Charles Murray: Who is Ayn Rand?

A new review of Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Charles Murray in the Claremont Institute Review of Books:

In 1991, the book-of-the-month club conducted a survey asking people what book had most influenced their lives. The Bible ranked number one and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was number two. In 1998, the Modern Library released two lists of the top 100 books of the 20th century. One was compiled from the votes of the Modern Library’s Board, consisting of luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Edmund Morris, and Salman Rushdie. The two top-ranked books on the Board’s list were Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. The other list was based on more than 200,000 votes cast online by anyone who wanted to vote. The top two on that list were Atlas Shrugged(1957) and The Fountainhead (1943). The two novels have had six-figure annual sales for decades, running at a combined 300,000 copies annually during the past ten years. In 2009, Atlas Shrugged alone sold a record 500,000 copies and Rand’s four novels combined (the lesser two are We the Living [1936] and Anthem [1938]) sold more than 1,000,000 copies.

And yet for 27 years after her death in 1982, we haven’t had a single scholarly biography of Ayn Rand. Who was this woman? How did she come to write such phenomenally influential novels? What are we to make of her legacy? These are the questions that finally have been asked and answered splendidly, with somewhat different emphases, in two new biographies published within weeks of each other: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, a former executive editor at Condé Nast Publications.

They are both big books, well written, exhaustively researched, and—remarkably, given their subject—judicious and disinterested. Both authors strike just the right tone in describing Rand’s complicated life and personality, betraying neither animus nor infatuation. Choosing between them is a matter of tastes and interests. Burns’s book offers more analysis of Rand’s political activities and influence and less detail about Rand’s personal life than Heller’s. As someone who has known some of the principals in the drama and has been curious to learn the details from a detached perspective, I was drawn to Heller’s lavishly detailed portrait of Rand the person, but that’s a matter of my own tastes and interests.

In both Burns’s and Heller’s accounts, the vibrant, brilliant woman of ideas shines through. Hour after hour the talk would continue in her New York apartment during the 1950s, sometimes all night, with Rand surrounded by her acolytes. Everyone seems to agree that this was Rand at her best. They also agree that she was spectacularly good at making her case. This was the Ayn Rand I once saw at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum in the early 1960s: confident, incisive, fielding all questions, taking no prisoners. Charismatic is an overused word, but with Rand, it fits.

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