionally capable teacher.
“He looks very casual when he lectures, but there’s actually a very Aristotelian order to his lecturing. He’s also an incredibly skilled Socratic teacher. He asks questions to lead the discussion, and before you know it, a pattern you didn’t notice before suddenly emerges,” says Greenblatt.
Spencer Lenfield ’12, who took Humanities 10 and English 158 with Menand during his freshman year, says, “He has phenomenal teaching instincts, and knows how to address the concerns of the class at hand.“
Originally though, Menand never envisioned himself as becoming a particularly great teacher—he didn’t think he was cut out for the job.
“I didn’t like the idea of being an authority figure—it was sort of a 60s thing. I just felt it wasn’t me to have a role where I had some power over other people, but then I found that I really enjoyed it,” says Menand, chuckling a bit at the end.
In his late 20s, Menand began teaching a writing class as a preceptor at Princeton University, and to his surprise, found that he really enjoyed teaching because it forced him to question and reflect in ways he wouldn’t have otherwise.
“They [students] make you think of questions you haven’t thought of. In order to get them interested, you get started thinking of ways of framing the subjects, or questions to ask,” says Menand.
In a way, writing for magazines and teaching have been mutually reinforcing, Menand observes. “One of the things that is pretty constant is that you’re trying to explain subjects to readers, and it’s a little bit like teaching. And that’s fun,” says Menand.
AND THE CROWD GOES WILD
If you search “Louis Menand” on Google, the first result is www.louismenand.org, a website that would appear to be Menand’s official home page (the second result listed is his Wikipedia page, and the third is his New Yorker author profile). As it turns out, Menand had little to do with the website, which notes, “The Essential Menand is a site maintained by devoted fans of Louis Menand.” Ergo, somebody must have really liked Menand, and that somebody turns out to be Peter Kang.
Kang is a Columbia alumnus from the Class of 2005, who has since started up a web design development company that has redesigned web pages for various Harvard organizations, including parts of the Cabot House website. As it turns out, “The Essential Menand” might never have come about, had it not been for a single serendipitous moment in the winter of 2004-5.
Kang, then a junior at Columbia University double-majoring in history and film studies, happened to see a copy of Menand’s collection of essays, American Studies, in the window display of the no longer existent Barnes and Noble in Astor Place on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I’m studying American history; I might want to check out this book’,” recalls Kang, who quickly took a liking to Menand’s writing.
After finishing American Studies, Kang went on to read The Metaphysical Club and recommended the books to his friends. Then, in the summer of 2005, Kang decided to make a website that would catalog Menand’s writings for other Menand enthusiasts—hence, “The Essential Menand,” which provides links to most of Menand’s work available online prior to 2007.
The Metaphysical Club would be influential for Kang in writing his thesis on the impact of philanthropic organizations in the Deep South during the Robber Baron era; Kang referred to Menand as a model of historical prose: clear, concise, and highly engaging.
“I looked up to him as a writer—that’s primarily why I made the website,” says Kang.
For Menand, the fan-supported creation of a website bearing his name was rather unexpected.
“I was shocked. I didn’t know about it for a long time, but then I met the kids who did it, and they were great. I think it’s a great website,” says Menand, giving his official Menandian stamp of approval.
THE MENANDIAN AESTHETIC
Few professors at Harvard have websites made for them by dedicated fans—actually, few professors have dedicated “fans” in the first place, but it’s important to note that few professors write as distinctively and memorably as Menand does for both academic and general audiences.
“His prose is beautifully carpentered, luminous. He has a knack for turning over stones and uncovering writhing life beneath them,” says Henry Finder, editorial director of The New Yorker. Finder has worked with Menand since the mid-1990s, and notes the coolness of Menand’s approach, which sets him apart from other modern-day critics.
“In an era of car-alarm criticism, his use of understatement is distinctive,” says Finder.
Menand himself has always favored writers who display a certain sense of emotional removal from their subject matter, citing Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm as two writers who excel at this approach.
“I’ve always liked very cold writing. I always get attracted to people who can really get very distant emotionally from their subjects. Just to really look at something with a very, very cold eye—it warms my heart when people do that,” remarks Menand with a fleeting, ironic smile.
Although one might think that consciously removing emotions and personal experience from a piece might be troublesome, for Menand, a distanced, objective approach to writing magazine articles is actually more comfortable.
“It’s easier, really. You always have to filter out a lot of personal static when you’re trying to write about an object,” says Menand.
Menand describes the process of writing his first book, Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context, as being a “painful” one because he had not yet found a method of writing that suited him. It was through magazine writing that he gradually let go of his old approach—taking detailed notes in relevant texts, outlining ideas, drafting and revising—and switched to a “once-through” approach.
“I don’t write drafts. I just write straight through,” says Menand. “When you write a draft of something and you know it’s not the final version, you tend to loosen up the logical connections between your sentences and your paragraphs. When you write sentence by sentence, and the sentence feels like a finished sentence, the seams between the sentences are much tighter, and that’s how you want the piece to read. Good writing is seamless writing.”
But, Menand still takes notes—just fewer of them overall, and more strictly textual.
“I take notes on the facts, and the quotes I’m going to use, but I never write down ideas, because I don’t have an idea really until I’m ready. By the time I’m writing, those ideas are going to already be passé,” says Menand.
Menand also has some practical tips for writing.
“You should never write when you’re tired, by the way. That’s really bad. You should write when you’re awake,” says Menand. I think of an all-nighter English essay written earlier during the week and feel a bit ashamed.
Menand pauses a moment, and then stares at me as if to make sure I’m paying close attention. “This is a fact I read in The New York Times—this will be the most interesting thing in your piece,” he says, adopting a pointed, professorial gaze and tone of voice: “Most world records are broken between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m. ... That’s right.” He smiled smugly, relishing a rare self-conscious moment of intellectual peacocking. I wasn’t sure if he was joking, but I believed him anyway.
“I find I am in my absolute best between 4 and 6 p.m., but that’s annoying because that’s when I usually want to go home and everybody else is going out,” Menand adds.
THE GREAT COMPROMISER
Not everybody on campus reads Menand’s articles in The New Yorker or takes his classes, but the campus as a whole is taking General Education courses instead of Core curriculum classes partially as a result of Menand’s involvement with the general education reform at Harvard several years ago. Alongside Professor Alison Simmons, Menand was appointed co-chair of the Task Force on General Education, a six-person committee (not including Menand and Simmons) that met in the summer of 2006 to discuss and revise a proposal written by an earlier Gen Ed Reform committee for a new general education curriculum at Harvard. Co-chair Alison Simmons remembers the atmosphere as “tense and exciting.”
“It was a difficult time in the University, what with Larry Summers’s resignation, having an interim President and Dean,” says Simmons. “We thought we would be doing the intellectual work, like writing the proposals, and then the Dean would sell the proposals to the Faculty. But, because we had an interim President and Dean, the responsibility was ours.”
In 2005, a previous committee had proposed a plan that, according to The Crimson, was “widely criticized for lacking a guiding vision and has generated little enthusiasm among the Faculty thus far.” Menand and Simmons had both been on that previous committee; they were chosen to lead the newest effort at reform because they had seen, and might know how to avoid, the problems that had doomed the last attempt.
“What Luke brought to the table was a strong sense of the history of general education at Harvard and elsewhere,” says Simmons. “He made the great point that every school has its own DNA, and that general education rises in historical periods for contingent reasons. We couldn’t recreate the Columbia ‘Great Books’ curriculum or the Brown ‘open curriculum’ for that reason.”
Simmons recalls a particular moment that would continue to guide the new committee. Menand, in an early planning session, “started to say ‘I have a dream,’ but then he realized what he was accidentally referencing and kind of went along with it and put up his fist. He told us that his dream was that any subject could be taught in General Education,” says Simmons.
For Menand, General Education should be about teaching topics and content to students, rather than teaching a discipline or methodology of any particular field. Of course, Menand realizes the practical limitations of his approach; some coursework is too advanced for students with no prior background.
“I’d say he’s a principled pragmatist, an idealist with principles,” says Simmons.
The committee eventually succeeded in finishing a proposal that won the approval of the Faculty, but there have been some who feel that the Gen Ed curriculum does not significantly improve Harvard’s course offerings.
Last spring, The Crimson reported that the new Gen Ed program, which was launched during the fall of 2009, will “undergo a review to determine how successful it has been in meeting the goals of Gen Ed” after its fifth year. Concerns about the success and accessibility of Gen Ed science courses have also surfaced.
The program also received criticism from commentators on higher education policy. “It seemed to me that after all the thought and talk, the changes were relatively modest,” says Stanley N. Katz ’55, President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Studies. Katz writes on higher education policy for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has known Menand since the early 1990s, when they crossed paths at the ACLS in New York.
Menand’s newest book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, explores several topics of contention concerning higher education in America, including general education reform and growing interest in interdisciplinarity. Katz believes that Menand will not be remembered, however, for his ideas on higher education down the road, noting how few education reformers (aside from John Dewey) are remembered in the first place.
“He hasn’t written anything on education that’s been monumental, but I don’t think it would trouble him to hear me say that,” says Katz. “He’s writing to address current problems, which will of course be different in 50 years.”
In the meantime, though, Menand feels that the committee was generally successful in making modest improvements for Harvard’s general education curriculum.
“In the end, I think we came up with a program people are comfortable with, and it’s had a very good launch. In 10 years, we’ll have to do it over again, but that’s just the nature of these things. But that was pretty fun.”
This January, Louis Menand turns 60. He doesn’t seem too concerned.
“I’ve already turned old,” he quips facetiously. He notes that he still “feels young as a person” but has been noticing the physical effects of aging. Menand plans to keep writing as long as he enjoys it, and is currently working on a book about America during the Cold War era that’s been a continual project of his for the past decade.
Menand’s many publications have cemented his image as a cultural historian and literary critic, but he’s also been described as a “public intellectual”—a term with broader implications—in publications such as The Nation. “I think you could describe him as a public intellectual, but he would have problems with that,” says Finder, who knows Menand’s on-the-page public persona better than almost anyone.
I asked Menand what he thought. “No, I don’t have an agenda. I’m not trying to persuade the world of policy views. I’m a writer,” he replies. Perhaps Menand hesitates to call himself a public intellectual because the term also connotes a sense of distinct social importance, which elevates one socially and intellectually above the average person.
“He has a profound sense of humility,” says Lenfield. “He doesn’t have the ego that some other professors of his stature have.”
Simmons, who spent a great deal of time with Menand as co-chair of the TFGE, suggests Menand’s characteristic aversion to talking about himself is simply a product of his low-key personality. She remembers the first time they met.
“When I was paired with him [as committee co-chair], I rolled my eyes and thought, ‘Oh, New Yorker writer,’” she recalls with a hearty laugh.
Menand declined to talk much about his personal life, which seems perfectly reasonable coming from a man whose intellectual presence has been so remarkably visible and widely known (especially for an English professor and cultural historian). He seems like a perfectly regular guy: he likes to eat dinner at 7 p.m., follows sports (“Boston teams,” he tells me—he’s a local resident), sometimes goes to the movies, and even does Pilates (he prefers strength training to cardio, though).
“He’s an ordinary guy, for whom being seen as ordinary is important. He hates pretentious parties,” remarks Simmons. She may have attended a party or two with Menand.
For all the time and effort Menand invests towards interpreting the past, he’s keeping his eyes attentively directed at the present. With nothing to prove, Menand seems poised to carry on for as long as he wishes. Where does he see himself in 15 years?
“Fifteen years? I’ll be on the beach in Miami,” he jokes. Ω
[David Sun is pursuing an A.B. in economics at Harvard (class of 2015). He became a staffer for The Harvard Crimson in 2011.]
Copyright © 2011 The Harvard Crimson, Inc.
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