The Writerly Rand
Journals of Ayn Rand, edited by David Harriman, foreword by Leonard Peikoff, New York: Dutton, 727 pages, $39.95
Deep into the writing of The Fountainhead, with a third of the manuscript already finished, novelist Ayn Rand had the book's exciting climax all worked out. It was to consist of a public crime followed by a dramatic trial and vindication: slinky heroine/architecture critic Dominique Francon would gun down leftist social commentator Ellsworth Toohey, having finally figured out what a philosophical bad guy he truly was. Hero/master builder Howard Roark would then step forward and take the murder rap for her, and later would go free after a campaign organized by his friends.
Fortunately for two generations of admirers, Rand wound up tossing that working outline in favor of a far sounder way of bringing her plot to a climax (Roark learns the artistic integrity of his design for a housing project has been subverted, blows up the completed but vacant structure, gives a speech to jury, and gets off). Also jettisoned, according to editor David Harriman, was an apparent early idea of "prefacing each part of The Fountainhead with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche."
If you're surprised that anyone should care deeply about these matters one way or the other, you're a poor bet to shell out $39.95 for the 727-page Journals of Ayn Rand. Like the other posthumous Randiana that Dutton has been publishing in recent years under the guidance of Rand literary executor Leonard Peikoff–letters, juvenilia, and so forth–these journals make a less-than-ideal place to start for those not already closely familiar with the Russian-born author's work. Happily for the book's market prospects, the novels continue to command a huge and enthusiastic readership, and confirmed fans may find irresistible the opportunity to watch the shavings fly in Rand's fiction workshop.
Rand made her alternate world seem natural and inevitable to millions of readers, but in fact it was the result of enormous painstaking, its details frequently worked out from the false starts and blind alleys documented here. Peter Keating, Roark's mediocre foil in The Fountainhead, was originally planned to turn to drink and commit suicide, a pat fate indeed, while in early plans for Atlas Shrugged the appealing but naive Cherryl Brooks did not kill herself. Both plot changes worked to make the characters more memorable, while making the books emotionally tougher on readers. One wonders how Atlas would have turned out had Rand, a determined and lifelong opponent of religion, stayed with her early plan to give an important plot role to an intellectual Catholic priest who was to have been portrayed sympathetically, "my most glamorized projection of a Thomist philosopher."
The journals begin in 1927 with the 22-year-old Rand, barely off the boat from St. Petersburg yet already in Hollywood and working for none other than Cecil B. DeMille, dashing off scenarios remarkably evocative of her later work. Among her very first projects, The Skyscraper, an "epic of construction," features a heroine who dances on a rooftop and ends up with the hero on a narrow girder, "almost naked in her follies costume…a terrific height above the city." Yes, romantic is a fair description.
Most of the early scenarios went unproduced or were ruined in the production, but Rand tore on, undiscourageable. "From now on–no thought whatever about yourself, only about your work," vowed the future avatar of "rational egoism." "You don't exist. You are only a writing engine."
As such quotes suggest, Rand's idea of what it meant to be an egoist never quite conformed to the outside world's. The idea that individualism is somehow a creed for self-indulgents and slackers, a fashionable dismissal in some circles these days, hardly describes her methods. "Life is achievement….Give yourself an aim, something you want to do, then go after it, breaking through everything, with nothing in mind but your aim, all will, all concentration, and get it."
The journals concentrate single-mindedly on active writing projects and will disappoint those who expect much in the way of commentary on the passing scene or current events. There are few mentions of Franklin Roosevelt or even of World War II. Also excluded from this volume are most personal reflections on friends and acquaintances, though it is piquant to learn that the author took her revenge on various executives at Bobbs-Merrill who had mispromoted The Fountainhead by casting them as Orren Boyle and the other appalling businessmen who figure among the bad guys in Atlas Shrugged.
In 1946, typically, the author was describing the writing of fiction as "my life purpose" and the thing "that interests me most," and the journals contain few hints of the highly influential future that lay ahead for her as a writer of nonfiction. Her comments about writing pretty much stop dead when she completes Atlas Shrugged: A whole shelf of nonfiction essays was to follow, but she seems to have dashed them off without the careful note taking and redrafting that typified her novels–either that, or the notes and early drafts of the nonfiction did not survive. So there's very little new here in the way of elaborations on her eventual creed of "Objectivism."
Fortunately, the journals furnish a deep popcorn bowl of sheer fan value, with everything from a time line on The Fountainhead ("when they meet, [publisher Gail] Wynand is 54, Roark is 37") to considerable light on the question of which real-life figures helped suggest which fictional characters. We more or less knew that Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan were on Rand's mind when she drew hero Howard Roark and his burned-out mentor Henry Cameron, and the minor character Lois Cook is an obvious send-up of Gertrude Stein. But those who always wondered what Rand thought of H.L. Mencken will be tantalized by a cryptic note suggesting that he may have served as the model for the sympathetically portrayed critic Austen Heller in The Fountainhead. As for newspaper tycoon Wynand, Rand prepared for his characterization by digesting into notes (often quite entertainingly) a volume on the career of William Randolph Hearst.
And the villain Toohey? He seems to have been loosely based on Lewis Mumford, the architecture and urban critic whose once glistening reputation has been a-tarnish for decades now. Later on Rand saw famed British socialist Harold Laski address a public audience and decided he was even closer to her Toohey ideal than Mumford.
Rand left relatively few unpublished projects in any state of detail. Nothing became of a projected movie script for Hal Wallis which was to have told the story of the making of the atomic bomb, but editor Harriman argues plausibly that the extensive interviews she conducted with leading nuclear physicists left their mark on Atlas Shrugged: The sense of camaraderie among brilliant scientist-neighbors in rural Los Alamos, New Mexico, fondly recollected by many participants, helped suggest the idea of Galt's Gulch, while her interviews with J. Robert Oppenheimer led her to develop the character of Robert Stadler, the good-scientist-gone-bad.
There are also a few notes on a final projected novel, which was apparently to be quite different from her two blockbusters: Set in the fictional town of Athens, Maine, it was to be an inward and personal rather than world-historical story, a tale of unrequited love and of joy preserved amid adversity, with a great effort to capture in written form the spirit of music and dance.
There are also occasional pages here that will detract from Rand's reputation or remind readers why she has had so much trouble making it into the mainstream. A 1948 note finds her musing that of all the bad characters in life, "the most vicious ones…the truly evil, are those who watch with cautious interest, the safe-players and middle-of-the-roaders." Then there's her fondness for the anti-social personality: "he was born without the ability to consider others" she says of Roark, intending that as praise.
Easily taking the prize for the worst piece in the Rand canon is a plan, fortunately never published until now, for what would have been her first novel. Titled The Little Street, it is indeed a dreadful misfire, combining chunks of undigested Nietzscheanism, a detestable hero, and a bristling hostility toward anyone and everyone who can be regarded as ordinary and obscure and thus, in the eyes of its 22-year-old author, a failure.
As Peikoff points out in his reverent but useful foreword, Rand did learn better, eventually even mustering some degree of benevolence toward the "honest average man" who fell short of matching her heroes' deeds. But as these pages document, one of the greatest struggles in this epic life was the struggle to overcome her own earlier views.