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Libertarian Women’s History Month: Ayn Rand, in memoriam

6 Mar
Ayn Rand (Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905, to a not particularly observant Jewish family. Her father was a pharmacist, as is one of the middle class Russian families being slowly ground into starvation in her first novel, We, The Living.  She passed away on March 6, 1982, thirty three years ago today.  Since her passing her influence has grown to a point that she is attacked daily by statist writers, and Congressmen, Senators, and Presidential candidates discuss her books.
At age six she taught herself to read and two years later discovered her first fictional hero in a French magazine for children, thus capturing the heroic vision which sustained her throughout her life. At the age of nine she decided to make fiction writing her career. Opposed to the mysticism and collectivism of Russian culture, she thought of herself as a European writer, especially after discovering Victor Hugo, the novelist she most admired.  Of her early life she wrote about enjoying European and American culture, including light opera and jazz.
While in high school, she was eyewitness to both the liberal Kerensky Revolution, which she supported, and then, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which she denounced from the outset. To escape the fighting, her family went to the Crimea, where she finished high school. The final Communist victory brought the confiscation of her father’s pharmacy and periods of near-starvation. When introduced to American history in her last year of high school, she immediately took the United States as her model of what a nation of free people could be.
When her family returned from the Crimea, she entered the University of Petrograd to study philosophy and history, where she was supposed to have been a favorite of a famous Platonist who did not otherwise approve of female students.. Graduating in 1924, she experienced the disintegration of free inquiry and the takeover of the university by communist thugs. Amidst the increasingly gray life, her one great pleasure was Western films and plays. Long an admirer of cinema, she entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 to study screenwriting.
In late 1925 she obtained permission to leave Soviet Russia for a visit to relatives in the United States. Although she told Soviet authorities that her visit would be short, she was determined never to return to Russia. She arrived in New York City in February 1926. She spent the next six months with her relatives in Chicago, obtained an extension to her visa, and then left for Hollywood to pursue a career as a screenwriter.  She never saw her family again until near the end of her life, when one of her surviving sisters came across a copy of one of Rand’s novels in a cultural exhibit in Moscow on Russians abroad, and was able to visit her in the U.S.
On Ayn Rand’s second day in Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille saw her standing at the gate of his studio, offered her a ride to the set of his movie The King of Kings, and gave her a job, first as an extra, then as a script reader. During the next week at the studio, she met an actor, Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929; they were married until his death fifty years later.
After struggling for several years at various non-writing jobs, including one in the wardrobe department at the RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., she sold her first screenplay, “Red Pawn,” to Universal Pictures in 1932 and saw her first stage play, Night of January 16th, produced in Hollywood and then on Broadway. Her first novel, We the Living, was completed in 1934 but was rejected by numerous publishers, until The Macmillan Company in the United States and Cassells and Company in England published the book in 1936. The most autobiographical of her novels, it was based on her years under Soviet tyranny.
She began writing The Fountainhead in 1935. In the character of the architect Howard Roark, she presented for the first time the kind of hero whose depiction was the chief goal of her writing: the ideal man, man as “he could be and ought to be.” The Fountainhead was rejected by twelve publishers but finally accepted by the Bobbs-Merrill Company. When published in 1943, it made history by becoming a best seller through word of mouth two years later, and gained for its author lasting recognition as a champion of individualism.

The Fountainhead polarized critics and received mixed reviews upon its release. The New York Times review of the novel named Rand “a writer of great power” who writes “brilliantly, beautifully and bitterly,” and it stated that she had “written a hymn in praise of the individual… you will not be able to read this masterful book without thinking through some of the basic concepts of our time.” Benjamin DeCasseres, a columnist for the New York Journal-American, wrote of Roark as “an uncompromising individualist” and “one of the most inspiring characters in modern American literature.” Rand sent DeCasseres a letter thanking him for explaining the book’s individualistic themes when many other reviewers did not.There were other positive reviews, but Rand dismissed many of them as either not understanding her message or as being from unimportant publications. A number of negative reviews focused on the length of the novel, such as one that called it “a whale of a book” and another that said “anyone who is taken in by it deserves a stern lecture on paper-rationing.” 

The year 1943 also saw the publication of The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson and The Discovery of Freedom by Rose Wilder Lane. Rand, Lane and Paterson have been referred to as the founding mothers of the American libertarian movement with the publication of these works.

Ayn Rand returned to Hollywood in late 1943 to write the screenplay for The Fountainhead, but wartime restrictions delayed production until 1948. Working part time as a screenwriter for Hal Wallis Productions, she began her major novel, Atlas Shrugged, in 1946. In 1951 she moved back to New York City and devoted herself full time to the completion of Atlas Shrugged.
Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged was her greatest achievement and last work of fiction. In this novel she dramatized her unique philosophy in an intellectual mystery story that integrated ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, economics and sex. Although she considered herself primarily a fiction writer, she realized that in order to create heroic fictional characters, she had to identify the philosophic principles which make such individuals possible.  Like her other novels, Atlas is full of very cinematic potential — panoramic views from skyscrapers and mountains, dramatic tensions between siblings, spouses, co-workers.  Her two major novels have been praised by actors like Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada, Les Miserables)  and Joe Mangienello (TrueBlood, Magic Mike) and Atlas was recently made into a trilogy generally viewed as being of at best of made-for-TV-movie quality, by a fan who would lose his rights to produce a film if he did not hurriedly produce one.
Thereafter, Ayn Rand wrote and lectured on her philosophy—Objectivism, which she characterized as “a philosophy for living on earth.” She published and edited her own periodicals from 1962 to 1976, her essays providing much of the material for six books on Objectivism and its application to the culture. Ayn Rand died on March 6, 1982, in her Manhattan apartment, after a long battle with lung cancer.

Rand is viewed variously as the foremother, midwife, or Alien style involuntary host of the libertarian movement.  Like most famous and successful people she attracted many admirers and fans, some younger and not as established, and they did not always see eye to eye, and often separated in anger over issues that to an outsider seem personal (and very human) but not purely about ideas.  Her associations with people who would go on to be active in the libertarian movement include: economist Murray Rothbard, with whom she had a diremption that was initially about either his wife’s (Joey Rothbard’s) refusal to give up Catholicism or his formulation of an individualist anarchist political philosophy; psychologist Nathaniel Branden and his ex-wife Barbara, who for a time ran a school devoted to popularizing Rand’s ideas; philosophy professor John Hospers, later to be the first presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party; and Joan Kennedy Taylor, one of the editors of the 70s-80s competitor to reason magazine, Libertarian Review.  Kennedy Taylor may be the most interesting of these (all now deceased), historically, for several reasons.  As an editor Taylor discovered Charles Murray and persuaded him to write Losing Ground and his other influential books.  Taylor also edited the Manhattan Young Republican Club’s magazine, Persuasion, in the 60s, and met with Rand, who told her the name for her politics, philosophical but only a political philosophy, not a complete philosophical world view like Objectivism, was “libertarianism.”  Rand later abjured the “L-word” and denounced libertarians for being hippies and anarchists, as Murray Rothbard’s competing vision gained popularity in the movement.*  


Today two competing groups promote her philosophy, the better funded and more apostolic Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), and the more libertarian friendly Atlas Society, which promotes what it calls “open Objectivism.”  Each group was founded by and has a number of philosophy (and other) PhDs, but to outsiders the differences seem somewhat attitudinal.  Both have summer conferences and publications and a presence in DC, but ARI scholars and activities are more numerous and include some new and exciting sub-projects, like that of Alex Epstein on industrial progress and the moral case for fossil fuels.




In addition, a major libertarian foundation, the Cato Institute, has a president, John Allison, who describes himself as an Objectivist, as does former New Mexico governor and sometime Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.   Though all of these people and groups promote her work, my suspicion is that, as with the success of The Fountainhead, her works being passed around by word of mouth among friends may be a greater force, pulling these groups along in its wake. 

Every book by Ayn Rand published in her lifetime is still in print, and hundreds of thousands of copies are sold each year, so far totaling more than twenty five million. Several new volumes have been published posthumously. Her vision of man and her philosophy for living on earth have changed the lives of thousands of readers and launched a philosophic movement with a growing impact on American culture.

Biographical Information on Ayn Rand