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Friday, July 9, 2010

The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America

Paterson Was an Important Libertarian Intellectual

It is a curious footnote in the history of the libertarian movement that three of its leading inspirations voted for Franklin Roosevelt for president. The irreverent H. L. Mencken voted as much against Hoover as he did for FDR. Ayn Rand, like many, bought into Roosevelt’s rhetoric of fiscal discipline. But Isabel Paterson knew better, or at least she should have.

Born in 1886 on an island in the middle of Lake Huron, the frontier of untamed Canada left an indelible mark on Paterson. After working for a series of newspapers on the American west coast, she migrated east — to New York City — where she eventually found her way to the Herald-Tribune and ultimately to nationwide fame. While ostensibly a book-review column, her weekly “Turns With a Bookworm” provided a regular forum for her views on just about everything, from a libertarian perspective. Signed I.M.P., “Turns” became one of the most influential literary columns in America.

Paterson’s name survives today, however, primarily because of The God of the Machine, her magnum opus written in 1943. For the aspiring libertarian, it has almost become required reading. Written during the dark epoch of World War II, it, along with Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority, was one of the three books published that year which helped ignite the modern libertarian movement. The book is a magisterial attempt to chart the course of human energy, both free and unfree. In Paterson’s writing, we see great passion, wit, and verve. To her, Plato’s Republic was a “paper scheme,” while “Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission.” Her belief in human freedom was as strong as her distaste for socialism, interventionism, and the welfare state, and it is no wonder she converted so many to the cause of liberty.

Yet there has been comparatively little written on Paterson. Stephen Cox’s new biography corrects this intellectual sin of omission.

Charting the course of her life from the wilds of Canada to the hubris of intellectual cocktail parties in New York City, Cox weaves an intricate picture of this iconoclast’s life. For those who came to Paterson through The God of the Machine, Cox’s book reminds us that she was firmly established as an important libertarian intellectual even before its publication. Her columns covered war, peace, trade, and socialism from the stance of a libertarian individualist fighting the tide of collectivism.

Cox, a professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, understands that what Paterson wrote was equally as important as when she wrote it. If alive and writing today, Isabel Paterson would be an important and courageous thinker. She was all the more so given that she was virtually alone in her politics—doubly so, considering her gender—during the New Deal and world war. She proudly proclaimed her belief in “the Rights of Man, personal liberty and private property” when the literary world was infatuated with the “new man” of the Soviet Union. This, along with her strong position against entry into the war and her dislike of militant anticommunism, won her enemies on all sides. Like Mencken, she traveled in a world hostile to her ideas, and her unyielding belief in liberty and limited government marginalized her in many people’s eyes.

Much of the material for the book was drawn from Paterson’s personal correspondence, and that consequently gives it a strongly partisan feel—with Cox firmly ensconced in Paterson’s corner. Some of Cox’s conclusions seem a bit strained. For example, he asserts that Paterson was the guiding force behind Rand’s political development. He writes, “If there was a crucial, external influence on Rand’s political development, Paterson was that influence.” His evidence to support this statement is weak—an inscription in Paterson’s copy of The Fountainhead that reads, “You have been the one encounter in my life that can never be repeated.” This is certainly a touching sentiment, but it’s hardly enough evidence to support the contention.

  • Jude joined the Atlas Network in January 2009 as a member of the Institute Relations team, focusing on think tanks in Asia. Prior to joining Atlas, he was a China-based special correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, a research assistant at the Cato Institute, and the Henry Hazlitt Research Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. He studied economics at Loyola University and Mandarin Chinese at the Beijing Institute of Technology. He currently resides in Shanghai, China.