Ayn Rand's Literary Journey


The Early Ayn Rand: A Selection from Her Unpublished Fiction, edited by Leonard Peikoff, New York: New American Library, 387 pp., $16.95

The Early Ayn Rand is a book that one reads with a sense of regret. Author of the bestselling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand was also a forceful voice for free-market individualism. This new book contains the last of Rand's imaginative writing that may ever appear in print. But most of it is greatly inferior in quality to the work published before her death in 1982. Yet, although the new book brings to light no hidden masterpiece, no long-awaited fifth novel, The Early Ayn Rand is an important—and a very interesting—record of Rand's literary and intellectual development.

In making his selections from Rand's manuscripts, Leonard Peikoff, her friend and the executor of her literary estate, has omitted such items as the stage version of her first novel, We the Living; her screen adaptations of other people's work, when she was working in Hollywood; and one early short story. He has included four stories from the late 1920s; a synopsis for a film that was never produced (Red Pawn, 1931–32); two plays, Ideal (1934) and Think Twice (1939); and a total of 49 pages cut from We the Living and The Fountainhead.

The best piece in the book is probably Her Second Career (1929), an amusing story that shows Rand developing the penetrating wit that was to make her one of the greatest political and social critics in American literature. With an assured command of concrete imagery, learned on the spot in Hollywood, Rand describes the sad adventures of a film star who has made herself famous through nepotism and "ballyhoo" but now wishes to prove that she can start all over again and succeed through merit alone. Another comic story, Good Copy (about 1927), is too slight and silly for the printed page; if it had been put to use in the movies, however, it might have been turned into a pretty good "screwball comedy," as un-Randian as that may sound.

Most of the other selections are not worth salvaging for their aesthetic contribution alone, and Peikoff is right in emphasizing their value in seeing Rand's gradual self-education as a writer. The earliest story in the book, The Husband I Bought (1926), is as bad as bad can be—light-years away from what Rand scholar and philosopher Wallace Matson has called "the luminous and vigorous style" of Rand's mature writing.

Subsequent works in the collection show her struggling to give succinct and forceful portrayals of a series of diverse characters (Ideal); trying to combine suspense with philosophical exposition (Think Twice); working to intensify her imagery and turn concrete detail into telling symbolism (Red Pawn). Her experiments often fail, but they always exhibit the drama of a determined mind confronting serious problems.

Several of the ruling ideas of Rand's mature writing take shape in these early works, although the shape is sometimes an ungainly one. Having escaped from the Soviet Union to a new but uncertain life in the United States, Rand shows an absorbing interest in the pursuit of happiness—a wild, heroic, nonrational, and even suicidal happiness. In Red Pawn, one of the heroes allows himself to be executed, deriving immense satisfaction from knowing that his lover can thereby escape to freedom. In The Husband I Bought, the heroine proudly sacrifices her life so that her husband can have a chance for happiness with another woman. The beneficiary of this sacrifice is an incompetent parasite, but he somehow makes the heroine ecstatically happy, so rational standards are not allowed to interfere.

As late as the first edition of We the Living (1936), Rand had not, in fact, begun to place much emphasis on the value of reason, though in that book she does offer superb descriptions of the evil effects of political unreason. The emphasis on freedom, during her early years, is generally an emphasis on the freedom of certain exceptional people to pursue happiness in their own way. These people are the "few" who "want the highest possible" and are willing to fulfill what one of them calls "our duty to ourselves.…You want it. That's the highest of all reasons."

In Ideal, Rand's interest in the "few" takes a strange turn. The play's basic concept is a clever one: a great actress searches out her admirers, trying to discover whether they can bear to be confronted by their professed ideal. Only one of them can—a hero-worshiping nobody who achieves perfect happiness in dying (needlessly, as it turns out) in her defense. The act of allowing him to do so is described by Rand's heroine as "the kindest thing" she has "ever done." This is a striking way to end a play—but not, surely, a very inspiring way to do so.

Altruism becomes the major issue in Think Twice, a rather drab, plot-heavy work that still manages to give promise of better things to come. Here a secretive inventor—a blurry sketch for John Galt of the future Atlas Shrugged—does battle with a malignant partisan of "humanitarian" self-sacrifice; this latter character is a distant relation of the magnificently malignant Ellsworth Toohey, star villain of The Fountainhead, then in progress.

The Fountainhead (published in 1943) presents a powerful synthesis and a careful refinement of the views that Rand had been developing. Some of her problems at this stage are revealed, however, by a sequence of previously unpublished passages from the novel's manuscript.

The passages describe the affair of her hero, Howard Roark, with one Vesta Dunning, a lively and talented but imperfect character. Roark reacts to her with his normal egoism, although this time he carries it to an extreme of coldblooded arrogance. Rand sympathizes, as elsewhere, with Roark—at least she does so officially—but she has Vesta deliver a vigorous, and rather impressive, rebuke of Roark for being "closed" and "finished" and blind to everything "gay and simple and pleasant."

The literary effect is confused, as if Rand were not entirely clear about what kind of person she wanted her hero to be. She certainly did well to suppress the offending passages. Yet perhaps she would have done better to retain the Vesta relationship and use it to improve Roark's understanding of the point at which purposeful autonomy deteriorates into gratuitous self-isolation.

For people who want to know more about Rand the person as well as Rand the thinker, Peikoff's introduction and notes provide valuable information. Though this information about Rand's life might be even more plentiful, it does illuminate some interesting sides of her many-faceted character.

To cite some examples: Rand loved mystery stories, yet she remarked realistically that she could never "write a series of mysteries, because everyone would know who the murderers were."

After finishing her last novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand wanted, as Peikoff says, "to write a pure adventure story without any deep philosophical theme"; she chose the hero's name, but she never wrote the story. Rand and her husband owned a pair of toy lions named Oscar and Oswald, and in their honor (and probably that of O. Henry), she signed some of her stories "O.O. Lyons."

Such anecdotes help to reveal a colorful personality too often hidden by the philosopher's mantle. One hopes that more of them will be brought forward by Rand's friends—and that the letters, journals, and lectures to which Peikoff refers in his introduction to this volume will join the list of her published works.

Stephen Cox is an associate professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, and is the author of "The Stranger Within Thee": Concepts of the Self in Late-Eighteenth-Century Literature (University of Pittsburgh Press).