Discussed in this essay:
Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller. Nan A. Talese. 567 pages. $35.
Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns. Oxford University Press. 369 pages. $27.95.
Ayn Rand never made modest claims for the importance of her work. As she told Mike Wallace in 1957, she believed that she was “the most creative thinker alive,” and that her ideas about the virtues of selfishness and the evils of altruism owed nothing to any previous writer, expect maybe Aristotle. She was an unforgettable figure on college campuses in the 1960s, wearing a black cape cinched by her trademark gold brooch in the shape of a dollar sign. Her books are perennial favorites, topping the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels Reader’s List, and they seem to be enjoying yet another revival. One might think that strange during a year of recession—which compelled even onetime fan Alan Greenspan to question his faith in the market’s “rationality”—but Rand’s supporters would argue that unpopular bailouts of the financial sector and the auto industry provide more than enough reason for her works, and her example, to come into the spotlight once again.
Rand’s appeal transcends mere political partisanship. She called herself not a conservative but a “radical for capitalism,” and until her death in 1982 she showered such lions of the right as William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan with gleeful vitriol. An atheist who held that Christianity had taught people to sacrifice themselves in the name of a false ideal, she devised a code of ethics according to which acting in one’s own self-interest—what she called “rational selfishness”—was an affirmation of human life, and hence the only reasonable moral stance. Because altruism meant denying the primacy of the self, it was for her an embrace of death; it was the philosophical root cause of Nazism and Stalinism. Her defense of capitalism borrowed much from older libertarian and social Darwinist ideas, but in certain respects it was quite novel. Thinkers such as Adam Smith had argued in favor of capitalism on utilitarian grounds, as a social system that provided the best life for the greatest number. Rand, by contrast, believed that once the principle of utilitarianism was conceded, the case was lost. The only arguments she could tolerate were those that began with fundamental rights arising from human nature, and her harshly judgmental stance toward anyone who disagreed with her meant that by the end of her life she had virtually no allies. Today, most political scientists, philosophers, and literary critics tend to view her with derision.
Rand would have insisted that she needed no biographer: anyone who wanted to understand her life should simply look at her ideas. As she wrote in the Author’s Note to Atlas Shrugged,
My personal life is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence, “And I mean it.” I have always lived by the philosophy I present in my books—and it has worked for me, as it worked for my characters.
But what does it mean to live according to Rand’s philosophy? Two new biographies of Rand—journalist Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made and historian Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right—attempt to answer that question, and to explore its very premise. Because of Rand’s low standing in the academy, most books about her to this point have been either memoirs, journalistic exposés, or exegeses by devotees of Objectivism, the intellectual movement she helped to build. Both Heller and Burns have instead written works of historical scholarship that seek to illuminate Rand’s complexities rather than simply to support or condemn her. Rand celebrated the rational and independent individual, but she herself was often deeply depressed, powerfully sensitive to negative reviews of her work, and likely addicted to amphetamines. She praised originality, but the subculture she created to promote her ideas was inhospitable to debate. She aspired to high seriousness, but her writing was firmly grounded in Hollywood kitsch.
It is understandable, then, that neither book seems entirely sure how to treat Rand. Is she a great political philosopher and transcendent novelist whose work has been unfairly maligned and dismissed—a “brilliant” woman, as “accomplished as her heroes,” who put forward “meticulous arguments for individual liberty,” as Heller suggests? Is she an influential voice on the American right whose books have provided a “gateway drug” to conservatism, as Burns puts it? Or is she a tragic figure who sought, with disastrous consequences, to script her life the way she did the plots of her novels? Rand insisted that contradictions did not exist if reality was perceived accurately. As her biographers at least will show, the reality of her own life was replete with such tensions.
From earliest childhood, Ayn Rand saw herself as an individual standing bravely against a hostile world. She was born Alisa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in 1905 to an upper-middle-class Jewish family in St. Petersburg. Her father was a pharmacist, and the family employed a retinue of governesses, servants, and cooks. Rand’s mother—a capricious, moody woman who told her three daughters that she had never wanted children—criticized her eldest child for being too serious and intense. The shy young girl retreated from the family, and from the schoolyard social life she found difficult to negotiate, into romantic stories, devouring illustrated adventure novels and falling in love with their swashbuckling heroes. She came to understand fiction as a way to remake the world as it ought to be.
Alisa was there when her father’s shop was seized by Red Guards after the Bolshevik Revolution. Because he refused to work for the Soviets, her mother was forced to support the family as a teacher. In the years following the revolution, while a university student, Alisa read and was greatly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. Over time, she would adopt his project of a “trans-valuation” of morals, of seeking to turn the Christian ethical system upside down, to celebrate those human attitudes commonly held to be the most despicable. She would become fascinated with the idea of creating and finding her own Superman—hard, brilliant, impervious to weakness. Yet despite this interest in philosophy, her tastes remained decidedly lowbrow. She loved light operettas and Viennese waltzes, which she called her “tiddly-wink” music. She thrilled to the America she saw in movies. And although her novels would seek to develop her “philosophical” system, they would also borrow heavily from Hollywood’s intricate plots, hard-boiled language, glamorous heroines, risqué sex scenes, and—most of all—passionate, courageous heroes.
It was Alisa’s love of the cinema that got her out of the Soviet Union. In 1926, she obtained a visa to go to America to study filmmaking, under the pretext that she would then return to make Communist propaganda. On the ship coming to the United States, she gave herself a new name: Ayn Rand.Both Heller and Burns lay to rest the legend that Rand named herself for the typewriter, pointing out that the Remington Rand typewriter did not enter production until 1927. Rand was likely a shortened version of Rosenbaum; Ayn may have been the name of a Finnish writer she admired.Everything went well at first. Cecil B. DeMille hired her as a writer, and she met her husband-to-be, Frank O’Connor, a handsome young actor, on a trolley car. But when the advent of talkies sank DeMille’s studio, Rand had to scrounge for work, and she fell behind on rent. Yet even as her own situation grew desperate, she became fascinated by newspaper headlines about one William Hickman, a teenage murderer who had killed an eight-year-old girl and boasted about it after being caught. He became one of her first Nietzschean heroes, a modern Raskolnikov. She made him the prototype for a character in a short story, and she wrote about him with feeling in her diary: “If he had any desires and ambitions—what was the way before him? A long, slow, soul-eating, heart-wrecking toil and struggle; the degrading, ignoble road of silent pain and loud compromise.” She herself was determined to escape such a fate: “The secret of life: You must be nothing but will. . . . All will and all control. Send everything else to hell!”
Rand and O’Connor married in 1929 and moved to New York in the 1930s, after she published a semi–autobiographical novel about Soviet Russia, We the Living, and wrote a play about a heroic businessman, The Night of January 16th, which was ultimately produced on Broadway. In New York she began work on The Fountainhead. She also became involved with the community of businessmen and writers committed, even in the depths of the Depression, to fighting FDR’s New Deal. Previously Rand had expressed no strong opinions about American politics, but her engagement with opponents of the New Deal helped to ground her philosophy in a political context. She even became involved with Wendell Willkie’s campaign for the presidency in 1940. After he lost, she crafted “The Individualist Manifesto,” which she hoped would carry the principles of his campaign forward; it ended, “INDIVIDUALISTS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!”
It was not easy for Rand to complete The Fountainhead. Once Bobbs-Merrill agreed to publish the novel, she began taking doctor-prescribed amphetamines to help her finish it. She would take them for years afterward. The novel was at last published in 1943. It tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect with the mouth of “an executioner or a saint,” who can accept no compromise—no frieze, no Grecian column—that mars the purity of his modernist vision. To realize his genius, Roark must contend with a host of “second-handers”—jealous rivals, callow businessmen, and sinister intellectuals. Roark has certain sociopathic qualities—he rapes the book’s heroine, Dominique Francon (who then falls in love with him), and the book’s climax comes when he dynamites a public-housing project he designed, because the building is not constructed exactly to his specifications. The Fountainhead is an austere presentation of capitalism as a theater for the self: no social world exercises any legitimate claim on Roark’s buildings; no workmen contribute to their grandeur; no tenants have needs that might shape what he designs. His mind alone must shape the world. Surprisingly, some would say absurdly, the novel has a happy ending: a jury votes to acquit Roark, moved by his defense of himself as “a man who does not exist for others.”
Despite mixed reviews, popular acclaim drove The Fountainhead up the bestseller lists. Rand sold the film rights to Warner Brothers for $50,000, a tremendous sum at the time, and she and Frank moved back to California, where they bought a glass and steel mansion an hour north of Hollywood. Frank loved their new home, where he grew gladioli and cared for peacocks and rabbits—“Not the sort of thing Howard Roark would do!” he happily observed. While Rand worked on the script for the film—which would star Gary Cooper, perfectly cast as the stone-faced Roark—her connections to others on the developing right began to weaken. She saw betrayals of principle everywhere, breaking with one early free-market think tank (the Foundation for Economic Education) when the group published a pamphlet by Milton Friedman and George Stigler that criticized the inefficiencies of rent control, because their utilitarian argument fell short of insisting that price controls of any kind were inherently immoral. “The man is an ass, with no conception of a free society at all,” she scrawled in her copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, a libertarian tract that gave, in her opinion, too much ground to the powers of the state. Most of all, Rand had no patience with early Cold Warriors who wanted to enlist Christianity in their fight against Communism. She told William F. Buckley that he was “too intelligent” to believe in God.
As she started work on a new novel, Rand began to seek acolytes: plenty were eager to volunteer. In Nathan Blumenthal and Barbara Weidman, UCLA college students who had fallen in love reading The Fountainhead, she found two bright young people who viewed her with absolute awe. When they moved to New York to continue their studies, she followed them, with Frank. (No one at the time thought it strange that a wealthy, famous novelist should trail across the country after a pair of college students.) Once back on the East Coast, she began to hold a weekly salon attended by friends of Nathan and Barbara, including Alan Greenspan, who was briefly married to one of Barbara’s childhood friends. On Saturday nights, Rand’s admirers would gather at her small, smoke-filled apartment, where she would circulate chapters from her new novel and talk into the wee hours. The circle began to call itself “The Collective,” or “Class of ’43,” after the year in which The Fountainhead was published. When Nathan (afterward Nathaniel) and Barbara married in 1953, they took as their joint surname “Branden”—a name that contained Rand’s invented own.
The intensity of these Saturday-night sessions informed the writing of Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s magnum opus is a surreal mystery story about a dystopian society in which the “men of the mind” have gone on strike to protest an interventionist government. Dagny Taggart, a leggy railroad magnate, does her best to discover why the economy is collapsing. She eventually learns that John Galt, a brilliant inventor, has organized the withdrawal of society’s talented and productive members to a secluded part of Colorado (“Galt’s Gulch”), where they take an oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Toward the end of the novel, Galt delivers a radio address articulating, of course, Rand’s own axioms: Men are motivated not by instinct but by their power to think and transform the natural world to meet their personal needs. “Selfish” actions express an embrace of life; money (and the accumulation of it) is therefore not the root of all evil. Through the liberal state, “looters” seek to deprive people of their wealth by force while “moochers” try to beg it away in the name of compassion. At first Dagny is reluctant to abandon her railroad, but as American society collapses and it becomes clear that Galt’s Gulch will be the nerve center of a new world order, she realizes that she must join the strike, and also that she has fallen in love with Galt. As the aristocratic copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia tells Dagny earlier in the book, “Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”
While Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, the boundaries separating her imaginary world from the real one started to erode. She began to seek an ideal masculine figure in her life—someone she could worship as Dagny did John Galt—and she found that figure in Nathaniel Branden, her protégé, a quarter of a century her junior. Despite a complete lack of credentials, he had opened a therapy practice to “treat” members of the Collective who were excessively concerned with the opinions of others. His and Rand’s relationship seemed almost an extension of Objectivist ideals, which defied the psychoanalytic vision of ambivalence and internal conflict increasingly popular in mid-century America and argued that there should be no tension between reason and emotion. Rand asked for sympathy and understanding from Frank and Barbara: “You both know how little I’ve had in my life, by way of personal reward.” The lovers began to meet twice a week for assignations at Rand’s apartment while Frank went out, often to a local bar. The affair was kept secret from the rest of the Collective. Barbara began suffering from panic attacks, which perplexed Nathaniel—what could possibly be causing such waves of irrationality?
When she wrote The Fountainhead, Rand had been part of a flourishing political community. By the time she finished Atlas Shrugged, she was guru to a small group of worshippers—disconnected from any broader politics—who believed that only by following Rand’s teachings could they become true individualists. It was poor preparation for the maelstrom that followed the novel’s publication in 1957. Atlas Shrugged received stunningly negative reviews from left and right alike. The New York Times Book Review pronounced the 1,168-page book a “howl” written by a harpy wielding “a battering ram.” The nastiest attack appeared in the National Review, where Whittaker Chambers wrote, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” Rand’s readers in the business world loved the book, of course, reprinting speeches from it for distribution to their employees. But this was little comfort to Rand, who craved acceptance from the intellectual elite. She became depressed and spent hours doing nothing but playing solitaire. What made her disappointment all the more painful was that her own philosophy condemned those who cared about what others thought. “John Galt wouldn’t feel this,” she would say. “I would hate for him to see me like this.”
Facing rejection from the outside world, the Collective determined to find another way to advance Rand’s ideas. If universities and magazines would not treat Rand with respect, the group would create its own institutions. With Rand’s blessing, Branden founded the Nathaniel Branden Institute to offer classes and sell taped lectures on Objectivism. Rand stopped writing fiction and began instead to publish philosophical and political articles, laying out her ideas about everything from ethics to government financing to racism. In one collection, she described how history had been dominated by two archetypal figures—the Attila, who ruled by force, and the Witch Doctor, who exercised power through mysticism—and argued that she herself provided a third alternative: the Producer. In another volume, The Virtue of Selfishness, she denounced altruism as “moral cannibalism.” Before long, thousands of students were enrolling in NBI classes each year, and Rand was becoming a public figure. In New York City—the center of the movement—there were Objectivist sports teams, movie nights, and annual balls at which many of the women wore one-shouldered gowns in the style of Dagny Taggart. Pessimistic about changing the broader society, critical of the boorish conformism of 1950s America, the cult of the individual resembled an avant-garde but was in fact dominated by a rigid groupthink. Rand displayed little tolerance for anyone who challenged her, telling such people they suffered from “low self-esteem”—the worst insult in the Objectivist lexicon. Parsing Rand’s books and judging others according to their ability to live up to her ideals became a substitute among Objectivists for political discourse.
Yet despite her popularity, Rand was becoming increasingly isolated. She had suspended her affair with Branden in the dark days that followed the publication of Atlas Shrugged, though she remained emotionally dependent on him. By the time she wanted to resume the affair, Branden had taken up with a married Objectivist woman in her early twenties. Afraid that Rand would shutter NBI if she learned of this new relationship, he told her he was suffering from mental blocks that made sex impossible. “He makes me feel dead,” she wrote in her journal. When she finally learned of his betrayal, she cursed him with a lifetime of impotence, dismantled NBI, publicly repudiated him as a representative of Objectivism, and never spoke to him again.
Her last years were lonely. After her break with Branden, she had no interest in working with the conservatives who had been inspired by her writings. Seeing compromise as evil, she had never wanted to be the leader of a political movement. “If such hippies hope to make me their Marcuse, it will not work,” she scowled at the young libertarians who flew a black flag of anarchy decorated with a gold dollar sign in homage to Atlas Shrugged. She harangued the remaining members of the Collective about their tastes in art and music, condemning their problematic “sense of life” if they expressed a liking for Beethoven or Rembrandt. When her long-lost sister from the Soviet Union came to visit, the two quarreled viciously. A lifelong smoker who for years had dismissed evidence about the health risks of cigarettes as propaganda, she developed lung cancer in the early 1970s. Frank, who died in 1979, had grown paranoid in old age, telling friends that Rand was trying to poison him. She was unable to tolerate his senility, asking his caretakers not to “humor” his mental lapses but instead to make him “try to remember.” She herself died in 1982 of heart failure. At her funeral, a six-foot-tall flower arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign stood beside the coffin.
Although it is hard to imagine that Rand would have been pleased with either of these biographies, both should have satisfied her desire to be treated respectfully, as a woman of ideas. The two books cover much of the same ground despite their methodological differences: Heller relies more heavily on interviews, whereas Burns has done more work in the archives (both Rand’s and those of other conservative thinkers). Heller’s book also emphasizes the affair with Nathaniel Branden, which has been explored before in memoirs by both Brandens. Burns seeks instead to tell the story of Rand’s intellectual development, situating her in the constellation of postwar conservatism, and in this way her more academic treatment is also the more original.
Both writers inflate Rand’s importance as a thinker, and so miss the real significance of her appeal. After all, and as they both acknowledge, Rand was not especially original as a philosopher. She updated the dogmas of classical liberalism for a new era, giving them voice in novels rather than in dry political treatises, yes, but her idea of capitalism was actually quite old-fashioned. She saw it as a simple system of trade, industrial production, and creative ingenuity—no financial system, no relationships of leverage and debt; just granite-faced men confronting the natural world. She, it should be noted, kept her own money in a savings bank.
Ayn Rand died just as liberalism was in retreat and as free-market ideas were becoming more widely accepted. She never believed that she was winning, but it is difficult today to find anyone who extols the vision of “self-sacrifice” or altruism she sought to counter. She might even have been cheered by the economic and political ideas that have defined American society over much of the past thirty years—that generating wealth is the only thing that matters in life, that creating a society in which no one falls too low is a sucker’s game. Her work may be easy to ridicule, but it has appealed to generations of readers precisely because it seems to articulate something true about a society in which there is little sense of common purpose or regard. Should there be any lingering shame or sadness at our modern Gilded Age, at the material gaps that place some in luxury skyscrapers and others out on the streets, she encourages her readers to renounce that discomfort as the true immorality. Her work offers a way of making sense of a profoundly unequal society, of making it tolerable, even virtuous. Is the arid world she describes, in which all common creativity and sense of intellectual tradition has been reduced to individuals acting alone, not reflected in the empty nature of our public life? Do we not live in a world divided between winners and losers, between people who seem to live as Supermen and those who are treated as though their lives have no value at all? If societies get the thinkers they deserve, it is troubling to think that Rand is ours. Check your premises, indeed.