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What Irony Replaced: Henry James, Ayn Rand, and American Romanticism Part 6

What Irony Replaced: Henry James, Ayn Rand, and American Romanticism Part 6

6 Mins
August 20, 2018

Human Action – Part 6

Early in Atlas Shrugged, Dagny and her then-lover Hank Rearden, the brilliant and hardworking founder and head of Rearden Metal, decided to take a vacation together. Rand took pains to point out that neither Dagny nor Rearden were the type to feel entitled to a vacation. Rearden mentioned that he’d last vacationed five years ago. Dagny recollected she’d vacationed last three years ago. Neither Dagny nor Rearden would have expected on their travels to learn, passively, “something of human affairs” that they didn’t already know. They certainly wouldn’t have wanted to become part of the scenery. In Rand’s benevolent universe, the world was there to be acted upon by the rational, self-interested mind, not the other way around. Yet, there was an element of abandonment as the lovers decided to set off on a road trip that Monday morning. It wouldn’t be their work or their identity that they abandoned however. They would abandon, for a little while, the problems The Equalization of Opportunity Bill was causing for them and devote themselves instead to the pleasure of being completely themselves in the company of someone who loved and appreciated who they were.

The road trip was a remarkable interlude of joy in a tense, embattled plot, and a lighthearted tribute to the romance of the active life. Rand began the account with one of her lyrical descriptions of nature, albeit from the point of view of the windshield of a moving car:

The earth went flowing under the hood of the car. Uncoiling among the curves of Wisconsin’s hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush weeds and trees. The sea rolled softly, in sprays of yellow and orange, with a few red jets shooting up on the hillsides, with pools of remnant green in the hollows, under a pure blue sky. Among the colors of a picture post card, the car’s hood looked like the work of a jeweler, with the sun sparkling on its chromium steel, and its black enamel reflecting the sky.

It is interesting, considering Strether’s random journey through the French countryside in Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors, that Rand had Dagny and Rearden attempt a similar random tour, only to reject it after a week on the road. It was boring, for one thing, and it was enervating. They headed instead for Saginaw Bay in Michigan to check out an abandoned iron ore mine. Rand made a point of saying that neither one of them felt guilty about wanting to find a project. She also highlighted the affection and closeness that the lovers shared and their concern for each other’s happiness. Rand is frequently taken to task for her rough eroticism, but her novels are full of touching details of the give and take of love:

After the first week of their wandering, when they had driven at random, at the mercy of unknown crossroads, he had said to her one morning as they started out, “Dagny, does resting have to be purposeless?” She had laughed, answering, “No. What factory do you want to see?” He had smiled—at the guilt he did not have to assume, at the explanations he did not have to give—and he had answered, “It’s an abandoned ore mine around Saginaw Bay, that I’ve heard about. They say its exhausted.

They had a wonderful time together. After looking around, Rearden decided that he knew how to get more ore out of the mine, and that he would look for the title and make a bid for it once they knew whether the Equalization Bill had passed.

After Saginaw, they drove through Wisconsin on the way to the former factory of The Twentieth Century Motor Company. This time it was Dagny who wanted to see what remained. Rearden was driving, and Dagny was completely at ease: “Dagny leaned against the corner of the side window, her legs stretched forward; she liked the wide, comfortable space of the car’s seat and the warmth of the sun on her shoulders; she thought that the countryside was beautiful.” Reading her mind, Rearden remarked, “What I’d like to see is a billboard.” Laughing, Dagny replied, “Selling what and to whom? We haven’t seen a car or a house for an hour.” For them, the world wasn’t meant to remain pristine. It did not make sense to them that such a beautiful landscape appeared devoid of human life. The absence of people, of stores, of factories, of houses was not fortunate, it was strange, and a sign that something was going terribly wrong. “I don’t like the looks of this,” Rearden said. “I don’t either,” Dagny agreed.

Critics of Ayn Rand frequently accuse her of inhumanity, yet it was the absence of human activity that concerned her. The good life for Rand depended on human action. Without human creativity, everything—from the basics of food, clothing, and shelter to the luxuries of satin gowns, crystal champagne glasses, and ruby pendants—would disappear. Dagny laughed it off for the moment: “But think how often we’ve heard people complain that billboards ruin the appearance of the countryside. Well, there’s the unruined countryside for them to admire.” But the logical conclusion of human passivity was clear to her, and she added, “They’re the people I hate.”

Neither Dagny nor Rearden were inclined to self-pity, however, and the trip to The Twentieth Century Motor Company turned into a great adventure where they found new possibilities and hope for the future:

Hank! Don’t you understand what this means? It’s the greatest revolution in power motors since the internal-combustion engine—greater than that! It wipes everything out—and makes everything possible. To hell with Dwight Sanders and all of them! Who’ll want to look at a Diesel? Who’ll want to worry about oil, coal or refueling stations? Do you see what I see? A brand-new locomotive half the size of a single Diesel unit, and with ten times the power. A self-generator, working on a few drops of fuel, with no limits to its energy. The cleanest, swiftest, cheapest means of motion ever devised. Do you see what this will do to our transportation systems and to the country—in about one year?”

Rearden and Dagny weren’t unhappy workaholics. They loved their work, and they loved each other. They were thrilled to talk about their work, thrilled to listen as the other talked. They bounced ideas off each other. They made plans. Each of them knew their own business, and each of them respected the property rights of the other, and they knew what the consequences would be if they didn’t. They were fundamentally what they did and what they had created. There was no question of either of them discovering a different self on the road. Certainly, neither of them desired to be someone else. There was no question of either of them needing to be reformed. For them, exploration, development, and innovation were all the life they wanted.


It is difficult to see what is objectionable about Rand’s ideas, yet objections abound.

Critics of Ayn Rand dismiss her as a bad writer. If that is the case, then Henry James should be considered a bad writer too. Their understanding of the novel was just too similar to allow for such a marked distinction in literary merit. Interestingly, during the 1920s in the United States, some critics, such as Vernon Louis Parrington, did just that. In Main Currents in American Thought: The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920, the third and last volume of his landmark study of cultural shifts in American thought, Parrington argued that James had failed to understand that America was “in revolt” against “careless individualism” and the “rapacious middle class.” Americans didn’t want to read about heroes anymore. They wanted to read about trends: “Let us have no more shoddy heroes, foolish little egoisms in an unreal world; but figures of men and women, encompassed by the great stream, carried along on a resistless current.” Parrington went on to declare Romanticism dead too: It was “no longer possible to take seriously that attractive figment of the romantic imagination—man in the state of nature.”

In contrast to Henry James’s conception of the novel as an independent art form, Parrington demoted the novel to an adjunct of sociology. Novelists had begun to view life in terms of “a deterministic sociology,” Parrington argued, and they used the novel to represent life “in terms of group and class and movement, rather than in terms of individuals.” Even though he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1911, 1912, and 1916, Henry James, Parrington concluded, was merely “a self-deceived romantic,” whose novels remained “persistently aloof from the homely realities of life” and were, as a result, hopelessly behind the times.

Parrington is important to this discussion beyond his views of Henry James. Parrington also had enormous influence on American literature in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s directing it away from the purview of the individual artist and toward Progressive social justice. Calling Parrington “the grass-roots radical, the Populist, the Jeffersonian liberal, even the quasi-Marxist,” for example, noteworthy critic, Alfred Kazin, writing in the early 1940s, considered the three volumes of Main Currents in American Thought, “the most ambitious single effort of the Progressive mind to understand itself.” Parrington “endeavored to read all American thought in the light of contemporary social struggles,” and he railed with “significant hostility” against any “art that lacked a social purpose,” and against any creative mind concerned with anything but “the public domain of political and economic polemic.”

The 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s of course were significant decades in Ayn Rand’s development. In thinking about Vernon Parrington and Henry James, there is an interesting intersection to consider in terms of that development. On the one hand, Rand abhorred the Soviet-style writing that Parrington championed. On the other hand, even though she shared Henry James’s concept of the novel as an art form and his Romanticism, she would have read his novels with extreme reservations. It is possible to speculate that Rand would have agreed with some of Parrington’s criticisms of James’s Romanticism. Parrington was critical of James’s ex-patriotism and his assessment of America as “uncongenial to the artist.” Ayn Rand considered America the only place where she could make art. Parrington was also critical of the way James romanticized Europe, saying, “The gracious culture that James persistently attributed to certain choice circles in Europe was only a figment of his romantic fancy.” Rand considered American culture superior to European culture. Moreover, Parrington criticized James’s withdrawal from the active life into “an inner world of questioning and probing.” Rand of course turned the active life into an aesthetic.

Still, while Henry James has since been restored to literary respectability, Rand has yet to be accepted. James’s books remain in print, and the critical interest in his life and his novels in academic circles remains high. That restoration was due in no small part to the comprehensive, Pulitzer prize-winning, five-volume biography written by Leon Edel published between 1952 and 1972. Moreover, literary critic Alfred Kazin also came to James’s defense. In his groundbreaking book On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942), Kazin wrote that James challenged the Naturalist movement, making “a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines.” Of course, Ayn Rand made much the same plea. What is more, a number of award-winning biographies of Ayn Rand have been written over the years. Yet her novels remain academically unappreciated.

One possible reason for the divergence of critical fates goes back to Parrington. James, even though he conspicuously avoided the nitty-gritty of Naturalism, nevertheless shared with the Naturalists a horror of the industrial revolution and of capitalism in general. James did not, like the Naturalists, document those perceived horrors, however. James instead abandoned the industrialization and business of the new world altogether, and his bias against America went a long way toward restoring his stature. He focused on an aristocratic old-world of emotion, psychology, perfect manners, and sublime settings. He became an aesthete, and something of a snob. More importantly, his sense of life was one in which businessmen were embarrassed and undone by aesthetes like himself. In his ironic universe, snobs, not successful businessmen, ruled the day.

Rand, on the other hand saw artists as capitalists and business men and women as artists. Rand’s aesthetic of capitalism and her benevolent universe both returned the novel to the active life and away from James’s inner world and reversed the downward spiral of Naturalism and its emphasis on Progressive social justice over Romantic aspiration. It is surely for that reason, and not on any grounds of literary merit, that Rand’s place in the literary canon is so bitterly opposed.


Marilyn Moore

Marilyn Moore
About the author:
Marilyn Moore

Senior Editor Marilyn Moore thinks that Ayn Rand is a great American writer, and with a Ph.D in literature, she writes literary analysis that proves it. As Director of Student Programs, Moore trains Atlas Advocates to share Ayn Rand’s ideas on college campuses and leads discussions with Atlas Intellectuals seeking an Objectivist perspective on timely topics. Moore travels nationwide speaking and networking on college campuses and at liberty conferences.

Atlas Shrugged