Notorious for her irreverent credo of egoism and ruthless capitalism, novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand never really opened up about her life as Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, an “awkward and offbeat” Russian Jewish girl of “startling intelligence.”
Yet Anne Heller, in Ayn Rand and the World She Made, shows that Rand’s adamant egocentricity and profound rebellion against any form of social conscience were deeply rooted in her family’s anguish in early 20th century Russia, a time where Jews were violently persecuted and personal freedom was abolished. Arguably, Heller is the first to attempt to thoroughly examine and chronicle Ayn Rand’s malevolent life and phenomenal and controversial achievements, from her prodigious sense of destiny, to her arrival in America at age 21 in 1926 (a copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in her hand), her start in Hollywood as an aspiring screenwriter, and her majestic reign in New York as a cult figurehead. In this seminal biography Heller also offers arresting analysis of The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand’s critically condemned yet perpetually popular and enormously influential novels of erotic melodrama and self-aggrandizing ideology.
The heart of the book, however, is the gut-wrenching story of Rand’s marriage to long-suffering Frank O’Connor and her affair with the much younger man who packaged and peddled her beliefs as Objectivism. The champion of individuality who insisted on obedience and conformity from her followers (including Alan Greenspan), Rand emerges from Heller’s superbly vivid, enlightening, and affecting biography in all her paradoxical, god-like power.
I knew of Ayn Rand in the summer of 2007, chancing upon a copy of The Fountainhead in a secondhand bookstore. But before that, on a few occasions Rand had already been suggested to me by a writer friend whom I look up to. And then reading her through the years, and upon being struck by impressions of her writings resonant of Nietzsche’s vituperative tone and style, there began between us a turbulent — and erotic – love affair.
Having read Anthem, Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and a number of Rand’s essays, I have always been interested in her philosophy — not so much as an adherent but out of recognition that Rand’s philosophical and political perspective merits serious consideration in its own right and as an ideological reality on the present intellectual landscape.
Ayn Rand and the World She Made is the first full biography of Rand that I’ve read, and in my view, what’s most impressive — and what makes this book feel like something that will never go out of print — is its author’s even-handed capsulizing of Rand’s complex ideologies about American individualism, capitalism and democracy — along with synopses of almost all of Rand’s books and lectures — explained in ways that are sometimes more lucid than what I’ve heretofore read in excerpts and citations from other works.
The biography has a story-telling momentum that’s unusual. With the help of researchers digging through archives in Russia and throughout the United States, Heller brings Ayn Rand’s childhood and adult years excitingly to life — making more clear to mainstream readers why Rand’s experiences were critically important to understanding how her ideas against socialism and collectivism were formed — and how she refined them over time. Heller further illustrates how Rand integrated these ideas into all of her novels, particularly The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – and how she subsequently became world famous — while carrying a torch of extreme scorn toward her detractors, all the way to the grave.
Heller approaches Rand as an admirer, but a critical one, and as a result the biography reads more credibly than previous treatments of the philosopher’s life to date. Her ability to make Rand’s ideas come alive illustrates her respect and admiration for Rand’s intellect. This “closed the sale” for me as a reader and wipes out criticisms I’ve read from some of Rand’s antagonists obsessively parsing every word in this book. Not once did I feel that Heller was presenting Rand as being anything more than a tremendously intelligent, charismatic and charming figure — who could also be frighteningly eccentric, and cruel.
Obviously, I am being favorable for this review. But while reading, I detected in myself an undercurrent of resistance to Ms. Heller’s work because 1.) Heller is not a philosopher, and certainly there are writers out there more intellectually gifted and capable than Heller to discuss Rand’s ideas; 2.) I was, honestly, slightly aghast that lurid and less-than-flattering material about Rand’s life is included (despite being too compelling to be ignored); and 3.) I somehow took issue with Heller’s lack of cooperation with the Ayn Rand Institute and Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s “intellectual heir.”
Of course, these complaints are a by-product of being an admirer who naturally could be dissatisfied about the content and approach of Ms. Heller’s book. Had the author included comprehensive interviews from peripheral supporters and detractors — the biography would have exceeded the page count of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged combined. Yet at 410 pages Heller’s book remains exhaustively researched, with 151-pages of notes and an index.
Ayn Rand’s key journal entries and letters have already been published worldwide and or are available in other venues. There’s not much left to be discovered that’s earth-shattering. Heller’s success is consolidating Rand’s life and personal history into a marvelously coherent single volume — and finding new, previously untapped sources to construct a more fully formed picture of Rand — that goes beyond what we already know.
Leonard Peikoff’s testimony from the Ayn Rand Institute, while useful had he agreed to cooperate, would have added little that’s new — because he himself has already published numerous analyses about Rand’s work everywhere. His contributions to Rand’s legacy have been noted by Heller. But in fairness, Peikoff’s testimony would only be relevant, in my view, to those mainstream readers who would want him to add to what Ms. Heller has already satisfactorily provided — about Ayn Rand’s final months after she stopped making public appearances — before eventually succumbing to cancer.
In sum, this book is not aimed at Ayn Rand intellectuals, and this is not a criticism. Ayn Rand and the World She Made feels aimed at a mainstream audience seeking an unbiased, all-in-one-reference of Rand’s history. The book is a biography in the first place: it is more about Ayn Rand the person than her philosophy. I was nearly brought to tears myself when I read the final pages, about how Ayn slept and sat by her ailing and demented husband in his final weeks, and then wept for days upon his death. I think most of us would accept death and all its attendant grief and regret as just the pinnacle of life’s ambiguities, but I cannot help but wonder if this weak and lonely rendition of Ayn Rand in her last three years was not, in a way I imagine she would have bitterly denied, a more “real” version of herself.
Nevertheless, Heller has painted a superb image on an enormous canvas — of a controversial genius of titanic and electrifying importance — that will doubtless still be relevant many years from now. Ayn Rand was clearly a genius, and in some ways an ideal persona in pursuing a singular passion with a dogged determination that would shame most of us “mediocrities.” But the very human persona in the biography also embodies the very real, human, all-too-human tragedy that can result from an impossible interpretation of oneself and the world.