The Ayn and Only

Cult-empress or great thinker?


It's not hard to imagine Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, at the Tea Party rallies that swept the nation this summer. She'd be smoking, of course. Stalking around in a cape and sensible shoes, this avatar of individual liberty and rationalism would accost cheerful, tubby Midwest Republicans and baffle them with her favorite greeting: "What are your premises?"

Perhaps the anti-tax, limited government Tea Partiers would recognize the stocky, intense philosopher/novelist with the large dark eyes as one of their own. She could even clamber up to the podium to address the crowd in her strong Russian accent. "Government 'help' to business is just as disastrous as government persecution," she might say, for she was fond of quoting herself. "The only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off."

Ayn Rand is no longer around to mingle at political rallies, but she is increasingly present in current political debates, as her readers find parallels between 2009 America and the world of Atlas Shrugged, in which the creative thinkers and entrepreneurs go on strike, refusing to work in a totalitarian near-future dystopia where they are forced to labor for masses that hate and fear men of genius. A small but visible cluster of bloggers and businessmen are threatening to "Go Galt"–a reference to the book's striker-hero John Galt, who simply vanishes one day, taking an ever-larger number of the socially useful with him as the global economy crumbles.

At the Tea Parties, banners blare "Atlas Is Shrugging," and there are undeniable parallels between the current political scene and the scenario described in Atlas. In both cases, major transportation industries are being nationalized, government infrastructure is falling apart, unemployment is high, and protectionism is in the air. Rand's books, which have shown consistently impressive sales for decades, tallying almost 25 million copies in print, are suddenly experiencing a spike in demand. In 2008, sales of Atlas hit an all-time annual high of 200,000 copies sold. That would be a more-than-respectable showing for a new book; it's almost unheard of for a 50-year-old tome.

An additional sign of the Rand revival: the release of two new Rand biographies. Despite the fact that she has been famous for well over a half-century, these are the first biographies produced by impartial scholars. Both books follow Rand as she leaves behind a difficult childhood in revolutionary Russia (and her birth name Alisa Rosenbaum) for sunny, materialistic California. She wins a gig as a screenwriter after a memorable encounter with Cecil B. DeMille and meets her handsome husband. They chart her flirtation with politics, many missed book deadlines, and her rise to national fame with The Fountainhead in 1943. As she works to cement her place in history with Atlas Shrugged, a movement grows up around her. She begins to write nonfiction and names her philosophy of individualism and rationality: Objectivism. She conducts a clandestine affair with her much-younger intellectual heir, Nathaniel Branden, browbeating her husband and Branden's wife into assent and oaths of secrecy which they maintain until after her death in 1982. Rand dies famous, under an avalanche of hundreds of thousands of fan letters, yet bitter over broken personal relationships and unrealized political and philosophical ambitions.

Before continuing, it's worth noting that Ayn Rand would hate both of the new biographies. But she would be wrong to hate them, because both books are very good. Journalist Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made personalizes Rand, offering gossipy details about Rand's life and loves without the usual dose of malice that taints the memoirs of Rand's onetime inner circle and designated heirs. Historian Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market–the stronger of the two–situates Rand in the 20th-century American political scene, painting her as an influential advocate for capitalism and freedom.

Both biographers are interesting women who chose to write about Rand, in part, because she was an interesting woman. Neither author–and this would be the real killer for Rand, who was not tolerant of dissent–is an adherent to Rand's philosophy. In fact, neither book treats Rand as a philosopher, a title she preferred in later years, or offers literary analysis of Rand as a novelist. Rand would say that they are missing the point. But in a way, it was Rand who failed to see her own significance: "Rand's Romantic Realism has not changed American literature, nor has Objectivism penetrated far into the philosophy profession," writes Burns. But "for more than half a century Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right."

If William F. Buckley Jr. is the father of the modern conservative movement, Ayn Rand is the worldly aunt. While Buckley was busy providing for the future and setting rules for postwar conservatism, Rand breezed in, scattering cigarette ash and dollar bills everywhere. When she parted ways with the movement in disgust, she left a trail of crumpled stockings, fur-lined handcuffs, and ideological confusion in her wake. While willing to get on board with her principled and thorough denunciation of communism, conservatives have long had an uneasy relationship with Ayn Rand. Buckley more or less booted her and her growing contingent of followers out of the movement in the late 1950s. And Whittaker Chambers's review, published in National Review in 1957, contained the most famous (and most quotable) condemnation of her novels: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard .??.??. commanding: 'To a gas chamber–go!'"

But no matter how many times Rand is thrown out of political movements, she always comes back. Her followers can be found at nearly every large gathering on the right; long after communism is a dead letter, Rand keeps showing up at conservative parties. And even when she's refused admission at the front door for her obnoxious atheism, her utopian tendencies, or her insistence on her own greatness, she turns up inside anyway, smuggled in by the many people she introduced to ideas of liberty and personal responsibility.

Of course, the disdain between conservatives and Rand was mutual, as Burns ably chronicles in her book. Her imperious style, borrowed a bit from Nietzsche in the early years, and her tendency to give the cold shoulder to Objectivist apostates, made her hard to love. Rand denounced the conservative-friendly classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek as "pure poison," primarily for his limited concessions to state planning in certain sectors of the economy. And she had harsh words for Milton Friedman as well: His casual use of the economic term "rationing" to mean "allocation" infuriated her, as did his preference for pragmatic argumentation over appeals to moral absolutes of individual liberty and reason. (Ludwig von Mises, a founding economist of the pro-market Austrian school, called Rand "the most courageous man in America," which delighted her immensely.) Her demands for ideological purity extended to atheism as well. The first time Rand and Buckley met face to face, she casually mentioned that he seemed far too intelligent to believe in God. She denounced Christianity as "the perfect kindergarten for communism." Rand's fondness for including kinky sex scenes in her novels–and her excoriation of altruism–didn't do much to endear her to Christian conservatives, either.

But there was a moment when American politics inspired Rand. The 1940 Wendell Willkie presidential campaign, which took place while she was missing one of the many deadlines for The Fountainhead, unexpectedly brought out her political fervor. A fierce opponent of Franklin Roosevelt, Rand became a Republican campaign stalwart, going door-to-door with a Willkie button pinned to her coat. She even went to movie theaters where Willkie newsreels were airing, and then stayed behind to answer questions.

"I was a marvelous propagandist," she later recalled.

Before her days as a Willkie volunteer, Burns writes, "Rand was suspicious of both democracy and capitalism, unsure if either system could be trusted to safeguard individual rights against the dangers of the mob." This was the moment when Rand became part of the American political scene, crossbreeding her self-generated individualist philosophy with the uniquely American understanding of individual rights and personal freedom. After the campaign was lost, diehards organized into grassroots-style Willkie Clubs, not unlike the Tea Parties. Rand had high hopes for the clubs as a way to keep the ideas of individualism and freedom alive. But after organizational scuffling, fundraising difficulties, and personal conflicts, she dropped out of practical politics. (Rand broke this rule only once later in life, when she was briefly enamoured with Barry Goldwater, though he soon disappointed her as well.)

With FDR back in office for a third term, Rand threw herself back into finishing The Fountainhead. When it was released in 1943 there was one positive and insightful review–in the New York Times–but most early notices were critical and dismissive. "Anyone who is taken in by [The Fountainhead] deserves a stern lecture on paper rationing," sniped Diana Trilling in the Nation. In fact, Rand was battling wartime paper rationing: She signed her contract days before Pearl Harbor. If negotiations had taken another week, Rand's editor later told her, such a paper-intensive project would probably have been junked. Rand trimmed out a subplot or two–something she never would have done in later years–to get the book down to 754 pages. But she still had to figure for more than her "fair share" of paper. The irony was not lost on this crusader against centrally controlled economies and egalitarianism that both were arrayed against her in a fight to convey her words to the public.

Worse still, many reviewers were complimentary for the wrong reasons. When it was released, Americans bought The Fountainhead in droves. But nearly everyone seemed to think it was book about architecture. Heller writes that it took "half a decade before most readers of The Fountainhead consciously noticed that it was a tract as well as a story," which Rand found baffling because, as she told a friend, "it's practically in every line." But appreciative letters from fans who cottoned to Rand's message came in steadily, and eventually Rand won recognition for the heavy lifting she was doing to link freedom and self-actualization to capitalism in the American mind, offering a principled and appealing alternative to the New Deal before the war, and socialism/communism afterwards.

Rand was always confident in her own talent, predicting sales of 100,000 copies for The Fountainhead. As it turns out, however, she was far too modest. Yet her confidence was also the reason she was shocked and hurt by the pointed way academic reviewers failed to welcome her works. Heller is particularly adept at capturing the novelist's heartache as the negative reviews poured in, and her elation at discovering the book's slow ascent to bestsellerdom.

The months after she finished The Fountainhead were probably the lowest ebb of Rand's elitism. Her books are about supermen, heroes operating on an epic scale. But in The Fountainhead, she makes a place for the common man. In a climactic courtroom scene in which the hero, architect Howard Roark, makes a speech defending his decision to blow up a housing project, the jury consists of "two executives of industrial concerns, two engineers, a mathematician, a truck driver, a bricklayer, an electrician, a gardener, and three factory workers." The jury hears Roark's explanation of why he blew up the project–his vision had been corrupted, and it was his right as creator to also be destroyer–and acquits him. This particular crowd sounds like the folks you might see at a Tea Party–and the post-Fountainhead Rand might have felt at home among them after being rejected by the leftist academic elite and the gatekeepers of intellectual conservatism.

Rand wasn't alone in feeling alienated by both the left and right. The American libertarian movement of the 1960s and '70s was made possible, in part, by a generation of Rand readers looking for an individualist alternative on the American political scene. But she didn't take a shine to her strange capitalist hippie offspring, and soon returned to her previous skepticism about politics, equally scorning the unphilosophical and irrational elements of the libertarian and conservative movements.

By the 1957 publication of her second novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand was showing evidence of her pessimism about the state and the masses. She was never one to say that commercial success indicated true worth: Her heroes are often in financial trouble because the world fails to recognize what they are offering as superior. Wealth is just as often a signifier of corruption as achievement. Financial success came to Rand herself late in life, thanks in part to her decision to build an alternative delivery system for her philosophy, outside the usual worlds of academia and politics. Rand authorized her sometime lover Nathaniel Branden to establish a newsletter-publishing operation and lecture series, which proved decently profitable and supplied Rand with a steady stream of converts. After their falling-out–Branden was keeping a girl on the side–Rand passed the mantle to another follower, who has been overzealous in his protection of her papers and name.

And yet–despite critical PR blunders and excoriation from both sides of the political aisle–Ayn Rand endures. People keep buying her books and, perhaps more important, giving them to each other. Republican congressmen Paul Ryan (Wis.) and John Campbell (Calif.) give out copies of Atlas Shrugged to their staff. So does the head of BB&T bank, John Allison. Talk about a film version of Atlas has gotten louder in recent months. The same force that made Rand a cult phenomenon in her own time still sends people into the streets with Atlas Shrugged banners 50 years later. Her strange blend of populism and elitism continues to leave its mark in the right-wing world, like it or not.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason. This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on November 9, 2009.