Finding Atlas Before Ayn Rand there was Isabel Paterson

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The
Economist recently reported that Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas
Shrugged
, first published in 1957, is back on the bestseller
lists. A week before the president’s inauguration, more people
were buying it than Obama’s Audacity of Hope.

For the uninitiated,
Atlas explores a future world in which the nation’s economy
is collapsing because of government interference. The theme developed
out of Rand’s own era: she started planning her novel in 1943,
in the midst of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But it’s
no wonder that it seems relevant today. New Deal activism, which
was principally responsible for prolonging the Great Depression,
guides our current economic stimulators.

Rand’s
disciples are a devoted lot. A recent issue of the New Yorker
profiled one local group – the dentist with “John Galt,”
the hero of Atlas Shrugged, on his license plate; the wealth
manager who piously intones, “I’ve been a follower of
Ayn Rand for five years”; the helpful fellow who suggests,
“When civilization collapses, we’ll just have to organize
an Objectivist gang.”

Mention the
name Isabel Paterson in such a gathering, and you’re likely
to draw blank looks. For all the fervor that Rand inspires, little
notice is paid to the woman who most inspired her.

Paterson
(1886–1961) was a novelist and literary critic. She was slight,
just over five feet tall, with a delicate taste in food and drink,
a deep love of nature, and a nationally famous sense of humor. Stubborn
and sharp-witted, she was also one of the New Deal’s fiercest
foes.

Paterson grew
up in poverty on the Western frontier. She had only two years of
formal schooling. But she learned from her own experience, as well
as her encyclopedic knowledge of history, that economic success
results from individual initiative, not federal management. As an
author, she also knew what makes a plausible story and could see
that there could not possibly be a happy ending to the government’s
efforts to fix everything that was broken in the 1930s.

Read
the rest of the article

May
5, 2009

Stephen Cox is professor of literature at UC San Diego. His two
latest books are The
New Testament and Literature

and The
Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America
.

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