Quote of the week...please share your favourite line from Ayn Rand's writings

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pouring Into Two New Biographies on Ayn Rand

Since there has been such a resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand’s ideas in the US, it is no surprise that there are a lot more people curious about Ayn Rand, the person. And it is a curiosity that now has two fresh answers in the form of ‘Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the Conservative Right’ by Jennifer Burns, and ‘Ayn Rand and the World She Made’ by Anne C. Heller. Both these simultaneously released books are biographical works about the iconic author, and from the reviews and interviews I have read, there are a few reasons why they will both make for some very interesting reading.

For one, neither of the two writers were personal associates of Rand, unlike Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, Mary Ann Sures and Leonard Peikoff, who have all given some account of Rand, the person. As a result, instead of being fully or partially in the form of memoirs, these books are wholly biographical. While they don’t have the inimitable insight of someone who has directly known and observed the subject, the advantage is that they are both based on thorough research. Both the authors have been commended for the pains they have been through to reconstruct every little detail of Rand’s life, right from her early days in Russia. And Jennifer Burns, a rigorous academic, and Anne Heller, a journalist, had the skills to bring forth previously unknown (or little known) details. According to reviews, Anne scores with Ayn Rand’s early life. She actually investigated in Russia itself, trying to trace whatever leads there were to Rand’s youth. The previously known sketchy details have been fleshed out to reveal a total picture. Burns, on the other hand, spent years going through every written word Rand ever wrote, including unpublished letters and journals. She had access to all of Rand’s original writing in the Ayn Rand archives, and uses this first hand opportunity to pour into the author’s personality. They both conducted several hundred hours of interviews, and so the word goes, are the first to come up with a comprehensive factual presentation of Rand’s life and the Objectivist movement that grew around her.

The other aspect of this that would interest readers is that neither Jennifer Burns nor Anne Heller have anything to do with Objectivism, as a philosophical system and movement. Neither of them have been significantly influenced by Rand in the development of their lives and minds, and they don’t count themselves amongst Objectivists. In fact, they are not only the first ones outside this movement to comment on Rand’s life, but also the first ones outside it to comment on the various splits, irreconcilable differences and divisions that have plagued Objectivism. As a result, one does not have any reason to suspect a motivation to distort facts. And since, according to reviews, both the books are fact oriented, for the first time one may have a complete account to make a clear, informed judgment about the Rand-Branden split and the series of divisions that followed.

Talking about facts, Burns brings up a disturbing one when she writes that Rand’s original text published in The Journals of Ayn Rand and other posthumous publications has been altered in several places without any editorial comment or note. She has mentioned some of these changes, and given evidence of how, at some places, the original meaning has been significantly altered. Eventually, she concludes, most of the posthumous publications cannot be treated as authentically from Rand’s pen. This is a very serious criticism leveled at those managing Ayn Rand’s estate. However, she also mentions that she was impressed with the professionalism with which the Ayn Rand Archives are currently being managed.

Importantly, they have both come in for serious criticism from Objectivists on their assertions about Rand’s writing style, the purpose and content of her philosophy and her personality. It seems that both books have an underlying tragic tone. But these are not necessarily the reasons why someone well-versed with Rand’s philosophy should dismiss these biographies. Rand’s philosophy and writing style are no mystery, and one doesn’t need these books to make a judgment. What these supposedly offer are clear facts about Rand’s life, which, if true, is an invaluable contribution for those interested in the mind that conceived of Atlas Shrugged.

Here are some useful resources for those interested in finding out more about both these books:

  1. Here is the Amazon page devoted to Anne Heller’s book. It has an interview with the author.
  2. Here is a New York Times comparative review of both the biographies.
  3. Here is a very detailed and well-constructed criticism of Jennifer Burns’ book by writer Jeff Perren.
  4. Here is an article based on an interview with Jennifer Burns.


  1. Thank you for the mention. I'm nearly done with the Heller book and - while I don't currently plan to write a lengthy review as I did for the Burns book - I'll have some comments on it before long. Please check in again.

    Jeff Perren

  2. The following is an excerpt from "To The Readers Of The Fountainhead" (1945) in "The Letters of Ayn Rand":

    "When I am questioned about myself, I am tempted to say, paraphrasing Roark: 'Don't ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think.' It's the content of a person's brain, not the accidental details of his life, that determines his character. My own character is in the pages of The Fountainhead. For anyone who wishes to know me, that is essential. The specific events of my private life are of no importance whatsoever. I have never had any private life in the usual sense of the word. My writing is my life."

    If a biographer's not able to grasp & appreciate what Miss Rand means in the above quote, they will, if they were writing a book on Ayn Rand, fail to distinguish the essential aspects of her life from the accidental details.

    Furthermore, if they think an individual's character is determined by the accidental details of his/her life, and not shaped by the fundamental convictions he/she holds and has the integrity to practice, they will, if they were writing a book on Ayn Rand, interpret the things she did in her life as reactions to the things which happened to her, and not as actions she chose to take, as a matter of principle, no matter what her circumstances.

    Moreover, if they neither understand nor agree with the ideas the individual has chosen to believe in, they will, if they were writing a book on Ayn Rand, distort every major principle of the philosophy she formulated, namely, Objectivism, a philosophy so radical that it challenges every false idea mankind has been practicing (and suffering from the consequences of) for the past 2,000 years.

    So I doubt whether biographies such as the ones by Jennifer Burns & Anne Heller can be a serious value to anyone who admires Ayn Rand for the ideals she projected in her novels, and for the ideas she presented in her philosophy.

    They can hardly be a value because their authors are unable and/or unwilling to write, without bias, about those very ideals and ideas, which constitute the proper answer to the question: Who is Ayn Rand?

    Meanwhile, Ari Amstrong has written a good partial review of Burns’ biography on his blog. Here's the link:


  3. The following is a minor correction to the comment I posted.

    In the line where I have recommended a review, I had inadvertently mis-spelt the reviewer's name. His last name is Armstrong, not Amstrong.

  4. Ramesh, I disagree on quite a few points.

    When you suggested that the biographer should ‘grasp and appreciate’ Rand’s comments of ’45, are you implying that the biographer must also agree? If he/she did, no attempt would even be made to write a biography, because that’s what Rand is essentially saying (‘the specific events of my private life are of no importance whatsoever’). While I can grasp what Rand is saying, I can’t say I completely agree.

    Yes, I agree that Rand’s character and her great achievements are not a product of the ‘accidental details’ of her life. If someone wants to know who she was, the first and most enlightening source of reference are her ideas. Her antecedents do not hold primacy over the content of her thought.

    However, I don’t think that the story of her life, or of any great life is ‘of no importance whatsoever.’ Her life is where she put her ideas in action. The details of the circumstances she faced may be accidental, but the battles she fought, the choices she made, the struggles she chose and her success are neither accidental nor unimportant. They are extremely important for anyone who is curious about whose was the mind that created Atlas Shrugged, and how that person actually lived her life, and reached that intellectual peak. A biographer is a historian, and the work of no historian can ever be passed of as a frivolous exercise, especially when it pertains to the life of a person who has the power to influence the course of a culture.

    I’m glad you mentioned the year (1945). Rand had just written the Fountainhead, and she was yet to enter the most defining phase of her life. I’m inclined to believe that over the years her own ideas on whether the details of her life bore any importance may well have changed.

    Well, that was one point. Regarding your comment, “if they think an individual’s…no matter what her circumstances” (refer - fist comment in this thread), I’m not sure what approach you think the biographer should take. Bear in mind that every individual (Ayn Rand included) has a choice with regard to the fundamental convictions upon which he acts. The convictions may be a product of rigorous, uncompromising, rational thought (in which case circumstances become secondary), or they may be a reaction to certain circumstances, impulses and tendencies. I would like a biographer to not only realize this issue, but also not to start with any pre-formed judgment on this matter, vis-à-vis her subject. In other words, I would like neither Burns nor Heller to start with ‘Since Rand created Objectivism, all the fundamental convictions she applied in her personal life must necessarily be rational.’ That’s a false premise. Like a judge in a court of law, the biographer must be concerned with the facts of the matter, and no consideration must weight higher than the facts. All the identifications, judgments, assertions and speculations that are made must follow from the biographer’s unbiased understanding of whatever information is available to him/her (note that an ‘unbiased understanding’ may or may not be correct, but the attempt is intact).

    Now, are you sure that both Burns and Heller are not factually oriented? And, are you sure that they haven’t made an honest and concerted attempt to consider whatever information they had objectively and rationally?

    Let’s suppose, for a minute, that Burns hasn’t been honestly objective and rational in her appraisal of Ayn Rand and various events and aspects of her life. In such a case, can some value still be found in her biography? My answer is yes, provided she has offered clear facts and separated her assertions from the facts. I can’t vouch for that, though, since I have read neither biography. But according to the reviews I have read, both women have been factually very thorough.

  5. Amar,

    Thank you for responding to my comment.

    1. Since my first criticism is about the failure to distinguish between essential aspects and accidental details, the part from the quote that is relevant to my asking a biographer to understand and appreciate what Ayn Rand means in it, is her assertion that there's a difference between the two. In the quote, her saying that she has never had any private life in the usual sense of the word or that the specific events of her private life are of no importance whatsoever, are not relevant to the criticism.

    2. With regard to my second criticism, in both biographies, the authors take the fact of the nationalization of Miss Rand's father's pharmacy when she was in her pre-teens, and the fact of Miss Rand's life-long aversion to Communism, and conclude that it's the former which, in fact, caused the latter.

    In the Foreword to We The Living, Miss Rand wrote the following about Communism:
    'When, at the age of twelve, at the time of the Russian revolution, I first heard the Communist principle that Man must exist for the sake of the State, I perceived that this was the essential issue, that this principle was evil, and that it could lead to nothing but evil, regardless of any methods, details, decrees, policies, promises and pious platitudes. This was the reason for my opposition to Communism then - and it is my reason now.'

    The nationalization incident took place in 1918. But Miss Rand was already twelve in 1917.

    Later, in the biographical interviews of 1960, Miss Rand said the following about the nationalization. The quote is taken from Dr. Harry Binswanger's own post about the biographies on HBL, his list:
    'I remember the feeling: this is monstrous injustice and nothing can be done. But of course, the way I translated it would be: well, that's the principle of Communism...And, incidentally, I was against them long before that happened, from the first time that I heard what their slogans were.'

    I think, for a biographer who has done extensive research, to overlook what Ayn Rand wrote and said about how she rejected Communism on principle even before it had any drastic impact on her life, is a serious lapse. What such a lapse amounts to, is a distortion of the relevant facts, and an attempt to re-write an essential aspect in the history of Ayn Rand's early life.

    3. Regarding the Burns biography, in 'Brief Summary' (The Objectivist - September 1971), Miss Rand wrote:
    'In summing up this publication's record, I shall say that I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.'

    Also, in the Playboy interview (1964), she said:
    'When I came here from Soviet Russia, I was interested in politics for only one reason -- to reach the day when I would not have to be interested in politics.'

    From the above, it's quite clear that Miss Rand considered politics to be the last consequence of philosophy and that it was a field that was of least interest to her personally.

    Yet the Burns biography is titled 'Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.' So if that is how Burns perceives Miss Rand, then she barely knows her enough to write a biography on her. Period.

    Regarding the Heller biography, the author has confirmed in her interview with Inc. magazine that the two major sources for her book were Nathaniel and Barbara Branden respectively.

    In 'The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics', James Valiant repeatedly questions the credibility of the Brandens and demonstrates to the reader how almost nothing they have written about Ayn Rand in their respective biographies is based on fact.

    So I would dismiss anything the Heller biography has to say about Ayn Rand, if it's something the Brandens have falsely claimed as the truth.

    Best premises,


  6. Followers of this thread would benefit by reading the following review of the biography by Jennifer Burns that appears in the latest edition of "The Objectivist Standard":