Ayn Rand after a century: Who was she - and why?

Baltimore Sun/February 16, 2003
By Ray Jenkins

The author of 'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas Shrugged' simply won't go away - but she should.

At the close of the last century, Modern Library, the prestige publisher, announced its list of the 100 best novels of the 100 years, as chosen by a panel of top writers and scholars. Not a single work by Ayn Rand made the list.

Then, turning the contest into a national parlor game, Modern Library invited ordinary readers to submit their choices. A quarter of a million responded, and presto! Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, scored No. 1, and three more Rand novels appeared in the top 10.

This news might have brought a contemptuous smile to Ayn Rand's stony face, but for one thing: Her chief competitor was L. Ron Hubbard, who landed three titles on the public's top 10. Hubbard, a marginal writer of science fiction, founded Scientology.

This outcome pretty well settles the enduring question of whether Ayn Rand was an important writer, or whether she was simply the goddess of a great American cult whose erstwhile members include such powerful men as Alan Greenspan. Whatever her status as a writer, as a charismatic spell-caster, Rand ranks up there with Rasputin and Aimee Semple McPherson.

Atlas Shrugged opens with the cryptic question, "Who is John Galt?" In 1,168 dense pages, Rand answers the question, but to know John Galt one must first ask, "Who is Ayn Rand?"

Our improbable goddess was born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the daughter of a pharmacist who had achieved about as much material success as anyone, especially a Jew, could hope to reach in the twilight of czarist rule. Alissa Rosenbaum - Rand's birth name - witnesses all the terrors of the Russian Revolution. The precocious child finds escape and hope by immersing herself in the American films which somehow found their way to Russia in the grim years of her adolescence, and out of this experience comes a fierce determination to be a film writer.

Leveled to abject poverty, Alissa's family manages to get her to America to find refuge with relatives who had settled in Chicago. To the relatives' chagrin, Alissa shows no interest in the family left behind in Russia. She promptly changes her name to Ayn Rand - the surname was lifted from her Remington Rand typewriter. Within months she heads for Hollywood, where she stalks Cecil B. DeMille. The legendary director is so taken by her audacity that he employs her as a minor writer. She marries a bit actor named Frank O'Connor, who becomes her long-suffering life's companion.

By day she struggles at low-paying jobs, by night she labors over her first major novel, which, after many rejections, appears in 1943 under the title of The Fountainhead. The book gets tepid reviews but enthralls college students and gradually climbs to the best-seller list. The book becomes a film, with Rand as the screenwriter and Gary Cooper cast as Howard Roark, the young super-architect.

Roark is so incensed that grimy politicians would dare to change his design of a public-housing project that he blows up the building. At his trial, he wins acquittal with a defiant courtroom speech defending the integrity of creativity. (For those seeking a quick study in Ayn Rand's philosophy, The Fountainhead film can be found at most video stores, and it's worth viewing; time has transmogrified the film from high drama to low comedy.)

Profits from the film allowed Rand to devote all of her talents and energies to her life's mission, which, after 12 years in gestation, appears in 1957 as Atlas Shrugged. By this time Rand was showing sure signs that she suffered from the Russian writer's disease of megalomania, like Tolstoy before her and Solzhenitsyn after. When her publisher suggested the manuscript might be cut, Rand responded with aplomb: "Would you cut the Bible?" The chastened publisher dutifully produced all 1,168 pages as Rand wrote them.

The book's hero is John Galt, the Ideal Man, beautiful of body, incorruptible of mind and spirit. He leads "The Strike," in which he organizes the "men of mind" to abandon the world in disgust over the moral degradation brought on by unbridled democracy. By dint of will, Galt stops the motor of the world, and chaos ensues, to the point that a terrified populace clamors for John Galt's logic and reason, which he delivers in a three-hour radio address to the world.

Even the most dedicated Randians acknowledge that it's heavy slogging to get through these 60 pages, but the gist is captured in that perennial favorite of college sophomores, W.E. Henley's poem "Invictus," which concludes with the stirring affirmation: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

Based on what we now know, it's a wonder that Atlas Shrugged ever saw the light of day, because it was during this period that Rand, at the age of 50, entered into a love affair with her acolyte, a 25-year-old man named Nathaniel Branden. The story of this bizarre tryst is related in brutal detail by Barbara Branden, Nathaniel's wife, who wrote the closest thing we have to an honest biography of Rand, titled The Passion of Ayn Rand (Bantam Doubleday Dell).

Barbara Branden, more an amanuensis than a biographer, relates how Ayn and Nathaniel called their respective spouses together to announce the affair, to assure them that the marriages were not threatened, and to lay down the terms: Ayn and Nathaniel must have an evening a week alone. The stunned spouses accepted the terms, and over several years, Frank O'Connor and Nathaniel Branden would pass one another as they came and went from Ayn's arms.

After five years, the affair ended only with Rand's caveat that she might want to resume it at some point. But when, at 60, she felt the yearnings of passion once more, Branden, at 35, just couldn't get up the old enthusiasm. The enraged Ayn excommunicated him in a scene that ended with her violent attack on the young lover. But her public explanation for the break was that Nathaniel had betrayed Objectivism, as her philosophy had by then become known.

The affair was revealed to the public only when the humiliated Barbara Branden wrote her book, but enough was known within the temple that it nearly destroyed the Rand cult. Nathaniel added his own account in My Years With Ayn Rand (Jossey-Bass).

Atlas Shrugged was Rand's last novel, but she continued to expound her increasingly strident "philosophy" in speeches and in paperback tracts, chiefly The Virtue of Selfishness (New American Library) By the time of her death in 1982, of lung cancer after a lifetime of heavy smoking, Rand had become such a consummate flibbertigibbet that she was practically friendless. But the cult soldiers on, as her books continue to sell at least 300,000 copies a year, mostly to young people.

So, as we approach the centennial anniversary of her birth, what is Ayn Rand's legacy? Aside from a lot of noise, practically nothing. In terms of public policy, Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck exerted infinitely greater influence in establishing the most hated public policies in Rand's pantheon of evils, regulation and welfare. As for her disciples, Alan Greenspan knows full well that Randian economics is to real economics as astrology is to astronomy.

Measured as literature, her work was either ignored or deplored by the critics of the day, and the most savage attack of all on Atlas Shrugged came from William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review in a review written by, of all people, Whittaker Chambers. She never found favor with orthodox conservatives, because she didn't believe in God, and even Libertarians, who might share her atheist beliefs, in the end had to admit that she hovered too close to the hazy line that separates libertarianism from outright anarchy.

But for the sake of speculation, what would the world be like if Rand's "philosophy" had prevailed? Well, it's worth noting that in 1948, her Fountainhead shared places on the best-seller list with George Orwell's 1984. But Orwell, like Aldous Huxley a few years earlier, was writing bitter satire; Ayn Rand was deadly serious, consciously striving to expunge any trace of humor that might creep into her work.

It's not likely Orwell ever read Rand, because he died in 1950. But if he had, Big Brother may well have been Big Sister.

Ray Jenkins, as a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his coverage, with another reporter, of the 1954 Phenix City, Ala., upheaval. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, The New York Times and the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and was editorial page editor of The Evening Sun. His book, Blind Vengeance, was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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