For an author who died in 1982 and whose most recent piece of fiction was released in 1957, Ayn Rand has been a most lively corpse of late. Some of the participants at the Tea Party rallies this past summer cited Ayn Rand's hero John Galt, the man who "stopped the motor of the world" in ATLAS SHRUGGED, as an inspiration of sorts. Just recently, Steve Ditko, co-creator of SPIDER-MAN and a prominent follower of Rand's Objectivist philosophy, posted several long pieces on the Big Hollywood Web site taking on some of the cultural issues of the moment. One should be a little wary of both the woman and her message, however. As Anne Heller makes clear in this new -- and for the most part fair -- biography, Rand's important insights into the nature of creativity and the importance of the individual, when taken to extremes, can lead to both an unforgiving philosophy and a troubled life. Rand's works do tend to polarize people, but, if you want to learn something about the woman and her work without being forced to "choose sides," this is a very good place to do so.
Of Rand's works, I've read only ATLAS SHRUGGED, which I found fascinating, if dated in its heavy emphasis on the reliance of world progress on such heavy industries as mining and railroads. While detailing Rand's progress from Russian exile to struggling playwright and author to popular novelist to "pop" philosopher and icon, Heller lets us in on the stories behind all of Rand's works (sometimes in too much detail for those who haven't read them). The unexpected success of THE FOUNTAINHEAD afforded Rand the luxury of taking over a decade to craft ATLAS SHRUGGED, her definitive defense of capitalism in fictional form. At some "tipping point," however, Rand's libertarian arguments began to harden into an "ism," complete with acolytes, apostates, and commandments. It was at that point that Rand began to succumb to the temptation of what Paul Johnson, in INTELLECTUALS, called "the heartless tyranny of ideas." Had Rand been an easier person to deal with and more willing to test her views against opposition in free-flowing debate, the future of her movement might have been different -- but then again, it was her uncompromising nature, forged in the fires of early Communist Russia, that pushed her in the direction of such a philosophy in the first place. It's perhaps fitting that the best expressions of Objectivism have come in self-contained fictional form, including such black-or-white Steve Ditko heroes as Mr. A and The Question. Heller correctly points out that the insular world of Objectivism in the 1960s mirrored that of the worlds of Rand's fictional creations. When human weaknesses crept in -- and Heller delineates those weaknesses in extreme detail, to the extent that the latter part of the book bogs down a bit -- both Rand and the Objectivist movement couldn't handle it. For a brief moment in the mid- to late-60s, however, Rand enjoyed cultural "pull" that would be inconceivable for a public philosopher (as opposed to a political point-talker) in the dumbed-down culture of today. Even now, one can feel that gravitational tug.