Ayn Rand: The Story of a Complex Life
The Passion of Ayn Rand, by Barbara Branden, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 400 pages, $19.95
Ayn Rand (1905–1982), novelist, philosopher, and advocate of free-enterprise individualism, declared that she would never write an autobiography: "It would bore me to death." Yet the history of her life is anything but boring.
Barbara Branden is in an excellent position to write that history. She was Rand's intimate friend from 1950 to 1968, collaborating with her in popularizing the philosophical movement, Objectivism, that grew out of Rand's work. Although their friendship ended in a bitter quarrel, they effected at least a partial reconciliation shortly before Rand died. Branden supplemented her direct knowledge of Rand, and the biographical interviews that Rand granted her during their period of collaboration, with a vigorous effort to track down anyone who might remember something important about her subject.
Branden presents a much fuller account of Rand than any previously published. She reveals new information about Rand's horrifying early life in Russia, information that shows how extensively Rand drew on her own experiences in creating her first novel, We the Living (1936). She sheds new light on the long struggle by which Alice Rosenbaum, a virtually penniless immigrant to America in 1926, transfigured herself into Ayn Rand, the influential author of The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). She provides fascinating views of Rand's painstakingly difficult methods of literary composition, of her disappointing involvements in politics, of her relationships with people as diverse as Clark Gable, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Frank Lloyd Wright, Isabel Paterson, Ruth Beebe Hill, Clifton Fadiman, Hiram Haydn, Cecil B. De Mille, and Bennett Cerf. And finally, Branden provides a moving, though not a sentimentalized, account of the sad, declining years of Rand's life.
Rand was an intensely private person; no biographer is likely to answer all the major questions about her. Something more remains to be discovered, for instance, about her intellectual development during the 1930s and 1940s, about the ideas she adopted, rejected, or revised while creating her philosophy. More needs to be revealed about her intellectual relations with other people who contributed to individualist thought; one would like to have more-detailed information about her reactions to the ideas of such people as economist Ludwig von Mises and author Rose Wilder Lane, as well as about her acquaintance with them.
Other memoirs may help to fill out the picture, but Branden's book is especially good at suggesting the originality, and often the charm, of Rand's character. We see Rand learning to dance at the age of 62, like Socrates in his old age learning to play the lyre; Rand receiving compensation for artistic property looted by the Italian government and planning to spend the money in the most frivolously celebratory way she could; Rand collecting background information for the railroad scenes in Atlas Shrugged and brimming with joy when she was allowed to drive the engine of the Twentieth Century Limited.
Branden's work, however, is more than an account of Rand's life; it is also a study of Rand's effect on Branden's own life and on the lives of other members of her innermost circle of friends. It is an analysis of tragically destructive relations between leader and followers, teacher and students. For this tragedy, Branden says, "no one was blameless."
Rand, as she describes her, was an individualist philosopher whose contradictorily authoritarian personal style transformed her moral teachings into "a set of dreary duties and a source of agonized emotional repression." She was a romantic artist intent on making everything in her life, including herself and her friends, conform to her ideal conceptions; when reality proved difficult to mold, she was often overwhelmed with exhaustion or reduced to baffled rage. Branden and her then-husband Nathaniel, the psychologist whom Rand once designated as her "intellectual heir," learned from Rand an exalted philosophy of liberty and rationality, but they surrendered their individual judgment and initiative to their teacher. The consequences for all were failure of objectivity, emotional entanglements from which no one knew how to break free, and at last an explosion of anger and frustration that severely damaged the movement that Rand and her friends were attempting to lead.
Branden's Citizen Kane–like story is frequently a painful one, but she tells it with considerable tact and insight. Her book is not a cynical exposé of human weaknesses but a reflective consideration of the problems that may be involved in trying to live by one's highest ideals. No member of a political or philosophical movement should remain innocent of reflection on the issues raised here. Yet Branden does not allow her discussion of personal weaknesses to detract from the permanent importance of the ideals that Rand courageously attempted to exemplify. Those ideals—reason, freedom, joy—may have been better expressed in her literary works than in some aspects of her life. Well then, the works remain.
Stephen Cox teaches literature at the University of California in San Diego and is the author of The Stranger Within Thee: Concepts of the Self in Late-Eighteenth-Century Literature.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Ayn Rand; The Story of a Complex Life".