I was first gulled into reading Ayn Rand's books the same way a lot of overachieving high-school kids were: by the promise of money. The conservative political foundation Rand started years ago still holds scholarship essay contests based on her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. But even back then, when I was still flirting with libertarianism as a viable philosophy, I couldn't go through with the contest. The book's transparent anti-society agitprop and humorless potboiler style made it impossible for me to take seriously—not even for a chance at $5,000. Most, if not all, literary critics agree, and prominent placement of her books on a bookshelf remains for me a red flag and probable romantic deal breaker.
Nonetheless, as terrible novelists go, she's had a remarkable influence on the political life of our country. Alan Greenspan, who recently testified before Congress about the "flaw" he'd discovered in his ideology, was an early, long-term disciple of Rand and her anti-collectivist philosophy that taught the goodness of greed. (One of her most famous political texts, for example, was titled The Virtue of Selfishness. ) Her pro-business, starkly individualist stance has also made her popular among entrepreneurial types such as Ted Turner and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. It is just this powerful political and cultural influence—though Rand stayed consistently outside the conservative mainstream—that led Jennifer Burns to write her biography Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford, 369 pages, $27.95).
While Rand's popularity and influence is charted quite admirably, what emerges most vividly in Burns' book is a portrait of the strange, singular, seething Ayn Rand herself. She tracks Rand (née a bright, solitary, unbefriended Alisa Rosenbaum) from her primal scene—Soviets in jackboots taking her family's money away—through her emigration to the U.S., her trip to Hollywood to demand her first job from Cecil B. DeMille himself, her lifelong dedication to a failed actor, her inability to be friends with anyone who disagreed with her, her stuttering course to suddenly meteoric success as a writer, her foundation of the philosophical movement of Objectivism, and her oddly "rationalized" (and ultimately doomed) affair with intellectual partner Nathaniel Branden, carried on in full view of both her husband and his wife.
In Burns' portrayal, Rand is a compelling and pathetic figure: an inflexible, terribly lonely, terribly bright and charismatic woman, devoted to absolute individuality but unable to brook even the slightest disagreement in others, an anti-Soviet who nonetheless took on Soviet realist-style propaganda as her métier. Though what Rand had sought her entire life was an entirely rational existence, freed of all possible uncertainty, what remains most interesting and human about her is her contradictions.
Jennifer Burns reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Monday, Dec. 7. Free.