Ayn Rand was a woman of truly remarkable achievement. She was a phenomenally successful novelist whose books have sold millions of copies and profoundly affected countless lives. Through her fiction and her later essays and articles, she founded a whole new philosophy—a philosophy for living on earth. Her singular vision has inspired millions to take charge of their lives, and attracted its fair share of controversy, too.
Rand’s philosophy celebrates reason as our unique means of survival and our special glory; one’s own happiness as one’s highest goal; productive work as one’s noblest activity; and laissez-faire capitalism as the only moral system of government. Combined with her heroic vision of life’s possibilities and her sense of the universe as a benevolent place, it is little wonder that her philosophy and writings have such enduring appeal.
The Concerto of Deliverance
Rand’s own life was marked by drama worthy of inclusion in one of her breathtaking novels. Born Alissa Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905 in St. Petersburg, she witnessed the first shots of the Russian Revolution from her balcony when she was a mere 12 years old. Almost overnight, her family was reduced to crushing poverty as communists thugs nationalized her father’s chemist shop. Discovering the works of great romantic writers like Victor Hugo and Edmond Rostand helped the young girl expand her private vision of human potential, but the social horizons of human possibility were shrinking all around her.
Against the growing squalor of Soviet life, Alissa nurtured a burning desire to abandon Russia for the West. As her 21st birthday approached, she got her chance. With her mother’s help, she obtained a passport to visit relatives in Chicago, and left Russia and her family in January 1926, never to return. She arrived in New York City weeks later, with just $50 to her name.
The Woman Who Belonged on Earth
The story of Ayn Rand’s life is above all the story of a fierce determination to achieve which, combined with her great intellect and well-honed talent, drove her to spectacular success. She was all of nine years old when she made the conscious decision to become a writer. She studied history and philosophy at the University of Petrograd in Russia. In America, after staying with her relatives in Chicago for six months, she set out for Hollywood. A chance meeting with film director Cecil B. DeMille landed her a job, first as a movie extra, then as a junior screenwriter. It was soon after, on the set of DeMille’s film King of Kings, that she literally stumbled into the actor Frank O’Connor, who would eventually become her husband of 50 years.
Rand had a fierce determination to achieve.
Over the next decade, Rand, whose mother tongue was Russian, mastered the English language, writing many screenplays and short stories. Her extraordinary perseverance eventually paid off, with two Broadway plays and the publication of We The Living. Drawing on her own experience growing up in Russia, this first novel exposed the “noble experiment” of communism for the murderous deception it really was.
The Face Without Pain or Fear or Guilt
Finally, with the publication of The Fountainheadin 1943, Rand achieved lasting fame. This great novel of American individualism presented her mature portrait of a hero—not a traditional swashbuckling hero, but a man of character and integrity: Howard Roark, architect. Roark demands the right to design and build in accordance with his own ideals and principles. In his long struggle to succeed—a struggle not unlike Rand’s own—he eventually triumphs over every form of spiritual collectivism. This novel first presented Rand’s provocative morality of rational egoism, and this at a time when collectivism was gaining ground all over the world. Made into a feature film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in 1948, the novel has remained a bestseller for over 60 years.
Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s fourth and final novel, is the crown jewel of her body of work, the capstone of her literary and philosophic career. The Fountainheadhad created controversy; Atlas Shruggedfomented a furor. In this sweeping, majestic saga, Rand dramatized the major elements of her challenging new philosophy. She called this philosophy “Objectivism,” with its focus on reality, on reason, and on objective values and virtues derived from the objective requirements of human survival and flourishing. In a 1991 survey conducted by Book-of-the-Month Club, asking members to name a book that had made a difference in their lives, Atlas Shruggedwas second only to The Bible. Though granted, The Bible was still far ahead, Rand’s epic story with its defiantly proud characters was, and is, a powerful challenge to prevailing notions.
In the Name of the Best Within Us
Subsequent to the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand turned to nonfiction writing, elaborating her philosophy in many essays, columns, and public appearances. She died on March 6, 1982 in her New York City apartment. In the years since her death, interest in her ideas has grown steadily. At first overlooked by academia despite—or perhaps because of—its popularity, there is today increasing recognition that her original and inspiring philosophy is eminently deserving of serious attention. She and her ideas continue to be the focus of books, film documentaries, magazine and newspaper articles, and a growing intellectual movement of scholars, organizations, and publications.
Ayn Rand believed that the purpose of art was to paint a picture of life, not as it is, but as it could be and should be, and she did just that with her own art. A Russian immigrant, she appreciated the American, individualistic sense of life better than most Americans, who have a tendency to take their freedoms for granted. She gave humanity the incalculable gift of her joyous vision of the world and of life’s glorious possibilities. It is a vision that resonates anew with each new reader who discovers her novels for the first time, and continues to resonate with longtime fans who discovered them decades ago.
“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live
for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”