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Review: The New Ayn Rand Companion

Review: The New Ayn Rand Companion

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January 26, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Mimi Reisel Gladstein The New Ayn Rand Companion (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1999) 162 pp.

December 2000 -- Nineteen ninety-nine was a breakthrough year for the public visibility of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, especially in intellectual circles. One signal of this was the publication of Mimi Reisel Gladstein's The New Ayn Rand Companion, an important reference work that is revised and updated from its previous, long-out-of-print, first edition.

Gladstein is a professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso, and among her other writings, she is coeditor of the recently published Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999). In her New Companion she once again provides scholars with her unique synthesis of information, and references to information, about Rand's life and work. Fans of Rand, too, will likely enjoy its thorough and workmanlike survey of Rand's plots and characters, if, like this reviewer, they take pleasure simply in contemplating a fbesh summation of Rand's work.

"The New Ayn Rand Companion introduces readers to the writings-fiction and nonfiction-of Ayn Rand" announces the introduction. And so it does, with charm ane affection for its subject, with reminders to its audience of the richness of Rand's thought and art, with the fruit of wide-reaching research. The book is expanded from Gladstein's original Ayn Rand Companion of 1984 and reflects the increase in studies of Rand over the past fifteen years. Gladstein has preserved much of the text of the earlier edition, however, including the basic organization into five chapters: "Biographical Data," "The Fiction," "A Compendium of Characters," "The Nonfiction," and "Criticism of Rand's Works." Gladstein comments that this structure of organization "follows a logical heuristic: Who? What? And So what?" That is, it establishes the context before analyzing the work and puts facts before evaluations.

The first, biographical chapter (the Who?) relates the main points of Rand's life in a competent manner. This is familiar territory-no new research is on offer-but it is presented clearly. Gladstein the literary critic comes to life in the second chapter as she turns to the "What?" Here she surveys Rand's fiction-writing career and the themes prominent in each of Rand's works, especially focusing on Rand's treatment of "three antipodes" or "areas of conflict" for the individual in society: "Individualism versus Collectivism," "Egoism versus Altruism," and "Reason versus Mysticism." (29) She covers the gamut of Rand's production: for example, Night of January 16th, which has received little critical treatment, gets as thoughtful an examination as the bestselling novels do. In overview, Gladstein comments that "although Rand personally became more pessimistic about the prospects for individualism in the real world . . . , in her fictional worlds, the plot structures become, chronologically, more optimistic"-culminating in the complete defeat of collectivism and unreason at the close of Atlas Shrugged. (26) As this generalization indicates, Gladstein's strength lies in identifying the basic characteristics of Rand's work. This means that scholars of literature will find in her critical interpretations a useful point of departure for further inquiries, while the fan of Rand's fiction may find pleasure in seeing a favorite work appreciated anew by Gladstein's instructive tour.

The third chapter is a list of characters, with brief descriptions, sorted according to their heroic or villainous ethical characteristics. For the scholar, this is a useful and encyclopedic reference, although it makes no significant analytical point. For the fan, it is a reminder of favorite characters and of those striking characters that have slipped from memory.

In the fourth chapter, Gladstein turns to Rand's philosophical writing. Here, though the chronology is sound, it is evident from the text that Gladstein is not a philosopher. She appears to regard Rand's nonfiction writing as a footnote to Rand's fiction (a point of view Rand may have shared, as evidenced by her tendency to refer interlocutors to Atlas Shrugged). In surveying Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, for example, Gladstein remarks that "the subject matter is . . . abstruse." (86) Someone more versed in philosophy or sensitive to its place in the hierarchy of knowledge might have recognized that ITOE, stands out among the common run of turgid, self-contradictory philosophical writings in virtue of the clarity and directness with which it addresses profound and fundamental issues. But for the scholar of philosophy, the greatest lack in this section is Gladstein's inability to relate Rand to controversies in philosophy and their associated literatures. The reader gets no real sense of the significance or worth of Rand's non-fiction, not even the contrast and context that a hostile but knowledgeable survey might offer.

"So what?" is the theme of the fifth, closing chapter, and given the lacuna noted above, "so what?" remains a significant question, at least as regards Rand the philosopher, even at the end of Gladstein's text. This is not a book notable for its depth of analysis. Nevertheless, as elsewhere, the great value in this chapter is the breadth of Gladstein's survey as it takes in all the major critical treatments of Rand. The most delightful section consists of a fascinating bibliographical essay that covers the many articles and reviews written about Rand, from reviews of We The Living in the 1930s (117) to an overview of the flurry of discussions of Rand that have appeared in the American press in the 1990s (116). Here the reader can tour this ever-expanding literature and be impressed by the extent of the writing on Rand that is available. One cannot help but be struck with the sense of Rand's diverse and substantial cultural impact that emerges as Gladstein discusses each piece.

For the true bibliophile, there is also Gladstein's unparalleled bibliography: "as comprehensive a bibliography on Ayn Rand as has been published to date." (127) This is the ultimate resource for tracking down the full listing of Rand's own publication history or any of the multitude of books, articles, essays, novels, and other works that treat Objectivism and Rand. There are surprises here, such as the listing of more than thirty "university studies of Rand," mostly master's theses and doctoral dissertations, that have appeared, unheralded, in recent years. (146) Implicitly, Gladstein has set down a challenge for Objectivist scholars: to integrate and address this material.

Thus, though The New Ayn Rand Companion is not a revolutionary theoretical work nor a source of insightful philosophical analysis, it is certainly a valuable resource for scholars. And this is what it is meant to be. For Objectivists, it offers throughout the additional pleasure of savoring Gladstein's implicit conviction that Ayn Rand is a complex, profound, and illuminating subject, and one of the great American writers of the twentieth century.

This review first appeared in the print edition of Navigator, a former print publication of The Atlas Society.