Ayn Rand: “A Greatness Stunted by Hate”

In the August 30 issue of National Review, Jason Lee Steorts has a good and thoughtful piece on “The Greatly Ghastly Rand.” Ayn Rand, that is—the artless Objectivist harridan who wrote The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and other books cherished by lonely teenage philosophers across the world. Like most of her modern-day critics, Steorts savages Rand’s clumsy prose:

There is so much to be said against Rand as an artist. There is the inept dialogue — characters begin a great many sentences by shouting each other’s names or saying “You know”; the heroes speak, every one of them, in exactly the same voice; the averagely intelligent advance the plot by blurting out their secrets. There is the Girl Scout banality of Atlas Shrugged’s heroine, who seems to have escaped from the young-adult section. There is the preposterous omnicompetence of the heroes, equally at home on the Harvard faculty or in a Vin Diesel movie, and the endless gushing about their exalted feelings, Rand’s attempt to steal with treacle what she has not earned with character development. There is that editorial discipline which gave us John Galt’s speech.

But he also acknowledges that, despite her many literary defects, Rand can still be affecting. While dull in (many) parts, The Fountainhead still offers at least one memorable character in Gail Wynand, the cynical tabloid publisher who tries and fails to live up to the example set by the novel’s humanoid protagonist, modernist architect Howard Roark. Steorts writes about the novel’s final section, in which Wynand ultimately decides to denounce Roark—who is on trial for heroically bombing a public housing complex—in the pages of his Banner:

When [Wynand] does not hold out — when he betrays Roark rather than close his paper — I feel as I do when I dream I have done something unforgivable. When in his final conversation with Roark — whom he feels too guilty ever to see again, even though, as atonement, he has shut down the paper anyway — he commissions the tallest building in New York, a “monument to that spirit which is yours … and could have been mine,” I feel the relief of redemption. There is a passage in which Roark does not know that something he has said has given a passing character “the courage to face a lifetime.” Rand’s hymn to integrity might achieve the same effect.

Steorts haaaaates Atlas Shrugged, though, and it’s worth reading the whole piece to learn why. (Hint: it has something to do with Rand’s “derangedly insecure ego.”)

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.