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Good writing style, flawed understanding of subject
on May 18, 2011
Jennifer Burns has written a chronology of Ayn Rand's development as a free-market economics thinker that Burns's writing skill makes highly readable even when the content is flawed. Though Burns cites and quotes sources that have not been brought into previous books about Rand, some unpardonable errors should cause any knowledgeable reader to question what Burns could have got wrong in interpreting the materials in archives not yet used as sources by other writers.
To Burns's credit, when she deals with the common story of Ludwig von Mises being testy with Rand at a dinner, Burns draws on sources showing that both Mises and Rand remembered the event occurring differently from the account by Russell Kirk that has become the standard lore. (pg. 141-142) Burns also quotes some highly-favorable opinions of Rand by those who knew Rand but did not share her philosophy: "Hiram Haydn, an editor at Bobbs-Merrill and later Random House, marveled at Rand's ability to conquer sophisticated New Yorkers in any argument: 'Many are the people who laughed at my description of her dialectical invincibility, only later to try their hand and join me among the corpses on the Randian battlefield.' Rand began with the basics, establishing agreement on primary axioms and principles. She came out on top by showing how her opponent's ideas and beliefs contradicted these foundations." (pg. 149-150)
The errors in the book make relying on the book as a valued resource an impossibility. Burns mentions "the publication of *We the Living* in 1935" (pg. 65), I wondered how Burns could devote a book to a novelist who wrote only four novels and yet not provide the correct year of 1936. Likewise, she mentions "Dwight Eisenhower's 1951 presidential nomination" (pg. 145), although this future president secured his party's nomination on July 11, 1952. After mentioning that Rand's first book of non-fiction ("For the New Intellectual") was published in 1961, Burns writes: "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*." (pg. 189) A third such book that same decade, "The Romantic Manifesto," fails to reach Burns's notice. Writing about the content of Rand's most famous novel, Burns writes: "Every company mentioned in *Atlas Shrugged*, from the smallest concern to the largest multinational corporation, is the eponymous [meaning, in this context, the company taking its name from its founder], signifying the link between individual and firm. Rand also tied corporate capitalism to individuals through her focus on inventions and discoveries. ..." (pg. 169) Although Burns mentioned the Phoenix-Durango railroad in her prior paragraph, she failed to realize just one obvious exception to her unsupportable generalization; this example isn't even among those of the villains, who provide still more examples.
Some of these errors reflect badly on Burns but not Rand, but there are errors that seem the product of a willingness on the part of the author to muddy her subject's reputation. Among additional non-defamatory errors: "Barbara Branden's memoir was transformed into an HBO television movie starring Helen Mirren and Eric Stoltz." (pg. 280) It was in fact a Showtime movie. The house that Ayn Rand and her husband bought in Chatsworth is said to have been "[p]reviously home to director Joseph von Sternberg and the actress Marlene Dietrich" (pg. 108); although Sternberg built it and may have intended it for Dietrich, the latter never lived there. Writing about a house that might have been, Burns states: "Her own Wright house remained unbuilt. Although she loved the design, Wright's exorbitant fee was far beyond even her substantial means." (pg. 115) In fact, Ayn Rand chose to remain in New York. (Given the value that Rand placed on her steady interaction with other intellectuals, a home in Connecticut would have been inconvenient for the majority of her visitors, who lived in New York City.) The reputation of Ayn Rand's intellectual heir is unjustly maligned when Burns writes, "The Hessens ... closed [the Palo alto Book Service] in 1986 after a dispute with Leonard Peikoff." (pg. 342) In actuality, the Hessens closed their mail-order book service first; the challenge from Leonard Peikoff arose after the Hessens had contracted for their inventory to be sold to a competitor that Peikoff would never have authorized as an exclusive reseller of Ayn Rand writings.
Other unsettling errors with slight effect on the overall impressions given: "Despite its international image, Hollywood itself was little more than a glorified cow town that could not compare to the glitz of its productions. When Rand arrived in 1926 the major studios were just setting up shop, drawn by the social freedoms of California and the warm climate, which meant films could be shot year-round." (pg. 20) In fact, the major studios there had been there the prior decade. "The industry was still young and relatively fluid; moreover, the mid-1920s were the last years of the silent pictures, so even though Rand had barely mastered English she could still hope to author screenplays. Movie dialogue, which appeared in subtitles at the bottom of the screen, was necessarily brief and basic." (pg. 20) Sound pictures would not outnumber silent ones until the last year of the late-1920s. The title screens showed dialogue from the top to bottom, unlike the later format of superimposed translations on foreign sound films. Burns, writing about Ayn Rand's work during the early 1940s, states: "her work at Paramount further dampened her ambitions. Each day as she picked through yet another potboiler that the studio had bought, she moaned to Frank about the trash that was published while her work remained unnoticed." (pg. 69) The books read by studio readers such as Rand were being evaluated for purchase; these were not works "that the studio had bought". From near the end of the book: "A large swath of Rand's papers was sold at auction by Barbara Branden and Robert Hessen in the mid-1980s." (pg. 294) That auction took place November 18, 1998. Burns also is wrong in stating that the November-December 1975 issue of "The Ayn Rand Letter" "would be the final one." Neither was it announced as such (pg. 274); the January-February 1976 issue was the last.
Burns generally conveys a neutral tone about her subject, but occasionally the veil is lifted. Writing about the novel on which Ayn Rand has most made her reputation and most gained an enduring audience, Burns writes, "her arguments were like a parody of social Darwinism." (pg. 173) Burns allows herself to incorporate this assumption into a conclusion: "In many ways the novel was the final summation of the theory of resentment Rand had first formulated in Crimea. It was also a return to the mood of her earliest unfinished fiction. Once again Rand let loose all the bile that had accumulated in her over the years." (pg. 172) "Theory of resentment"? Was there one within Rand as against within Burns's conception of Rand? Burns starts the book with assumptions that "Rand's defense of individualism, celebration of capitalism, and controversial morality of selfishness can be understood only against the backdrop of her historical moment. All sprang from her early life experiences in Communist Russia and became the most powerful and deeply enduring of her messages." (pg. 2-3) Rand's hierarchical, integrated, detailed philosophy gets reduced to knee-jerk reactions in Burns's summaries. What is different about Ayn Rand's philosophy compared to those of other thinkers gets short-changed or ignored.
An attempt to "balance" credit among prominent right-wing authors has Burns observing that the term "at the point of a gun" appears in writings of both Rand and Mises, with Burns citing published instances of it to support her remark that it "is unclear if Mises and Rand arrived at the phrase independently or if one learned it from the other." (pg. 330, in a footnote to pg. 212) The earliest citation given by Burns for Rand is "For the New Intellectual" (1961). Had Burns realized that the expression appears several times in "Atlas Shrugged" -- first in Rearden's trial, about which Rand wrote notes in January 1950 -- and that the expression even appears in "The Fountainhead" (Roark meeting with Mr. Janss), published 1943 -- each written before Rand first met Mises -- there would not have been this questioning by Burns of whether Rand used the expression before Mises.
Towards the end of the book, Burns devotes a massive number of pages to comparing Ayn Rand with writers working at the end of Rand's life who acknowledge being influenced by Rand. (These sections are the exceptions to the book being well-written. Where before Burns wrote about constant developments, the text here has a laundry-list approach of cataloging the multitude of such works.) Although the chapters devoted to earlier decades had contrasted other conservatives to Ayn Rand, Burns had usually been able to bring the subject back to Rand by quoting her on her view about these others. Not so when Burns gets to the 1970s. Ayn Rand ceases to be the focal point in a book devoted to her place in intellectual history. At this juncture, Burns could have brought into her narrative a 1970s counterpart to the archival and rare documentation she incorporated into so much of the earlier sections: Ayn Rand's letter to "The New York Times" published in the August 11, 1976, issue. This letter is not mentioned at all, and its inclusion would have forced Burns to alter her message. Ayn Rand wrote: "Neither I nor 'Atlas Shrugged' nor my philosophy has any connection with the so-called 'Libertarian' movement. I hold that politics without a consistent philosophical base leads to disaster. The 'Libertarian' movement is a random collection of emotional hippies-of-the-right who seek to play at politics without philosophy or consistency." The objections that Ayn Rand had against Libertarianism were that (a) it took her ideas and (b) it debased those ideas into ineffectiveness by dismantling the philosophic base. Burns quotes several criticisms against Rand by Libertarians who claim that Rand's objection to them was that she accused them of plagiarizing her ideas; had Burns acknowledged that Rand had publicized her position concerning her philosophic foundation, the criticisms by the Libertarians would have been shown to not address Rand's principle counterargument.
A matter more personal to Ayn Rand than Libertarianism likewise is subject to Burns's choice to narrate on the basis of one set of evidence rather than another. When it comes to the alleged alcoholism of Rand's husband, Burns acknowledges the opposing viewpoint only in a footnote (that of chapter 5, pg. 157, footnote 54, appearing on page 322). "Firm diagnoses of the dead are always tenuous," Burns acknowledges in the small print, but goes on to opine that "Frank's family history" is one reason to downplay that the "claim is vigorously disputed by James Valliant." That Valliant challenged the best-known of the propagators of this view in an online forum and got that propagator to backtrack that the alcoholism was only in the final years of Frank's life, when Frank's Alzheimer's had already robbed him of his memory, did not factor in Burns's weighing of which reports to put into her narrative.
Likewise, Burns argues from the standpoint of her own profession of college professor -- someone who interacts with a limited number of students enrolled for a full term -- to disparage attitudes expressed by Ayn Rand (in an as-yet unpublished letter to John Hospers) that in offering lectures, she and her colleague "address ourselves to adults and leave up to them the full responsibility for learning something from the course." Burns fails to consider a point Rand articulated in her essay "What Can One Do?," where she wrote that a crusader seeking to correct a culture, like a doctor in an epidemic, has to realize that he can't help every victim, and thus must accept the limitations imposed by the crisis, "that you have to treat as many people as you can reach, according to the best of your ability, and that nothing else is possible." Burns, further arguing from a professor's standpoint, writes, "Rand was oblivious to the idea that presenting multiple sides of an issue might stimulate students to independently measure and evaluate the validity of each option, thereby exercising their reason and arriving at their own, individual conclusions." Burns seems oblivious that the opposing opinions were already commonplace in the culture and readily available in inexpensive books; Rand was offering a better value to her lecture audiences by confining the limited hours to material not readily available elsewhere. Although Burns acknowledges that Rand limited audience attendance to those with some understanding of "Atlas Shrugged," she complains that Rand "conceived her ideal student as an empty vessel who used his or her rationality only to verify the validity of Objectivism." Here, all should remember what readers of "Atlas Shrugged" would have encountered in the words of the philosophy professor who is possibly the most dignified character in it, Hugh Akston: "Consider the reasons which make us certain that we are right, but not the fact that we are certain. If you are not convinced, ignore our certainty. Don't be tempted to substitute our judgment for your own."
That quote is an appropriate one to keep in mind while reading "Goddess of the Market" -- a book that has some value for its limited unique material but which is too often misleading.