This Preface was originally published in Romanticism Reborn, by Walter Donway and has been reprinted with the author's permission.
Walter Donway is a prolific writer, with many works of fiction and nonfiction to his credit. In this volume, he turns to his major passion: the power of art, especially literature—and Romantic literature in particular—to portray a life-changing and inspiring moral ideal.
The articles that make up this collection were composed at different times and published in different venues, which results in some repetition among them. But I found the repetition useful in making important points memorable. Some originated as talks, retaining the informal style of address to an audience. This, too, contributes to the enjoyment of his book: Overall, it has the feel of a great conversation or college seminar with an expert who can present deep insights inaccessible form.
Walter traces his understanding of the power of art to Ayn Rand and her novel Atlas Shrugged., telling us about the impact it had on him as a young man and its continuing impact throughout his life. The chapter “Incurable Atlas Fever” is a beautifully written autobiographical account of his discovery of the novel. “Atlas Shrugged, in a sense, slid like a key into a lock with the answer to the puzzle of my Romantic longing.” That gives this work a personal feel that is moving, and that I hope other fans of Atlas can relate to.
But the book goes far beyond the personal. The main theme is Romanticism: its nature, history, and varieties, with discussions of many historical and contemporary works in the genre. Walter refers often to Rand’s Romantic Manifesto, with illuminating observations drawn from his deep understanding of her Objectivist philosophy. But he goes far beyond Rand’s book in his detailed treatment of the Romantic movement. Even those well-versed in Objectivism will find arresting insights and applications.
The book begins with two of the longer essays that provide context for the other pieces. In “The Romantic Revolution: The Glory, the Paradoxes, the Future,”Donway discusses the history of Romanticism and the paradox it represents. Those who began their intellectual journey with Rand’s novels and non-fiction works may take her esthetic theory as totally consistent with her broader philosophy. And it is.
But most intellectual historians consider the Romanticism of the early 19thcentury a rejection of the Enlightenment. It was indeed a rejection of the Classicism typical of Enlightenment aesthetics, with its fixed standards for the form of art works—like the classical standards for architecture that Roark battles against in The Fountainhead. Historians, however, usually regard the Romantic movement as a broader rejection of Enlightenment ideas and values. Many Romantic novelists and poets celebrated feeling and intuition over reason. They looked back to folklore, myths, and the Middle Ages rather than the new world of capitalism and industry. Many of them turned away from these man-made advances to celebrate Nature. How then can Objectivism—an Enlightenment philosophy—embrace Romanticism in art? Consider, for example, William Wordworth’s poem “The World Is Too Much With Us”:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours…
How can that Romantic poem, with its rejection of commerce in favor of Nature, be part of the same artistic genre as the capitalist ideal in Atlas Shrugged?
Walter’s answer, in brief, is that Romanticism completed the Enlightenment’s project of liberating the individual. His analysis is a tour-de-force, integrating the historical evolution of Romanticism with a deep and original view of Rand’s concept of “sense of life” and the role of art in finding “the homeland of one’s soul.” This essay alone, in my view, is worth the price of the book.
The second chapter, “Atlas Shrugged Resuscitates Dying Romanticism,” covers some of the same ground as the first but goes deeper into Rand’s theory of literature, her opposition to Naturalism(or Realism), the philosophical ideas that undermined Romanticism in the 19thand 20th centuries, the differences between popular and literary Romanticism, and the way Atlas Shrugged offers the deepest, most consistent, portrayal of the Romantic focus on individual choice and commitment to values.
Walter argues here that the “resuscitation of Romanticism—in the form of Romantic Realism—was Ayn Rand's single most original philosophical achievement,” more significant than her insights in epistemology or ethics. As a philosopher who has written a good deal about her break-through insights in those fields, I can’t agree. But Walter’s argument for the claim is intriguing and invites further reflection.
Romanticism Reborn goes on to discuss a number of specific works in depth, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. To my mind, the most interesting are the two chapters devoted to Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Polish author of the immensely popular Quo Vadis? That novel depicts the struggles of the earliest Christians in Rome during Emperor Nero’s reign; Ayn Rand considered it in the top rank of Romantic novels. But Sienkiewicz is more celebrated in Poland for his “Trilogy,” three novels of Poland’s struggles against invaders in the 17th century. The trilogy was completed in 1887 but translated into English only in 1991. “The great universal themes of the Trilogy,” Walter says, are that no nation survives loss of its founding ideas and values, and that the salvation of a nation ultimately lies in the mind of each citizen.
Notable glories of the books are the portrayal of courage, comradeship, and valor in war; achingly intense and beautiful romance; depth of analysis of the moral corruption that brings a great country to enslavement; and the blazingly colorful, complex characters and their moral grandeur.
A later chapter, “The Great Romantic Novel You Haven’t Read,” covers Sienkiewicz’s The Knights of the Cross. Like most readers, as Walter’s title surmises, I haven’t read the novel. It’s on my list now.
What about contemporary novels? Popular Romanticism, of course, survives in many forms: detective stories, thrillers, and much science fiction. They count as Romantic because they involve heroes fighting for their values, but, as Walter notes, they “all deal with values mostly in terms of crime and punishment or good agents versus malefactors.” Yet Walter comments extensively (“What Is Romanticism, Today?”) on current popular novels, including a new wave of fantasy and young adult fiction, selecting his favorites.
In another chapter on contemporary writers inspired by Rand, Walter singles out several authors whose novels rise above the popular level, Vinay Kolhatkar and D.K. Halling, with extended discussions of their works. (A fuller list of such authors was compiled by Marilyn Moore for The Atlas Society website: “Fiction Under the Influence: Ayn Rand’s Literary Legacy,” https://www.atlassociety.org/post/fiction-under-the-influence-ayn-rands-literary-legacy.)
Finally, the book includes two great chapters on poetry. Rand did not have a lot to say about the genre, though she requested that a poem, Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” be read at her funeral (another Kipling poem was read for her husband Frank O'Connor). In any case, Walter is an accomplished poet himself, with extensive knowledge about the history of the genre. “Who Stole Poetry and Left Us Only Free Verse?” begins with a humorous description of his experience in poetry workshops where most of the participants offer “free verse.” The problem is that “free verse is not poetry”; free verse dispenses with meter, the regular patterns of stress in each line, and meter is the defining characteristic of poetry.
Walter expands on that point in a longer chapter that includes a tutorial on the varieties of meter and their artistic effects, for those of us who have forgotten the differences among iambic, anapestic, and other meters that we learned about in school (when schools still taught this material).
This chapter also makes the bold claim in its title, “Poetry: The Supreme Art.” Fasten your seat belt for Walter’s argument that poetry is supreme because it includes elements of every other form of art, from dance to painting. In aid of his argument, he reminds us that poetry is not limited to the short lyric form we are familiar with today. Much of the great literature in Western history was in verse—from the epics of Homer to Virgil’s Aeneid, to Dante’s Divine Comedy, to Shakespeare's plays, to mention just a few.
These chapters are a testament to the immense power of poetry, to its glorious history—and to the depth of Walter’s love for this art.
But enough from me: It’s time for you to explore the riches in the book itself.