'Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America'

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Some
readers of Stephen Cox’s recently published biography, Isabel
Paterson and the Idea of America: The Woman and the Dynamo
,
may succumb to the same temptation I did. I immediately scanned
the index for references to Ayn Rand and then I turned directly
to those pages. This reflected my main purpose in reading Paterson’s
biography: to see what light it shed on that other and (to me) more
important figure with whom Paterson had associated. After a few
minutes, I shut the book and began reading from the acknowledgements
page onward.

The reason: if the entire book
was as well written as the pages I’d just read and Paterson
as consistently captivating, then both the book and the woman deserved
undivided attention. And I deserved the pleasure of meeting the
amazing person of whom Cox states, “No one in the 1930s defended
individualism more vigorously and consistently than Paterson.”

What a woman!

Self-educated and self-made.
Raised in the Wild West at the turn of the 19th century, she was
so enchanted by the age of machinery that she took to the sky and
set an American aeronautic record for altitude with a female passenger
on board. Paterson was that passenger. The relatively passive role
belies her life; the courage typifies it.

Cox’s masterful portrayal
of Paterson builds from the statement with which he concludes the
introductory chapter 1, “Who she was and what she did has something
important to say about the risks and possibilities of life in America.”
This understatement is corrected by the book’s subtitle (and
subsequent text), which accurately identifies Paterson as an embodiment
of the very idea, the very spirit of America, the ideal America
of freedom, individualism, and realized human potential.

For me, this was a discovery.
Like most libertarians, I knew of Paterson primarily through her
classic book, The
God of the Machine
(1943), in which she explores the
societal principles that make productivity possible. Paterson eloquently
argues that productivity, as well as freedom, sprang from the Western
world’s embrace of a “society of contract” as opposed
to the “society of status” which had defined feudalism.

The visceral power of Paterson’s
presentation in The God of the Machine – and elsewhere
– resides largely in her vivid imagery and exquisite turn of
phrase. For example, the book’s most frequently quoted chapter
is entitled “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine.” Paterson unpacks
the logic leading to this remarkable image:
Most of the
harm in the world is done by good people…. It is the result of
their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to
be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends…. Something is
terribly wrong in the procedure, somewhere. What is it?
She answers: “The means is the power of the collective; and the
premise is that ‘good’ is collective.” Thus, “The
humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.”

The God of the Machine
assures Paterson a slot in libertarian anthologies and history.
But those who settle for that one book instead of the incredible
Paterson package are cheating themselves.

The Woman and the Dynamo
presents that package by developing both Paterson and the progress
of the American ideal in tandem, so that America’s intellectual
history becomes an integral part of understanding the woman herself.

More than this, the book develops
literary history in order to frame a context for Paterson, who was
not only a novelist but one of the most skilled and feared literary
critics America has known. “Turns with a Bookworm” –
her influential column of literary review, theory, and gossip mixed
with a generous dose of political commentary – was a staple
of the New York Herald Tribune from 1924 to 1949. Publishing
executives and authors trembled at her bon mots and reviews, which
could literally make or break a book.

Paterson didn’t play favorites
with either praise or criticism but dished out her opinions with
Dorothy Parkeresque “charm.” For example, while her contemporaries
heaped superlatives on Winston Churchill’s famed “Blood,
Sweat, and Tears” speech, Paterson dryly observed that the
text was derived from Garibaldi and then commented, “All heads
of great states are considered great writers while they are in office.
It goes with the job. And we mean it goes with the job.”

Paterson’s critique of
Churchill expressed a defining characteristic of the ideal American:
a willingness to stand firm against the multitude when you know
you’re right. In short, the radical individualism that Paterson
possessed in abundance.

She needed it. A passionate
advocate of capitalism during the golden age of American socialism,
an anti-war critic during World War I and World War II, Paterson
expressed intellectual honesty and courage with the same ease most
people butter toast every morning.

Or so it seems when she is
viewed through the unblinking eyes of Cox, who is ideally suited
to be her biographer. Paterson needed a researcher with an intimate
knowledge not merely of radical individualism but also of literary
theory and history. As a veteran libertarian and a professor of
literature at the University of California, San Diego, Cox possesses
knowledge of both. He is able to bring a context to Paterson’s
all-but-forgotten novels, as well as to her politics. Indeed, her
novels and politics are intimately linked, the former abounding
with unconventional heroines and views of marriage, with cynicism
about politics, and with colorful capitalists who are admirable.
His portrait of Paterson as a novelist, literary critic, and theorist
is a real gift.

Through years of research and
interviews, Cox did something else Paterson needed but which she
may not have desired. He made the woman emerge, complete with the
flaws that make flesh fascinating. For example, she was both a generous
and cruel friend with a virtually nonexistent husband whose name
she chose to bear. When asked about personal matters, she would
cut off the questioner in a manner that ensured no further query
would arise. How would she react to Cox’s persistent efforts
to reveal her?

And, yet, the alternative of
having Paterson remain in shadow is unacceptable.

As I read The Woman and
the Dynamo, I pondered a question that has haunted me for
years. Why has Paterson been so neglected? Or, more broadly, why
did and does the libertarian movement – or radical individualism
in general – not celebrate and embrace its fiction writers
in the same manner as the Left? Upton Sinclair, Lillian Hellman,
Max Eastman, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis – these left-wing
fiction writers were Paterson’s contemporaries. Like her, they
had a dramatic impact on the culture and politics of their day.
Unlike Paterson, they have claimed important niches in history,
largely because of the attention of left-wing biographers and historians.

Cox has an answer for Paterson’s
comparative obscurity. He believes that the “Old Right”
– as libertarians of Paterson’s time (circa the 1930s)
are commonly called – has been defined by a handful of historians,
especially by Murray Rothbard. These historians offer “an Old
Right hypothesis” by which that movement is identified more
by what it didn’t like than by shared principles. For example,
the Old Right rejected the New Deal. This categorization loses the
unique contribution of distinctly libertarian voices.

It is over several such points
of interpretation that I disagree with Cox. I do so happily because
the disagreement is an interesting one and, in the final analysis,
he may be proven correct. Until then, I continue to ascribe Paterson’s
obscurity far more to libertarianism’s tendency to ignore its
literary figures than to Rothbard’s influence. It is a strange
tendency, as so many people were inspired toward radical individualism
by the novels of Ayn Rand. Yet nowhere are fiction writers –
even successful ones such as Robert Heinlein – granted the
same respect as university professors, economists, and those who
are elected to office.

The mark of the success of
Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America as a book of intellectual
history is that it leaves the reader with such questions. I found
myself repeatedly lowering the book to consider throwaway statements
such as “Radical individualism is an influence without an institution.”

Buy this book. Not just because
Paterson has waited decades for her place in history but because
you deserve the pleasure of meeting her.

March
31, 2005

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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