Ayn Rand was a novelist and philosopher who has never gotten her due. Perhaps it is because of her unfashionable ideas (laissez-faire capitalism and rational selfishness) or perhaps it is because of her polemical style. Nonetheless, her ideas are often unique and well worth studying. So it’s good to see a study of her work in the prestigious Blackwell Companions series. I haven’t read the entire book, but have a few preliminary comments.
1. The book is edited by Greg Salmieri
and the late Allan Gotthelf. Both Salmieri and Gotthelf are/were
associated with the Ayn Rand Institution as are most of the
contributors. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that: scholars
associated with the ARI often do fine work, but you would have to be
blind not to see that almost unqualified praise for Rand (and her heir
Leonard Peikoff) seems to be mandatory. From what I can tell, that’s
pretty much par for the course here. I don’t think this seriously
detracts from the work because what it offers are moderately in-depth
overviews of Rand’s views on various topics.
2. This book does
mark a new path in ARI scholarship because the essays often make mention
of Nathaniel Branden as a source on Objectivism and also interacts with
non-ARI Objectivists (such as David Kelley and Stephen Hicks),
sympathizers with Objectivsm (such as Roderick Long) critics of
Objectivism (such as Scott Ryan) and even the once forbidden Journal of
Ayn Rand Studies (which I have written a couple of minor pieces for).
In years past, anyone not in the line of Apostolic Succession would
pretty much have been ignored.
3. The introductory essay by Greg
Salmieri ("An Introduction to the Study of Ayn Rand") is quite good.
He discusses Rand, her works, and her influence in the academy. For
some reason he didn't mention the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which has
been publishing since 1999. However, he does comment on several of the
various works published posthumously under the editorship of various
ARI writers. It had long been suspected (and shown by Jennifer Burns in
2009) that these works have been heavily edited for ideological
purposes (to make Rand more consistent and omit embarrassing material).
This was further confirmed by Robert Campbell a few years ago in his
analysis of the changes that Robert Mayhew made in editing Rand’s
question and answers (Ayn Rand Answers). Salmieri acknowledges that
much editing has taken place and that there are editorial decisions that
“I wish had been made differently [but] these books serve their purpose
well . . . .” I find this shocking. A half dozen of Rand’s books have
been so heavily edited as to be worthless for scholars and almost
worthless for the casual admirer and Salmieri can’t get worked up over
this? These books should be removed from publication immediately and
replaced with accurate versions. Rand worked hard to protect the
integrity of her material and the ARI should do the same.
Anyone who has followed the ongoing controversy over Rand’s life and the
biographies of her will be interested in what Salmieri and Shoshana
Milgram (who is writing an authorized biography of Ayn Rand) say. In
1986, Barbara Branden wrote the first full-length biography of Rand (The
Passion of Ayn Rand). Shortly after the publication of Passion,
Leonard Peikoff denounced the book as an “arbitrary assertion” (without
having read it) and in 2005 James Valliant (who had access to Rand’s
diaries thanks to Leonard Peikoff) claimed that everything in Passion
was arbitrary (even, I imagine, that Rand was born in Russia) but also
“dishonest” and that Branden made stuff up out of whole cloth. (I
critiqued Valliant’s moronic book in 2008, which you can find on the
web.) Well, in 2009 Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller published
biographies of Rand which more or less followed Branden’s take on Rand.
And what’s more, they often used Branden’s book as a source. These
books were not viewed with favor by the ARI establishment. Now,
Salmieri and Milgram don’t appear to have a high regard for these three
biographies either, but gone are the days when everything Barbara
Branden said should be dismissed out of hand. Milgram, unfortunately
quotes Burns out of context when she reports Burns as saying that
Branden’s biography is “marred by serious inaccuracies.” (page 87 in
the Wylie edition). Burns, however, goes on to say “too often Branden
takes Rand’s stories about herself at face value, reporting as fact
information contradicted by the historical record.” Milgram does make
some good points about the three biographies and I think they all have
their strengths and weaknesses. She is correct that Passion (and the
memoirs of Nathaniel Branden) should be used with caution, in particular
when reporting something for which they are the only source (private
communications, for example). I would be curious what Milgram thinks
about those who have said things equally critical of Rand and who never
broke with her or, if they did, their breaks did not involve dishonesty.
I assume Milgram has interviewed such people or consulted the
interviews that others have done of them.
5. I’ve read only a few
of the essays beginning to end, but they were informative albeit not
particularly critical. The essays all appear to be polished and
Salmieri and Gotthelf are to be commended for what must have been a
lengthy editing process.