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Rand occupies a unique position in the history of American literature. In many ways she was a paradox: a writer of popular romances whose ideas were taken seriously, as well as a fierce individualist who attracted many followers. Politically and aesthetically, she defied the cultural currents of her times. She is chiefly remembered for her controversial novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), which promote her philosophy of “Objectivism.” Her experience with communism and the collectivist political system in Russia determined her philosophy and politics.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Rough Childhood in Revolutionary Russia
Born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, Ayn Rand’s father Fritz was a successful chemist and pharmacist, and Rand enjoyed an idyllic early childhood. She taught herself to read, and had, by age nine, decided on a career as a writer. Her heroes at that age were writers Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 brought an end to Rand’s happy years as a child. The Russian czar (emperor) had been deposed by a communist revolution that aimed to make all citizens of Russia equal. The new communist government pursued an aggressive policy of collectivization—seizing control of agriculture and industry. Rand’s father’s business was seized, and the family was plunged into poverty. Rand’s firsthand experience of communism shaped her politics for life. Her family had previously lived through the privations of World War I and then struggled to adapt itself to the new communist regime. For Rand, life in Russia at that time was dreary, and the future held little hope, particularly for one who rejected the system in power. Despite her childhood dreams of writing, she chose to major in history at the University of Petrograd (the once and future St. Petersburg).
To the United States
Obtaining a passport to visit family, Rand emigrated to the United States in 1926. There, Alice Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand. (Her first name should be pronounced to sound like the -ine in wine; the last name she adopted from the Remington-Rand typewriter she used to write her first movie scenarios in America.) Despite her raw language skills, she soon headed for Hollywood, where she hoped to make her living. on her second day in town, she was befriended by her favorite American director, Cecil B. DeMille, who took her to watch the shooting of The King of Kings (1927). He gave her work first as an extra and then as a junior writer. Rand’s 1929 marriage to Charles Francis “Frank” O’Connor, also an extra in The King of Kings, ensured that she would be allowed to stay in America. Shortly after her marriage, Rand got a job in the wardrobe department of RKo Studios. She hated the work, but it supported her financially while she improved her English and perfected her writing craft. Her progress was remarkable: she was to become one of a very few writers to attain artistic success in a language other than her native one.
Rand’s first novel was written in order to keep a promise she had made to a family friend at a farewell party given for her before she left Russia. Her friend had begged her to tell Americans that Russia was a huge cemetery and that its citizens were slowly dying. In We the Living (1936) Rand detailed the deterioration of spirit and body under the communist system. In particular, she wanted to show that communism wreaks special havoc on the brightest, most creative thinkers. In her work, all three of the major characters, even the ardent communist, are destroyed. By making one of her major characters a hero of the revolution, one who had believed fervently in the cause, Rand was able to communicate basic flaws in the communist system.
Rand’s primary reputation is as a novelist, but her first professional success was as a playwright. In all, Rand wrote four plays, two of which were produced on Broadway. Her best-known drama, Night of January 16th (1936), is significant for its ingenuity as well as for its historical sidelights. Rand developed the innovative theatrical device of using audience members at each performance to serve as the jury in this courtroom drama, and she wrote alternative endings for the cast to use in response to either the guilty or the not guilty verdict.
Anthem (1938), a novella, is Rand’s shortest work. A parable-like dystopian tale, it portrays a totally collectivized world after some Great War or holocaust. Originally titled “Ego,” the work illustrates the negative effects on society of the suppression of individual ego and talent for the supposed good of all: When, in the name of all, no individual is allowed to stand above the others, then all stand in darkness.
Success with Fountainhead
Rand had done extensive research before she began writing her next novel, The Fountainhead (1943), which was originally titled ”Secondhand Lives.” This novel is the story of Howard Roark, a modern architect, and his fight for the preservation of his aesthetic vision. Although she worked for some time in the office of Eli Jacques Kahn, a famous New York architect, Rand’s main purpose in the novel was not, as some critics have alleged, to extol the profession of architecture. Rather, the central purpose of the work, as in the ones before it, is to champion individualism versus collectivism. In The Fountainhead the focus is not on the political system, as it was in We the Living, but on what Rand called collectivism in the soul. The Fountainhead is a defense of a positive rational egoism. Protagonist Howard Roark explains to Dominique Fran-con at one point in the book, ”To say ‘I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I.”’ The egoism Rand defines in this novel is an integral part of the individualism she championed, just as the selfishness she describes is a virtue as opposed to the selflessness she abhorred.
Positive reviewers appreciated the powerful writing, intensity, and dramatic plot of the book. The success of The Fountainhead brought Rand to the attention of individuals who shared her perception of life. It also precipitated a lucrative movie deal. In 1950, Rand met a young man named Nathaniel Branden, an admirer of her work, and the two began a long personal and professional relationship that became an affair (both were married).
In Atlas Shrugged (1957) Rand believed she accomplished her goal of creating the ideal man in her protagonist, John Galt. In this novel Galt and a number of followers succeed in stopping the world economy by removing themselves and their productive capacities from exploitation by forces they regard as looters and leeches. All of Rand’s novels dramatize the primacy of the individual, but this is particularly evident in Atlas Shrugged, where the unique and precious individual human life is the standard by which good is judged. If something nourishes and sustains life, it is good; if it negates or impoverishes the individual’s pursuit of happiness, it is evil. The secondary themes in Rand’s fiction unfold as the logical consequence of her major theme, but it was not until Atlas Shrugged, the fullest explication in fiction of her philosophy, that Rand worked out all the political, economic, and metaphysical implications of that theme. Rand would label her philosophy Objectivism.
Rand was fifty-two when she published this, her last novel, but the end of her career as a fiction writer was in fact just the beginning of her career as a public philosopher, speaker, and cult figure. The publication of For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1961) was the first of a series of nonfiction books that anthologized her essays on such diverse subjects as the American public school system, Romanticism, and racism. Rand continued to refine and explore her philosophy of Objectivism in her own magazine, The Objectivist, published between 1966 and 1971. Branden was intimately bound up in Rand’s professional ventures throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but the two ended their relationship abruptly in 1968.
Counter-countercultural Icon During the 1960s and 1970s, many leading intellectuals in the United States—people like historian Howard Zinn, writer Susan Sontag, and poet Amiri Baraka—spoke critically of capitalism and extolled the virtues of communism. Argentine communist revolutionary leader Ernesto ”Che” Guevara was a hero on college campuses, communes (communities in which property and work are shared) sprang up across the country, and even Chinese dictator Mao Zedong was seen by many American intellectuals as a liberator. Rand, on the other hand, was an unapologetic, forceful supporter of capitalism and enlightened self-interest. Rand was a proponent of unregulated capitalism, which she defined as the only social system based on the recognition of individual rights, the only system that bans force from social relationship, and the only system that fundamentally opposes war. Rand’s defense of capitalism on moral grounds is unique. She based this on her view that only capitalism is consonant with man’s rational nature, protective of his survival as man, and fundamentally just.
Rand possessed great charisma and an intense intellectuality that affected both admirers and detractors. Her last years were clouded by ill health (she lost a lung to cancer) and grief (her husband died in 1979). She died in March 1982.
Works in Literary Context
Rand’s entire body of work is a protest against any individual submission. Her novels and stories are a defense of individual rights, of human creativity, of freedom of thought. Her defense of capitalism based on moral grounds is extremely articulate. “Capitalism,” observed Rand, ”has been called a system of greed—yet it is the system that raised the standard of living of its poorest citizens to heights no collectivist system has ever begun to equal.”
Defense of Capitalism
In her nonfiction writings as well as in her fiction, Rand characterized the main areas of conflict in the field of human rights: individualism versus collectivism; egoism versus altruism; and reason versus mysticism. In Rand’s philosophy, all of these areas are interconnected. Reason is the tool by which the individual discerns what is life-sustaining and ego-nourishing. Collectivism, altruism, and mysticism work against individual freedom, a healthy ego, and rationality. Collectively, Rand’s philosophy is called Objectivism, an extreme form of individualism that has been defined by Rand as ”the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Rand’s championing of individual rights and minimal government is part of her appeal to the Libertarian political movement, although she herself denounced Libertarians, calling them hippies of the right and advocates of anarchism. Neither, however, would she ally herself with most conservatives because of what she called their mysticism, their staunch support of religion. Among her most persistent concerns about America was her belief that capitalism was being sold out by the very people who should be its strongest advocates. Rand felt that rather than supporting capitalism for the morality of its central vision, most capitalists defended it only on practical bases.
Works in Critical Context
Few authors of the twentieth century have had such a polarizing effect on critics and audiences as Rand. Her books tend to earn either violent dismissals or enthusiastic praise. ”Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn”— this, William F. Buckley’s derogatory obituary in the National Review, sounded a note of wishful thinking on the part of Rand’s persistent critics. But rather than quelling interest in her or her philosophy, Rand’s death initiated a new era of academic interest and fueled the continued promotion of her philosophies by her followers. In the five years following her death there were as many books published about Rand as there were during all the years of her life. Her unpublished writing continues to be published posthumously; her novels continue to sell well as do some of her nonfiction works, and further publishing ventures are planned by her literary executor, Leonard Peikoff.
Critical outrage greeted the publication of Atlas Shrugged, especially from the battlements of the conservative establishment. Whittaker Chambers called it ”remarkably silly,” “bumptious,” and “preposterous.” He remarked: ”Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.” In the Saturday Review, Helen Beal Woodward, who concedes that ”Ayn Rand is a writer of dazzling virtuosity,” reacted negatively to the ”stylized vice-and-virtue characters” and “prolixity.” Woodward found Atlas Shrugged a book ”shot through with hatred.” Such critical attacks had no effect on the reading public, who have made Atlas Shrugged literary phenomenon: more than 5 million copies of the book have been sold since its publication.
- ”Atlas Shrugged,” in Novels for Students. Michael LaBlanc and Ira Mark Milne, eds. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale, 2001.
- Branden, Nathaniel. The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Atlas Society, 2000.
- Den Uyl, Douglas J. The Fountainhead: An American Novel. New York: Twayne, 1999.
- Erickson, Peter F. The Stance of Atlas: An Examination of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Portland, Ore.: Herakles Press, 1997.
- Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. Atlas Shrugged: Manifesto of the Mind. New York: Twayne, 2000.
- –. The New Ayn Rand Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
- ”The Fountainhead,” in Novels for Students. David Galens, ed. Vol. 16. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
- Chambers, Whittaker. ”Big Sister Is Watching You.” National Review 4 (December 28, 1957): 594-596.
- Cody, John. ”Ayn Rand’s Promethean Heroes.” Reason 5 (November 1973): 30-35.
- Cox, Stephen. ”Ayn Rand: Theory versus Creative Life.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 8 (Winter 1986): 19-29.
- –. ”The Evolution of Ayn Rand.” Liberty 11 (July 1998): 49-57.
- Den Uyl, Douglas J. and Douglas Rasmussen. ”Nozick on the Randian Argument.” Personalist 59 (April 1978): 184-201.
- Dwyer, William. ”The Argument against ‘an Objective Standard of Value.”’ Personalist 55 (Spring 1974): 165-181.
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