By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, December 27, 2009; B08
GODDESS OF THE MARKET
Ayn Rand and the American Right
By Jennifer Burns
Oxford Univ. 369 pp. $27.95
AYN RAND AND THE WORLD SHE MADE
By Anne C. Heller
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 567 pp. $35
You can admit it now: Maybe in your teens, or in college, you experimented. Hiding in your dorm or your parents' basement, you took hit after hit. Your friends began wondering why you'd changed, but it was too late: Ayn Rand was in your bloodstream.
My own dealer was a libertarian teaching assistant who introduced me to "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" in graduate school; soon I was subscribing to Rand-inspired newsletters and quoting Howard Roark and John Galt -- Rand's two most famous creations -- on the virtues of selfishness and individualism. It took the better part of a year to get over it, but, like so many others, I eventually realized that architects shouldn't go around blowing up buildings and that, above all, you can't really divide all humans into capitalist geniuses and collectivist looters.
Now, two new beautifully timed Ayn Rand biographies -- appearing just as the financial crisis and Obamanomics have sparked interest in her defense of pure capitalism -- offer ammunition for fans and skeptics alike. As Jennifer Burns explains in "Goddess of the Market," critics of Rand's one-dimensional characters and overwrought prose miss her underlying political impact. "For over half a century," writes Burns, "Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to a life on the right," a one-woman awakening for burgeoning conservatives. Yet while Anne C. Heller's "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" agrees that Rand has helped shape views on individual rights for three generations of Americans, both books end up revealing how hard it is to live out Rand's worldview -- a difficulty exemplified most painfully by the ultimate devotee: Rand herself.
In a life spanning most of the 20th century, Rand sought to live up to her own fictional characters, falling deeper into that world she made and farther from reality. The result was a sad existence, rife with the personal and intellectual contradictions she detested in others. She prized reason above all else yet was notoriously emotional; she claimed to live for no one's approval but agonized over every last critic; she lionized free markets but never invested in stocks; she praised independent thinkers yet demanded mindless loyalty from friends and associates. Not even Rand, it turns out, could be her own true believer.
Rand's literary themes and worldview emerged early in life. Born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, she was a "lonely, alienated child," oppressed by a mother who constantly questioned her worth -- much as Rand would later do to her own acolytes. An academic standout but friendless in school, Alisa saw herself as "a heroine unfairly punished for what was best in her," says Burns, a recurring theme in her fiction. She admired her father's refusal to continue working after the Red Guard confiscated his pharmacy during the Bolshevik revolution. His actions inspired her major work, "Atlas Shrugged," in which capitalists decline to keep producing rather than allow the state to pillage their productivity.
Rand was enamored of all things American -- especially movies, which she watched by the hundreds -- and migrated to the United States at age 20, made her way to Hollywood and began working on short fiction and plays. There she met and married Frank O'Connor, a middling actor who was "stunningly beautiful . . . tall, slender, with a classic profile." He helped her acquire U.S. citizenship, encouraged her in the darkest days of her writing, and inspired the look of her male protagonists. Yet he would never live up to their heroism. O'Connor emerges as one of the gloomiest individuals in these biographies, retreating into gardening, painting and alcohol to escape Rand's suffocating presence.
As her reputation grew with the 1943 publication of "The Fountainhead" -- the bestselling tale of a hunky young architect who would rather destroy his creation than forsake his independence -- Rand acquired a growing collection of fans, taking a particular liking to admiring and handsome young men. Foremost among these was Nathaniel Branden, who first reached out to her as a "Fountainhead"-obsessed college student. Though 25 years her junior, Branden became the most pivotal relationship in her life. He was her intellectual heir, popularizer and lover.
"You are my lifeline to reality," Rand told Branden as she slipped into depression and paranoia after "Atlas Shrugged" received harsh reviews. "Without you, I would not know how to exist in this world." (Her long reliance on amphetamines to power her through marathon writing sessions didn't help her mood, either.) And she even felt pressured by her novel's hero: "John Galt wouldn't feel this," she mused aloud in her New York City home. "I would hate for him to see me like this."
One way she got by was through infamous Saturday night salons, all-night affairs attended by Branden, his wife and a small group of her most dedicated followers (including a young Alan Greenspan, whom Rand nicknamed "the Undertaker.") In these gatherings, held throughout the 1950s and '60s in Rand's New York City home, Rand would hold court on her philosophy -- now dubbed Objectivism -- and pass judgment on the actions of "the Collective," as the participants called themselves. The moniker, intended ironically, ended up oddly apropos. Acceptance of Rand's entire worldview was a requirement for admission; even deviating from her tastes in art and fashion became verboten. "Check your premises!" Rand would exhort her followers.
"In all of her most crucial relationships, Rand would see others favorably largely to the degree that they mirrored her unusual self," Heller explained. The result was a steady stream of friendships gone wrong; whenever Rand decided that someone displayed "anti-life" tendencies, she cast them out. Years later, after a wrenching break with Branden, she privately wished him decades of impotence for daring to start another affair. Crossing Rand was not just bad manners; in her book, it was a moral failing.
While Heller's biography is the more comprehensive of the two -- detailing everything from the books Rand loved as a child to her fumbling affair with Branden -- Burns, a historian at the University of Virginia, emphasizes Rand's impact on American conservatism. Though her Russian roots forever informed her politics, Rand's U.S. political awakening flowed from her revulsion against Roosevelt's New Deal. She became a volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie in 1940, even conducting opposition research on FDR and blasting the president on New York City street corners. "What she wanted, more than anything else," writes Burns, "was someone who would stand up and argue for the traditional American way of life as she understood it: individualism."
But no person or movement ever measured up. Right-wing icons such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were not sufficiently conservative, the libertarian movement was simply stealing her ideas, and not even free-market economist Friedrich Hayek was good enough. ("The man is an ass, with no conception of a free society at all," she scribbled in the margins of Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom.")
In the end, up until her death in 1982, it seemed the only one who ever measured up in her mind was, well, Rand herself. Branden later described to Heller the principles he taught to Objectivism students in the 1960s. Among them: "Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. . . . No one who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue can be a fully consistent individual."
In a made-up world, it was easy to believe it. "It was more and more true that we were living inside the world of 'Atlas Shrugged,' " Branden admitted.
He should have checked his premises.
Carlos Lozada is editor of the Outlook section.