Saturday, September 26, 2009

Goddess of the Market (Amazon Review)

My Amazon review of Goddess of the Market:

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a pivotal figure in the modern libertarian movement. What is most interesting is that her influence was also great on the conservative movement, notwithstanding her atheism and secularism. Jennifer Burns, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, has written an outstanding intellectual biography of Rand, one that focuses on Rand’s political ideas and activism.

As anyone who has been following the buzz about this book knows, Prof. Burns (who is not an Objectivist) was granted almost complete access to material at the Ayn Rand Archives, which is associated with the Ayn Rand Institute. There has always been a bit of controversy about the Archives. Questions have been raised about the accuracy of the material released (such as the Journals). Prof. Burns was able to compare published versions with the originals. The suspicions raised by scholars such as Chris Sciabarra were fully justified, in particular with respect to the published version of Rand’s journals. As Prof. 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 adds, “similar problems plague Ayn Rand Answers (2005), The Art of Fiction (2000), The Art of Non-Fiction (2001), and Objectively Speaking (2009).”

Rand said she developed her philosophy at age two and one-half and it remained essentially the same. The historical record has been rewritten to accord with Rand’s self-mythologizing. (This is not cast aspersion on the current archivists, who are very much aware of – and upset at – the jiggery pokery sanctioned by Rand's estate.)

Given the rewriting of the historical record by the estate, what does that say about the accuracy of the ARI-sanctioned description of Rand set forth by Leonard Peikoff in his 1987 Ford Hall Forum address and James Valliant in his 2005 The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics? Peikoff and Valliant claimed that Rand’s only flaw was occasional anger, which they attempted to justify as Rand’s righteous rage against a relativistic world. The Peikoff and Valliant view is, to say the least, misleading. Prof. Burns confirms Rand’s abusive treatment of the Collective, her mistreatment of her husband, and her tendency to sever relationships over minor matters, among other things. Although Prof. Burns doesn’t label Rand’s husband an alcoholic, the evidence that he drank more than one should is quite strong. She also concludes that Rand’s behavior was likely affected by decades of amphetamine use.

Nothing in this book shows the portrayal of Rand in Barbara Branden’s 1986 biography of Rand (The Passion of Ayn Rand) to be wrong in any substantial regard, much less deliberately dishonest. Prof. Burns does find fault with certain aspects of The Passion of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden’s memoirs.

The value of Goddess of the Market, however, is not the light it sheds on various Objectivist controversies, but in the fascinating story it tells. Rand’s life intersected with many of the best known people in the conservative and libertarian movement such as Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. Prof. Burns shows Rand’s gradual disillusionment with the conservative movement over its embrace of religion. She never felt at home with the libertarian movement, which she as saw almost exclusively as anarchist and subjectivist. Perhaps she saw libertarianism as a competitor (she could never decide whether she had nothing in common with them, or if they plagiarized her ideas).

Burns also highlights Rand’s involvement in politics. She worked for Wendell Wilkie’s campaign and attempted to organize a movement to fight the spread of collectivism. Much of this was known before, but Prof. Burns tells the story with new details and corrects the record on various matters, such as Rand’s split with Isabel Paterson.

Goddess of the Market breaks new ground in Ayn Rand scholarship. Hopefully the new openness of the Archives will permit scholars to delve more deeply into Ayn Rand’s life and her intellectual development.


emb021 said...

A good review.

We now have 2 bios out on Rand. It would be interesting to see a comparison of the two (are both good? does one do a better job in certain areas then others? etc).

The info of messing around with the recent "Rand works" is bothersome. I hadn't gotten any of them. AR Answers was the one I was most interested in. I don't understand the need to alter the two on writing. The recent one of her interviews I was not aware of.

It will be interesting to see the impact of this work on the 'faithful'.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Parille,

Nice review! Very fair and accurate. I just finished this marvelous and seminal -- if slightly hostile and ignorant -- book earlier today. And it was terrific to revisit Ayn Rand's heroic life, and watch her ingenious thought develop.

But I'm curious: Why do you say Prof. Burns was granted almost complete access to the Ayn Rand Archives? And how do you know the archivists are embarrassed at the miserable rewriting of history done by the Ayn Rand Estate in multiple books? How are these two groups even separate?