Book Review: Ayn Rand

… and the world she made (2009)
by Anne C. Heller[1]

AynWell executed book on an iconic figure by Ms. Heller, who certainly wasn’t an insider with the ‘Objectivist movement’ or blown away by Rand’s work—Heller bestows no glowing accolades on Ayn Rand or her achievements, yet respectfully reports on them with a discernible general sympathy. I find the author’s objectivity valuable, yet necessarily giving an incomplete Gestalt of ‘Who is Ayn Rand.’ Heller is too young to have experienced the rush that Rand’s passionate articulation of heroic individualism provided, mainly, in Baby Boomer prime time (late 1950s into the early 1970s)—with The Fountainhead (1943, movie 1949) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), then the nonfictional politics oriented writings from Rand and her coterie.

[Of course, I’m speaking from my own experience as a Boomer (b. 1949). The notions of rational, heroic egoism; creative imagination; and freedom of the individual against the collective sustained my own enthusiasm for life in difficult teenage years and beyond.] Yet a substantial contribution of ‘the world she made‘ lies in its description of the pregnant period of the 1930s and early 1940s, when Rand was beginning to write in earnest. Plenty of passion to go around for early adopters in those years, as well. One tends to forget how horribly altruist and statist the world was in those days, especially how hostile the intellectual class was to the message of the individual against the collective:

“… when speaking before an audience, teaching, or discussing serious ideas, she [Rand] was animated, inspiring, and charismatic. In the spring and summer of 1936, after the publication of We the Living, she was in demand as an anti-Soviet speaker. She lectured at the then-famous New York Town Hall Club on ‘Whitewashed Russia,’ where she asked the audience to imagine being ruled by a group of men who have not been elected and cannot be recalled, who control all public information, who distribute all food, housing, and employment. They cannot be criticized; they dispatch political adversaries to dungeons or death without a trial or hearing. They claim that individual rights do not exist. Would her listeners wish to live under the thumb of these ‘two million snow-white [Stalinist’] angels,’ as she characterized the Left’s view of them?” — p. 96

Heller covers Rand’s early years in Russia, particularly Rand’s intellectual growth. But also the family… who were Jews and hence having had to deal with the longstanding Anti-Semitism under the Czars. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and official communism didn’t mitigate the Anti-Semitism, it simply universalized the persecution and made it worse. Ayn was fortunate to be let out of the encroaching prison state in 1926, when she came to the United States. Consider this key passage:

“Long before she began making notes for We the Living, she reached another conclusion: that political and philosophical ideas, especially those that are heroically clothed and set in large-scale social novels, [emphasis mine] have the power to shape perceptions and change the world. As scholars have noted, novels and poems have been a surrogate for banned political speech in Russia. Literature as a subversive force is a peculiarly Russian notion, one that was widely celebrated during Rand’s youth.” — p 31

[This power of the novel is something this author has only recently recognized enough to do anything about it. Ref. my recent column, “The Truman Prophecy.” What is it Ben Franklin said, “Experience keeps a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other.” 🙂 ] Anyway, from approximately the age of five, Ayn Rand had jettisoned all those anxieties most of us have about what she wanted to do with her life. She was going to tell grand stories and change the world.

Ayn Rand and The World She Made is more than a year-by-year account of Rand’s struggles, the people she knew, the causes or subcauses she aligned herself with, the agreements and disagreements, and so on. Though Heller does fill us in on some lesser-known details of Rand’s relationships with key authors and intellectuals of her time. [I personally didn’t realize that Rand got to know Albert Jay Nock (self-made citizen-scholar and author of Our Enemy the State) during the late 1930s, especially in the campaign for Wendell Willkie in 1940, which the ‘Old Right’ establishment had some connections with. Further, that Rand expanded on some of Nock’s anti-statist ideas in her book, The Fountainhead.]

Ayn Rand, during her ascent, was admired and befriended by many influential persons in Hollywood, the publishing industry, and what came to be known as conservative politics. These little subplots in the artistic giant’s life make ‘the world she made‘ entertaining reading. The whole affair and split between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden is meted carefully yet completely. We also gain other key data points for Rand the woman, e.g.:

“All her life, Rand displayed a mental capacity for work that few could equal. But her youthful physical inertia never left her; she avoided exercise, gained weight easily, and lacked the bodily stamina to keep pace with her penetrating mind and her ambitions. In 1942, with a pressing deadline before her, she began to take amphetamines, probably Benzedrine, which was still relatively new on the market and was easily available in pill form with a doctor’s prescription.” — p. 145 [She continued on the uppers for the rest of her life, against warnings from her one-time friend and mentor Isabel Paterson (among others), author of The God of the Machine. The downside of the drugs may account for health problems and the extreme authoritarian behavior vis a vis her inner circles.]

Heller also imparts a scattering of humor, as with the following in connection with the Spring 1968 twenty-fifth anniversary of The Fountainhead: Nora Ephron wrote a satirical essay in The New York Times acknowledging, as other early critics, she had missed its deeper point and had spent her freshman year in college ‘hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect.’

As a fan of Ayn Rand and net beneficiary of her work and ‘will to greatness,’ I feel the two popular videos that have been produced on her life and times—Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life and Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand (based on the book of the same name)—cover the essentials quite well. Nonetheless, what Anne Heller has accomplished in ‘the world she made‘ is quite an accomplishment. Well worth the time and energy of those who love Ayn the way I do, and others who are simply curious. Highly respectful, informed, and humanizing.

[1] Anne C. Heller is a magazine editor and journalist and the author of Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times and Ayn Rand and the World She Made. She is a former managing editor of The Antioch Review, fiction editor of Esquire and Redbook, and executive editor of the magazine development group at Condé Nast Publications. She has been a visiting professor of literature at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, and is a member of the Board of Directors of the New York University Biographers Seminar and of Biographers International Organization. She lives in New York City and Old Chatham, New York, with her husband, David de Weese, and her dog Ebenezer.

Here’s an interesting background interview of Ms. Heller.

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