From Publishers Weekly
Ayn Rand's most famous books, The Fountainhead
and Atlas Shrugged
, continue to sell in the hundreds of thousands every year,decades after they were issued. She was a significant influence on Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Craigslist's Craig Newman. Rand remains many things to many people since her death in 1982, as she did throughout her prickly, anxiety-laced, amphetamine- and nicotine-fueled life. This biography and critique is exasperatingly detailed and slow-going at times. But what University of Virginia historian Burns does well is to explicate the evolution of Rand's individualist worldview, placing her within the context of American conservative and libertarian thought: from H.L. Mencken to William Buckley and later the Vietnam War—her opposition to it drove most conservatives crazy. Burns does not give short shrift to the men in Rand's life: her longtime husband, Frank O'Connor, and intellectual partner and lover, Nathaniel Branden. Overall, this contributes to an understanding of a complex life in relation to American conservatism. 12 b&w photos. (Oct.)
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Critics greeted Burns's work enthusiastically because, in the opinion of most, no one had yet authored a biography of Rand that objectively treated the woman independent of her philosophy of "objectivism." Reviews tended to focus on the psychological profile of Rand as the strongest feature of this work, but they were divided on the strength of Burns's analysis of Rand's impact on American thought. All felt that Burns, a scholar of the conservative movement, had made a good start evaluating that impact. But as Johann Hari's review for Slate.com
suggests, perhaps the best way to understand the legacy of books like Atlas Shrugged
in the United States would be not to inspect Rand's life, but to inspect the unique aspects of American culture that made her so popular.