The Village Rebels
Discourse just posted my review of Tim Sandefur’s book Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness.
It’s an enjoyable book overall, but I found it especially interesting as a look at a world with different political alignments and cultural associations.
In the most illuminating section of Sandefur’s book, examining the part of this history that was newest to me, he describes the influence on all three women of a literary movement known as the “Revolt from the Village.” The starting point for these women was reading, not the works of Austrian economists or even the Federalist Papers, but rather the novels of Sinclair Lewis. His 1920 novel “Main Street” chronicles how a small town’s anti-intellectualism and conformity—a complex he dubs the “village virus”—slowly extinguishes the soul of an idealistic young woman.
Today, we would think of this aversion to the narrow-mindedness of small-town life as a marker for left-wing views, but it was a theme that these defenders of individualism embraced.
I also point out that these three women came from literary circles in New York City. They were what you might call “coastal elites.”
For an Objectivist, though, the most fun part of the book is recognizing how much of Ayn Rand’s own experience, the experiences of her circle of friends, and the events of the time ended up making it into her novels.
One of the pleasures of Freedom’s Furies is finding characters from Atlas Shrugged popping up in real life. Hugh Johnson, the former general tasked to be a kind of economic dictator under the National Industrial Recovery Act, who was famous for being drunk and abusive, clearly helped inspire Ayn Rand’s brutish commissar Cuffy Meigs. General Electric president Gerard Swope, who proposed a plan to “stabilize” the economy with Mussolini-style industrial cartels, is recognizable as a model for the progressive businessman Jim Taggart. Atlas Shrugged, Sandefur argues, was Ayn Rand’s novel of the New Deal, and the programs of the New Deal were a playground for the unscrupulous and power-hungry.
The same goes for The Fountainhead. Everyone knows Howard Roark was partly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. But it became much clearer to me how directly the publishing magnate Gail Wynand was based on real-life yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst and particularly on his failed rebellion against Roosevelt and the New Deal, in which he attempted to turn against a monster he had created. I also came to realize how obvious the real-life parallels would have been to readers in 1943, when this history was still very fresh.
Dominique Francon’s career as a freewheeling female reporter must have owed something to the careers of Rose Wilder Lane and Dorothy Thompson, though her ability to skewer the foibles of public figures with a pithy phrase—and be followed by an audience eager to see whom she targets next—seems like a tribute to Paterson. Tim argues convincingly that the intense friendship between Roark and Wynand is closely inspired by Ayn Rand’s relationship with Paterson.
You have probably heard people say that Ayn Rand’s characters are unrealistic, so it is amusing to read a history of her era and see the extent to which she was ripping her characters straight out of the headlines. Sandefur’s book really helps bring this era of history alive.