Monday, February 13, 2012

Ayn Rand: Ayn Kampf


As I was just about to start The Fountainhead a month-and-a-half ago, I referred to it as an act of self-prophecy. What I meant is that, whatever its literary concerns and conceits, it functions as a veiled account of Ayn Rand’s struggles as a writer and predictor of her eventual fame, as well as the vehicle of same. (For a contemporary analogue, consider Lady Gaga and how The Fame Monster is predicated entirely on its creator’s own sudden superstardom.) It tells a (highly romanticized) story of struggling to success, and was the catalyst for its author’s own stratospheric sales and public profile after years of obscurity and toil. There’s a worn-out maxim that says talent is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, and never was that more true than with Rand, whose literary skills were average at best (and, perversely, worsened the further she went into her career, and her own recursive mind), but who was hell bent on becoming a successful author nonetheless and refused to let anything stop her.

In her early Hollywood days Rand worked a number of odd jobs, including a waitressing gig from which she was fired on her first day, and a sales job in which she made only one actual sale. In keeping with her austere standards of self-presentation and in stark contrast to Roark’s easy-going asceticism, she made sure her jobs were out in the suburbs, where her future husband and professional contacts would not see her menial laboring. It was in these days, starting in 1935, that she began planning her second novel.

The genesis of the book was, as mentioned before, a disgusted response to a casual acquaintance whose only goal in life was to one-up everybody else, living life “second-handedly,” by being defined by others and not oneself. Thus was born Second-Hand Lives. For the story proper Rand drew heavily from the biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as a popular hack, Thomas Hastings. (The irony that “practically the entire story” of a novel which exalted originality and scorned borrowed fortune should be drawn so heavily from two figures, seems to escaped her.)

In a way, however, the book is autobiography: details from Rand’s life—such as an episode in which a school assignment to write an essay on the wonders of childhood prompted Rand to turn in a denunciation of childhood as a gross and irrational phase of one’s intellectual development—show up, often with little disguising. More interesting is the way certain obstacles of her career are inverted: at one point Howard Roark pointedly turns down offers from a client to heavily advertise one of his creations. This is presented by Rand as heroic individualism. Yet it was precisely a lack of promotion and support that sunk Rand’s first novel We the Living; the publisher destroyed the type after the book’s initial run of 3,000, to the author’s great chagrin.

The gestation of The Fountainhead was long and troubled. Outlining, which had begun as early as 1935, stalled out in the search for a climax. It was eventually solved by the architect Jacques Kahn, for whom Rand had gone to work as part of her research: he it was who told her that affordable public housing was the most bedeviling problem of architecture. But after writing the first of the book’s four sections, writer’s block—“the squirms,” as she called it—struck. Money troubles returned. Royalties from Night of January 16th and an advance on the new book eventually dried up, Knopf’s contract for the book was not renewed after she missed an extended deadline, and Rand parted acrimoniously with her agent, who had been unable to sell the book to other publishers (as story Rand tells it is that the book was rejected by twelve houses all told, but this includes Knopf, with whom she parted by mutual agreement). At one point she borrowed money from some friends, which she later paid back but never ackowledged for the hated altruistic act it was. To provide income—her husband’s acting career had sputtered out at this point, and so she was the household’s breadmaker—Rand had to work long hours evaluating potential script stories for Paramount Pictures.

She also busied herself with other projects, including campaigning against Franklin Roosevelt on behalf of Wendell Willkie, writing and publishing (in England) the novella Anthem, and adapting We the Living to the stage, in a production entitled The Unconquered which closed after only five days and ended up costing her more money than she made. At one point she was so discouraged by “things as they are” that she considered giving up working towards “things as they should be” altogether. She would have, had her husband Frank O’Connor not spent hours convincing her not to be beaten by those she despised.

She persevered, and got a contract and an advance from Bobbs-Merrill on December 10, 1941, a fortuitous date; had it been signed but a week later, the contract would have been cancelled due to paper rationing for America’s incipient war effort against Japan and Germany. Her contract gave her a year to complete the manuscript. This deadline she made, by engaging in writing binges of days at a stretch, which allowed her to produce sometimes an entire chapter a week. This she accomplished by way of amphetamines that she had begun to take to concentrate her energies, and would continue to take in the following years and decades, which no doubt contributed to her increasingly stormy behavior later on.

When the book was at last finished, edited (she hacked out a whole character and subplot), and renamed, the critical response was bewilderment if not outright hostility to its cheerful immorality, its “gargoyles” of characters, and its overcooked speeches. One of the rare exceptions was The New York Times(!), which called Rand “a writer of great power.”

The popular response was far more enthusiastic. After a slow start the book sold out its initial run of 10,000, and went into several reprinting. Rand had told one of her few close friends at the time, the conservative columnist and novelist Isabel Paterson, that she would not be satisfied with anything less than a hundred thousand copies sold, an enormous number for any author, much less a relative unknown as herself. The Fountainhead sold 100,000 in 1945 alone, by which time Rand was back in Hollywood, working on the film adaptation directed by King Vidor and directed by Gary Cooper, whose script she wrote, and for whose rights she was paid $50,000.

Rand’s fight to the top was both easier and more difficult than she made it out to be. Her fury with trying circumstances is reflected in how she exaggerated certain aspects and papered over others. And she certainly did not pull it off by herself, though she certainly thought she had; she would later say she neither asked for nor received help before she became famous. The Fountainhead, above everything else, is a curious look into how she saw herself and her years in the trenches. Its closing passages, with Dominique Francon riding a construction elevator to the top of the new Wynand Building, past all other heights and structures until “there was only the ocean and the sky and the figure of Howard Roark,” makes a neat parallel with Rand’s own ascendency.

As far as sheer grit is concerned, Ayn Rand earned her success. Yet there were certainly other writers looking for their big break, and of them many far more deserving, on artistic and literary grounds. The real question is why The Fountainhead became the smash hit that it did, a question worth pursuing, even (especially!) by Rand’s detractors.

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