BOOK REVIEW: The Letters of Ayn Rand. Edited by Michael S. Berliner, Introduction by Leonard Peikoff. New York: Dutton, 1995. 681 pp. including index. Hardcover $34.95.
Readers of Ayn Rand are already familiar with the sparkling clarity of her writing and the powerful force of her arguments. In this collection of 55 years of her correspondence, there is
plenty of clarity and power. Many of the letters are short essays on topics in philosophy, political activism, and art. But there is much more to her letters than essays. As you read them you begin to see more of the person who was Ayn Rand. We see her delight in having Frank Lloyd Wright design a house for her. We read of how much she missed her husband, Frank O'Connor, when he was away performing in a play. We see her concern for the family members and friends she left behind in Russia. We see her playfulness in concluding a letter to a fan who had asked, among other questions, whether she lived in a "modern" house (in California):
So you see, I'm the kind of ballplayer who endorses only what she really smokes - and smokes only what she really endorses. And that goes for all the other ideas, principles and philosophy endorsed in The Fountainhead, besides architecture.
I'm glad you liked my book. We're even. I liked your letter. (229)
In short, in her letters we learn more of the style of her soul.
We also learn more about how Ayn Rand conducted her life in accordance with her principles. Watching Ayn Rand deal with matters that were important values to her, we see a woman enjoying life and taking responsibility for producing the whole range of values her life required.
In a 1949 letter to Archibald Ogden, the editor who staked his job on Bobbs-Merrill's acceptance of The Fountainhead, Rand writes, "I believe that every man is responsible for every aspect of his life, most particularly for his livelihood." (455) She was not content to simply write a novel and turn it over to a publisher. She was passionately concerned that her books succeed in the marketplace. To that end, she readily helped her publishers prepare effective advertising copy and promotional campaigns.
Sometimes she appeared to have a better sense of what was required than the publishers themselves. In a 1943 letter, Ogden suggested she should have "faith" in those who were handling the business side of the book's publication. Rand replied with an eight point list of what publishers generally do to promote a book considered to be a "lead" and a "special." She went on to write (the emphasis is hers):
Now I don't say that I advocate necessarily all of those methods or any one in particular. I only know that those are the methods used. You've used none of them. Perhaps you have better methods of your own. Very well. TELL ME WHAT THEY ARE. Name them. I don't want compliments, I don't want consolations, I don't want any talk about anyone's "faith." I want facts.... (68)
Of course, she took great glee in seeing her books climb the bestseller lists. Isabel Paterson, author of The God of the Machine and a close friend, sent Rand the first list on which The Fountainhead was reported by a New York store. Rand replied, "I started screaming - literally and aloud, just plain screaming...That was the first time in my life that I wanted to scream inarticulately from a kind of pure physical happiness." (187)
Her responsibility didn't end with her books. Upon completing the screenplay for The Fountainhead, she wrote a long letter to the film's producer, Henry Blanke. "This letter is my attempt to stand by you in spirit in a battle which is mine, too, but which I will not be present to share." (242) Her letter recapitulates many of the "reasons" why her book would not succeed - "The characters aren't human - their dialogue is too literary - the whole thing is too intellectual - it won't play well - it's not a regular movie - etc." - and provides him with arguments to help him remain true to his vision of the novel.
You must believe the thesis of The Fountainhead in regard to its production. That thesis is not just fiction and it does not apply just to architects: man must act on his own judgment. You must produce The Fountainhead on your own independent, original, uninfluenced judgment. There is no other way to do anything well in any sphere of life—and certainly not in this case. If you compromise and then hope to make a success of The Fountainhead by acting in a way exactly opposed to the way it teaches—it is The Fountainhead itself that will defeat you. And that would be ironic and tragic. (248)
Atlas Shrugged provides a vivid portrayal of the end result of the political principles underlying today's world and presents an alternative set of principles. Rand certainly didn't view her alternative as simply a utopian vision. Working with many prominent conservatives, Rand took on the responsibility of combating the advance of collectivism in the United States. Through her letters, we learn of three unpublished works: a 5,000 word critique of those whose silence aids collectivism, "To All Innocent Fifth Columnists," a 1941 statement of her ethical and political philosophy, "The Individualist Manifesto," and a proposed nonfiction book, The Moral Basis of Individualism. In a 1941 letter to Channing Pollock, drama critic and author, she discusses her plan to start an organization to promote individualism on a national level. She asks him to provide "'ideological' or ethical guidance" as the head of a board of advisors and to give her the names of other people who could direct the organization. "If you find time...to write to me and send me the names of these men, I will go to see them, and I am very willing to do all the explaining, contacting, arranging, and general running around." Initially she was quite confident. "Just let people know what we are doing and we won't have to go after them - they will come to us." (45)
Although that organization was never formed, she continued to enlist others in the fight and to persuade them of the proper basis of capitalism. She provides extensive analysis of articles and books by her allies, and even analyzes a comic strip about the visit of a man from Mars. (385) Her two-year correspondence with Leonard Read, founder and later president of the Foundation for Economic Education, publishers of The Freeman, illustrated her willingness to invest heavily of her time—including years of serving as an unpaid, unofficial, "ghost" editor for his publications. The major theme of her letters to Read (and many others) was that political change requires more than just economic arguments, more than just political arguments, but an argument against the moral basis of collectivism: altruism. In a 1946 discussion of Read's proposal for the Foundation for Economic Education, she writes,
You imply that the cause of the world's troubles lies solely in people's ignorance of economics and that the way to cure the world is to teach it the proper economic knowledge. This is not true—therefore your program will not work. You cannot hope to effect a cure by starting with the wrong diagnosis. (257)
Despite many disappointments along the way, Rand remained optimistic:
Free enterprise as a system may be wiped out for a while by fools, cowards and secondhanders—but its spirit (Individualism, which means Man's spirit) cannot be destroyed, it will go on and win in the end, even if it takes centuries, as it has always won in the past. Because individualism is the only thing that works or can work. (225)
She continued to work to enlist professed "conservatives" to fight the battle on moral grounds. In her letters, she talks of "saving Capitalism from the Capitalists" and persuading potential allies that the battle to be fought, as she explains in a 1962 letter to a church pastor, is not individualism versus collectivism, but reason versus mysticism. Her letters also tell of her offer to assist Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential campaign, even to the point of writing a final speech for the campaign. (The speech was never used.)
Of course, this book includes much more than I have space to write about. In her correspondence with Isabel Paterson and with Archie Ogden, we see her love for them and the poignancy of the collapse of these friendships. We see many wonderful moments in which she describes the small joys of life, such as her fan letters to a New York radio announcer, her account of her own ride in the engine of a locomotive, and her thrill at hearing that Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins thought her article, "Apollo 11," was probably the best he had read on his mission. (She called his comment "the best reward I received in my entire writing career." 648)
The book is strewn with diamonds of trivia for her fans. She writes of a screenplay she was preparing for a movie about the development of the atomic bomb; her choices for casting Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, and Dagny Taggart; the research she did in preparing to write Atlas Shrugged; her offer to write a novel and screen play based on her movie scenario, "Red Pawn."
An intriguing glimpse of Ayn Rand in debate with another philosopher, John Hospers, over her ideas and the ideas of modern philosophy is provided in the section entitled "Letters to a Philosopher." Although Rand quotes liberally from Hospers's letters, they are, of course, not included here. Also, according to an introductory note from Hospers, much of their debate on her ideas and modern philosophic approaches was conducted face-to-face. What we are privy to merely whets our appetite for more of what clearly was a fascinating debate.
The book's editor, Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D., executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, provides unobtrusive but useful notes, with the occasional dramatic flair, throughout the book. Of the materials being gathered in the Ayn Rand Archives and Library for future use by researchers, Dr. Berliner has selected from more than 2,000 letters in preparing this volume. He says he "included approximately 35 to 40 percent of the total, omitting repetitious material and many routine business letters."
The letters presented in this collection provide a thrilling opportunity to see Rand's mind at work in explaining her ideas and in applying them as she lived her dream of a truly dramatic life.