Novelist and philosopher
Ayn Rand was born as Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg
, Russia on February 2, 1905. Very early in her childhood, she determined that she wanted to be a writer, teaching herself to read at age 6 and fostering a love for heroism in fiction. She detested Russian culture, but admired some European thinkers and authors, most notably Victor Hugo
at this early age.
Rand was the youngest of three girls, born to Fronz and Anna Rosenbaum. Her father was a pharmacist and owned his own store, which was rare for a Jewish man during this time. Rand loved her father, developing a growing sense of admiration for him as a child. She did not hold the same feeling for her mother, however, whom she thought to be frivolous. Early on she broke with any religious views that her parents held, determining herself to be an atheist. She never denied having a Jewish heritage, but she held none of the traditional beliefs of the culture.
Revolution became a fixture in Rand's early life; she supported the Kerensky Revolution, but the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution would prove devastating to her and her family. Her family left for the Crimea to escape the fighting, and Rand finished high school here. The Communist revolutionaries confiscated Fronz's pharmacy and thereafter the family struggled desperately to survive.
After returning from the Crimea, Rand began to study history and philosophy at the University of Petrograd. She somehow managed to survive the purges of bourgeois students long enough to get her degree. Despite Russia's isolationist policy during this time, Rand was still able to view some of what American cinema had to offer. She loved what she saw and eventually entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 to study screen writing. Soon after, cousins of hers offered her the chance to go to the United States to visit. Upon her leaving, she reported her first name to by "Ayn" (which is to be pronounced so it rhymes with "mine") and her surname to be "Rand," which was supposedly the second half of the brand name of her typewriter. She arrived in New York City in February of 1926. She spent six months with relatives in Chicago, got an extension on her visa, and then left for Hollywood, hoping to get a job screenwriting.
She was standing at the gate of Cecil B. DeMille's studio when he happened to drive up to see her there. He offered to bring her to the set of his movie, King of Kings, and gave her positions as first an extra and later a script reader. While working there, she saw bit player Frank O'Connor, a man who fit her vision of the heroic individual perfectly. They married in 1929, and remained together until his death in 1979.
Rand worked at odd jobs for several years until she finally sold the screenplay for Night of January 16th to Universal Studios in 1932. It was produced in Hollywood and on Broadway. The play was relatively successful at the time and the royalties she obtained allowed her to focus on writing.
We the Living appeared in 1936. She had completed it three years earlier but it was rejected until Macmillan in the States and Cassell in England took it up. It was dismissed and disliked by a number of critics for being too anti-Soviet. She was writing against the intellectual mainstream of the Red Decade, making her unpopular. The novel was based on her years living under the Communist takeover, and is, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful and striking example of her fiction work.
While starting The Fountainhead, Rand worked on a novella called Anthem about a futuristic world in which people are locked under an enveloping totalitarian regime where the word and the concept "I" has been completely wiped out in favor of the collective "we." Her main characters fight to resist this world and reclaim their sense of self. This is another one of her most powerful works emotionally speaking; the basis of her philosophy is demonstrated with amazing clarity in this short work. At the time of its completion, only a small British publishing company would accept it.
Also at this time, a stage version of We the Living called The Unconquered failed, and Rand found work again in the studios at Paramount reading screenplays. During this time, she found a contact at Bobbs-Merrill who agreed to publish The Fountainhead. In 1949, Rand wrote the screenplay version of the book and the movie starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Clark Gable was reportedly infuriated with his studio people for not securing the rights to the movie themselves; he longed to do it himself. Howard Roark, the main character of the book, proved to be her first concrete exploration of her heroic ideal. He was an architect in the novel who was based on the real architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1957, Random House published Rand's best known work, Atlas Shrugged. In this work, she illustrated her philosophical ideas more thoroughly than ever before, creating a group of heroic characters who, in the book, were being exploited by the uncaring masses in an increasingly socialist America. She tracked their interactions and their eventual strike, which was a withdrawl from the outside world to a secluded place in the Rocky Mountains. It would become a best seller, but it attracted negative attention much like her earlier work. Critics found her premises unlikely. Rand held that contrary to commonly held belief, it is the masses who are the exploiters and not vice versa; this was met with fierce opposition.
Disgusted and dejected by the response of America's intellectual community, Rand withdrew. For twelve years she had poured herself into the work, and she was exhausted from it. It was Nathaniel Branden, a young admirer and student of hers, who helped to restore her confidence by initiating a lecture series under the Nathaniel Branden Institute on her philosophy. Due to this new form of publicity, sales of her works grew, and the phrase "Who is John Galt?" became famous. Rand began to tour college campuses, giving lectures on her philosophy. She and Branden began publishing The Objectivist Newsletter which was later renamed The Objectivist which ran from 1962 until 1976. In it, Rand worked to take on current philosophical and political issues, applying the principles of objectivism to everyday problems.
The cohesion of their intellectual movement broke in 1968 when Branden admitted the nature of his affair with Rand. Accusations flew between the pair, who split the rights to their respective contributions to the objectivist movement and severed contact. Afterwards, Rand's life took more disappointing turns. Her husband began to show signs of dementia in the years before he died. Her attempt to reunite with her older sister Nora in 1973 was disappointing and unfulfilling. She had surgery for lung cancer in 1974 after a lifetime of smoking, and afterwards had no strength to maintain her periodicals. Aside from small speaking engagements and television show appearances, Rand attended only her annual lecture at Boston's Ford Hall Forum. She was partially through a miniseries version of Atlas Shrugged and preparing for her next Ford Hall appearance when she died on March 6, 1982 in her New York City apartment.
The Philosophy of Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand's philosophy was named objectivism by her according to her notion that the lives of men should be governed by their use of their own rational faculties, and thereby outlining an objective, moral way of life.
Ayn Rand argued that the initiation of force by any party against another is immoral. Some scholars have pointed to various other thinkers as the origin of this aspect of her philosophy, but one person who outlined it well, particularly in the context of her dislike of majority rule, was Lysander Spooner. He wrote:
"When two men meet one upon the highway, or in the wilderness, have they a right to dispose of his life, liberty, or property, at their pleasure simply because they are the more numerous party? Or is he bound to submit to lose his life, liberty, or property, if they demand it, simply because he is the less numerous party? Or, because they are more numerous than he, is he bound to presume that they are governed only by superior wisdom and the principles of justice, and by no selfish passion that can lead them to do him a wrong? Yet this is the principle which it is claimed should govern men in all their civil relations to each other ... as if all a man's natural rights expired or were suspended by the operation of a paramount law the moment he came into the presence of superior numbers."1
Ayn Rand likewise abhorred majority rule as a sole basis for social functioning. She believed that the only manner in which a group of people could live was under a government that had an objectively defined code of laws based upon her standard for morality, namely, reason and rational inquiry. She draws on Enlightenment thought, particularly John Locke by stating that humans indeed are born "tabula rasa" with no innate ideas. Therefore coming up with a philosophical plan for living on earth is all the more vital, and it should be based, according to her, on the objective facts about reality and human mental capacities.
Objections to Rand's philosophy are numerous, and come from many various philosophical positions. Rand hated Immanuel Kant and indeed most of the German Romantic tradition. Many of her critics come from such positions. Some say that Rand's wealthy upbringing early in her life in Czarist Russia rendered her incapable of understanding lower class struggles; when her father's business was taken away, she became hateful towards anyone who stole that which was unearned.2
There are many nodes on Everything relating to Rand; this is by no means an exhaustive list. In order to gain a overview of Rand's philosophy, see: objectivism, Introduction to Objectivism, and Critique of Objectivism. For some different perspectives, try Organized Objectivism and Cheese Triangle Objectivism.
Ayn Rand and "The Collective"
Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of her life was her involvement with "The Collective," a group of individuals who shared her philosophical views and became a central driving force in her intellectual movement. The roots of this group were in Ayn Rand's meeting with Nathaniel Branden (born Nathan Blumenthal), now a psychologist. When the two first met in March of 1950, Branden was only 19 years old. He had read The Fountainhead when he was fourteen, and described it as the most emotionally moving reading experience of his life. He was studying psychology at UCLA at the time, and after their initial meeting, they would continue to associate for a further 18 years.
Also interested early on was Barbara Weidman, a Canadian like Branden. She had also read The Fountainhead with enthusiasm many times. The three grew very close, and Rand followed them to New York City where Branden finished his undergraduate degree at New York University while Barbara did graduate work also at NYU. In 1953, the two married, in a union that some claim was forced on them by Rand. After their marriage, they took the names Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, which they retain today. Friends of the couple soon formed the school that would later be famous. NYU art history student Mary Ann Sures admired Rand's philosophy of egoism, and Leonard Peikoff, Barbara's cousin, joined the group after studying philosophy at NYU with Sidney Hook, the known anti-Communist liberal philosopher. Rand's work had also captured young Alan Greenspan, student of economics who was jokingly called "the Undertaker" in their circle, who would later become chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
Rand presided over their meetings and eventually let the group read the manuscript of Atlas Shrugged. By 1955, she had begun to polish John Galt's infamous speech at the end of the novel, which remains the best summation of her philosophical views in print. Also at this time, she began her controversial affair with Nathaniel Branden. Other members of The Collective didn't know about it at first, but both of their spouses were told about it and expected to comply; their union was to be seen as rational and undeniable, like the love Rand's heros and heroines shared. Barbara was reluctant, but went along with it. Frank agreed to their arrangement but reportedly started drinking himself into oblivion.3
In 1968, the most devastating blow hit The Collective and its vision. Branden told everyone about the affair between himself and Rand, which caused them to have a personal and professional break which would hold until her death in 1982. Rand responded by publishing an article in her periodical The Objectivist which officially severed all professional and personal ties with both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden.
In it, she accuses Branden of many things, but essentially, she thought that he was growing apathetic in relation to his professional reponsibilities due to his time investment in a new project of his. She also charges that she was financially and personally exploited by Branden. She mentions that in the last years of their relationship, Branden began making excessive demands on her time, supposedly asking for advice on his work and his personal life. Branden denies these charges, citing financial records from NBI's books. Barbara Branden also defends herself, as she was criticized in Rand's article, too.
Rand concludes her essay:
"Consistency is one of the cardinal requirements of Objectivism, both philosophically and psychologically. It is a dangerous philosophy to play with or to accept half-way: it will stifle the mind that attempts to do so. In this respect, Objectivism, like reality, is its own avenger. I regret that the demonstration of this fact had to come in so tragic and ugly a form."
See my sources for more information on this incident.
The Writing of Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand's work includes both fiction and nonfiction, books and essays in which she provides her views on politics, ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and other subjects.
In addition, books exist about Rand and her work from many sources, namely, Leonard Peikoff, David Kelley, and Nathaniel Branden.
Perhaps the largest foundation still existing for Rand's work is ARI, the Ayn Rand Institute. Their main purpose is to attempt to bring objectivism into the academic and intellectual mainstream, and they've spend over $5 million in their efforts doing so. This includes about $250,000 in scholarships to high school and college students who enter writing contests on Rand's novels. ARI recognized Objectivist clubs exist on over a hundred university campuses across the world. Support for the philosophy exists in many academic journals and groups, notably the American Philosophical Association. Ayn Rand's legacy strongly continues today.
*Thanks to xerxes02 for alerting me to the fact that I missed this one.
1Lysander Spooner. Free Political Institutions. Chapter 1: Legitimate Government and Majority Rule. http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bright/Spooner/fpitoc.html
Nathaniel Branden. My Years with Ayn Rand. © 1999
Jeff Walker. The Ayn Rand Cult. © 1999
The Breakup of Nathaniel Branden & Ayn Rand
- In October of 1968, Ayn Rand wrote "To Whom it May Concern" in The Objectivist, which outlined the perceived betrayal of Branden. sighmoan was awesome enough to dig up a copy of this issue of The Objectivist, volume 7, no. 5, May 1968.
- Branden and Barbara's responses to Rand's essay are online here: http://nathanielbranden.net/ayn/ayn05.html
- http://nathanielbranden.net/ayn/ayn04.html "Devers Branden and Ayn Rand" an essay about Rand's interaction with Branden's current wife, shortly before Rand's death. Rand referred to Branden's affair with her in "To Whom it May Concern" in the following manner: "Mr. Branden had been concealing from me certain ugly actions and irrational behavior in his private life, which were grossly contradictory to Objectivist morality ..."