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Editor’s Note: Stephen Cox, Ph.D, professor of literature and director of the Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego, recently edited an anthology of writings by Isabel Paterson. Culture and Liberty: Writings of Isabel Paterson (2015), contains many selections from Paterson, including two long, previously unpublished letters that Paterson wrote to Ayn Rand. Senior Editor Marilyn Moore, Ph.D interviewed Cox about the friendship between Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand and the influence Paterson had on Rand’s development as an intellectual.
MM: The articles by Isabel Paterson from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s in Culture & Liberty, are they most interesting as historical documents or do they offer us any useful perspective on our current political climate?
SC: Well I think that one thing that Paterson’s writings give us is the opportunity to see what happens when power is concentrated by political means. There is so much power to be divvied up among people in government, and it becomes a corrupting force. I'm sure she would say that both of the two major political parties have been corrupted by the amount of power that they've given themselves. She would say that they don't know how to use it, and that they continually try to cover up their mistakes by expanding their power. That's what she said about the political parties that she was writing about, and I'm sure that that analysis would extend to the ones that we have today.
But Culture & Liberty offers essays and letters on a wide variety of subjects, political, historical, and cultural. Paterson was interested in everything, and I believe there is something in the collection for people of every interest. Paterson was immensely intelligent and clear-headed. She had the gift of making subjects immediately accessible without sacrificing deep analysis and insight. She was also a very engaging writer with a brilliant sense of humor.
MM: Paterson’s best known book, The God of the Machine, was published in 1943. Was Paterson a well-known writer by then?
SC: Yes, she was very well known. She was a leading columnist. She worked for the New York Herald Tribune, which had an enormous national circulation. Her column appeared for over two decades in the Sunday edition of the New York Herald Tribune in something called the Books section. Books was sold in bookstores throughout the United States; its circulation was about 500,000 each issue and sold hundreds of thousands of copies every issue.
That is how she and Ayn Rand became friends. Rand enjoyed reading Paterson’s columns and sought her out. She was one of the few prominent friends of liberty that Rand had ever encountered in the literary world.
MM: Did Rand look to Isabel Paterson for advice, or did she just admire her work?
SC: She admired her work. Rand wanted to put together Friends of Individualism so that they could have some kind of political and literary impact. She tried to form an organization. That didn't happen, but she became close friends with Paterson.
MM: What would you tell someone today planning to read The God of the Machine?
SC: I’d probably tell people that there are two major reasons why it is interesting. One is that it proposes an original theory of society and history, and there are not very many original theories of history. And her theory is one that I think works. As explained in The God of the Machine itself and in the chapter examining the theory that appears in my biography of Paterson, Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America, it’s basically an energy theory. It's about how human society and institutions are instruments for organizing and projecting human energy – and increasing it. She likens them to a circuit of energy that you see in a machine. If it's short circuited, then the machine blows up or stops. Machines get more power when they’re connected in what she calls “the long circuit of energy.” For Paterson, the creative individual is the “dynamo” in the system.
A healthy society is a long, long circuit of energy. You can see this with commerce. I can trade with you, but then you can trade with somebody else, and we can extend our circuit of trade. Trade is an exchange. If you give me something of value that your energy has produced or acquired, and I give you something that my energy has produced or acquired, then we both get things of increasing benefit to ourselves. So in a way the energy is increasing, and the long circuit of energy can go all over the world. And it does go all over the world, unless it’s short circuited by some defect in the institutions that are supposed to protect it – the wiring, if you want to put it that way. We have laws and government to help us maintain the long circuit of energy, but if they start interfering with it, there can be a short circuit or a blow up.
Now that's a very interesting theory. Whether it's true or not, people have to judge for themselves. But it's exciting. I think that it works.
The second way in which I would recommend The God of the Machine is by mentioning its analysis of particular defects in institutions, particularly American institutions – the school system, the regulatory state, the growing central government – problems that are still, unfortunately, hindering us, and that Paterson very perceptively and presciently analyzed in The God of the Machine. It is as if it had been published yesterday.
MM: I agree. I have that same thought when I read Ayn Rand. I think, “Why are we still dealing with these problems?”
SC: And you know one of the secrets of Paterson and Rand as literary artists is that they tried not to make their analysis time limited by putting in lots and lots of specific political day-to-day problems or personalities. They use those as examples, but the principles are what’s really important. In Rand’s case she created them as examples, but her analysis is not limited to that. When Paterson is writing against President Roosevelt's court packing scheme, she's analyzing the constitution – the whole history of our law – not just speaking against that particular impulse of his.
And it's interesting to me that when Rand was writing The Fountainhead Paterson advised her to leave out any contemporary references so as not to put a temporal limit on her meanings, and Rand did that, both in The Fountainhead and in Atlas Shrugged.
MM: Then we have Isabel Paterson to thank for that. When I think of Atlas Shrugged, I think of it as a book of the future.
SC: I agree.
MM: Tell me more about the friendship between Paterson and Ayn Rand.
SC: They were close friends from about New Years in 1941 until Rand moved to the west coast at the end of 1943. Rand would frequently come to Paterson's home in Connecticut and spend the weekend with her or come to Paterson's office at the New York Herald Tribune for dialogues with her. And Paterson tried to organize those conversations so that each one would focus on something she thought Rand needed to learn. The Supreme Court, for instance. Rather than just making remarks about the Supreme Court or law or the constitution from time to time, she would try to have a focused discussions so that Rand could learn the American history that frankly she didn’t know.
I'm not saying that she set herself up as a schoolmaster, but that was her intention, and Rand literally sat at her feet.
MM: I think that’s great. I didn’t know that the two of them had that kind of relationship. So clearly Rand wanted to learn these things and trusted Paterson enough to place herself under Paterson’s tutelage. Then Ayn Rand comes into her own. You included a couple of letters that date from the end of the friendship.
SC: In the second phase, after Rand moved to southern California. They rarely saw each other, and they corresponded fitfully and often with disagreements and misunderstandings. There's a good deal of that correspondence, and it's very intellectually interesting, but there are many cases in which they are misunderstanding each other. Nevertheless they are articulate people who knew how to use words, so they were stating their own positions very adequately.
MM: Was there some bitterness?
SC: The God of the Machine wasn’t a big commercial success. Paterson was upset because she thought that her publisher had not pushed it, and the evidence that I've seen indicates that she was right.
The Fountainhead was an enormous commercial success, and Paterson was very happy to aid in that success. Before The Fountainhead really took off and while it was taking off Paterson was continually noticing it in her column. I think she notices it 16 times, but I have to look that up in my biography. She mentions it a lot.
So people say about The Fountainhead, well it started off selling very slowly. Word of mouth got people to buy it. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it's also true that Paterson continually pushed it.
MM: I didn’t know that. I’m intrigued that Paterson played this nurturing role in Rand’s writing, that Rand at one point at least had a female to whom she looked up.
SC: Oh yes. I've got a list of her mentions in my biography of Paterson.
MM: And was Ayn Rand grateful?
SC: Well I think she was at the time, but later on she developed the idea that nobody ever helped her. And of course she was helped by lots and lots of people. She was helped by her family when she came to this country. She was helped by Frank. She was helped by Frank's brother. She was certainly helped by Paterson. She was helped by the editor of The Fountainhead. She got lots of help, but that’s not how she remembered things a decade or so later. But you know, there’s nothing wrong about being helped by people who recognize your talent.
MM: Paterson was also a novelist. Have you read her novels? Tell me a little about what sort of a novelist she was.
SC: She started off writing novels about people like herself – young women growing up in the new towns in the Canadian west. They have something to do with Canadian politics because she was working for a politically important person during that period, and she was a journalist, so she knew about that aspect of life.
After that she wrote a series of historical novels. She wrote one about medieval Spain and one about ancient Germany, the so-called “barbarians.” Those are examples of her novels, and they were pretty successful.
Then she wrote a series of modern novels, one of which was very successful commercially. It was called Never Ask the End. It's about people who are middle aged and have had some life disappointments. The novel poses a question about whether they should affirm their lives or not. And they do. There's a stream of consciousness method in Never Ask the End, which works or not depending on who you are. The best one, in my view, is The Golden Vanity, which was published in 1934. It's about three women who are related to one another, but of very different character, and their confrontation with the Great Depression. It has a lot to say about politics and economics. I think it's a very good novel, and I wrote the introduction to a recent reprint edition.
MM: Are any of the other novels still in print?
SC: I think that all of them are in print from various reprint houses. I think you can buy all of them. I hope that people will buy the edition of The Golden Vanity that I'm responsible for. It’s on Amazon, of course! That was a lot of fun for me, and I think it's a very good novel.
MM: In addition to your scholarship on Isabel Paterson, you are also a literature professor. You edit Liberty magazine and are an editor of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. And you worked with David Kelley. How do you know David?
SC: We became close when he asked me to be one of the two speakers at the 1993 celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Fountainhead. He also asked me to write a number of articles that I believe are still online at The Atlas Society website. One is called, “Ayn Rand’s Anthem: An Appreciation.”
MM: I read that. It’s wonderful! And I love Anthem of course. As you may know, we created a graphic novel version.
SC: When you read Anthem or any of the other things Rand published before The Fountainhead, you don't find a lot about American history or American institutions, even a decade or so after she'd been in America.
When you look at The Fountainhead, up until Roark’s speech, which is nearly the last thing that she wrote in that book, you would never say that this is about political ideas, even secondarily. It’s about the creative process. It's about architecture. It's about the psychology of a genius and about romantic love. That's enough to support the novel. But when you get into the speech then suddenly you have a huge exposition of American political principles. It's very effective. It’s one of the greatest speeches ever written, and I think that you find there the influence of Paterson in turning Rand’s attention to the subject so forcefully. Not that she was ignorant of public affairs. She’d been reading Paterson’s column because she was interested in what Paterson had to say about them.
But to put American political ideas together in the particular way that Rand did, and of course leaving behind the Nietzschian ideas that she was no longer interested in, I think you see a pretty strong influence from Paterson in the 1940 to late 1942 period.
MM: How do you interpret the end of the relationship between Paterson and Rand?
SC: I put everything that I know in my biography, but just to summarize, they had been having a rocky philosophical correspondence in the 1944, ‘45, ‘46, ‘47 period. Then Rand invited Paterson to come out and visit her in southern California, particularly to discuss a project that a number of people whom today we would call conservatives and/or libertarians were considering – the creation of a national journal of opinion. Paterson didn’t particularly want to travel at that stage of her life, but she agreed, reluctantly, and she came out to southern California and stayed with Rand for a couple of weeks, perhaps.
Paterson met with Rand’s friends, and by Rand's account – which is the only one that we have – Paterson was a pill. If Rand’s account is accurate, then she was being a pill. They agreed that Paterson should go back home. They were tired of each other. So Paterson left.
As far as I know they didn't see each other again until close to the end of Paterson's life. Paterson spent an afternoon visiting Rand at Rand’s apartment in New York City. There they had a philosophical dispute, ultimately about religion. That was their last meeting.
Virtually all that we know about the California visit comes from the interviews that Rand gave to Barbara Branden more than a decade later. We know a little bit about their last meeting from those interviews, and some but not much more from Paterson’s correspondence. Paterson was seldom one to discuss quarrels or disappointments with her friends.
MM: What is Paterson’s career like after that?
SC: Well Paterson was born in 1886, so she's pretty much a generation older than Rand. In 1949, Paterson was fired from the New York Herald Tribune. They wanted her out. So they “retired” her. And because she was opposed to social security, she refused to collect social security payments, even though those payments were subtracted from her already small pension check from the New York Herald Tribune.
She had made investments in real estate, in a small way, and she set out to prove that somebody could live without social security even if she didn’t have a lot of money. And she did. She spent a lot of time successfully managing her farm in New Jersey and other financial assets.
She reported herself as “tired” and unwilling to take on major projects. Although she did take on a major project of writing another novel, which is called Joyous Gard, a phrase which comes from the Arthurian romances. That novel exists in typescript. She finished it and looked for publishers, but was unable to find one. Before I die, I'm going to have it printed! That will complete the list of her novels. I think it's quite beautiful, and it's unusual in all sorts of ways that I don't want to divulge. It's full of surprises. One hint: I can hardly think of a more romantic novel.
She enjoyed writing that book. She didn’t write it all at once. She didn't feel under pressure, and she was very happy with it. She was not very happy that she was unable to find a publisher.
And she also was sometimes solicited for articles, especially by National Review, which William F. Buckley founded in 1955. When he was preparing National Review, he urgently requested that she write for it. She was skeptical. She didn't know what tendency the journal would have.
She also was tired of putting out opinion that people seemed to be disregarding.
But she did write a number of long pieces for National Review, one of which, “What Do They Do All Day,” never got published because of a disagreement between her and Buckley, but I printed that in Culture & Liberty.
So that’s where her career came to. One of the things about Paterson is that she did what she thought was right. She was very little concerned to explain it. If it was a moral issue, a political issue, or a philosophical issue, she would explain the issue. For example, social security. She was opposed to it, and she had written about why she was opposed to it. But she wouldn't write an essay called, “Why I'm Not Accepting Social Security.” She didn't announce that to anybody.
There were a few people who knew about it, and that was it.
As her biographer, one of the challenges I faced was to put together her life without having a lot of her own detailed personal commentary to rely on. She would say things in print, and she would say things in letters. She said things to friends whom I interviewed that shed light on the events of her life and on her motives, but she was never the kind of person to publish at length, just about herself. So you have to put it together. Concerning a lot of episodes of her life I feel I know perfectly well why she did what she did. Others . . . I’m not sure. Not that I ever caught her in a lie or a prevarication. The earth is full of authors who lie about their lives, and Paterson wasn’t one of them. But some important episodes of her life remain mysterious. She just didn't say. She wasn't concerned for anybody to know. She wasn’t covering anything up, but she never had bull sessions in which she just talked indiscriminately to people about her own life. She had close friends, but usually the ones with whom she discussed her life were the ones who had been involved in this or that episode themselves.
MM: That’s an admirable level of self-reliance.
SC: Yes, she was a supremely self-reliant person. In my biography I have a description that comes from one of her letters to a close friend about a turnover in the New York Herald Tribune staff that she thought was going to result in her and a number of other people being fired. So she heard about it, and she said—I’m not quoting exactly, but this is the gist of it – “I put on my hat, and I walked to work fully expecting to be fired, and was very surprised that I wasn't.”
MM: I like that. No drama.
SC: Yes. She had grown up in a large, very poor family. By her account her father was a ne’er-do-well. Her mother was hard working and an organizer who did the best she could. Paterson always loved and admired her. Paterson had to fend for herself. There wasn’t any money. There wasn’t any influence. There wasn't anything. She had two years of formal schooling and that was it. And from there on everything was what she made of it.
But she was never a careerist. She wanted to read. She wanted to write. She wanted to say what she wanted to say. She knew that she needed a job, and she got jobs. But it wasn't like “you know if I just don't say this, if I just don't put it that way, then it'll be good for my career.” She was never like that. She said what she thought she wanted to say in the very best way she had to say it.
And I'll tell you, I've learned a lot about writing from Isabel Paterson. She was one hell of a good writer. There wasn't a trick she didn't know about writing.
MM: I get the sense of a person with great virtue and character. I don’t get the sense that she was a stoic or a martyr, but rather someone full of life.
SC: Right. I think you asked if she was bitter over Rand’s success. No, she wasn't. She was very happy over Rand’s success. She recognized that she could never have that kind of success because she just didn't have Rand’s particular kind of talent. Rand and Paterson should not be compared to each other in that way. I mean, they're both great at what they do. And they knew that.
MM: That requires a great deal of self-knowledge and self-esteem.
SC: Neither of them would have wanted to spend 15 minutes thinking “Oh, poor me.” No, they'd rather be writing.
MM: Isabel Paterson has long been influential in the libertarian community. Is this a good time to make her work more widely known?
SC: I don't know. Her work is out there. When people decide to read books she'll be there for them.
Actually, she was more fortunate in her audience in the 1930s, because that was a time when people of all kinds read all kinds of books. But I think people writing now about the contributions of American women, about libertarian thought, about the early generation of libertarians of whom, as far as I can tell, Paterson was the first, I think the more they mention Paterson and the more they quote her and get interested in her, the more she will increase in popularity.
Currently the internet has a lot to say about Isabel Paterson, although I've noticed that almost all information on Paterson, not opinions but the facts, almost all of it comes from my own writings about her, because I happened to be the one who did the research. But usually when I look at something online about Paterson, there's some big factual error added in.
For instance, I'll see somebody who's talking about how Paterson got a divorce from her husband. She never got a divorce. The relationship just ended. Even I couldn't figure out what happened to her husband. I spent a whole chapter on that in my biography, yet people still mention Paterson's divorce.
MM: There's certainly a lot of incorrect information about Ayn Rand on the internet. I often think that the internet was created to spread incorrect information about Ayn Rand.
SC: I wish I were influential enough for people to spread incorrect information about me! But you know that's why we have a brain—to separate truth from falsehood.
Maybe people like Paterson were a little too standoffish. She thought, “Well I put it out there. They can read it if they want.” When she was asked about people who were not reading her, she said, “I don't know what to do about it. They seem to be in a very strong position.”
I think that this characteristic attitude on the part of Paterson is to some degree in Rand also, though not to the same degree. The attitude that well I put it out there, it's there for you if you want it.
This attitude is very well expressed by an influential essay by Albert Jay Nock, who was one of the people that Rand wanted to attract to her circle of individualists. Rand and Nock didn't get along together, but he was sort of a grand old man of what we would now call libertarian literature and a famous man of letters.
Albert Jay Nock’s most famous essay is called “Isaiah’s Job.” It’s about the prophet Isaiah, who is told by God that he should go out and tell people how wrong they are. Isaiah asks how long he is supposed to do that, and God says until the whole place is desolate. Just go on to the end. Basically, nobody will listen to you. Except there’ll be a few, maybe one-tenth, who will listen, and those are the people who matter.
According to Nock, this should be the view of the writer. You’ve got the best job in the world. Just keep on doing it. Keep pumping out your best stuff, and there will always be somebody to appreciate it. You can count on that. You may not meet those people. They may not sit down to write you fan letters, but they're there. So go. Do it. Have fun. That was certainly Paterson’s attitude.
MM: Thank you so much Stephen. It was a pleasure to talk with you.
SC: Thank you, Marilyn. It was great to talk with you.