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Garbage and Gravitas

St. Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both. Many other people have thought so too. In 1998 readers responding to a Modern Library poll identified Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead as the two greatest novels of the twentieth century—surpassing Ulysses, To the Lighthouse and Invisible Man. In 1991 a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club found that with the exception of the Bible, no book has influenced more American readers than Atlas Shrugged.

One of those readers might well have been Farrah Fawcett. Not long before she died, the actress called Rand a "literary genius" whose refusal to make her art "like everyone else's" inspired Fawcett's experiments in painting and sculpture. The admiration, it seems, was mutual. Rand watched Charlie's Angels each week and, according to Fawcett, "saw something" in the show "that the critics didn't."

She described the show as a "triumph of concept and casting." Ayn said that while Angels was uniquely American, it was also the exception to American television in that it was the only show to capture true "romanticism"—it intentionally depicted the world not as it was, but as it should be. Aaron Spelling was probably the only other person to see Angels that way, although he referred to it as "comfort television."

So taken was Rand with Fawcett that she hoped the actress (or if not her, Raquel Welch) would play the part of Dagny Taggart in a TV version of Atlas Shrugged on NBC. Unfortunately, network head Fred Silverman killed the project in 1978. "I'll always think of 'Dagny Taggart' as the best role I was supposed to play but never did," Fawcett said.

Rand's following in Hollywood has always been strong. Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake fought to play the part of Dominique Francon in the movie version of The Fountainhead. Never to be outdone in that department, Joan Crawford threw a dinner party for Rand in which she dressed as Francon, wearing a streaming white gown dotted with aquamarine gemstones. More recently, the author of The Virtue of Selfishness and the statement "if civilization is to survive, it is the altruist morality that men have to reject" has found an unlikely pair of fans in the Hollywood humanitarian set. Rand "has a very interesting philosophy," says Angelina Jolie. "You re-evaluate your own life and what's important to you." The Fountainhead "is so dense and complex," marvels Brad Pitt, "it would have to be a six-hour movie." (The 1949 film version has a running time of 113 minutes, and it feels long.) Christina Ricci claims that The Fountainhead is her favorite book because it taught her that "you're not a bad person if you don't love everyone." Rob Lowe boasts that Atlas Shrugged is "a stupendous achievement, and I just adore it." And any boyfriend of Eva Mendes, the actress says, "has to be an Ayn Rand fan."

But Rand, at least according to her fiction, shouldn't have attracted any fans at all. The central plot device of her novels is the conflict between the creative individual and the hostile mass. The greater the individual's achievement, the greater the mass's resistance. As Howard Roark, The Fountainhead's architect hero, puts it:

The great creators—the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors—stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid.

Rand clearly thought of herself as one of these creators. In an interview with Mike Wallace she declared herself "the most creative thinker alive." That was in 1957, when Arendt, Quine, Sartre, Camus, Lukács, Adorno, Murdoch, Heidegger, Beauvoir, Rawls, Anscombe and Popper were all at work. It was also the year of the first performance of Endgame and the publication of Pnin, Doctor Zhivago and The Cat in the Hat. Two years later, Rand told Wallace that "the only philosopher who ever influenced me" was Aristotle. Otherwise, everything came "out of my own mind." She boasted to her friends and to her publisher at Random House, Bennet Cerf, that she was "challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years." She saw herself as she saw Roark, who said, "I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one." But tens of thousands of fans were already standing with her. In 1945, just two years after its publication, The Fountainhead sold 100,000 copies. In 1957, the year Atlas Shrugged was published, it sat on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-one weeks.

Rand may have been uneasy about the challenge her popularity posed to her worldview, for she spent much of her later life spinning tales about the chilly response she and her work had received. She falsely claimed that twelve publishers rejected The Fountainhead before it found a home. She styled herself the victim of a terrible but necessary isolation, claiming that "all achievement and progress has been accomplished, not just by men of ability and certainly not by groups of men, but by a struggle between man and mob." But how many lonely writers emerge from their study, having just written "The End" on the last page of their novel, to be greeted by a chorus of congratulations from a waiting circle of fans?

1 Comments in Response to

Comment by Justen Robertson
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All that work just to link libertarians with fascists. *eyeroll*