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Two Women, One Dynamo
Submitted by James S. Valliant on Fri, 2007-06-01 18:21
Professor Stephen Cox has done liberty lovers – and the world – a great service with his biography, 'The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America' (2004, Transaction).
This is one of those projects where the classic hyperbole is no hyperbole: this is a work of great importance. It would have been a tragedy had its subject, Isabel Paterson, gone without the biographical attention she so richly merits. Without a doubt, she was one of the most important political writers of the Twentieth Century. Among the many measures of this importance is the fact that Paterson probably had a greater influence on Ayn Rand than any of her other contemporaries. Together, these two women were the major inspiration for contemporary “radical” capitalist thought.
The book is thoroughly researched in most cases, and full of fascinating, new material. And, yet, for an intellectual biography, it is engagingly written – rich with all of the color of the amazing life and personality of a truly great woman – a real page-turner as such books go.
For all its virtues, however, there remain significant problems in its treatment of the relationship between those two godmothers of the American individualist movement, Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand.
Therefore, what follows should not be read as an overall review, for this is a book with many outstanding qualities, but, rather, an analysis of its treatment of the relationship between these two important writers.
Among its many virtues, 'The Woman and the Dynamo' observes an error made by Rand's less-then-credible biographer, Barbara Branden, who wrote that both Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane had been "introduced" to Rand by the writer Channing Pollock in 1940. ('The Passion of Ayn Rand,' p.163) Cox observes that Paterson never seems to have even known Pollock personally. (Cox, p. 390, n49) The truth is that Rand took the initiative and called Paterson at her office – after the latter had ~ declined ~ the invitation to meet with Rand and Pollack "for the cause" in 1940 – and although they had briefly met several years previously – it was this later meeting which commenced their famous relationship. (Cox, pp. 218-220)
One can also add to Cox's corrections of Ms. Branden here by observing that Rand did not meet Rose Wilder Lane through Pollock, either. Rand wrote to Lane on November 30, 1945, that she was still unhappy that the two had yet to meet in person. ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 238) Finally, a letter from Rand to Lane dated December 13, 1947, opens with the following: "I was very happy that I had a chance to meet you at last after all these years." ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 383)
Rand actively pursued intellectual alliances, especially during this period of her life, she did not passively wait for them to show up. It is a wonderful circumstance, but to some extent no accident, that the most lucid political writers of the Twentieth Century, Ayn Rand, Henry Hazlitt, and Isabel Paterson all knew one another.
One of the charming anecdotes in the book is the fun Pat had with the Russian-born novelist's occasional gaffes with English during their (often energetic) discussions. Rand once asked Paterson, "Will you write my autobiography? I can't do myself justice."
Paterson was amused, but Cox suggests that Rand, later famous for her “candidly exalted” opinion of herself, “might have meant a number of things by that..." (Cox, p. 221) It is well known that certain libertarians have long believed that Rand created a “self-mythology” – something their research, however, has consistently failed to demonstrate. Cox probably should have spelled out what he is suggesting here.
As for “exalted” self-estimates, get this one: in a letter to Rand, Paterson wrote, "It almost seems as if nobody, dead or alive, ever did know or does know how Capitalism really works, except Me." ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 211) Now, years earlier, Rand had said something very similar as a compliment to Paterson herself, in praise of her classic book 'The God of the Machine,' but here we see Pat matching any boast for which we can credit Rand.
On a related topic, Cox claims that Rand brooked no literary criticism of any sort, and he asserts, without evidence, that Paterson was a great exception for Rand in this regard, "enduring [Paterson's] literary critiques." (Cox, p. 305)
However, at least during this period of her life, Rand's letters actually demonstrate that she welcomed such criticism – and that Rand incorporated into her work suggestions from more than one source, the outstanding example (apart from her husband) being Archie Ogden. Another interesting example is Rose Wilder Lane. ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 307) In my experience, professional writers are a sensitive lot, and any suggestion is often taken as deep criticism. Rand does not seem to have been this way at all.
It is true that her previous approach may have changed with the writing 'Atlas Shrugged,' when Rand's confidence in her literary judgment, and her reputation in the publishing world, permitted her to get an "up front" agreement from her publisher that there would be no changes made to her text – period.
Cox also commits a more serious error. He writes: "Rand regarded virtually all charity as a culpable form of altruism, but Paterson thought there was nothing wrong with charity so long as it remained intelligent and uncoerced." (Cox, p. 308) Cox can direct us to no evidence that this was ever Rand's position since, of course, there is lots of evidence that this was not Rand's position at all. The views he ascribes to Paterson, by way of contrast, are, in fact, a decent summary of Rand's own views. The evidence for this is so copious that Cox should definitely have known better in this instance.
As Rand told 'Playboy' magazine in the March, 1964 edition,
"My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong with helping people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them, I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and primary virtue." ('The Playboy Interview,' vol. II, p. 21)
Paterson wrote some things with which Rand definitely did take issue, and charity may have been among these. For example, Rand would not have agreed with Pat's praise for those from religious orders who devote themselves exclusively to charitable work. ('The God of the Machine,' p. 239) However, the two writers’ views on this subject are more alike than Cox seems to recognize.
More subtly, but still more importantly, Cox errs in suggesting that Paterson had a significant influence on the development of Rand's philosophy, Objectivism.
According to witnesses, Rand was seen literally sitting at Paterson’s feet, asking the questions which Paterson would patiently answer. Paterson was enormously well read and well informed, and she was obviously an important source for Rand on many aspects of American history and government. Rand herself acknowledged that she had “learned many important ideas” from Paterson, in a letter dated May 8, 1948. These “ideas” seem to have been factual and historical in nature, but Cox writes:
"There is evidence, indeed, that Rand's ideas were shifting significantly during the period of their first acquaintance. 'We the Living' is an anticommunist novel, but its treatment of alternatives to communism, of political ideas in general, is sketchy to say the least. It is a novel of psychological individualism. In succeeding years, Rand worked her way from a continental version of individualism influenced by Nietzsche to an American individualism grounded in a political theory of natural and equal rights." (Cox. p. 221)
Cox indicates that by 1942, when Rand was wrapping up writing on 'The Fountainhead,' she would, finally, give "her original quasi-Nietzschean ideas a classical liberal form." Cox continues, "If there was a crucial, external influence on Rand's political development, Paterson was that influence." (Ibid)
While he concedes that "the precise extent of her influence" would require overhearing their all-nighters for oneself, (Ibid) and although he is not as clear as one would like, Cox seems to be suggesting that Paterson had a significant influence on the politics of Objectivism, and, indeed, on Rand's "American" and "classical liberal" orientation itself.
It is true that Rand – in her early 20s – must be classified as a “quasi-Nietzschean,” if she can be classified at all. Her notes for the quickly abandoned project, "The Little Street," are the evidence for this. At least some traces of the distinctively “Nietzschean” can be seen in many of Rand's private philosophical journal entries throughout much of the 1930s, and, of course, in the first edition of 'We the Living.'
Nevertheless, Rand's important differences with Nietzsche, even in her twenties, were already portentous. In Rand's very first notes of a philosophical nature, dated from April through May of 1934, when she was still just twenty-nine – and before the publication of the first edition of 'We the Living' – she clearly states her un-Nietzschean belief that men can "use logical reasoning to govern their lives" – without recourse to either "faith" or emotion. Rand asks herself a question, and one suspects she already has at least an inkling as to her own answer: "Are instincts and emotions necessarily beyond the control of plain thinking?" ('Journals of Ayn Rand,' p. 68)
Also in these notes, Rand argues for free will, and, even more importantly, she comes out in favor of what Nietzsche contemptuously called the "Aristotelianism of morals," i.e., an ethics based squarely on logic and "generalization." ('Beyond Good and Evil' 198) Rand simultaneously and explicitly rejected any need for what she called a "history of ethics" – and what Nietzsche called his "genealogy of morals" – only a very Aristotelian "system of ethics" which would "stand or fall on its own merits." ('Journals of Ayn Rand,' pp. 68-70)
Even in the original edition of 'We the Living,' Rand's heroine first gives voice to John Galt's "A is A,” Rand's intended tribute to Aristotle in 'Atlas Shrugged,' by saying, "Steel is steel. Numbers are numbers." (See, Valliant, 'The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics,' pp. 44-48)
There is thus no reason to doubt Rand’s own reports of admiring both Aristotle’s logic and Nietzsche’s “heroic” sensibility as early as her teens.
Now, Rand did not become "acquainted" with many "prominent conservatives" until the Wilkie campaign of 1940, nor had she yet met Paterson, Lane, Albert Jay Nock, Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig von Mises, or even Channing Pollock, when she wrote those notes. But Rand had already rejected some of the most fundamental aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Cox leaves the impression that Rand was "politically" no more than a "continental Nietzschean" prior to the influence of Paterson, who may have been responsible for Rand's later, more "libertarian" political viewpoint. Cox strongly implies that Rand's political thinking as such, at least prior to meeting Paterson, was "sketchy to say the least," and that Paterson was crucial to the development of Rand's belief in "natural and equal rights."
There is good reason to believe otherwise. Even before the original edition of 'We the Living' had been published, Rand was already a liberal political idealist – opposed to anything like Nazism – as is evident from her journal entry from December 4, 1935 (not too long after Hitler had came to power): "If a man who is not a Nazi pretends to be one and goes on pretending to the end of his days in order to have a soft job, money and food – is he to be called an egotist? Or isn't the true egotist the one who starves in exile for the right to believe what he believes?" ('Journals of Ayn Rand,' p. 79)
No, Nietzsche was no proto-Nazi, but here we see Rand in sympathy with civil liberties in a way unknown to that philosopher’s writings.
In a letter dated August 12, 1936, some four years before meeting Paterson, a thirty-one year old Rand wrote the following to a reader who argued for the idea of "umpired individualism":
"I believe more firmly than in any Ten Commandments that the State exists only and exclusively to serve the individual. I see no conceivable logical or ethical excuse for the opposite belief, nor any possible compromise between the two. If the role of the state as a servant, not a master, is taken as a basic immutable Constitution – then 'umpiring' is safe and desirable; provided the 'umpiring' is done precisely to protect individuals, not society as a whole or the state as a whole; provided that each act of the 'umpires' is definitely motivated by and does not clash with the above sort of Constitution." ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 35)
Five months later, on January 30, 1937, Rand wrote to the same correspondent,
"I am glad to know that there still are people and a mode of thinking that can be opposed to Communism in a true, sensible democratic spirit. I have met so many people who declared bluntly that anyone criticizing Soviet Russia is automatically a fascist and a capitalistic exploiter. And it was gratifying to read a voice in refutation of that preposterous nonsense." ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 40)
Less than a month later, on February 22, 1937, Rand would write in her private journals that "[u]p to the twentieth century and Soviet Russia, the world [had offered some degree] of recognition for individual achievement... [T]he trend of ‘liberalism’ and the idea of ‘freedom' was freedom for ‘a man’ and the fight for the individual rights of ‘a man.’” She wrote positively of how, with the Industrial Revolution, humanity had “achieved that freedom... or came as near to freedom and general equality before the law as it had ever come…” ('Journals of Ayn Rand,' p.105)
That is to say, well before meeting Paterson, Rand was an advocate of a rather anti-Nietzschean form of "Constitutional democracy," one that included the concept of equal, but decidedly individual rights before the law, and this commitment had an historical perspective.
Moreover, Rand's comments suggest that she may not even have been familiar yet with writers who might have agreed with her position – or writers who might have influenced her in that direction – reporting in the above-quoted letter that she was “glad to know” that such people even existed anymore.
In fact, there is no reason to doubt Rand when she reported that such a commitment to the American political system went back to her teens – and that her sympathy for political “liberalism” had already started in Russia (her father's politics, is seems, also leaned in this direction). After all, Rand did "choose to be an American," as she retorted to hecklers, at the tender age of twenty-one.
While it is certainly true that Rand does not explore the "alternatives" to Communism in 'We the Living,' even in her earliest notes for the novel, Rand does explicitly express her intention to cover the "economic conditions,” such as the "terrific poverty" and its causes, the "Unemployment" and its effects, as well as the "Hunger. Cold. No living space. Terrible transportation. Disease. Lice. Dirt." ('Journals of Ayn Rand,' pp. 56-57) Rand’s descriptions in the novel vividly bear this intention out, and the author must be credited with something more than merely a "psychological" critique of communism.
Rand had still not met Paterson – or those who would become her other "political" friends – and, yet, she can only be identified as an advocate of both economic and personal liberties, a supporter of what she called “equality before the law,” “individual rights,” and “a sensible democratic spirit.” No, her political theory is not developed yet, but her sympathies – her basic values – are already clear.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Rand was already being influenced by Paterson’s column – or the writings of others – but it is difficult to see how Rand's desire for "sensible democratic spirit," at least, could have been influenced by Paterson's writings, since Pat was no fan of "democracy."
In any event, it is simply not possible that Rand’s personal interaction with Paterson was responsible for guiding the famous novelist into becoming an “American” individualist or a supporter of natural rights.
Cox also calls Rand's commitment to atheism a "dogma," and refers to "the thinness of Rand's cosmos." On the other hand, Paterson's tales of "reincarnation" – including her own – to Rand are but instances of Paterson's "candidness" for Cox. (Cox, p. 305-306) She was indeed being "candid" with Rand, but some readers will likely prefer the "dogma" of sticking to reality – however "thin" the cosmos with which we left.
Cox's efforts do seem like rationalization, at times, especially in his description of the two individualists’ falling out.
Certainly one of their arguments concerned Rand’s belief that Pat was recanting the credit she had once given Rand for her philosophical insights. In 1946, Rand reported to their mutual friend, Leonard Read, that Pat had once actually said that Rand's was "the greatest ethical discovery since Christianity." ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 275) There can be no doubt that Paterson thought Rand brilliant, and if this did not involve creative contributions, such exalted opinions are hard to understand. In one of Rand's letters to Paterson, she also reminded the columnist that she had once had credited Rand with correcting her own thinking on the subject of altruism. Paterson, in reply, denied ever admitting to any such contribution from Rand. This is a classic case of she said/she said, impossible to resolve short of being a witness. Rand's contemporary boldness in asserting this to Pat, and her well-known sharp memory, however, are good reasons to believe her assertion.
While Cox demonstrates that Pat's writings do not reveal a significant influence from Rand, the famous egoist believed that her ideas had shown up in 'The God of the Machine' in some form, and that Pat was "back-tracking" on the credit she once gave to Rand. Especially in light of Cox's apparent misunderstanding of Rand's views on charity, his analysis does not satisfy as a proof that Rand had no impact whatever.
But the truth is that the fundamental philosophies of neither of these women seem to have been influenced by the other – no matter how profoundly impressed they were with one another.
In any event, their dispute over "credit" cannot be said to have caused their break. In 1946, Rand was already disturbed by Pat's "incredibly offensive manner toward people" ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p.275), and it seems that this was the real culprit.
In May of 1948 – at Rand's invitation and expense – Paterson came out to California to meet with Rand and her friends in order to discuss creating a magazine to promote the ideas Rand and Paterson shared. ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 275) Cox admits that Paterson's mood was foul even before she embarked for the West Coast, and he claims that Rand was "unhappy," too, although Rand's letter (dated May 17, 1948) to Paterson was nothing less than enthusiastic:
"I am so delighted about your coming here that I consider it conclusive proof of a totally benevolent universe, and I almost feel benevolence toward the Catholic philosophers... Is it very unphilosophical of me that I don't want to discuss philosophy right now, but only think about your visit? We [Rand's husband and herself] are so excited about it that we are running around in circles. Yesterday, I had my director, King Vidor and his wife here for dinner, and also our neighbors, Adrian and Janet Gaynor, and I was telling them at great length about your coming. They are all excited and waiting for you... so now this is the big event in Chatsworth – the personal appearance of a star from New York." ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p.215-216)
During that meeting, Paterson was simply rude to Rand's famous guests. After meeting Gershwin’s collaborator and Rand’s friend Morrie Ryskind, Paterson told Rand (when they were alone), "I don't like Jewish intellectuals." Cox sufficiently demonstrates that Paterson was not a racist, and he thinks that Rand's umbrage stemmed from not getting an intended joke.
Cox, admits that Paterson's remark was "tasteless," but he also claims that Rand was "notorious for not understanding other people's jokes." (Cox, p. 313) Such a claim, of course, requires specific examples – or sources with examples – but none are provided. There is a big difference between not "getting jokes" and not telling them very often or not liking certain jokes. The “notoriety” Cox requires here is unknown to the author 'The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics.' In any event, even the Gentile among his readers might appreciate Cox explaining this "joke.”
Paterson's mood in California did not improve. Meeting with one of Rand's business friends, William Mullendore, Paterson went on about how businessmen did nothing to help capitalism and left everything for her alone to do, etc., her typical gripe – to the face of a businessman who was then offering to help (!) Cox admits that Paterson was "dead wrong," in this instance.
Still worse, it seems that Paterson would brook no criticism of her behavior when her embarrassed hostess complained. The two ladies argued, and then (apart from one last meeting some years later) parted for good.
It is true that Rand would later become famous for her "breaks" with other associates – but the case of Paterson is hardly an example of Rand being "intolerant," "moralistic," or "excommunicating" anyone – as Rand's critics will inevitably claim. Paterson's behavior was simply nasty and rude. She also refused to deal with what seems to have been appropriate criticism of it. Cox concedes that Rand's departing line to Paterson in 1948 was insightful: "I hope you'll be happier than you are." (Cox, p. 314)
Whatever their previous arguments, none of them seem to have been sufficient to dampen Rand’s continued enthusiasm for Paterson’s last visit to California. No matter how Cox slices it, neither the argument over "credit," nor their arguments over religion (some of which clearly came at Paterson’s instigation) seemed to have caused the split. And, yet, for Cox, it was about these things – and about Rand not getting some kind of a "tasteless joke." Unfortunately, the facts, even as Cox reports them, do not support this claim.
The mere observation of Rand's many later “breaks” signifies little in this situation – Paterson, too, was famous for her “breaks.” Her own break with Rose Wilder Lane appears more senseless than any of Rand's – according to Cox, the two had simply “grown very, very tired of each another.” (Cox, p. 335) Rose Wilder Lane could lose her temper, too, as Max Eastman found out. The correspondence of all three of these “furies” bears witness to such events.
Paterson and Rand agreed about a great many things political – but when it came to the art of fiction, they seem to have agreed about very little. Paterson did not like the writing in 'The Fountainhead,' and Rand had a similar view of Pat's "literary judgment." ('Letters of Ayn Rand,' p. 276)
This did not stop the two women from promoting each other's work. Cox notes the eight mentions of 'The Fountainhead' in Paterson's column “in 1943 alone,” and there can certainly be no doubt that Rand's recommendations and public praise for Paterson’s work had a tremendous impact on the (eventual) success of 'The God of the Machine.'
Whatever Paterson thought of Rand’s fiction, much to her credit, she did later come to Rand’s defense when 'The National Review' did its legendary hatchet job on Rand’s novel 'Atlas Shrugged.' Paterson called the review by Whittaker Chambers “the dirtiest job imaginable… If I ever see Mr. Chambers again I won’t speak to him.” (Cox, p. 351)
As Rand’s continued recommendation of Paterson’s work also shows, it is safe to say that these two never really lost a deep and abiding mutual respect.
This continued admiration – even after their falling out – suggests the importance each placed on the other’s work – and the importance of Cox’s subject. If we have dwelt on details, it is because details matter and because the focus here has been highly selective. However, the subject is too engaging and the material too fascinating to miss this biography, whatever its problems.
The kind of sympathy for his subject that Cox displays is probably necessary for the motivation to complete such a biography. Such sympathy is probably important even to a biographer’s objectivity – as it is certainly necessary for a biographer to attempt to “walk in the shoes” of his subject – and so it is something that we must appreciate, despite some resulting errors.
However, it is a sympathy that Ayn Rand has yet to experience from an in-depth biographer.
[Thanks are owed to Professor Stephen Cox, Casey Fahy, and Aaron Haspel for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this. This, of course, does not imply any agreement on their parts, but they were all very helpful.]
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