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Who is Louis Menand?

Sascha Bercovitch

“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, Mass. 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.

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