Reading Anne Heller on Ayn Rand

That Ayn Rand was a great woman is disputed only by those who wish to destroy her legacy and discard her ideas without the bother of having to refute them. That Rand made some mistakes in her personal life is disputed by no one. Yet Rand led the sort of life that, had she novelized it rather than lived it, her critics would have blasted as unrealistically heroic. She lived through the Russian Revolution, escaped to America, became a world-renowned author in a foreign language, and dramatically impacted the political discourse of the nation. Hers is a life whose facts read as the stuff of legend.

Obviously Rand’s greatest personal error was to get into a sexual relationship with the brilliant charlatan Nathaniel Branden, who, with his wife (of the time) Barbara, viciously deceived Rand over a number of years, as recounted by Rand herself in journal entries published in The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics. What is particularly perplexing to me is why Rand agreed to this affair, given that in fiction she endorsed monogamy. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart has a romantic relationship with three men over the course of her life, and never do these overlap. While Hank Rearden has an affair with Dagny while he is married, he cuts off sexual relations with his wife when the affair begins, and he acknowledges he should have divorced his wife long before that. In The Fountainhead, Dominique Francon breaks monogamy only so long as she remains a flawed character. Notably, the great heroes of the novels, John Galt and Howard Roark, wait for their women over a span of years. I do not understand Rand’s affair, I wish her husband had stood up against it, and obviously it turned out horribly for Rand.

Notably, the first two major biographical works on Rand were by the Brandens, and the popular understanding of her remains colored by their smears.

It is therefore with mixed feelings that I witness the publication of the two new biographies on Rand. On one hand, from what I can tell both biographers are largely fair in their treatment of Rand, and both reveal important historical information about her life. Yet it is clear even given my still-limited familiarity with the books that they manifest significant problems. I have already made some limited criticisms of the introduction of Jennifer Burns’s book, Goddess of the Market. Robert Mayhew has written a much more thorough critique.

While I am interested in Rand’s biography, I am quite busy with other projects. Yet, though I had put Anne Heller’s book Ayn Rand and the World She Made back on the shelf, today I took it down and read a few pages, and I remembered my idea of jotting down some notes as I read along. Now, given that I have the book out and want to read it, I’ll proceed with that plan, though slowly.

I’ll read the book in fits and starts and record my reactions accordingly. This post, then, will grow over time as I write down notes in the order of the book’s presentation. My early questions and criticisms may be answered as I read further along. I may update previous entries as I discover new information or consider additional points. Readers with pertinent information are encouraged to send it to me via email. Perhaps my approach, though disorganized, may at least reveal some important revelations and problems in the book.


xi. I find it interesting that Heller was introduced to Rand by Suze Orman, who handed Heller a copy of Fransico d’Anconia’s “money speech” from Atlas.

xii. Heller writes that Rand “had often presented this long passage [the money speech] to potential new disciples, including Alan Greenspan.” Why does she use the term “disciples,” which has an obvious religious connotation, rather than “supporter,” “student,” or “follower?” Already on the second page of the text Heller seems to be planting the dubious notion that Rand was somehow a cult-like figure, a claim cultivated by the Brandens. I’ll be interested to see how Heller returns to this theme.

xii. Heller writes that Rand “became the guiding spirit of libertarianism and of White House economic policy in the 1970s and 1980s.” I will be interested to see how Heller will treat Rand’s frequent and pointed protestations that she was no libertarian, though obviously many libertarians loved her works and continue to value them.

Heller’s claim about the “1970s and 1980s” is, at best, imprecise. Nixon served as president until August of 1974, and his policies were the opposite of what Rand endorsed. Gerald Ford was more on board with Rand’s agenda. Carter served from 1977 through 1981. What about Reagan, who defined the politics of the 1980s? Rand wrote, “I urge you, as emphatically as I can, not to support the candidacy of Ronald Reagan.” Of course Reagan did nominate Greenspan, Rand’s “disciple,” to the Fed, an institution which Rand opposed. George H. W. Bush, who rounded out the ’80s, was an even worse disaster by Rand’s standards.

xii. Heller incorrectly refers to “…Libertarian Party founder John Hospers…” The LP was founded by a group of Colorado political activists that included David Nolan, whom I’ve interviewed on the matter. I notice that Heller correctly notes on page 330 that “Hospers… became the first Libertarian Party candidate for president of the United States in 1972…”

xiii. Heller writes, “‘No one helped me, nor did I think it was anyone’s duty to help me,’ [Rand] wrote in an afterword to Atlas Shrugged. In fact, many people helped her.” Yet Heller is taking this quote out of context. In the same afterword, Rand acknowledges Aristotle and her husband. Elsewhere she lavishes praise on those who helped get her books published. The sentence immediately preceding the one that Heller quotes is this: “I had a difficult struggle, earning my living at odd jobs, until I could make a financial success of my writing. No one helped me…” Obviously, then, Rand’s claim is that she earned her own living.

xiii. Heller writes, “Rand wanted to be the architect of an American utopia that looked backward to the gilded age of American industrial titans.” It is true that Rand legitimately saw late 1800s America as the freest period in history. But she recognized that the area remained tainted by bad philosophical premises as well as various political controls of the economy. She looked forward to a future of liberty and unfettered prosperity. Rand, who lived through the Russian Revolution, obviously knew the meaning of utopia (literally “no place”), and the political ideas she advocated, rooted in the facts of human nature, show little similarity to utopian theories. Certainly she wanted a better world, a freer world. But she saw clearly that no political system can wipe out human error, and she wrote at length about the long and continuous political struggle necessary to achieve an incrementally freer society.

xiii. Helller writes that Rand “was a far shrewder social critic than she was a visionary.” Granting that Rand was a superb social critic, I will simply state my disagreement with Heller’s unfounded remark about Rand’s alleged paucity of vision.

xiii. I find Heller’s comparison of Rand to Charles Dickens, in terms them being social critics (though with dramatically different ideologies), interesting.

xiv. Heller writes, “Because I am not an advocate for Rand’s ideas, I was denied access to the Ayn Rand Papers at the Ayn Rand Institute [ARi] in Irvine, California, where copies of her unpublished letters and diaries, calendars, photographs, and other documents reside.”

Heller’s comment here is, at best, incomplete. Burns was granted access to the archives, despite the fact that Burns is “not an advocate for Rand’s ideas.”

My understanding is that Heller was denied access to select papers, not because of Heller’s views of Rand, but because the owners of those papers have decided to give another biographer first crack at them, after which they will become generally available.

I have asked Jeff Britting of ARI to clarify the Institute’s handling of Heller’s requests, but Britting has not responded to my inquiries. I have just asked Heller to provide details about the matter, and I’ll be happy to publish her response. [January 6 Update: Today I received an e-mail from Britting, who explained a bit more about the situation with the archives but said his e-mail is not intended for publication. He pointed me to the archives page and said he’d be publishing more on the matter in the future. I have not heard from Heller at this time.]

xiv. Heller lists the following sources of information for her book:
* Russian government archives, accessed “by a Russian research team”
* “Unpublished tape recordings” presented by ARI
* Taped interviews of Rand by Barbara Branden
* Freedom of Information Act documents
* “Interviews with Rand’s friends” recorded by Jeff Walker and Marc Schwalb [January 6 Update: William Scott Scherk claims in the comments that Schwalb did not personally record interviews, but instead purchased recorded interviews from Barbara Branden. Heller writes, “Journalist Jeff Walker and collector Marc Schwalb let me listen to privately recorded interviews with Rand’s friends…”]
* “More than fifty interviews” conducted by Heller with people who knew Rand, including Nathaniel Branden
* “Letters to and about Rand” in libraries and archives around the country

More will be posted sporadically.

6 thoughts on “Reading Anne Heller on Ayn Rand”

  1. I just finished the book, and my overall impression is that the book is more critical of Rand in the second half. Not coincidentally, that section of the book relies heavily on the Brandens as a source. I encourage you to check the endnotes as you are reading, even though it is a bit unwieldy (since the notes aren’t documented within the text, you have to keep flipping back to the notes section to see if a particular passage has a corresponding end note). So many of the negative passages cite the Brandens and their associates as a source, either through their biographies of Rand, or through interviews or correspondence with the author.

  2. William, As much as I appreciate the interest, my post is copyrighted, and if you mean that you literally reposted my “remarks in their entirety,” without my permission, that isn’t kosher. A link and fair-use quotations is of course fine. I don’t see this as a “deconstruction,” just a straight-forward review. -Ari

  3. I shall take the square root of your review and excerpt that much of it instead of full repost at SOLO. Stupid of me to have laid out the whole thing.

    Looks like you are in for a long bout of writing on Heller. That’s what I meant by deconstruction, not a not to some postmodern affliction you might suffer. :-)

    Querying Heller can be done at her Doubleday “ask the author” page, if you are interested. It sure would be an item if an Objectivish journalist did an interview with her. She seems quite happy to be interviewed by the lesser-informed, so maybe she would relish some questions from the knowledgable.

    Discussion of Heller at SOLO has noted that beyond Binswanger’s NYT letter and private HBL post mentioning Heller (don’t read it, he advised. Leaves a stain) and Mayhew’s review, there has been little ARIan reaction above the waterline.

    Heller goes much further that either Branden in drawing a sometimes repulsive Rand. If this kind of stuff needs countering, should that countering get some oomph? Good to see you tackling the matter.

  4. Ari,

    You talk of the Brandens’ “smears” of Rand. Heller is harsher on Rand than Barbara Branden and Burns is perhaps slightly kinder. Burns had access to the archives. She has said that the Branden books are “accurate.”

    I don’t condone what the Brandens did, although Rand implying in 68 that NB engaged in fraud wasn’t nice either. Neither Burns nor Heller finds merit in that claim.

  5. The SOLO post has not yet appeared. I should point out that Michael Moeller and Ellen Stuttle (among others) have keyed in on several areas in Heller where mistakes in emphasis and even reporting are found.

    You write of the materials Heller consulted: “Interviews with Rand’s friends” recorded by Jeff Walker and Marc Schwalb.”

    Marc Schwalb bought at auction materials from Barbara Branden. These include original tapes from the researches for Passion of Ayn Rand. Schwalb himself did no interviews.

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