Of particular note is that Prof. Burns was given full access to Rand's papers at the Ayn Rand Archives (which is associated with the Ayn Rand Institute). According to this review, the skepticism that many have had with respect to the accuracy of material put out by the ARI (see here and here) is fully justified. In fact, things may have been worse than suspected.
Under the influence of Rand’s heir, Leonard Peikoff, the archives were
off-limits to many scholars for years. Peikoff has a history of wanting to
protect Rand’s reputation, even if that means giving facts short-shift. That Burns had full access to Rand’s papers is a good sign for future Rand-related scholarship—though Burns does warn that scholars who were involved in “Objectivist controversies” may still find themselves barred from seeing the papers.
Because of her access, Burns was able to document the influence of Nietzsche on Rand. One of the great modern myths, regarding Rand, is that she emerged from Russia with a fully formed philosophical system, at least in all the essentials. Burns is able to document that Rand was in the process of forming her ideas over a period of decades. And while I found her discussion of Nietzsche’s influence on Rand fascinating, I thought she should have given equal emphasis to the whys and hows of Rand shifting away from Nietzsche.
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One other area that I found of significant interest is Burns discussion of the various problems surrounding Rand documents made public by the
Ayn Rand Institute, Leonard Piekoff’s organization. There has been a great deal of controversy over indications that ARI doctored documents. Some of this doctoring was admitted by ARI, which asserted that they merely made clarifications consistent with what Rand had intended to say. Burns, who has seen the originals, says this is not the case.
She does say that the letters of Rand, that have been released, “have not been altered; they are merely incomplete.” But the same is not true for other works of Rand, including her Journals. Burns writes, “On nearly every page of the published journals an unacknowledged change has been made from Rand’s original writing. In the book’s foreword the editor, David Harriman, defends his practice of eliminating Rand’s words and inserting his own as necessary for greater clarity. In many case, however, his editing serves to significantly alter Rand’s meaning.” She says that sentences are “rewritten to sound stronger and more definite” and that the editing “obscures important shifts and changes in Rand’s thought.” She finds “more alarming” the case that “sentences and proper names present in Rand’s original …have vanished entirely, without any ellipses or brackets to indicate a change.”
The result of this unacknowledged editing is that “they add up to a different Rand. In her original notebooks she is more tentative, historically bounded, and contradictory. The edited diaries have transformed her private space, the hidden realm in which she did her thinking, reaching, and groping, replacing it with a slick manufactured world in which all of her ideas are definite, well formulated, and clear.” She concludes that Rand’s Journals, as released by ARI, “are thus best understood as an interpretation of Rand rather than her own writing. Scholars must use these materials with extreme caution.”
The bad news is that “similar problems plague Ayn Rand Answers (2005), The Art of Fiction (2000), The Art of Non-Fiction (2001), and Objectively Speaking (2009).” Burns says all these works were “derived from archival material but have been significantly rewritten.” Rand scholars have long suspected such manipulation of documents; Burns confirms it with evidence she herself saw.
Certainly an explantion for this is required. For a number of years we have been told that the Archives will be publishing a collection of oral history entitled 100 Voices. I would recommend that the ARI make the actual interviews available on the web and provide access to non-ARI scholars.