Our Forgotten Goddess

Isabel Paterson and the origins of libertarianism.

The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America, by Stephen Cox, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 418 pages, $39.95

The history of libertarianism has played out in the catacombs of standard American intellectual history. And so, even after an age of feminist theory and history, it is little noted that in 1943 three foundational documents of modern libertarianism were issued, as the journalist John Chamberlain put it, by "three women--Mrs. [Isabel] Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand--who, with scornful side glances at the male business community, had decided to rekindle a faith in an older American philosophy. There wasn't an economist among them. And none of them was a Ph.D."

The works included Ayn Rand's first successful novel, The Fountainhead, in print constantly ever since. It has imbued generation after generation with admiration for a hero, Howard Roark, who acted on the belief that no man had a legitimate claim on his liberty, his energy. Most readers end up cheering Roark as he blows up an unoccupied government housing project for the poor. (He had his reasons.)

Another, less well-known work published that year was an extended essay on history and political philosophy called The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle Against Authority. That book was written by novelist and journalist Rose Wilder Lane, best known nowadays as the daughter of (and possibly ghostwriter for) Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame.

The third book was by a woman even less remembered now. She was a formerly influential New York literary critic and novelist who, like Lane, ended her public career with a work of uncompromisingly libertarian nonfiction published in the midst of war collectivism, after a decade of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had made classical liberalism dangerously out of touch with the zeitgeist. Her name was Isabel Paterson, and her book was The God of the Machine. Her first biography, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America, has just been published, written by Stephen Cox, a literature professor at the University of California at San Diego. Cox has done a smart, thorough job of explaining and contextualizing this unusual figure. He explores her connections to Lane and Rand, shining welcome light on an unfairly dark corner of 20th-century American intellectual history.

Paterson swam against a mighty tide with The God of the Machine. Old Right journalist Albert Jay Nock believed, with much evidence, that individualists were "superfluous men" in Roosevelt's America. Libertarian ideas, he thought, were like a delicate candle flame ever threatening to gutter; they could only be tended to monkishly by a tiny and obscure remnant. These three books published in 1943 tried to bring the philosophy to a wide, popular audience that the authors hoped was ready for it.

Nock declared that Lane's and Paterson's works were "the only intelligible books on the philosophy of individualism that have been written in America this century." The two female journalists had "shown the male world of this period how to think fundamentally....They don't fumble and fiddle around--every shot goes straight to the centre."

Not just to the center, but to the root. The two books Nock wrote of--along with the novel by Rand, who was a close friend to Paterson (who was a close friend to Lane)--were each obsessed in their way with the origins of phenomena. In Paterson and Lane's case, the phenomenon was American political and economic success. In Rand's case, it was human greatness--and human depravity.

Two of these women died in obscurity; the third died as a lonely, embittered figure who was nonetheless loved by millions. They all paid a price for being uncompromising defenders of unpopular beliefs. They were all childless, but their ideological offspring have defined the libertarian movement in the postwar era. Paterson was one of the earliest synthesizers of the mixture that defines the still-growing political-ideological movement and tendency known as libertarianism, combining, as Cox aptly sums it up, "a belief in absolute individual rights and minimal (not just limited) government; advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism and an individualist and 'subjective' approach to economic theory; and opposition to social planning, victimless crime legislation, and any form of 'class' or 'status' society."

In The God of the Machine, her one work of political philosophy, Paterson tried to explain American exceptionalism. But she herself was a native Canadian, born Isabel Bowler (or possibly Mary Isabel Bowler; Cox was unable to ascertain her birth name) on an island in the middle of Lake Huron on January 22, 1886, one of nine children. Her family moved to the U.S. shortly thereafter, roughing it in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Utah territory. She spent her girlhood farming, ranching, and communing with Indians in the American West.

"She would never regard the frontier as the breeding ground of puritan virtues," writes Cox. "She was aware that other people did. Those people, she could only suppose, had 'never lived on the frontier,' where freedom to loaf was more highly prized than hard work and stern ambition." Paterson did recognize that "frontier society offered 'the most civilized type of association'...because it had 'the absolute minimum of external regulation' and therefore 'the maximum of voluntary civility and morality.'"

While she was aware of the popular theory that "America's chief inheritance from its frontier past is 'aggressiveness,'" Cox writes, she considered that theory "'nonsense....On the frontier you have to be polite to your fellow men, and it won't get you anywhere to be aggressive to a blizzard.' What worked out West wasn't aggressiveness but 'a peculiarly individual, mind-your-own-business confidence.'" Paterson cultivated that ethic in herself. Her libertarian vision, then, was not based on atomistic individualism or notions of markets as enforcing sternly puritan virtues of unremitting hard work (though she recognized, as she feared many did not, that the physical benefits of modern market culture did require someone, somewhere to innovate and labor).

In 1910 she married a Canadian real estate agent, Kenneth Birrell Paterson. By 1918 he was out of her life, and she didn't seem to know, or care, where he had gone; romance remained an insignificant part of her life from then on. Through the 1910s she worked on various newspapers in the Pacific Northwest and in New York, writing editorials and drama criticism.

Paterson's first published novel, The Shadow Riders, a romance set in the world of Canadian politics, came out in 1916. Five years later, a mutual friend introduced her to Burton Rascoe, literary editor of the New York Tribune, later the Herald-Tribune. Three years later, she began working for him (although he didn't like her at all on first meeting), and she spent the next 25 years there as a columnist and critic.

Paterson wrote a weekly column, "Turns With a Bookworm," in the paper's "Books" supplement. The Herald-Tribune's literary supplement was a powerful national force; in the mid-'30s it had 30,000 copies distributed separately to bookstores nationwide and an overall circulation of half a million. Best-selling novelist John O'Hara, as his Appointment in Samarra was published, admitted to being "very much afraid of Isabel Paterson."

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