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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Before her days as a Willkie volunteer, Burns writes, "Rand was suspicious of both democracy and capitalism, unsure if either system could be trusted to safeguard individual rights against the dangers of the mob." This was the moment when Rand became part of the American political scene, crossbreeding her self-generated individualist philosophy with the uniquely American understanding of individual rights and personal freedom. After the campaign was lost, diehards organized into grassroots-style Willkie Clubs, not unlike the Tea Parties. Rand had high hopes for the clubs as a way to keep the ideas of individualism and freedom alive. But after organizational scuffling, fundraising difficulties, and personal conflicts, she dropped out of practical politics. (Rand broke this rule only once later in life, when she was briefly enamoured with Barry Goldwater, though he soon disappointed her as well.)

With FDR back in office for a third term, Rand threw herself back into finishing The Fountainhead. When it was released in 1943 there was one positive and insightful review--in the New York Times--but most early notices were critical and dismissive. "Anyone who is taken in by [The Fountainhead] deserves a stern lecture on paper rationing," sniped Diana Trilling in the Nation. In fact, Rand was battling wartime paper rationing: She signed her contract days before Pearl Harbor. If negotiations had taken another week, Rand's editor later told her, such a paper-intensive project would probably have been junked. Rand trimmed out a subplot or two--something she never would have done in later years--to get the book down to 754 pages. But she still had to figure for more than her "fair share" of paper. The irony was not lost on this crusader against centrally controlled economies and egalitarianism that both were arrayed against her in a fight to convey her words to the public.

Worse still, many reviewers were complimentary for the wrong reasons. When it was released, Americans bought The Fountainhead in droves. But nearly everyone seemed to think it was book about architecture. Heller writes that it took "half a decade before most readers of The Fountainhead consciously noticed that it was a tract as well as a story," which Rand found baffling because, as she told a friend, "it's practically in every line." But appreciative letters from fans who cottoned to Rand's message came in steadily, and eventually Rand won recognition for the heavy lifting she was doing to link freedom and self-actualization to capitalism in the American mind, offering a principled and appealing alternative to the New Deal before the war, and socialism/communism afterwards.

Rand was always confident in her own talent, predicting sales of 100,000 copies for The Fountainhead. As it turns out, however, she was far too modest. Yet her confidence was also the reason she was shocked and hurt by the pointed way academic reviewers failed to welcome her works. Heller is particularly adept at capturing the novelist's heartache as the negative reviews poured in, and her elation at discovering the book's slow ascent to bestsellerdom.

The months after she finished The Fountainhead were probably the lowest ebb of Rand's elitism. Her books are about supermen, heroes operating on an epic scale. But in The Fountainhead, she makes a place for the common man. In a climactic courtroom scene in which the hero, architect Howard Roark, makes a speech defending his decision to blow up a housing project, the jury consists of "two executives of industrial concerns, two engineers, a mathematician, a truck driver, a bricklayer, an electrician, a gardener, and three factory workers." The jury hears Roark's explanation of why he blew up the project--his vision had been corrupted, and it was his right as creator to also be destroyer--and acquits him. This particular crowd sounds like the folks you might see at a Tea Party--and the post-Fountainhead Rand might have felt at home among them after being rejected by the leftist academic elite and the gatekeepers of intellectual conservatism.

Rand wasn't alone in feeling alienated by both the left and right. The American libertarian movement of the 1960s and '70s was made possible, in part, by a generation of Rand readers looking for an individualist alternative on the American political scene. But she didn't take a shine to her strange capitalist hippie offspring, and soon returned to her previous skepticism about politics, equally scorning the unphilosophical and irrational elements of the libertarian and conservative movements.

By the 1957 publication of her second novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand was showing evidence of her pessimism about the state and the masses. She was never one to say that commercial success indicated true worth: Her heroes are often in financial trouble because the world fails to recognize what they are offering as superior. Wealth is just as often a signifier of corruption as achievement. Financial success came to Rand herself late in life, thanks in part to her decision to build an alternative delivery system for her philosophy, outside the usual worlds of academia and politics. Rand authorized her sometime lover Nathaniel Branden to establish a newsletter-publishing operation and lecture series, which proved decently profitable and supplied Rand with a steady stream of converts. After their falling-out--Branden was keeping a girl on the side--Rand passed the mantle to another follower, who has been overzealous in his protection of her papers and name.

And yet--despite critical PR blunders and excoriation from both sides of the political aisle--Ayn Rand endures. People keep buying her books and, perhaps more important, giving them to each other. Republican congressmen Paul Ryan (Wis.) and John Campbell (Calif.) give out copies of Atlas Shrugged to their staff. So does the head of BB&T bank, John Allison. Talk about a film version of Atlas has gotten louder in recent months. The same force that made Rand a cult phenomenon in her own time still sends people into the streets with Atlas Shrugged banners 50 years later. Her strange blend of populism and elitism continues to leave its mark in the right-wing world, like it or not.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason.