The Magazine

The Ayn and Only

Cult-empress or great thinker?

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Goddess of the Market

Ayn Rand and the American Right

by Jennifer Burns

Oxford, 384 pp., $27.95

Ayn Rand and the World She Made

by Anne C. Heller

Doubleday, 592 pp., $35

It's not hard to imagine Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, at the Tea Party rallies that swept the nation this summer. She'd be smoking, of course. Stalking around in a cape and sensible shoes, this avatar of individual liberty and rationalism would accost cheerful, tubby Midwest Republicans and baffle them with her favorite greeting: "What are your premises?"

Perhaps the anti-tax, limited government Tea Partiers would recognize the stocky, intense philosopher/novelist with the large dark eyes as one of their own. She could even clamber up to the podium to address the crowd in her strong Russian accent. "Government 'help' to business is just as disastrous as government persecution," she might say, for she was fond of quoting herself. "The only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off."

Ayn Rand is no longer around to mingle at political rallies, but she is increasingly present in current political debates, as her readers find parallels between 2009 America and the world of Atlas Shrugged, in which the creative thinkers and entrepreneurs go on strike, refusing to work in a totalitarian near-future dystopia where they are forced to labor for masses that hate and fear men of genius. A small but visible cluster of bloggers and businessmen are threatening to "Go Galt"--a reference to the book's striker-hero John Galt, who simply vanishes one day, taking an ever-larger number of the socially useful with him as the global economy crumbles.

At the Tea Parties, banners blare "Atlas Is Shrugging," and there are undeniable parallels between the current political scene and the scenario described in Atlas. In both cases, major transportation industries are being nationalized, government infrastructure is falling apart, unemployment is high, and protectionism is in the air. Rand's books, which have shown consistently impressive sales for decades, tallying almost 25 million copies in print, are suddenly experiencing a spike in demand. In 2008, sales of Atlas hit an all-time annual high of 200,000 copies sold. That would be a more-than-respectable showing for a new book; it's almost unheard of for a 50-year-old tome.

An additional sign of the Rand revival: the release of two new Rand biographies. Despite the fact that she has been famous for well over a half-century, these are the first biographies produced by impartial scholars. Both books follow Rand as she leaves behind a difficult childhood in revolutionary Russia (and her birth name Alisa Rosenbaum) for sunny, materialistic California. She wins a gig as a screenwriter after a memorable encounter with Cecil B. DeMille and meets her handsome husband. They chart her flirtation with politics, many missed book deadlines, and her rise to national fame with The Fountainhead in 1943. As she works to cement her place in history with Atlas Shrugged, a movement grows up around her. She begins to write nonfiction and names her philosophy of individualism and rationality: Objectivism. She conducts a clandestine affair with her much-younger intellectual heir, Nathaniel Branden, browbeating her husband and Branden's wife into assent and oaths of secrecy which they maintain until after her death in 1982. Rand dies famous, under an avalanche of hundreds of thousands of fan letters, yet bitter over broken personal relationships and unrealized political and philosophical ambitions.

Before continuing, it's worth noting that Ayn Rand would hate both of the new biographies. But she would be wrong to hate them, because both books are very good. Journalist Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made personalizes Rand, offering gossipy details about Rand's life and loves without the usual dose of malice that taints the memoirs of Rand's onetime inner circle and designated heirs. Historian Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market--the stronger of the two--situates Rand in the 20th-century American political scene, painting her as an influential advocate for capitalism and freedom.