BOOK REVIEW: Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 369 pages. $27.95
Jennifer Burns’s engaging new biography of Ayn Rand focuses on Rand’s political and social views and on her connection to the Right in American politics. It covers the bases of Rand’s life, often with affecting vignettes, but gives relatively little attention to Rand’s artistic development and influences. It showcases Rand’s intellectual development mainly to the extent that doing so provides occasions for relating Ayn Rand to the conservative and libertarian context around her. Burns has conducted extensive research into unpublished letters and interviews. This allows her to poke holes in the gauze curtain that Rand’s estate has draped over the details of Rand’s life. Rand is a figure some have worshipped, a fact to which Burns’ title alludes. Burns normalizes this intimidating, exceptional “goddess” into something much more accessible: a movement intellectual.
Revenge of the Nerd?
Alisa Rosenbaum (the future Ayn Rand) was not a sociable child, much to her mother’s dismay. In fact, Burns gives us the sense that young Alisa was a disagreeable nerd. “Did her classmates dislike her because she was smarter? Were they penalizing her for her virtues?” as Rand herself later believed? “Most likely, her classmates simply found Alisa abrasive and argumentative,” Burns concludes (p. 13). And not just her classmates: years later, in the 1940s, Burns finds libertarian luminary and Little House ghost-editor Rose Wilder Lane carping that Rand’s “childish” style of arguing was too gleefully set on winning. Lane preferred a respectful, adult, exchange of ideas that left no settled conclusions (p. 139).
Alisa was a child of privilege, as Burns sees it, being the daughter of an upper-crust mother and a successful, self-made father. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia, she and her family lived the comfortable life of bourgeois secularized Jews until the Russian Revolution tore her world apart. Her family fled St. Petersburg for a time, and ended up in penurious circumstances, having been stripped of the family business—a pharmacy—and most of their living quarters. In her first novel, We the Living (1936), Rand would write movingly of their suffering in “Petrograd” (and then “Leningrad”) after the Revolution. And Rand would keep writing about it, according to Burns, returning to the danger of a Bolshevik-style collectivist takeover in Anthem (1938), then in The Fountainhead (1943), and finally in Atlas Shrugged (1957), where“Rand’s decaying America resembles the Petrograd of her youth” (p. 166).
We have a portrait, then, of an intelligent, creative woman embittered by circumstance, stand-offish by nature, raised unconnected to any wider community or tradition, whose early life was blighted by totalitarianism and who never forgot it. She seized opportunities when they came—a visa to America and early support from relatives there, a chance meeting with Cecile B. DeMille—and made the most of them, building a successful career for herself as a writer during the Depression years.
I have a great deal of admiration for the way Rand struggled through professional and intellectual adversity toward tremendous goals. Burns tells this story in a lively manner, so its essential drama remains. Yet she is at pains to gently rebut more hagiographic treatments such as Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, the 1997 documentary by Michael Paxton, inserting deflating comments where Rand fans would find high drama. We read of Rand’s personality quirks, and how her thought was located in social circumstances surrounding her. The result is a portrait of Rand as a fascinating, yet flawed intellectual figure, not a towering, inaccessible, moral paragon.
Rand’s Intellectual Debt to Conservatism
Ayn Rand was a visionary, with a distinctive view of man and existence. She was an incisive and radical thinker who grasped the essence of philosophical issues. She wasn’t a scholar, though; citations are rare in Rand essays. The writer she most quotes is herself. To her most ardent fans, this has implied that Rand was an original thinker on a titanic scale. To her detractors, it has implied that Rand was an unschooled crackpot. Burns portrays Rand as neither titan nor fool. Rather, she presents Rand as more like what many would call “normal”—that is, less self-authored and more self-contradictory.
Goddess of the Market isn’t a full-blown intellectual biography. Still, Burns touches on Rand’s essential ideas and traces their development in broad strokes. She identifies a strong Nietzschean influence that lasted until at least 1940. She finds Rand’s emphasis on rationality, which would be central to Objectivism , emerging in the mid-1940s. And she analyzes Rand’s circa-1970 opposition to feminism, the Vietnam War, and anarchism. But Burns steers away from any close presentation or analysis of Rand’s philosophical system beyond chiding it for trying to relate emotions to reason. This is a pity, since without academic plaudits to cite, Burns gives the impression that Objectivism was a kind of pseudo-serious pop-philosophy mash-up. The reader is left with a weak grasp of Rand’s essential ideas, most especially her ethics and her view of art.
In 1940, Rand threw her energy into supporting Wendell Willkie’s Republican bid to unseat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before then, as Burns describes it, Rand’s intellectual milieu was “a Nietzschean hall of mirrors with a common theme: forthright elitism.” (p. 43) However, campaigning for Willkie gave Rand a respect for the common man. Where her early work had featured blanket condemnations of “the masses,” Rand after 1940 would be a more consistent individualist.
Rand stalled writing The Fountainhead half-way through the project, which caused her first contract for the book to lapse. In the summer of 1938 she took a break in order to produce Anthem in a few short weeks. In 1940 and ’41, Rand took more time off from her writing troubles to campaign for Willkie, then to try to organize intellectual defenders of capitalism in the campaign’s aftermath. This activity bore little fruit in the short term, but it put her in contact with the journalist Isabel Paterson and other conservative intellectuals. “Rand’s encounter with Paterson constituted a virtual graduate school in American history, politics, and economics,” Burns relates. “Paterson helped shift Rand onto new intellectual territory, where Nietzsche’s voice was one among many” (p. 78). Her exchanges with Paterson and a new contract at Bobbs-Merrill lit a fire under Rand and helped her make the push to finish The Fountainhead in a furious burst of work in 1942 and 1943.
Drawing on many unpublished sources, especially correspondence but also Rand’s notebooks and journals, Burns illuminates the web of relations between Rand and other thinkers on the Right, including Rose Wilder Lane and Albert Jay Nock in the 1940s, and numerous other fans and intellectual correspondents in the 1950s and 60s. We see a Rand enmeshed in the current of anti-Roosevelt, conservative, and libertarian intellectual life in America.
Burns actually devotes a substantial portion of the book to describing that current. As the book’s subtitle indicates, it isn’t only about Ayn Rand , but also about “the American Right.” There are potted accounts of events such as the rise of the Religious Right (which hated Rand for her atheism and her attacks on altruism) and the protest culture of the New Left in the 1960s. These are well-written, draw on a burgeoning scholarly literature, and bring in a context that many readers may not know well. Still, many of the details have little to do with Rand.
What was Rand’s cultural importance, according to Burns? She inspired Barry Goldwater, who we learn contacted her before she ever supported him. She was a formative influence on Alan Greenspan. She provided inspiration to the libertarian movement, though most libertarians moved beyond following her ideals (her hostility to anarcho-capitalists and the Libertarian Party didn’t help in that regard). She influenced a wide range of notable and not-so-notable people, including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (with whom I once had the honor to co-author an Objectivist essay) and journalist Robert Bidinotto (former editor of this magazine). In what may be a fair assessment of Rand’s current cultural influence, Burns describes Rand’s novels as a perennial font of spiritual fuel for the free-marketeer and “the accomplished yet alienated overachiever” (p. 282). As to Rand’s philosophical importance? For Burns this latter issue seems to be very much an open question.
A Rand of Contradictions
After the publication of Atlas Shrugged , Nathaniel Branden built a Rand-authorized Objectivist movement centered on the eponymous Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI). NBI was the authorized source for lectures on Objectivism, and it came to form the center of a national Rand-centered sub-culture in the 1960s. Burns makes it clear that while Rand had been interested in organizing a movement in the 1940s, by the late 1950s she had little interest in such a project. Rand focused instead on sharing her worldview with the earnest young members of her small inner circle—who facetiously called themselves the “Collective.”
This group became Rand’s primary source of new influences. The “Collective” put her into contact with ideas from psychology, art history, and philosophy that influenced the direction and content of her philosophical development. Burns claims that Rand began to use the word “epistemology,” for example, only after her follower Leonard Peikoff began taking university-level philosophy classes. Burns criticizes Branden for not bringing enough richness into Rand’s intellectual sphere: “It was Rand’s loss that her primary intellectual collaborator did little to broaden her outlook, shake her loose from her inherent emotional repression, or introduce her to the teachings of modern psychology” (p. 225).
Burns gives a charitable outsider’s treatment to the Objectivist movement years. “The idea that Objectivism was a weird pseudo-religion had wide currency in the mass media,” she notes judiciously (p. 232). Burns condemns NBI, which promoted and enforced the Objectivist orthodoxy of the 1960s, as “a monster” that “drew forth and magnified the worst tendencies of Objectivism: its dogmatism, encouragement of judgment, rationalization of sexuality, suppression of emotion” (p. 244). Yet, surveying the first-hand accounts of many who took part, she argues that “there seemed to be two Objectivisms: one that genuinely supported intellectual exchange, engagement, and discourse, and one that was as dogmatic, narrow-minded, and stifling as Rand’s harshest critics alleged.” (p. 235) (Sadly, the Objectivist movement is still divided between those who reject dogmatism and those who embrace being called “dogmatic.” )
Burns is at her best dealing with the relations between people, and at her weakest relating the achievements and labors of her subjects. In the memoirs of Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden, the Atlas Shrugged years are a period of intense excitement as Rand pulls together both her magnum opus and the essential reasoning of her philosophy. But in Burns’s biography it feels like a muddled anti-climax: the construction of an unnecessary, reductionist intellectual edifice and the end, really, of the possibility that Rand will become one of a gang of right-leaning, libertarian intellectuals alongside Paterson, Lane, Hayek, Friedman, and Von Mises.
However, the tale picks up liveliness and tension as it moves into Rand’s social interaction in the 1950s and 60s. Burns seems charged up by the drama of Branden and Rand’s romantic affair. And she thrives recounting the intellectual courtship—and clashes—between Rand and influential thinkers such as Murray Rothbard and John Hospers. Burns’s account of the 1968 breakup between Branden and Rand is sympathetic, moving, and well-researched. For Burns, the collapse of the official Objectivist movement after the breakup vindicates her sense of what is normal and possible; Rand’s radical and totalizing philosophical project had failed. “The rationally ordered universe NBI students sought and found in Rand was no more” (p. 244).
More than anything, Burns sees Rand as a person beset by inevitable “contradictions and complexities.” Rand was an advocate of rationality, whose movement was torn apart by the effects of her passion for her chief follower. She wanted to see herself surrounded by productive titans, but she married an unambitious, gentlemanly man who could put up with her. She advocated independence and rationality, but approved of and reigned over an orthodoxy. Her ideas have empowered a movement toward political liberty, but it only took flight after she foreswore it. Her works inspired visionaries of the Information Age like Wales and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, but their successes depended on moving beyond “individualism” to an “emphasis on collaboration and mutuality” (p. 284).
These are not the assessments that an Objectivist would make—there is in fact no contradiction between independence and honest collaboration, for instance. They reflect a view of Rand’s thought that is strongly based on the NBI pronouncements of the 1960s and not so much on a nuanced and thoughtful consideration of what is essential in Objectivism. I won’t belabor that point here, since the expression and application of such a nuanced Objectivist viewpoint is the purpose of this magazine.
Goddess of the Market is a thoroughly researched biography, constituting the first independent account of Rand’s life to draw fully on the Rand archives and the vast range of printed and recorded memoirs of Rand and her movement that have been collected in recent decades by projects like The Atlas Society’s “Objectivist History Project.” Burns makes a point of quoting where she can from sources that haven’t been published elsewhere. In doing so, she provides a fact-check on the material published posthumously by Rand’s estate, material which is revealed to have been edited with a heavy hand. She also brings in a context that isn’t always represented in Rand’s printed Journals and Letters, a Rand more tentative and more enmeshed in human relations than her posthumous editors have wanted us to believe. For this alone, it is a valuable work: Rand needs to be examined by scholars who use an objective, fact-based method.
But more than that, Rand needs to be normalized. To say this isn’t to approve of normalcy: what’s normal in one’s culture can be disappointing and wrong-headed. Currently, Rand is marginalized by the intellectual mainstream, despite having authored some of the most influential books of the 20th century. That’s regrettable. It behooves us all for her to be seen, in the culture at large, as a figure of interest who is worthy of study and whose ideas matter. Burns’s survey of Rand’s life and times strives to make Rand less outlandish, more sympathetic, more conflicted, and more influenced than previously thought. That, in short, makes Rand more normal (as most see it)—and it represents a step forward in the culture’s assimilation of this remarkable and challenging figure.
Sidebar article: Jennifer Burns on TNI's David Kelley
Sidebar article: Is this Objectivism?
Professor Jennifer Burns's website