Ayn Rand was right of course. Rand was right about living conditions in Russia. She was right about the logical conclusions of communism. In We the Living, the obstacle faced by the Argounov family is not some malignant natural force; it is the malignant force of human-made government. The Bolsheviks confiscate the Argounov family’s property, deny them an education, limit their ability to earn, and force them into subsistence level existence. Family member after family member is lost, each one an individual, and each one greatly missed. Rand makes clear that communism’s crimes are crimes against individuals, and she holds the criminals accountable.
She was right too that An American Tragedy is at best a “trite story,” and she was right about the shape of the novel should Dreiser and the Naturalism and Realism become the dominant point of view.
Rand published The Romantic Manifesto (TRM) in 1962. She had already published her definitive novel, Atlas Shrugged in 1957, and would devote the remainder of her career to writing nonfiction. Thus, TRM was not a plan going forward for Rand personally, but rather a codification of Romantic Realism, her aesthetics of fiction writing, as already demonstrated in her four novels—We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged—for the benefit of writers and artists interested in Romantic Realism.
In TRM, Rand set herself up in opposition to literary Naturalism, and literary Realism, schools of thought prominent in the United States and Europe when she was beginning her writing career. Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was a celebrated example of American Realism. Rand rejected Naturalism and Realism because they denied “man’s volition,” (TRM 99) and this denial had serious philosophical and aesthetic consequences that she strove to thwart. For Ayn Rand, men and women are not the passive victims of circumstances and biology. The universe is not adversarial. The universe is benevolent, a place where humans can expect success through rational thought and action. Philosophically, Rand warned, the denial of free will diminishes human potential:
If man does not possess volition, then his life and his character are determined by forces beyond his control—if so, then the choice of values is impossible to him—if so, then such values as he appears to hold are only an illusion, predetermined by the forces he has no power to resist—if so, then he is impotent to achieve his goals or to engage in purposeful action—and if he attempts the illusion of such action, he will be defeated by those forces, and his failure (or occasional success) will have no relation to his actions. (TRM 100)
Aesthetically, the denial of free will results in bad literature:
If man’s character and the course of his life are the product of unknown (or unknowable) forces, then, in a literary work, both the characterizations and the events are not to be invented by the author but are to be copied from such particular characters and events as he has observed. Since he denies the existence of any effective motivational principle in human psychology, he cannot create his characters conceptually. He can only observe the people he meets, as he observes inanimate objects, and reproduce them—in the implicit hope that some clue to the unknown forces controlling human destiny may be discovered in such reproductions. (TRM 100-101)
Together, American Naturalism and Realism were forging a view of humanity and art that favored determinism over free will, temperament over character, and biological urges over reason (Smith 69-70). Fatalism, not reason, was the proper explanation for human action. Ultimately, individuals could not be held accountable for their actions because they are merely the fodder of evolution. The fittest would survive, at the expense of the weak, with capitalism the pathological force—the economic engine—of their inevitable triumph or demise (Smith 70-76).
For Dreiser in particular, humans are victims of circumstances, and human nature is to be pitied. Indeed, the thrust of An American Tragedy is that Clyde Griffiths was entitled to murder Roberta Alden, that his poverty created an environment in which his hedonistic temperament had to assert itself criminally, and that the men and women who convicted and punished him for his crime were degenerate hypocrites. Dreiser doesn’t explain how the people who condemned him could have done otherwise, however, since according to his world view, they would have had no more choice over their actions than Clyde had.
Someone may argue that no one reads Theodore Dreiser anymore, to which I would reply, “Maybe.” Moreover, if it were true, that would be a good thing. Nevertheless, Dreiser was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, Rand has never been nominated. I checked three credible lists of the 100 most important/best American novels. Theodore Dreiser makes all three. His Sister Carrie is 38th on The American Scholar List, and An American Tragedy is 16th on the Modern Library list and 18th on Goodreads. Ayn Rand does not make any of them. Thus, while Dreiser’s ideas are considered canonical, Ayn Rand’s are not.
While she was alive, she was overlooked by some notable American literary critics Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fielder, for example. Both critics discuss Dreiser’s fiction. Kazin doesn’t mention her in his 1942 classic On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature. That’s maybe understandable, since Rand had only published We the Living at that point. It is a little less understandable in 1973, when Kazin published Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer. He devotes nearly an entire chapter to Vladimir Nabokov, so it can’t be because she wasn’t American born. She is also absent from Fielder’s 1966 Love and Death in the American Novel. Rand’s Atlas Shrugged had been a National Book award finalist in 1958, so it is unlikely that neither critic had heard of her.
After her death Rand’s reputation is still improving, slowly. She is not anthologized in the current Norton Anthology of American Literature. She is not listed in the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Nor is she mentioned in The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists, either. Dreiser appears in all three.
Mimi Reisel Gladstein makes a case for Rand in The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Gladstein points out that Rand’s ideas “have wide-ranging influence. A 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club found Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible in a list of books that most influenced readers lives.” Nevertheless, Gladstein admits that Rand’s novels are “deprecated by belles-lettres critics” (Gladstein 739).
In Magill’s Survey of American Literature Rand is damned with faint praise: “Rand’s popularity continues long after her death, though critics and scholars have long ignored or dismissed her work. . . . Perhaps Rand will belatedly receive the literary attention she often sought” (2169-2170).
One worthwhile contrarian view of Rand can be found in Thomas Reed Whissen’s 1992 anthology of Classic Cult Fiction: A Companion to Popular Cult Literature. Whissen uses the term “cult” in a positive sense of life-changing, beneficial, and worthy of remembering. Rand’s The Fountainhead, he claims, is just such a book. Whissen makes a good case for why The Fountainhead, which he categorizes as a thesis novel, is still read while most thesis novels fade from memory:
Literary history is strewn with forgotten thesis novels that had their day and then became embalmed in literary history, such as Rousseau’s Emile, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. If The Fountainhead had been written by Upton Sinclair, for example, one doubts that it would still be on the shelves. Books like The Jungle become literary curiosities the moment the problems they confront are solved. The Fountainhead is a thesis novel that has become a curiosity largely because it has not suffered the fate of most thesis novels. Its detractors aside, part of the reason for the novel’s enduring popularity must be attributed to its literary strengths. (95)
In novels such as An American Tragedy, The Titan, and Sister Carrie, Dreiser created benighted characters doomed to live or die by their animal instincts in a vicious cycle of survival of the fittest, and those novels, and others like them, are chosen to represent the American experience. Ayn Rand worked to rewrite the dominant idea. In We the Living, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, Rand created characters who were recognizably good or who were recognizably evil. She thought the distinction important. But her novels are maligned. This scarcely seems fair. Rand defended individualism over collectivism, the free market over the planned economy, and volition over determinism. Without her we would be stuck with the dreary world view of Dreiser and the like, mere “chemical mechanisms, the victim[s] of blind forces” (Swanberg 271). With her, we can live, think, create, and love. We can aspire to be heroes.