There are few figures in the American libertarian movement that gave rise to as much controversy or passion as Ayn Rand. Love her or hate her, it’s hard to find a libertarian who doesn’t have an opinion about the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. For many of us, she was the one who lit the spark that sent us down the road toward becoming a libertarian. Even after her death, some still consider themselves hard-core Objectivists in the model of those who gravitated around the Nathanial Branden Institute in the 1960s. For most libertarians, though, while Rand is arguably the most influential moral philosopher, she is also someone who’s flaws, both personal and philosophical have been acknowledged, debated, and argued about for decades.
There’s always been a missing piece of the puzzle, though, and that was that nobody had really undertaken a full-scale intellectual biography of someone who, even today, can sell 200,000 copies a year of her 1,000+ page magnum opus. There were personal biographies by Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden, but those both seemed to concentrate on the more lurid details of Rand’s personal life and the circumstances behind the 1968 Objectivist Purge. The heirs of Rand’s estate, meanwhile, have guarded her papers closely in an obvious effort to protect her legacy and reputation. Someone wanting to learn more about Rand’s life, the development of her ideas, and her impact on American politics, had almost nowhere to go that wasn’t totally biased in one direction or the other.
That’s why Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right is so welcome.
Instead of dwelling on the lurid aspects of Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden, and without taking sides regarding the many controversies that followed Rand in years after Atlas Shrugged was published, Burns provides a thorough, well-written and well-researched survey of how Ayn Rand went from Alisa Rosenbaum of St. Petersburg, Russia, born just as Czarist Russia was beginning it’s decent into chaos, to Ayn Rand, the woman about whom more than one person has said “she changed my life.”
For people versed in the history of libertarian ideas, the most interest parts of the book will probably be Burns’s documentation of Rand’s interaction with the heavyweights of both the Pre World War II Right and the conservative/libertarian movement that began to take shape after the war ended. She corresponded with Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken and, most interestingly, developed a very close personal and intellectual relationship with Isabel Patterson, best known as the author of The God of the Machine. For years, especially during the time that Rand was writing The Fountainhead, Rand and Paterson exchanged ideas and debated philosophy, and it’s clear that they both contributed to the others ideas.
The Rand-Paterson relationship, though, also foreshadowed something that would happen all too frequently later in Rand’s career, the purge. Paterson was among the first libertarian-oriented writers to experience Rand’s wrath for the perception that she was not sufficiently orthodox. Over time, that would continue to the point where, at it’s height, Objectivism displayed a level of orthodoxy and denunciation of perceived heresy that rivaled the religions that it rejected. It was, in the end, the reason why the movement’s downfalls was largely inevitable.
Burns also goes into great detail discussing the process and the ordeal that Rand went through while writing both of her great novels. After reading that part, one marvels at the fact that she even survived.
In the final chapter, Burns shows that, even though Rand herself had flaws that led to the demise of Objectivism as a formal movement, her ideas have a staying power that has permeated throughout the conservative and libertarian movements in the United States. There is hardly a libertarian in the United States who has not read at least one of Rand’s books and, it’s clear that her ideas have taken hold in a way that she probably never expected and definitely would not have approved of. That, however, is the power of ideas, the creator can’t control what people do with them once they’re out there.
Burns does a wonderful job of filling in the missing pieces about Rand’s life and her place in the wider context of the political and social history of Post World War II America. Whether you love or hate Ayn Rand – and I don’t think you can have no opinion about her once exposed to her idea – this is a truly fascinating book.