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Wednesday, March 1, 2000

The Fountainhead: An American Novel by Douglas J. Den Uyl

Den Uyl Shows That Rand's Book Is a Literary Masterpiece

Twayne Publishers • 1999 • 123 pages • $32.00

“But of course, if individualism really is central to Americanism, then The Fountainhead is the quintessential American novel.” This is the concluding sentence of Douglas Den Uyl’s wonderful discussion of Ayn Rand’s great novel, which has been at the center of the resurgence of interest in the philosophy of individual freedom. Den Uyl shows that Rand’s book is not only inspiring, as art ought to be, and philosophically meaty, as many classic novels surely are, but also that it is a literary masterpiece.

The tone of Den Uyl’s book is important. It is one of understated respect and admiration for Rand’s accomplishment, one of thoughtful analysis rather than fawning praise. Sadly, we have come to expect works on Rand, including the recent movie, A Sense of Life, to be either uncritical pleading on her behalf, with little attention to any possible problems in her philosophy, or angry denunciation, giving her credit for nothing at all, let alone acknowledging any literary merit in her novels. Den Uyl’s gentle but exacting discussion is a relief from such Rand-partisanship and Rand-bashing.

Den Uyl argues convincingly that in The Fountainhead Rand’s literary achievement is extraordinary and often superior to other authors who enjoy such a reputation with the experts. This is not surprising, given that many intelligent and artistically sensitive people have found it easy to embrace Rand as a great artist, not merely a writer with powerful philosophical ideas.

What I found most rewarding is how Den Uyl accomplishes the task of convincing the reader of Rand’s artistry, using example after example to show how well crafted a novel The Fountainhead truly is. For instance, he shows the remarkable complexity of the book’s characters with numerous passages and conversations. Consider this excerpt from one of Ellsworth Toohey’s conversations with Dominique Francon:

“I wonder what you are essentially. I don’t know.”

“I dare say, nobody does,” he said pleasantly. “Although really, there’s no mystery about it at all. It’s very simple. All things are simple when you reduce them to fundamentals. You’d be surprised if you know how few fundamentals there are. Only two, perhaps. To explain all of us. It’s the untangling, the reducing that’s difficult. That’s why people don’t like to bother. I don’t think they’d like the results either.”

“I don’t mind. I know what I am. Go ahead and say it. I’m just a bitch.”

“Don’t fool yourself, my dear. You are much worse than a bitch. You’re a saint. Which shows why saints are dangerous and undesirable.”

Den Uyl then comments: “The point here is not that Dominique does not know what she wants or that she is unclear about her values. She is a compelling mixture of decisiveness and certainty on the one hand and the unconceptualized on the other, as further evidenced in the following passage: ‘Roark, I can accept anything, except what seems to be the easiest for most people: the halfway, the almost, the just-about, the in-between. I know that is one thing not given to me to understand.’”

A great many more such line-by-line discussions fill this little book. The reader is apt to wish for much more.

This book is a bit like a mystery because not until the end does Den Uyl fully reveal his own view of Rand’s novel. Let me just hint that it revolves around Dominique.

I recommend this book not only to those who have found Rand’s work inspiring and philosophically, ethically, politically, and economically fruitful, but even more so to those who have found Rand’s literary skills lacking or simply accepted the judgment of detractors who speak with confidence but have scarcely read her fiction.

To thousands of champions of individualism, Ayn Rand has been a seminal figure. Den Uyl’s book teaches them—and anyone else willing to listen—how to fully appreciate The Fountainhead and to see why it is perhaps the American novel of the twentieth century.

Tibor Machan is a professor in the school of business and economics at Chapman University.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.