Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand: Three Women Who Inspired the Modern Libertarian Movement
MAY 01, 1996 by JIM POWELL, AYN RAND
Filed Under : Biographies
Mr. Powell is editor of Laissez-Faire Books and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, American Heritage, and more than three dozen other publications. Copyright © 1996 by Jim Powell.
Liberty was in full retreat in the early 1940s. Tyrants oppressed or threatened people on every continent. Western intellectuals whitewashed mass murderers like Joseph Stalin, and Western governments expanded their power with Soviet-style central planning. Fifty million people were killed in the war that raged in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The United States, seemingly the last hope for liberty, was drawn into it.
Established American authors who defended liberty were a dying breed. H.L. Mencken had turned away from bitter politics to write his memoirs, while others like Albert Jay Nock and Garet Garrett were mired in pessimism.
Amidst the worst of times, three bold women banished fear. They dared to declare that collectivism was evil. They stood up for natural rights, the only philosophy which provided a moral basis for opposing tyranny everywhere. They celebrated old-fashioned rugged individualism. They envisioned a future when people could again be free. They expressed a buoyant optimism which was to inspire millions.
All were outsiders who transcended difficult beginnings. Two were immigrants. One was born in frontier territory not yet part of the United States. They struggled to earn money as writers in commercial markets dominated by ideological adversaries. All were broke at one time or another. They endured heartaches with men—one stayed in a marriage which became sterile, and two became divorced and never remarried.
These women who had such humble beginnings—Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand—published major books during the same year, 1943: The Discovery of Freedom, The God of the Machine, and The Fountainhead, respectively. The women, recalled journalist John Chamberlain, “with scornful side glances at the male business community, had decided to rekindle a faith in an older American philosophy. There wasn’t an economist among them. And none of them was a Ph.D.” Albert Jay Nock declared that, “They make all of us male writers look like Confederate money. They don’t fumble and fiddle around—every shot goes straight to the centre.”
Rose Wilder Lane
Like her compatriots, Rose Wilder Lane surprised people. She once described herself by saying “I’m a plump, middle western, middle class, middle-aged woman.” She had bad teeth, her marriage failed, she worked to support her aging parents, and at one point during the 1930s she was so financially distressed that her electricity was shut off. Yet she soared with great eloquence as she helped revive the radical principles of the American Revolution, and she inspired millions of adults and children alike as the editor of the beloved “Little House” books about individual responsibility, hard work, stubborn persistence, strong families, and human liberty.
Rose Wilder Lane was born December 5, 1886, near De Smet, Dakota Territory. Her father, Almanzo Wilder, and her mother, Laura Ingalls, were poor farmers, devastated by drought, hailstorms, and other calamities that ruined crops. For years, the family lived in a windowless cabin. They missed many meals. Their daughter, named after wild roses which bloomed on the prairie, often went barefoot.
When Lane was four, the family gave up on Dakota and moved to Mansfield, Missouri, which offered better farming prospects. She went to a four-room, red brick schoolhouse that had two shelves of books, and she discovered the wonders of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Edward Gibbon. Her mainstay became the famous Readers compiled by Cincinnati College President William Holmes McGuffey, who imparted moral lessons as he taught the fundamentals of reading and exposed young minds to many great authors of Western civilization.
“We did not like discipline,” Lane recalled, “so we suffered until we disciplined ourselves. We saw many things and many opportunities that we ardently wanted and could not pay for, so we did not get them, or got them only after stupendous, heartbreaking effort and self-denial, for debt was much harder to bear than deprivations. We were honest, not because sinful human nature wanted to be, but because the consequences of dishonesty were excessively painful. It was clear that if your word were not as good as your bond, your bond was no good and you were worthless . . . we learned that it is impossible to get something for nothing. . . .”
She quit school after the ninth grade and determined that somehow she would see the world beyond rural Missouri. She took a train to Kansas City and accepted a job as a Western Union telegraph clerk on the night shift. She spent most of her spare time reading, perhaps three hours a day. By 1908, she relocated to San Francisco for another Western Union job and romance with advertising salesman Gillette Lane. They married in March 1909. She became pregnant but had either a miscarriage or stillbirth. It became impossible for her to conceive again.
By 1915, the marriage had broken up, but through his newspaper connections Lane found her start as a journalist. For the San Francisco Bulletin, a radical labor paper, she began writing a women’s column, then a series of daily 1,500-word personality profiles. She wrote an autobiographical novel serialized in Sunset magazine.
In March 1920, the Red Cross invited her to travel around Europe and report on their relief efforts, so that prospective donors—on whose support they depended—would know about the good deeds of the organization. Based in Paris, she traveled to Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Rome, Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Tirana, Trieste, Athens, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Constantinople. Lane imagined that Europe was the great hope for civilization, but instead she eluded bandits, encountered bureaucratic corruption, endured runaway inflation, witnessed civil war horrors and the darkening shadows of ruthless tyranny.
Lane visited the Soviet Union four years after the Bolsheviks seized power. Like many people, she was enchanted by the Communist vision for a better life. She met peasants whom she expected to be rapturous about Communism. But as she reported later, “My host astounded me by the force with which he said that he did not like the new government. . . . His complaint was government interference with village affairs. He protested against the growing bureaucracy that was taking more and more men from productive work. He predicted chaos and suffering from the centralizing of economic power in Moscow. . . . I came out of the Soviet Union no longer a communist, because I believed in personal freedom.”
After returning to America, her career blossomed as she wrote for The American Mercury, Country Gentleman, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, and the Saturday Evening Post, among others. She wrote novels about pioneer life. Famed actress Helen Hayes dramatized one of Lane’s novels, Let the Hurricane Roar, on the radio. But Lane was financially devastated during the Great Depression. In 1931, she wailed, “I am forty-five. Owe $8,000. Have in bank $502.70. . . . Nothing that I have intended has ever been realized.”
In 1936, Lane wrote “Credo,” an 18,000-word article on liberty for the Saturday Evening Post. Three years later Leonard Read, General Manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, helped establish a little publishing firm called Pamphleteers, which reprinted Lane’s article as Give Me Liberty.
In it, Lane explained how free competition enables civilization to flourish despite scoundrels. “I have no illusions about the pioneers,” she wrote. “In general they were trouble-makers of the lower classes, and Europe was glad to be rid of them. They brought no great amount of intelligence or culture. Their principal desire was to do as they pleased. . . . [Yet] Americans today . . . are the kindest people on earth. . . . Only Americans pour wealth over the world, relieving suffering in such distant places as Armenia and Japan. . . . Such are a few of the human values that grew from individualism while individualism was creating this nation.”
The Discovery of Freedom
In 1942, an editor of John Day Company asked Lane to write a book about liberty. She began work in a McAllen, Texas, trailer park, amidst a tour of the Southwest. She went through at least two drafts at her home in Danbury, Connecticut. Her book, The Discovery of Freedom, Man’s Struggle Against Authority, was published January 1943.
While most historians focused on rulers, Lane chronicled the epic 6,000-year struggle of ordinary people, who defy rulers to raise families, produce food, build industries, engage in trade, and in countless ways improve human life. She was lyrical about the American Revolution, which helped secure liberty and unleashed phenomenal energy for human progress.
With stirring, sometimes melodramatic prose, she attacked myriad collectivist influences, including government schools and so-called “progressive” economic regulations. She ridiculed claims that bureaucrats could do better for individuals than they could do for themselves. She swept away gloom with her towering self-confidence. “Five generations of Americans have led the Revolution,” she declared, “and the time is coming when Americans will set this whole world free.”
Individualist Albert Jay Nock lavished praise on the book, but Lane was dissatisfied with it and refused permission to reprint it. She never got around to completing another edition. Only a thousand copies of the book were printed during her lifetime.
Nonetheless, The Discovery of Freedom had a big impact, circulating as an underground classic. It helped inspire the launching of several organizations to promote liberty. Among them, Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education, F.A. Harper’s Institute for Humane Studies, and Robert M. Lefevre’s Freedom School. Read retained General Motors consumer researcher Henry Grady Weaver to adapt the book as The Mainspring of Human Progress, and hundreds of thousands of copies have been distributed by FEE.
The Little House Books
Although The Discovery of Freedom was a founding document of the modern libertarian movement, Lane had perhaps a greater calling behind the scenes. In 1930, Laura Ingalls Wilder gave Lane a manuscript about her early life from Wisconsin to Kansas and Dakota. Lane deleted the material about Wisconsin, then went through two drafts of the rest, fleshing out the story and characters. This became a 100-page manuscript tentatively called Pioneer Girl, and she sent it to her literary agent, Carl Brandt. The Wisconsin material became a 20-page story, “When Grandma Was a Little Girl,” a possible text for a children’s picture book. One publisher suggested that the story be expanded to a 25,000-word book for younger readers.
Lane conveyed the news to her mother, and since the original manuscript had been rewritten beyond recognition, she explained, “It is your father’s stories, taken out of the long PIONEER GIRL manuscript, and strung together, as you will see.” Lane specified the kind of additional material needed, adding “If you find it easier to write in the first person, write that way. I will change it into the third person, later.” Lane reassured her mother that the collaboration remained a family secret: “I have said nothing about having run the manuscript through my own typewriter. . . .” By May 27, 1931, the “juvenile” was done, and Lane sent it off to publishers. Harper Brothers issued it in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods, and it became a beloved American story.
In January 1933, Wilder gave Lane Farmer Boy, a manuscript about Almanzo’s childhood recollections. Publishers had rejected it, presumably because it was mainly a chronicle of farm skills. Lane spent a month turning it into a flesh-and-blood story, and Harper’s bought it. The following year, Wilder gave Lane a manuscript about her life in Kansas, and she spent five weeks rewriting it into Little House on the Prairie.
The books began generating significant income for the Wilders, a relief to Lane whose aim was to help provide their financial security. Wilder expanded part of Pioneer Girl into another manuscript and gave it to Lane in the summer of 1936. “I have written you the whys of the story as I wrote it,” Wilder explained. “But you know your judgement is better than mine, so what you decide is the one that stands.” Lane spent two months rewriting it and drafted a letter for their literary agent, asking for better terms. This manuscript became On the Banks of Plum Creek. Lane spent most of 1939 rewriting the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake; in 1940, The Long Winter; in 1941, Little Town on the Prairie; and in 1942, These Happy Golden Years.
Throughout the later books especially, Lane portrayed young Laura Ingalls Wilder as a libertarian heroine. For example, in Little Town on the Prairie, she described her mother’s thoughts this way: “Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.”
In 1974, NBC began adapting the books for Little House on the Prairie, a hugely popular television series which ran nine years and resulted in more than 200 programs. Then came a syndication agreement assuring that they will be run again and again for at least the next quarter-century. Michael Landon wrote and directed many shows, and starred as Laura’s father, Charles Ingalls.
Lane’s last blast was a book about American needlework, which she turned into a hymn for liberty. “American needlework tells you,” she continued, “that Americans live in the only classless society. This republic is the only country that has no peasant needlework. . . . American women . . . discarded backgrounds, they discarded borders and frames. They made the details create the whole, and they set each detail in boundless space, alone, independent, complete.”
Lane knew but wasn’t close to the bold, hot-tempered, sometimes tactless journalist Isabel Bowler Paterson. According to scholar Stephen Cox, she was “a slight woman, 5`3" tall, very nearsighted, a lover of pretty and slightly eccentric clothes, fond of delicate foods, a light drinker, a devotee of nature who could spend all day watching a tree grow . . .”
Paterson held stubbornly to her views and told all who would listen what she thought about an issue. Dominating conversations tended to limit her social life, especially as she became a dissident against New Deal government intervention, but she did have some stalwart friends. One remarked that “if people can stand her at all, they eventually become very fond of her.”
Paterson wrote novels and some 1,200 newspaper columns, but it was The God of the Machine which secured her immortality in the annals of liberty. It mounted a powerful attack on collectivism and explained the extraordinary dynamics of free markets.
She was born January 22, 1886, on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Her parents, Francis and Margaret Bowler, were poor farmers who moved to Michigan, then Utah and Alberta in search of better luck. Paterson made soap, tended livestock, and spent just two years in school. But she read books at home, including the Bible, some Shakespeare, and novels by Charles Dickens and Alexander Dumas.
When she was about 18 years old, Paterson went off on her own. She worked as a waitress, bookkeeper, and stenographer, earning $20 a month. She was proud to be independent. “Listen, my girl,” she told a journalist, “your paycheck is your mother and your father; in other words, respect it.”
At 24, in 1910, she married Kenneth Birrell Paterson, but the relationship soured, and within a few years they went their separate ways. She seldom talked about him again. She was more determined than ever to maintain her independence.
She had done a little writing on the side to relieve boredom, and after she became a secretary to a Spokane, Washington, newspaper publisher, she did more. She began writing his editorials. She wrote drama criticism for two Vancouver newspapers. Next, fiction—her novel The Shadow Riders was published in 1916, and The Magpie’s Nest, the following year. Both were about young women struggling to achieve independence. Although Canada had become a protectionist nation, Paterson made clear in The Shadow Riders that she was a free trader.
Paterson moved East following World War I and started reading her way through much of the New York Public Library. In 1922, she persuaded New York Tribune literary editor Burton Rascoe to give her a job, even though he didn’t like her. “She said bluntly that she wanted the job,” he recalled. “I told her my budget would not allow me to pay what she was worth. She said she would work for whatever I was prepared to pay. I said the pay was forty dollars a week. She said, `I’ll work for that.”’
In 1924, she started writing a weekly column on books, and it became an influential forum for the next quarter-century. She used books as a point of departure to talk about practically anything. Many columns affirmed her commitment to American individualism. She attacked collectivist societies based on status and defended dynamic capitalism. She denounced Herbert Hoover’s interventionism and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The God of the Machine
Many columns explored themes which became the basis for The God of the Machine, published by Putnam’s in May 1943. Paterson attacked fascism, Nazism, and Communism as varieties of the same evil, collectivism. She reserved some of her most eloquent blasts for Stalin, who charmed so many intellectuals. Anyone who imagines that socialist horrors were exposed recently will be shocked to see how clearly Paterson understood why collectivism always means stagnation, backwardness, corruption, and slavery.
There’s much more in this tremendous book. Paterson provided a grand overview of the history of liberty. She made clear why personal freedom is impossible without political freedom. She defended immigrants. She denounced military conscription, central economic planning, compulsory unionism, business subsidies, paper money, and compulsory government schools. Long before most economists, she explained how New Deal policies prolonged the Great Depression.
Paterson celebrated private entrepreneurs, who are the primary source of human progress. For instance: “Everything that was the creation of private enterprise in the railways gave satisfaction. Private enterprise mined, smelted, and forged the iron, invented the steam engine, devised surveying instruments, produced and accumulated the capital, organized the effort. In the building and operation of the railways, whatever lay in the realm of private enterprise was done with competence. . . . What people hated was the monopoly. The monopoly, and nothing else, was the political contribution.”
By 1949, Paterson’s libertarian views became too much for editors of the New York Herald Tribune, and she was fired. Nonetheless, she expressed her gratitude, saying they probably published more of her work than would have been tolerated anywhere else. They gave her a small pension, and she got along by investing her savings in real estate. She refused Social Security, returning her card in an envelope marked “Social Security Swindle.”
Meanwhile, she had become a focal point for the fledgling libertarian movement. For example, after Leonard Read founded the Foundation for Economic Education, she introduced him to influential journalist John Chamberlain, whom she had helped convert into a libertarian, and a decades-long collaboration blossomed.
Back during the early 1940s, Paterson served as a mentor for Russian-born Ayn Rand who, 19 years younger, joined her weekly when she proofread typeset pages of her Herald Tribune book reviews. She introduced Rand to many books and ideas about history, economics, and political philosophy, helping Rand develop a more sophisticated world view. When Rand’s novel The Fountainhead was published, Paterson promoted it in a number of Herald Tribune columns. Rand’s books went on to surpass Paterson’s—and just about everyone else’s for that matter—selling some 20 million copies.
Rand had a striking presence. As biographer Barbara Branden described Rand upon her arrival in America at age 21: “Framed by its short, straight hair, its squarish shape stressed by a firmly set jaw, its sensual wide mouth held in tight restraint, its huge dark eyes black with intensity, it seemed the face of a martyr or an inquisitor or a saint. The eyes burned with a passion that was at once emotional and intellectual—as if they would sear the onlooker and leave their dark light a flame on his body.” Later in life, chain smoking and sedentary habits took their toll, but Rand was still unforgettable, as book editor Hiram Haydn recalled: “A short, squarish woman, with black hair cut in bangs and a Dutch bob. . . . Her eyes were as black as her hair, and piercing.”
Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg. Her father Fronz Rosenbaum had risen from poverty to the middle class as a chemist. Her mother Anna was an extrovert who believed in vigorous exercise and thrived on a busy social life. Alissa wanted nothing to do with either exercise or parties.
She was precocious. After school, she studied French and German at home. Inspired by a magazine serial, she began writing stories, and at nine years old she resolved to become a writer.
The Rosenbaums’ comfortable world ended when the Czar entered World War I, which devastated the nation’s economy. Within a year, more than a million Russians were killed or wounded. The government went broke. People were hungry. The Bolsheviks exploited the chaos and seized power in 1918.
The Russian Revolution spurred young Alissa to invent stories about heroic individuals battling kings or Communist dictators. At this time, too, she discovered novelist Victor Hugo whose dramatic style and towering heroes captivated her imagination. “I was fascinated by Hugo’s sense of life,” she recalled. “It was someone writing something important. I felt this is the kind of writer I would like to be, but I didn’t know how long it would take.”
At the University of Petrograd, she took courses with the stern Aristotelian Nicholas Lossky who, scholar Chris Sciabarra showed, had an enormous impact on her thinking. She read plays by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (she loved him) and William Shakespeare (hated him), philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche (provocative thinker), and novels by Feodor Dostoevsky (good plotter). She was utterly captivated to see some foreign movies. She had her first big crush, on a man named Leo who risked his life to hide members of the anti-Bolshevik underground.
In 1925, the Rosenbaums received a letter from relatives who had emigrated to Chicago more than three decades earlier to escape Russian anti-Semitism. Alissa expressed a burning desire to see America. The relatives agreed to pay her passage and be financially responsible for her. Miraculously, Soviet officials granted her a passport for a six months’ visit. On February 10, 1926, she boarded the ship De Grasse and arrived in New York with $50.
She soon joined her relatives in a cramped Chicago apartment. She saw a lot of movies and worked at her typewriter—usually starting around midnight, which made it difficult for others to sleep. During this period, she settled on a new first name for herself: Ayn, after a Finnish writer she had never read, but she liked the sound. And a new last name: Rand, after her Remington Rand typewriter. Biographer Branden says Rand might have adopted a new name to protect her family from possible recrimination by the Soviet regime.
Determined to become a movie script writer, she moved to Los Angeles. Through her Chicago relatives, she persuaded a movie distributor to write a letter introducing her to someone in the publicity department of the glamorous Cecil B. DeMille Studio. She met the great man himself while entering his studio, and he took her to the set of his current production. She started work as an extra for $7.50 a day.
At DeMille’s studio, Rand fell in love with a tall, handsome, blue-eyed bit actor named Frank O’Connor. They were married April 15, 1929, before her visa expired. She no longer had to worry about returning to the Soviet Union. Two months later, she applied for American citizenship.
The DeMille Studio closed, and she found odd jobs such as a freelance script reader. In 1935 she had a taste of success when she earned as much as $1,200 a week from her play Night of January 16th, which ran 283 performances on Broadway. It was about a ruthless industrialist and the powerful woman on trial for his murder.
We the Living
Rand spent four years writing her first novel, We the Living, about the struggle to find freedom in Soviet Russia. Kira Argounova, the desperate heroine, became the mistress of a party boss so she could raise money for her lover suffering from tuberculosis. Rand finished the book in late 1933. After many rejections, Macmillan agreed to take it and pay a $250 advance. The company published 3,000 copies in March 1936, but the book didn’t sell. Although word-of-mouth gave it a lift after about a year, Macmillan had destroyed the type, and We the Living went out of print. Rand had earned just $100 of royalties.
In 1937, while struggling to develop the plot of The Fountainhead, Rand wrote a short, lyrical futurist story about an individual versus collectivist tyranny—Anthem. Rand’s literary agent sold it to a British publisher but couldn’t find a taker in the American market. About seven years later, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce General Manager Leonard Read visited Rand and O’Connor—then living in New York—and remarked that somebody ought to write a book defending individualism. Rand told him about Anthem. Read borrowed her copy, read it, and his small publishing firm Pamphleteers made it available in the United States. It has sold some 2.5 million copies.
Rand finished plotting The Fountainhead in 1938 after nearly four years of work. Then came the writing. Her hero, architect Howard Roark, expressed her vision of an ideal man. He battled collectivists all around him to defend the integrity of his ideas, even when it meant dynamiting a building because plans were altered in violation of his contract.
Selling the book proved tough. Rand’s editor at Macmillan expressed interest and offered another $250 advance, but she insisted the company agree to spend at least $1,200 on publicity, so Macmillan bowed out. By 1940, a dozen publishers had seen finished chapters and rejected the book. One influential editor declared the book would never sell. Rand’s literary agent turned against it. Her savings were down to about $700.
Rand suggested that the partial manuscript be submitted to Bobbs-Merrill, an Indianapolis-based publisher which had issued The Red Decade by anti-Communist journalist Eugene Lyons. Bobbs-Merrill’s Indianapolis editors rejected The Fountainhead, but the company’s New York editor Archibald Ogden loved it and threatened to quit if they didn’t take it. They signed a contract in December 1941, paying Rand a $1,000 advance. With two-thirds of the book yet to be written, Rand focused on making her January 1, 1943, deadline for completion. She found herself in a friendly race with Isabel Paterson, then working to finish The God of the Machine.
Rand made her deadline, and The Fountainhead was published in May 1943, the same month as The God of the Machine, about nine years after the book was just a dream. The Fountainhead generated many more reviews than We the Living, but most reviewers either denounced it or misrepresented it as a book about architecture. For a while, Bobbs-Merrill’s initial print run of 7,500 copies moved slowly. Word-of-mouth stirred a groundswell of interest, and the publisher ordered a succession of reprintings which were small, in part, because of wartime paper shortages. The book gained momentum and hit the bestseller lists. Two years after publication, it sold 100,000 copies. By 1948, it had sold 400,000 copies. Then came the New American Library paperback edition, and The Fountainhead went on to sell over 6 million copies.
The day Warner Brothers agreed to pay Rand $50,000 for movie rights to The Fountainhead, she and O’Connor splurged and each had a 65-cent dinner at their local cafeteria. Rand fought to preserve the integrity of the script and was largely successful, though some of her most cherished lines were cut. The movie, starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, and Raymond Massey, premiered July 1949. It propelled the book onto the bestseller lists again.
Sometime earlier, when the hardcover edition had just come out, Rand told Isabel Paterson how disappointed she was with its reception. Paterson urged her to write a nonfiction book and added that Rand had a duty to make her views more widely known. Rand rebelled at the suggestion that she owed people anything. “What if I went on strike?” she asked. “What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?” This became the idea for her last major work, tentatively called The Strike.
As Rand worked on the book for some 14 years, everything about it became larger than life. The book featured her most famous hero, mysterious John Galt, the physicist-inventor who organized a strike of the most productive people against taxers and other exploiters. The book introduced Dagney Taggart, Rand’s first ideal woman, who found her match in Galt. Key characters delivered long speeches presenting Rand’s philosophical views on liberty, money, and sex—the book often seems more like a polemic for individualism and capitalism. A friend suggested that the tentative title would make many people think the book was about labor unions, and she abandoned it. O’Connor urged her to use one of the chapter headings as the book title, and it became Atlas Shrugged.
Rand’s ideas were as controversial as ever, but sales of The Fountainhead impressed publishers, and several big ones courted her for Atlas Shrugged. Random House co-owner Bennett Cerf was most supportive, and Rand got a $50,000 advance against a 15 percent royalty, a first printing of at least 75,000 copies, and a $25,000 advertising budget. The book was published October 10, 1957.
Most reviewers were savage. The old-line socialist Granville Hicks was a vocal critic in the New York Times, and others were similarly offended by Rand’s attacks on collectivism. The most hysterical review of all turned out to be in conservative National Review where Whittaker Chambers, presumably offended by her critique of religion, likened Rand to a Nazi “commanding: `To a gas chamber—go!”’ Word-of-mouth proved too strong for these naysayers, and sales began to climb, eventually past 4.5 million copies.
With Atlas Shrugged, Rand had fulfilled her dreams, and she became depressed. She was exhausted. She no longer had a giant project to focus her prodigious energies. She leaned increasingly on her Canadian-born intellectual disciple Nathaniel Branden with whom she had become intimate. To serve the growing interest in Rand and help revive her spirits, he established the Nathaniel Branden Institute, which offered seminars, marketed taped lectures, and began issuing publications. Rand wrote articles about her brand of libertarian philosophy, which she called Objectivism. Branden, 25 years younger than Rand, was sometimes an abrasive taskmaster, but he displayed remarkable skills promoting the ideals of individualism and capitalism. Good times continued until August 23, 1968, when he told Rand about his affair with another woman. Rand denounced him publicly, and they split, although the reasons weren’t fully disclosed until Branden’s ex-wife Barbara’s biography was published 18 years later. Branden later became a bestselling author about self-esteem.
During the past half century, no single individual did more than Ayn Rand to win converts for liberty. Her books sell a reported 300,000 copies year after year without being advertised by publishers or assigned by college professors. Indeed, her works have been trashed by most intellectuals. Her enduring appeal is an amazing phenomenon.
Curiously, despite the enormous influence of Rand’s books, they have had limited impact outside the English-speaking world. The most successful has been The Fountainhead, with editions in French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Russian. We the Living is available in French, German, Greek, Italian, and Russian editions, but a fifth as many copies are sold. The only overseas edition of Atlas Shrugged is in German—incredibly, it was never published in England. Anthem still hasn’t appeared in a translation, although French and Swedish editions are underway. Confirmation, perhaps, that America remains the world’s hotbed of rugged individualism.
The Final Years
Rand, Paterson, and Lane saw little of each other over the years. Rand and Paterson, both prickly pears, had a bitter split during the 1940s; after publication of Atlas Shrugged, Paterson attempted a reconciliation without success. Paterson’s friendship with Lane apparently had ended in some kind of intellectual dispute. Suffering gout and other infirmities, Paterson moved in with two of her remaining friends, Ted and Muriel Hall in Montclair, New Jersey. There she died on January 10, 1961, at age 74. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
Rand and Lane had already split over religion. Although Lane remained active throughout her life—Woman’s Day sent her to Vietnam as their correspondent in 1965—she cherished country living at her Danbury, Connecticut, home. On November 29, 1966, she baked several days’ worth of bread and went upstairs to sleep. She never awoke. She was 79. Her close friend and literary heir, Roger MacBride, brought her ashes to Mansfield, Missouri, and had them buried next to her mother and father. MacBride had her simple gravestone engraved with some words by Thomas Paine: “An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. Neither the Channel nor the Rhine will arrest its progress. It will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer.”
Rand had quarreled with many friends and led a reclusive life during her last years. She endured surgery for lung cancer. She kept more to herself after Frank O’Connor’s death in November 1979, oblivious to how her ideas inspired millions. Two years later, she enjoyed one heartening view, though; entrepreneur James Blanchard had a private train take her from New York to New Orleans where 4,000 people cheered her resounding defense of liberty.
Rand’s heart began to fail in December 1981. She hung on for three more months, asking her closest associate, Leonard Peikoff, to finish several projects. She died in her 120 East 34th Street, Manhattan apartment on March 6, 1982. She was buried next to O’Connor in Valhalla, New York, as some 200 mourners tossed flowers on her coffin. She was 77.
With their acknowledged eccentricities, Rand, Paterson, and Lane were miracles. They came out of nowhere to courageously challenge a corrupt, collectivist world. They single-mindedly seized the high ground. They affirmed the moral imperative for liberty. They showed that all things are possible.