Saturday, December 26, 2009

Just before Christmas, I finished Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller.

It's a very interesting biography in many ways. Rand lived an interesting life, living through the communist revolution in China and then turning herself into what she wanted to be, first a success in Hollywood and then one of the most successful writers of the 20th century. Heller has done a good job of exploring that part of Rand's life, filling in many details I had not known about and using independent research into her life in Russia and the fate of her family after Rand lost touch with them.

The only complaints I have about this part of the book are Heller's playing amateur psychologist in many places and ascribing Rand's later views to various events in her early life. Those are pure speculation and don't give much credit to Rand for formulating actual ideas about the world, rather than having her views determined by it in some kind of pseudo-Skinnerian fashion.

The sections on her books are particularly good. Heller shows a strong understanding of the themes, both philosophical and artistic, in play. This is particularly important because without an understanding of Rand's aims to create "Romantic" fiction, the novels can appear very melodramatic and over-written compared to the more current favoured "Naturalistic" style. When more properly compared with writers like Hugo or Dostoevsky, one can see more clearly what Rand was aiming at and judge how well she did, or didn't achieve it.

The later part of the book is less interesting, and less well researched. It focuses on her relationship with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, and the so-called cult that grew up around Rand after Atlas Shrugged was published. Heller makes it clear up front that she got a lot of input from the Brandens and I don't believe she took that input with enough of a grain of salt, given the Brandens history of misleading and borderline deceptive remarks about this period and their obvious incentives to make themselves look better and Rand look worse. This focus on the Branden's inputs may be partially due to the fact that she did not have access to Rand's surviving papers in the Ayn Rand Archive run by the Ayn Rand Institute. She does not give a reason for that denial, so it is not possible to fully judge, but given the quality of the majority of this book, I think that decision was a mistake on the part of ARI. This book, and the other Rand biography that came out at around the same time, Jennifer Burn's Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, will probably serve as the standard Rand biographies for some time to come and would have been better for everyone if they had full access to all sides. I will probably read Burn's book as soon as I can get a library copy and compare and contrast it with Heller's.

One other criticism is that there is a large hole in the book named Frank O'Connor, her husband of 50+ years. All evidence seems to indicate O'Connor was a taciturn individual and hasn't left a lot of evidence of his point of view on Rand, her writings, the Branden affair or their marriage. This book gives some small evidence that there may have been problems in the marriage, and with O'Connor, but most of it comes across as speculation with little foundation. It may not be possible, even with extensive research, to discover more about O'Connor and his point of view but it doesn't look like that was done here.

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