Jennifer Burns is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Her new biography, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, follows Rand through her meteoric rise from struggling Hollywood screenwriter to best-selling novelist. Burns highlights two facets of Rand’s work that make her a perennial draw for those on the right: her promotion of capitalism, and her defense of limited government. In honor of Jennifer Burns’s The Daily Show appearance (be sure to tune in 11 tonight!) we have posted an excerpt below.
“I am coming back to life,” Rand announced as the Nathaniel Branden Institute entered its second year of existence. Watching Nathan’s lectures fill, Rand began to believe she might yet make an impact on the culture. Roused from her despair, she began once more to write. In 1961 she published her first work of nonfiction, For the New Intellectual, and in 1962 launched her own monthly periodical, The Objectivist Newsletter. Over the course of the decade she reprinted articles from the newsletter and speeches she had given in two more books, The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Although she occasionally talked of a fourth novel, Rand had abandoned fiction for good. Instead she reinvented herself as a public intellectual. Gone were the allegorical stores, the dramatic heroes and heroines, the thinly coded references to real politicians, intellectuals, and events. In The Objectivist Newsletter Rand named names and pointed fingers, injecting herself directly into the hottest political issues of the day. Through her speeches and articles she elaborated on the ethical, political, and artistic sides of Objectivism.
Rand’s ideas were particularly attractive to a new generation of campus conservatives, who saw rebellion against a stifling liberal consensus as a basic part of their identity. Unlike older conservatives, many right-leaning college students were untroubled by her atheism, or even attracted to it. As Rand’s followers drew together in campus conservative groups, Ayn Rand clubs, and NBI classes, her ideas became a distinct stream of conservative youth culture. Through her essays on government, politics, and capitalism Rand herself encouraged the politicization of her work. In 1963 she even endorsed a new Republican on the scene, Barry Goldwater, a move that situated her as the leader of a growing political and intellectual movement.
At first look Objectivism may appear a freakish outgrowth of the turbulent 1960s, but it had significant parallels in American history. Nearly a century before, similar reading clubs and political activism had sprung up around Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a book uncannily similar to Atlas Shrugged, if diametrically opposite politically…
Rand made her network television debut in 1960, appearing on Mike Wallace’s celebrated interview show. Her dark eyes flashing, she refused to be intimidated by the liberal Wallace and expertly parried his every question and critique. Her performance caught the eye of Senator Barry Goldwater, who wrote Rand a letter thanking her for defending his “conservative position.” Rand had not mentioned the senator by name, but he immediately recognized the similarity between their views. Goldwater told Rand, “I have enjoyed very few books in my life as much as I have yours, Atlas Shrugged.” He enclosed an autographed copy of his new book, the best-selling Conscience of a Conservative. Shortly thereafter the two met briefly in New York. Rand followed up this encounter with a lengthy letter urging Goldwater to support capitalism through reason alone. Although she considered him the most promising politician in the country, Rand was distressed by Goldwater’s frequent allusions to religions. The Conscience of a Conservative had been written primarily by L. Brent Bozell, William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law, and accordingly reflected the fusionist consensus of National Review.
In her letter to Goldwater Rand hammered on the need to separate religion and politics, a theme that would animate her for decades. She singled out National Review for special criticism because it was a supposedly secular magazine that surreptitiously tried “to tie Conservatism to religion, and thus to take over the American Conservatives.” If such an effort succeeded, Rand asked, what would become of religious minorities or people like herself who held no religion? Goldwater’s response, which reiterated his Christian religious beliefs, was brief yet polite. Rand had a powerful admirer, but not a convert.
As her depression lifted, Rand began to explore different ways she might exercise cultural influence. She was newly interested in politics because of her esteem for Goldwater and her dislike of the dashing presidential contender, Jack Kennedy, to her a glamour candidate who offered no serious ideas. She made her first venture back into political commentary with a scathing attack on Kennedy, “JFK: High Class Beatnik,” a short article published in the libertarian journal Human Events. In the summer of 1960 she even dispatched Nathan to investigate the possibility of her founding her own political party. It was unclear if Rand saw herself as a potential candidate or simply a gatekeeper for others. Nathan sounded out a few of Goldwater’s political advisors, who told him that Rand’s atheism severely limited her prospects. Abandoning that idea, Rand returned once again to intellectual pursuits. She sent her attack on JFK to the head of the Republican National Committee to be used as needed in Republican publications.
Shaking off her lethargy, Rand now began paying attention to the new following she had gained through Atlas Shrugged. The book was an instant best-seller despite the largely negative reviews it received. As with The Fountainhead enormous quantities of enthusiastic fan mail poured in. Although Rand could not respond personally to ever letter, she was interested in her readers, particularly those who wrote especially perceptive or ignorant letters. Nathan often interposed himself between Rand and the most objectionable writers, but in the early 1960s it was entirely possible to send her a letter and receive a personal response. Sometimes she even engaged in a lengthy correspondence with fans she had not met, although her more usual response was to refer the writer to work she had already published.
The Nathaniel Branden Institute both capitalized on and fostered Rand’s appeal. Nathan used the addresses from her fan mail to build NBI’s mailing list and advertise new courses. As the lectures expanded into new cities, he took out newspaper advertisements describing Objectivism as the philosophy of Ayn Rand. In 1962 he and Barbara published a hagiographic biography, Who is Ayn Rand?, which included an essay by Nathan on the fundamentals of her philosophy. Slowly public perception of Rand began to shift, establishing her as a philosopher, not just a novelist. The NBI ads and lectures made Objectivism into a movement, a larger trend with Rand at the forefront.