Atlas Shrugged is more widely read and John Galt is better known, but it is Howard Roark, the architect in The Fountainhead, who set the standard of the individual’s struggle to be true to his principles.
Almost thirty years after her death Ayn Rand is still controversial. Outside the confines of academia she may be the most discussed American novelist of the twentieth century. Her books are touted by her fellow believers in the supremacy of the individual will, and condemned by those who believe individual will must be subordinate to society. Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, and the opposition to it are not as simple as that, but it is a good starting point.
Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and saw both the Kerensky and Bolshevik revolutions. Her family escaped the Bolsheviks and fled to the Crimea. Her father’s pharmacy was confiscated by the Communist, and Rand became a strident anti-communist and anti-socialist — a lifelong ardent proponent of individualism and individual responsibility.
She immigrated to the United States in 1926, and by 1936 published her first novel. We the Living is set in Russia during the early years of Soviet tyranny. Anthem, her second book, is a novella set in a dystopian society where the use of the pronoun “I” is never heard, and the concept of the individual self has been obliterated. The Fountainhead was rejected by twelve publishers before the Bobbs-Merrill Company released it in 1943. The book became a bestseller, mostly through word of mouth.
Rand’s no-nonsense writing is didactic, pedagogic and repetitive. She intended to teach her readers something, and did not want the message to be diluted or filtered through unnecessary descriptions. Her writing style reflected who she was: direct and uncompromising. The style takes nothing from her morality tales — the battle of the individual and capitalism versus the collective and socialism, a clear cut view of right versus wrong, of good versus evil.
Rand’s preached that to act on ones convictions and in one’s own enlightened self-interest exemplifies virtue, and is the only logical and moral way for rational human beings to live. Rand focused her four novels on that premise, and then expanded it in essays circulated via “The Objectivist Newsletter” and in speeches. Additional books followed: Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, The Virtue of Selfishness, Philosophy, Who Needs It? and For the New Intellectual. She was dedicated to her ideal, and gave little or no credence to conflicting viewpoints. In her novels the characters representing her ideals are strong and virtuous, and their antagonists are either weak or villainous, or both. They are archetypes representing the struggle of the individualist against the collectivists. When her heroes act or speak everyone within sight or earshot senses that something special is happening.
Throughout her writing Rand honed in on the worth of self and the value of individual contributions. She despised those who would forcibly take from producers and give it non-producers. Her heroes remain true to themselves. Although Atlas Shrugged is more widely read and John Galt is better known, it is Howard Roark, the architect in The Fountainhead, who set the standard of the individual’s struggle to be true to his principles. Roark and Galt are creative geniuses who disdain financial rewards and professional recognition rather than allow their designs to be modified. Both perform menial work rather than submit to the demands of lesser men.
Roark is under constant attack from Ellsworth Toohey, architectural critic and humanitarian altruist. Toohey contends that no man has a right to value himself more than others, or his desires more than society’s needs. Men have an obligation to subordinate their minds and selves to the good of the community. Toohey is bent on destroying Roark’s reputation. He uses his influence to manipulate a developer into hiring Roark to design a major housing project, and then arranges for a group of traditionalist architects to modify the design in Roark’s absence. The artist subsequently dynamites the project rather than let his design be corrupted.
He is brought to trial for his act. In an eight page speech to the jurors Roark states his case. It is a precursor to John Galt’s 68 page speech in Atlas Shrugged. Both Roark and the hero of Atlas Shrugged believe that individual thought is paramount, but they use different strategies to combat those who would subordinate the individual to the state or society. Roark speaks as one man and acts alone; Galt organizes a strike by those whose efforts and products are coopted by the government. Roark speaks of not compromising one’s principles; Galt to actively resisting those who infringe on individual rights. Roark destroys what has been taken from him; Galt withdraws his contribution to society and lets it destroy itself.
Fifty years ago as a new graduate student in history after listening to a professor give his opinion of Atlas Shrugged and the philosophy espoused by its author, I surprised myself by rebutting him in class. Fortunately he welcomed the brazenness, and we became good friends. From time to time I reread Rand’s work to refresh my understanding of Objectivism, and as a tribute to Professor Bingham’s willingness to listen to and discuss an opposing viewpoint.