Was Ayn Rand Randian?
She couldn't shrug off her emotions.

Ayn Rand burst onto America's literary scene in 1943 with her novel "The Fountainhead" and its unforgettable hero, Howard Roark, a paragon of manly independence and rugged individualism. Cast out of architecture school for his subversive designs, Roark merely laughs. When his nemesis, Ellsworth Toohey, a critic who has ruined his career, taunts him by asking, "Why don't you tell me what you think of me?" Roark replies serenely, "But I don't think of you."

The Russian-born Rand insisted that her novel was a blueprint for moral living. "The Fountainhead" was but the first step in her larger presentation of objectivism, the philosophy she would create. Although Rand would eventually expand objectivism into a system encompassing everything from politics to sex to art, at its base lay the celebration of the independent, rational individual epitomized by Roark.

For Roark, the views of critics — indeed, of anyone other than himself — were meaningless.

"To a creator, all relations with men are secondary," he counseled, arguing that "the degree of a man's independence, initiative and personal love for his work determines his talent as a worker and his worth as a man. Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. . . . There is no standard of personal dignity except independence." What mattered to the creator was the joy of creation, not the accolades or status sought by contemptible "second-handers."

Rand claimed to follow Roark's lead. In a letter to fans, she declared starkly, "My own character is in the pages of The Fountainhead." She added: "I have no hobbies. I have few friends. I do not like to ‘go out.' I am unbearable — to myself and to others — when I stay too long away from my work."

Fiercely committed to laissez-faire capitalism and limited government, Rand was an equally fierce atheist and despised the religious beliefs of most conservatives. America needed a secular philosophy of individualism, rationality and small government, she declared. She began teaching this philosophy to a small group of devoted acolytes, including a young Alan Greenspan. In 1957, she presented objectivism to the world in "Atlas Shrugged," her 1,000-plus-page opus featuring another Roark-like protagonist, John Galt.

Rand expected opposition, but she also was confident that her work would be widely celebrated. Instead, she was shattered by the negative reviews. Although it hit the bestseller lists immediately, critics savaged "Atlas Shrugged." Liberals hated her politics, conservatives her atheism, and almost everyone said the book was poorly written.

Rand tried, but she couldn't live up to Roark's stoic disregard for the opinions of others. She retreated to the privacy of her Manhattan apartment, weeping daily and losing herself in endless games of solitaire. The philosopher of rationalism found herself swamped by emotions she could neither understand nor control.

In desperation, she turned to Nathaniel Branden, the most loyal of her followers. Years before, flush with inspiration, she had taken Branden as a lover, disregarding both their marriages and the fact that she was 25 years his senior. Now Branden became her therapist, helping Rand pick through the wreckage of her ideals. Howard Roark wouldn't feel like this, she moaned to him, nor would John Galt.

Despite believing in Rand's philosophy of independence, Branden understood that his mentor needed the adulation of others. He created the Nathaniel Branden Institute, an organization that taught courses on Rand's philosophy. The institute grew alongside a reinvigorated libertarian movement that made Rand an icon of the right. Revived by the stream of young people interested in her ideas, Rand continued to preach individualism, even while insisting that her students accept objectivism without question. She told none of them about the dark days after "Atlas Shrugged" or about her secret affair with Branden.

Discovering individualism's limits was something each objectivist would have to do alone.


Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right."