In 1991, the book-of-the-month club conducted a survey asking people what book had most influenced their lives. The Bible ranked number one and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” was number two. In 1998, the Modern Library released two lists of the top 100 books of the twentieth century. One was compiled from the votes of the Modern Library’s Board, consisting of luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Edmund Morris, and Salman Rushdie. The two top-ranked books on the Board’s list were “Ulysses” and “The Great Gatsby.”
The other list was based on more than 200,000 votes cast online by anyone who wanted to vote. The top two on that list were “Atlas Shrugged” (1957) and “The Fountainhead” (1943). The two novels have had six-figure annual sales for decades, running at a combined 300,000 copies annually during the past ten years. In 2009, “Atlas Shrugged” alone sold a record 500,000 copies and Rand’s four novels combined (the lesser two are “We the Living”  and “Anthem” ) sold more than 1,000,000 copies.
And yet for 27 years after her death in 1982, we had no single scholarly biography of Ayn Rand. Who was this woman? How did she come to write such phenomenally influential novels? What are we to make of her legacy? These questions were finally asked and answered splendidly, with somewhat different emphases, in two biographies published within weeks of each other in 2009: “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right” by Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, and “Ayn Rand and the World She Made” by Anne C. Heller, a former executive editor at Condé Nast Publications.
They are both big books, well written, exhaustively researched, and—remarkably, given their subject—judicious and disinterested. Both authors strike just the right tone in describing Rand’s complicated life and personality, betraying neither animus nor infatuation. Choosing between them is a matter of tastes and interests. Burns’s book offers more analysis of Rand’s political activities and influence and less detail about Rand’s personal life than Heller’s. As someone who has known some of the principals in the drama and has been curious to learn the details from a detached perspective, I was drawn to Heller’s lavishly detailed portrait of Rand the person, but that’s a matter of my own tastes and interests.
In both accounts, the vibrant, brilliant woman of ideas shines through. Hour after hour the talk would continue in her New York apartment during the 1950s, sometimes all night, with Rand surrounded by her acolytes. Everyone seems to agree that this was Rand at her best. They also agree that she was spectacularly good at making her case. This was the Ayn Rand I once saw at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum in the early 1960s: confident, incisive, fielding all questions, taking no prisoners. Charismatic is an overused word, but with Rand, it fits.
Charm and Self-Delusion
Charm was part of that charisma. Heller describes the pleasure Bennett Cerf, the publisher of “Atlas Shrugged,” took in introducing Rand to his liberal friends. Writer and critic Clifton Fadiman had been one of the models for the detestable Ellsworth Toohey in “The Fountainhead,” but when Cerf brought them together Rand entranced Fadiman, and they talked until three in the morning. Playwright George Axelrod, another liberal friend of Cerf’s, pronounced after a dinner at Rand’s apartment that “[s]he knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years.”
Both biographers also describe a kinder, gentler Rand who was just as real as the fierce intellectual combatant. To Martin Anderson, Ronald Reagan’s long-time advisor, she was a “pussycat,” who alone among a crowd at a café noticed Anderson couldn’t get his package of cream open (he had a broken arm) and helped him prepare his coffee. Joan Kennedy Taylor, for whose wedding Rand was matron of honor, once told me about Rand shushing Joan’s objections when a recently widowed friend talked about rejoining her husband in heaven. If it gave her comfort, Rand said, Joan had no business trying to convince her she was wrong. There are repeated examples in both biographies of the ways in which Rand could be a sensitive, loyal, and affectionate friend.
But there’s no getting around it: taken as a whole, there is a dismaying discrepancy between the Ayn Rand of real life and Ayn Rand as she presented herself to the world. The discrepancy is important because Rand herself made such a big deal about living a life that was the embodiment of her philosophy. “My personal life is a postscript to my novels,” she wrote in the afterword to “Atlas Shrugged.” “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 works for my characters.” As both books document, that statement was self-delusion on a grand scale.
After “Atlas Shrugged” was published in 1957, Rand and her chief disciple Nathaniel Branden converted the themes of her novels into a philosophy they labeled “Objectivism.” Objectivism takes as its metaphysical foundation the existence of reality that is unchanged by anything that an observer might think about it—“A is A,” as Aristotle put it, and as Rand often repeated in her own work. Objectivism’s epistemology is based on the capacity of the human mind to perceive reality through reason, and the adamant assertion that reason is the only way to perceive reality. In Rand’s view, notions of intuition or spiritual insight were hokum.
One of the extensions of these premises to daily life is that “[o]ne must never attempt to fake reality in any manner,” in words from “The Virtue of Selfishness” (1964) that appear in variations throughout Rand’s work. To fake reality despoils that which makes human beings human. Wishful thinking, unrealistic hopes, duplicity, refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions—all these amount to faking reality and, to Rand, were despicable. But Rand herself faked reality throughout her life, beginning in small ways and ending with the construction of a delusional alternative reality that took over her life.
A Predilection for Faking Reality Began Early
It began innocently in Russia, where Rand, born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905, spent her childhood as the daughter of a prosperous Jewish pharmacist in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg, experienced the Bolshevik Revolution as a teenager, and graduated from university in Lenin’s new USSR. One of the signal contributions of both biographies is to open up this previously ignored but crucial period in Rand’s life. Little Alissa, nicknamed Ayinotchka and sometimes called Ayin by her father (a delicious tidbit from Heller’s research that calls into question all the other theories about the origin of “Ayn”), was a brilliant but socially awkward child who found her escape in books and, later, films. Nothing wrong with that—it would be odd if a novelist did not have an active fantasy life as a child. But you cannot understand Rand the adult until you understand how central those fictional worlds were to her interior life.
Her predilection for faking reality as an adult first emerged in the conflict between the reality of her husband, Frank O’Connor, and her image of him. O’Connor was a handsome bit-part actor Rand met soon after moving to Hollywood in 1927—in Heller’s words, a “sweet, gallant, stoic, funny, emotionally inexpressive, easily led, and profoundly passive” man who drank too much, never initiated sex, never brought in much income, and in his own eyes was always “Mr. Ayn Rand.” And yet Rand herself always insisted O’Connor was a Randian hero in the mold of “The Fountainhead’s” Howard Roark. It never made any sense to friends who knew them both.
Rand’s idealization of O’Connor had an endearing aspect. She genuinely loved him and remained devoted to him through his long, sad decline in old age. But her self-delusion could be hurtful. O’Connor was happiest and most productive on their 13-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley where they lived in the last half of the 1940s, and was miserable when Rand unilaterally decided they would move to New York in 1951. She always pretended that Frank had hated California, too (“You feel the same way, don’t you, Frank?” she would say insistently whenever the subject came up), even though everybody knew—surely including Rand, her friends thought—the move had caused him lasting pain. That is called faking reality to protect yourself from acknowledging the consequences of your own actions—a mortal sin in Randian ethics.
There was her 30-year use of amphetamines, beginning with Benzedrine in 1942, as she was rushing to complete “The Fountainhead,” and continuing with Dexedrine and Dexamyl into the 1970s. Until now, that had been described as a two-pill-a-day prescription for weight control, but evidence in Heller’s book indicates everyone didn’t see it that way. As early as 1945, Rand’s then-close friend, journalist Isabel Paterson, was berating her in letters with passages such as, “Stop taking that benzedrine, you idiot. I don’t care what excuse you have—stop it.” Heller presents other evidence that Rand had periods of heavy use in the 1950s and ’60s. But the exact extent of her dependence on amphetamines is peripheral here to the broader self-delusion. As anyone who has had the experience knows, a good way to get a really, really distorted sense of reality is to swallow a couple of Dexedrines. If you want to take them anyway, don’t go around bragging that you never “fake reality in any manner.”
There was Rand’s repeated claim that she owed no philosophical debt to anyone except Aristotle. It would be more accurate to say that everything in Objectivism is derivative of ideas that thinkers from John Locke to Adam Smith to Friedrich Nietzsche had expressed before. That’s the way advances come about—in Isaac Newton’s famous words, by standing on the shoulders of giants. But Newton, like other important thinkers, knew it and acknowledged it. By insisting Objectivism had sprung full blown from her own mind, with just a little help from Aristotle, Rand was being childish, as well as out of touch with reality.
There was her affair with Nathaniel Branden. It began in 1955 with an open declaration to her husband and Branden’s wife that the affair would take place—no faking of reality in that instance—but ended in 1968 with Rand demonstrating beyond doubt that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. She expelled Branden from the Objectivist movement, tried to get a publisher to block publication of one of his books, and falsely alleged financial shenanigans by him, all accompanied by a 53-paragraph statement to her followers about the reasons for repudiating Branden (including the sentence, “I do not fake reality and never have”) that was a deception from beginning to end. That’s called maliciously faking reality to get vengeance and to protect one’s image.
Finally, there was the cult surrounding Rand that developed during the 1960s. Reasoned discourse with Rand became impossible unless you began by accepting her pronouncements about everything—then you could argue the logic of your position. What had been lively back-and-forth explorations of ideas in the early 1950s became sessions at which the students sat at the feet of the master, “shivering, scared children who dared not say the wrong thing lest they incur her wrath,” in the words of John Hospers. The lifelong aspect of Rand’s personality that had fueled the brilliance of her novels, the capacity to imagine the world as she wanted it to be rather than the world as it is, had taken over real life. She had constructed a reality in which, if she so decreed, A was Z, and she lived within it for the rest of her life.
Yet Ayn Rand Trumpeted Some Timeless Truths
Why, then, has reading these biographies of a deeply flawed woman—putting it gently—made me want to go back and reread her novels yet again? The answer is that Rand was a hedgehog who got a few huge truths right, and expressed those truths in her fiction so powerfully that they continue to inspire each new generation. They have only a loose relationship with Objectivism as a philosophy (which was formally developed only after the novels were written). Are selfishness and greed cardinal virtues in Objectivism? Who cares? Do Objectivist aesthetics denigrate Bach and Mozart? Who cares? Objectivism has nothing to do with what mesmerizes people about “The Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged.” What does mesmerize us? Fans of Ayn Rand will answer differently. Part of the popularity of the books derives from the many ways their themes can be refracted. Here is what I saw in Rand’s fictional world that shaped my views as an adolescent and still shapes them 50 years later.
First, Rand expressed the glory of human achievement. She tapped into the delight a human being ought to feel at watching another member of our species doing things superbly well. The scenes in “The Fountainhead” in which the hero, Howard Roark, realizes his visions of architectural truth are brilliant evocations of human creativity at work. But I also loved scenes like the one in “Atlas Shrugged” when protagonist Dagny Taggart is in the cab of the locomotive on the first run on the John Galt line, going at record speed, and glances at the engineer:
He sat slumped forward a little, relaxed, one hand resting lightly on the throttle as if by chance; but his eyes were fixed on the track ahead. He had the ease of an expert, so confident that it seemed casual, but it was the ease of a tremendous concentration, the concentration on one’s task that has the ruthlessness of an absolute.
That’s a heroic vision of a blue-collar worker doing his job. There are many others. Critics often accuse Rand of portraying a few geniuses as the only people worth valuing. That’s not what I took away from her. I saw her celebrating people who did their work well and condemning people who settled for less, in great endeavors or small; celebrating those who took responsibility for their lives, and condemning those who did not. That sounded right to me in 1960 and still sounds right in 2010.
Second, Ayn Rand portrayed a world I wanted to live in, not because I would be rich or powerful in it, but because it consisted of people I wanted to be around. As conditions deteriorate in “Atlas Shrugged,” the first person to quit in disgust at Hank Rearden’s steel mill is Tom Colby, head of the company union:
For ten years, he had heard himself denounced throughout the country, because his was a ‘company union’ and because he had never engaged in a violent conflict with the management. This was true; no conflict had ever been necessary; Rearden paid a higher wage scale than any union scale in the country, for which he demanded—and got—the best labor force to be found anywhere.
That’s not a world of selfishness or greed. It’s a world of cooperation and mutual benefit through the pursuit of self-interest, enabling satisfying lives not only for the Hank Reardens of the world but for factory workers. I still want to live there.
That world came together in the chapters of “Atlas Shrugged” describing Galt’s Gulch, the chapters I most often reread when I go back to the book. The great men and women who have gone on strike are gathered there, sometimes working at their old professions, but more often being grocers and cabbage growers and plumbers, because that’s the niche in which they can make a living. In scene after scene, Rand shows what such a community would be like, and it does not consist of isolated individualists holding one another at arm’s length. Individualists, yes, but ones who have fun in one another’s company, care about one another, and care for one another—not out of obligation, but out of mutual respect and spontaneous affection.
Ayn Rand never dwelt on her Russian childhood, preferring to think of herself as wholly American. Rightly so. The huge truths she apprehended and expressed were as American as apple pie. I suppose hardcore Objectivists will consider what I’m about to say heresy, but hardcore Objectivists are not competent to judge. The novels are what make Ayn Rand important. Better than any other American novelist, she captured the magic of what life in America is supposed to be. The utopia of her novels is not a utopia of greed. It is not a utopia of Nietzschean supermen. It is a utopia of human beings living together in Jeffersonian freedom.
This review first appeared in the Claremont Review of Books.