Ayn Rand after a century: Who was she -- and why?

The Argument

The author of 'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas Shrugged' simply won't go away -- but she should.

Books

February 16, 2003|By Ray Jenkins | By Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

At the close of the last century, Modern Library, the prestige publisher, announced its list of the 100 best novels of the 100 years, as chosen by a panel of top writers and scholars. Not a single work by Ayn Rand made the list.

Then, turning the contest into a national parlor game, Modern Library invited ordinary readers to submit their choices. A quarter of a million responded, and presto! Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, scored No. 1, and three more Rand novels appeared in the top 10.

This news might have brought a contemptuous smile to Ayn Rand's stony face, but for one thing: Her chief competitor was L. Ron Hubbard, who landed three titles on the public's top 10. Hubbard, a marginal writer of science fiction, founded Scientology.

This outcome pretty well settles the enduring question of whether Ayn Rand was an important writer, or whether she was simply the goddess of a great American cult whose erstwhile members include such powerful men as Alan Greenspan. Whatever her status as a writer, as a charismatic spell-caster, Rand ranks up there with Rasputin and Aimee Semple McPherson.

Atlas Shrugged opens with the cryptic question, "Who is John Galt?" In 1,168 dense pages, Rand answers the question, but to know John Galt one must first ask, "Who is Ayn Rand?"

Our improbable goddess was born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the daughter of a pharmacist who had achieved about as much material success as anyone, especially a Jew, could hope to reach in the twilight of czarist rule. Alissa Rosenbaum -- Rand's birth name -- witnesses all the terrors of the Russian Revolution. The precocious child finds escape and hope by immersing herself in the American films which somehow found their way to Russia in the grim years of her adolescence, and out of this experience comes a fierce determination to be a film writer.

Leveled to abject poverty, Alissa's family manages to get her to America to find refuge with relatives who had settled in Chicago. To the relatives' chagrin, Alissa shows no interest in the family left behind in Russia. She promptly changes her name to Ayn Rand -- the surname was lifted from her Remington Rand typewriter. Within months she heads for Hollywood, where she stalks Cecil B. DeMille. The legendary director is so taken by her audacity that he employs her as a minor writer. She marries a bit actor named Frank O'Connor, who becomes her long-suffering life's companion.

By day she struggles at low-paying jobs, by night she labors over her first major novel, which, after many rejections, appears in 1943 under the title of The Fountainhead. The book gets tepid reviews but enthralls college students and gradually climbs to the best-seller list. The book becomes a film, with Rand as the screenwriter and Gary Cooper cast as Howard Roark, the young super-architect.

Roark is so incensed that grimy politicians would dare to change his design of a public-housing project that he blows up the building. At his trial, he wins acquittal with a defiant courtroom speech defending the integrity of creativity. (For those seeking a quick study in Ayn Rand's philosophy, The Fountainhead film can be found at most video stores, and it's worth viewing; time has transmogrified the film from high drama to low comedy.)

Profits from the film allowed Rand to devote all of her talents and energies to her life's mission, which, after 12 years in gestation, appears in 1957 as Atlas Shrugged. By this time Rand was showing sure signs that she suffered from the Russian writer's disease of megalomania, like Tolstoy before her and Solzhenitsyn after. When her publisher suggested the manuscript might be cut, Rand responded with aplomb: "Would you cut the Bible?" The chastened publisher dutifully produced all 1,168 pages as Rand wrote them.

The book's hero is John Galt, the Ideal Man, beautiful of body, incorruptible of mind and spirit. He leads "The Strike," in which he organizes the "men of mind" to abandon the world in disgust over the moral degradation brought on by unbridled democracy. By dint of will, Galt stops the motor of the world, and chaos ensues, to the point that a terrified populace clamors for John Galt's logic and reason, which he delivers in a three-hour radio address to the world.

Even the most dedicated Randians acknowledge that it's heavy slogging to get through these 60 pages, but the gist is captured in that perennial favorite of college sophomores, W.E. Henley's poem "Invictus," which concludes with the stirring affirmation: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

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