We proudly publish the following two-part essay as one of the few exceptions to our “only original material” rule. First delivered as the monthly talk to the Lincoln (Neb.) Tom Carroll Torch Club on March 19, two members suggested that it be published in Prairie Fire. The author has kindly consented. It has taken us three months to work it into our publication schedule. The subject has become very timely as more and more of today’s political operatives claim Ayn Rand as their public policy spiritual compass. Enjoy.
I have two propositions to advance tonight. The first is that the novels of Ayn Rand are, as novels, breathtakingly bad; the second is that those novels have contributed significantly, and injuriously, to the tone of our civic and political culture.
Both arguments face hurdles. To start with the novels themselves, any argument that they are bad has to acknowledge that they are stupendously popular and have been for decades. Not only have “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” never gone out of print since they were published 68 and 54 years ago, but they continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year. Sales of “Atlas Shrugged” actually spiked even higher in 2009, in the wake of the financial bailouts and the stimulus package. Both novels often appear at or near the top of reader surveys about books that have changed peoples’ lives.
Since “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” have been read and loved by millions, some of you may be among them, and I hope you will hear me out patiently. I will also venture a guess that you read them in your mid- to late teens, and that they were among the first or very first serious novels you read. Had you read them in your mid-50s, after many decades of novel reading, as I did, you might not have succumbed so easily. Let me take a moment of personal privilege to mention that even though I have served this club as secretary and as president, have been on the “Torch” magazine’s board of reviewers for many years and have even been on the Torch International board of directors, I have made no greater personal sacrifice for Torch Club than getting all the way through almost 2,000 pages of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.”
This brings me to my first point: Rand’s prose. Here is a sentence I chose perfectly at random, just flipping open “Atlas Shrugged.” It is on page 329: “She leaned forward, both forearms braced firmly against the counter, feeling calm and in tight control, sensing a dangerous adversary.” Note that even in this short sentence there are four redundant modifiers: braced already implies firmly, control already implies tight, adversary already implies dangerous, and the plural forearms makes both unnecessary. Take them out, and we would have “She leaned forward, forearms braced against the counter, feeling calm and in control, sensing an adversary”—not great prose, but no longer carrying excess baggage. Almost any page of Rand one lighted upon would have plentiful examples of such filler, usually in the trite combinations familiar from thousands of potboilers: beggars snivel, streams gush, heat scorches, visions are radiant.
Now look at “sensing a dangerous adversary.” The first rule an aspiring fiction writer learns is “show, don’t tell.” Rand always tells. Dagny Taggart (for it is she at the counter) tells us by her posture alone that she is on the alert, preparing herself for some sort of challenge, yet feeling equal to it. A truly crafty fiction writer would simply tell us, “She leaned forward, forearms braced against the counter, feeling calm and in control,” and let us infer the rest—which, as mindful readers, we will do. If we are paying attention, we know she senses an adversary. Great fiction writers suggest more than they announce, letting readers participate in conjuring up the novel’s imagined world by noticing, reflecting, drawing conclusions. This is what makes great fiction intellectually stimulating and not just an escape. We see, without its being stated, that Dr. Bovary’s young wife is desperately bored or that Ivan Karamazov’s intellectual pride is eating away at his sanity. By contrast, Rand is always overexplaining, always pointing out the obvious, never letting the action speak for itself.
Lovers of Rand usually love her characters—John Galt, Dagny Taggart, Howard Roark, Dominique Francon. I am tempted to call them comic-book characters, but that is not really fair to comics, which have given us subtly nuanced creations such as Charlie Brown, Alex Doonesbury and Albert the Alligator. Rand’s protagonists are uniformly and unfailingly strong, intelligent, capable, sexually magnetic and charismatic, without the least shadow of a conflict or contradiction. Rand establishes their character as soon as they appear, and they remain themselves to the final page. The characters of great novelists—Don Quixote, Pip in “Great Expectations,” Natasha Romanova in “War and Peace,” Col. Buendía in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Sethe in “Beloved”—are compounded of virtues and flaws, are complex, conflicted and contradictory. They change and develop before our eyes. This is what makes them lifelike and what makes us care about them. Rand’s characters are as static, and as interesting, as mannequins.
Having raised the issue of verisimilitude (the quality a novel is said to have if it is “lifelike”), I should note that Rand rejected verisimilitude as a goal. She called her fiction “romantic realism,” a term that has also been applied to the work of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Balzac and Rand’s own favorite novelist, Victor Hugo. Romantic realist novels are set in the real world, not a fantasy one, but incorporate a degree of idealization, exaggeration and even implausibility in pursuing their themes. Rand made her heroes consistently heroic, her villains consistently villainous, in order to dramatize what she saw as a war between true and false values. Her great romantic realist precursors, however, always remained capable of imaginative sympathy, and this is part of their greatness. Hugo was a diehard inheritor of the republican tradition of the French Revolution, but he can make his reactionary aristocrats powerfully appealing. Dostoevsky was a right-wing religious zealot, but his atheist revolutionaries are among his most memorable creations. Hugo and Dostoevsky, in other words, possessed abundantly what the poet John Keats identified as Shakespeare’s distinctive gift—“negative capability” —the power to imagine and inhabit other minds, other lives. All great writers possess this gift to some degree. Rand possesses it not at all. Her books are sometimes called “novels of ideas,” but the only ideas in them are hers, reverberating over thousands of pages in a deafening echo chamber.
* * *
We should turn to Rand’s ideas now, for it is her ideas that meant the most to her and made many of her readers her disciples. “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” long as they are, have the simple clarity of fables, bearing an unambiguous message.
In “The Fountainhead,” a genius architect, Howard Roark, is thwarted by forces of envy, resentment and incomprehension, in the form of academics, bureaucrats, critics, clients and mediocre fellow architects, but ultimately triumphs over all of them by remaining true to his vision and ignoring everything else.
In “Atlas Shrugged,” the world’s most brilliant inventors and entrepreneurs, led by the engineer John Galt, are so pestered by envy, resentment and incomprehension, in the form of high taxes, government regulation and various abuses of the power of eminent domain, that they withdraw from the world; without them, the world collapses.
Both novels see civilization as spearheaded by a tiny vanguard of the visionary, capable and extremely good- looking, who are misunderstood by everyone around them and hampered by (1) the indifference, envy and stupidity of the masses, (2) religion, with its obsolete morality of altruism and self-sacrifice and (3) the state, with its taxes and regulations. Randianism, we can say, is equal parts Milton Friedman and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Rand had good reason to loathe arbitrary state power. She was born Alissa Rosenbaum, in 1905, in Russia. Her father owned a large pharmacy and was prosperous enough that the family could afford vacations on the Black Sea and in Austria. Alissa Rosenbaum was 12 when the Bolshevik Revolution occurred; her father’s business was seized by the government, leaving the family in relative poverty. (The Soviets also provided her with a free university education, which, as a Jew and a woman, she would have been denied under the czars, but that did not diminish her rancor against the state.) In 1926, thanks to some maternal relatives in Chicago, she had a chance to immigrate to the United States; she immediately seized it, changed her name and moved to Hollywood to write for the movies. In 1937 she published her first novel, “We the Living,” set in Russia and emphatically anti-Soviet in tone. Her anti-communist politics made her anti-New Deal as well, and she worked energetically in Wendell Wilkie’s 1940 presidential campaign, thanks to which she met several leading conservative thinkers of the time, including the economist Ludwig von Mises.
“The Fountainhead” was published in 1943, in a moderate press run with almost no advertising and little initial response, but word of mouth made it a phenomenal best-seller over the next few years and attracted a large and worshipful following. She worked next on elaborating her philosophy, which she named Objectivism, and considered dedicating her efforts to a treatise, but instead chose to embody her ideas in her third and final novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” which appeared in 1957. It was met with catastrophically bad reviews, even in the leading conservative journal of opinion, the “National Review,” but sales were massive, especially among college students. The young conservatives who founded Young Americans for Freedom, energized the Barry Goldwater campaign and then moved on the Libertarian Party or the Reagan Revolution were typically Rand readers.
If we ask why novels as unapologetically elitist as Rand’s have been embraced by millions, we may find an answer in this appeal they have for the young. In one’s late teens and early 20s, one is all too likely to feel like an unrecognized genius. It seems obvious, at that age, that all the world’s business has been hitherto conducted on unsound principles, muddied by compromise and mediocrity, and that everyone is wrong. One feels a bubbling of potential within, a clarity of vision and solidity of purpose that could set everything right—yet one is thwarted, frustrated, misunderstood. No one gets it. All authorities conspire to hold things back. Every young person feels that way some of the time. If he or she feels that way much of the time, coming across Ayn Rand is like discovering chocolate heroin. That Rand is ignored, even disdained by the literary and philosophical establishments, that she is on no course’s syllabus, that no cultural authority endorses her, that one has to find her all on one’s own only makes the novels that much sweeter and intoxicating. The world’s failure to appreciate Ayn Rand probably seems just one more of the world’s inexplicable lapses.
To be continued in the next issue of Prairie Fire.
Works Cited or Consulted
Burns, Jennifer. “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.” New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Frank, Thomas. “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.
Hacker, Jacob and Paul Pierson. “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
Halpern, Sue. “Who Was Steve Jobs?” Review of “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. “New York Review of Books,” Jan. 12, 2012.
Heller, Anne. “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.” New York: Anchor Books, 2010.
Moore, Stephen. “‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years.” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 9, 2009.
Rand, Ayn. “Atlas Shrugged.” New York: Random House, 1957.
———. “The Fountainhead. “New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
Robin, Corey. “Garbage and Gravitas.” “The Nation,” June 7, 2010.
Tanenhaus, Sam. “The Death of Conservatism.” New York: Random House, 2009.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. “Democracy in America.” 1835 (vol. 1), 1840 (vol. 2), trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Library of America, 2004.