three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
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Ayn Rand and the American Right

A-GoddessMarketJennifer Burns is an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia.

The Topic: Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) is probably more interesting than any of the characters she created (and not just because those characters were mostly cardboard cutout stand-ins for her philosophical ideas). Hailing from a secular Jewish family in Russia, her childhood was wrecked first by anti-Semitic pogroms and then by the Bolsheviks, who ultimately forced her father to shutter his pharmacy business. Rand escaped to the United States but never got over her grudge against "the masses," eventually developing it into a philosophy of radical individualism and unforgiving capitalism. She became a cult leader of sorts, surrounded by her philosophical acolytes and conducting a multiyear affair with one of them (though she ultimately died alone). Her works have influenced millions, and they continue to inform American conservative thought.
Oxford University Press. 384 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780195324877.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"As historian Jennifer Burns shows in this deeply researched and elegantly composed biography, Rand offered an enduring attack on the liberal theory of government. ...
Goddess of the Market, one of two new books on Rand (the other is Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made), has the qualities of a page turner."
Steven P. Miller

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Burns gives a lucid account of how Rand set herself at odds with religious conservatism, how Rand-inspired libertarianism has shape-shifted, and even how Rand disciples of the 1970s adopted a hippie aspect to rival that of Students for a Democratic Society, confounding everyone, Rand included. ... [Burns] cast[s] light on why Rand's popularity can be rekindled by economic turmoil, and on how much her real life and reputation diverged." Janet Maslin

Slate.com 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]here are people--large numbers of people--who see [Rand's] writing not as psychopathy but as philosophy, and urge us to follow her. Why? What in American culture did she drill into? Unfortunately, [this] thorough, readable [book] can[not] offer much of an answer to this, the only great question about her." Johann Hari

The New Yorker 3 of 5 Stars
"Burns more ably situates Rand within and against the world of American conservatism. ... [Burns] is too willing to see Rand's dictates about ‘romantic realism' as a sincerely offered aesthetic, rather than as a post-facto justification for her own artistic incapacities." Thomas Mallon

Critical Summary

Critics greeted Burns's work enthusiastically because, in the opinion of most, no one had yet authored a biography of Rand that objectively treated the woman independent of her philosophy of "objectivism." Reviews tended to focus on the psychological profile of Rand as the strongest feature of this work, but they were divided on the strength of Burns's analysis of Rand's impact on American thought. All felt that Burns, a scholar of the conservative movement, had made a good start evaluating that impact. But as Johann Hari's review for Slate.com suggests, perhaps the best way to understand the legacy of books like Atlas Shrugged in the United States would be not to inspect Rand's life, but to inspect the unique aspects of American culture that made her so popular.