Can it be that a fraud has been perpetrated on the readers and admirers of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand—a literary and intellectual swindle that veers perilously close to plagiarism? That such a charge could be leveled at the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is irony bordering on farce. For the spirit that animated the feisty little Russian woman, who preached a philosophy of individualism, capitalism, and “rational egoism,” would seem to rule out such behavior. After all, in The Fountainhead, a major crime of one of the chief villains is to take credit for the hero’s work. The whole spirit of the Randian creed was best expressed in that novel, in an exchange between the hero, Howard Roark, an aspiring young architect, and the dean of his college, who is about to expel him for his unorthodox ideas. The dean declares that there has been nothing new in the field Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ of architecture since the Parthenon, and Roark answers: “I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”
Although this appears in a work of fiction, it clearly expresses Rand’s own view of her relationship to the history of ideas. As she gathered a group around her, Rand’s chief appeal, at least to the young, was that this was something unprecedented. Like Howard Roark and the goddess Athena, Ayn Rand sprang fourth fully armed from the head of Zeus—or so went the official mythology, a fiction maintained to this day by a new generation of acolytes.
Especially after the birth of the organized Randian movement, which she insisted on calling “Objectivism,” Rand was emphatic in denying any connection with “the so-called conservatives.” Although bitterly opposed to communism, and politically indistinguishable from many on the extreme right, she energetically denounced all conservatives as ineffective dolts who did more to discredit capitalism than to defend it.
The Randian influence grew at a fantastic rate during a time of cultural anomie, the 1960’s, in which it was fashionable to despise all traditions, and to pretend that we could or should abolish history and start anew. The Objectivist movement pandered to this trend by claiming to be something entirely new under the sun. This deluded her young, and generally not very well-read followers into isolating themselves from the corrupting influence of competing ideas, and accepting her word, and the word of her leading followers, as gospel. I inherit nothing. And therefore, everything must be created from scratch: philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, economics, politics, esthetics. In the Randian Cultural Revolution, nothing and no one was spared—with the single exception of Aristotle, the only thinker to whom she ever acknowledged an intellectual debt.
This claim to uniqueness is a lie on two levels. First, for her disciples to claim that Rand inherited nothing from the Western tradition of classical liberalism is simply a confession of an ignorance so abysmal that it could only be excusable in the very young. It does not take much research to discover that there is ample precedent for her ethical and political views not only in Spencer, but also in Mencken, Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Chodorov, Isabel Paterson, and indeed in the entire tradition of 19th-century classical liberalism. Paterson’s The God of the Machine, particularly the chapter “The Humanitarian With the Guillotine,” is infused with a theme, tone, and spirit that ought to give readers and admirers of Rand’s work a shock of déjà vu.
But there is a second, and deeper, level on which the assertion of Rand’s uniqueness is a lie. While any halfeducated undergraduate can see that Rand’s philosophical ideas are obviously derivative, the real source of her fame—and her true talent—was in her novels. The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and two early works, We the Living and Anthem, sell in prodigious quantities: hundreds of thousands of copies every year since the early 60’s. Unique among American ideologues, the Randian inhabits a fictional universe, a mythic landscape unlike any other. But here, too, the Randian version of the Virgin Birth is falsified. For it turns out that Rand the novelist is just as derivative as Rand the would-be philosopher. The evidence is a 1922 novel by Garet Garrett, The Driver, which bears such a strong resemblance to Atlas Shrugged that there arises a real question as to whether Rand passed the boundaries of acceptable behavior in “borrowing” a little too much. Here I want to emphasize that I mean “acceptable behavior” by her standards; that is, the sort of behavior one might expect from someone who makes a virtue out of “inheriting nothing.”
Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, has the aura of one of those long, involved dreams that grip you while you are in it, and yet seem incoherent or preposterous in the morning. The story, set in the United States of the not-toodistant future, relates what happens when the men of ability go on strike. The leader of the strike, one John Galt, is described as being little short of a god, and the whole thing—with its squarejawed industrialists, including Henry Rearden, a steel magnate, and Dagny Taggart, lady president of a transcontinental railroad—has the air of a religious text. The characters do not speak, they speechify, at great length and on every subject under the sun: the meaning of money, the meaning of sex, the meaning of life and morality. At the end of the book, as civilization is collapsing and the lights of New York City blink out. Galt commandeers the airwaves and delivers a climactic tirade that goes on for sixty pages. To the extent that Rand manages to carry it off, it is through the sheer demonic power of her high-octane cliff-hanging narrative.
The Driver also has a character named Galt: Henry M. Galt. Like Atlas Shrugged, this novel also takes place against the backdrop of great American industries, initially the railroad industry and eventually branching off into other areas. Henry Galt is a Wall Street speculator—like Rand’s Galt, Henry is a genius—who takes over the bankrupt Great Midwestern Railroad and turns it into a mighty empire. Along the way he is persecuted and attacked by his fellow businessmen and by government. In the end, his enemies conspire to put him on trial for violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. At the trial, he defends his profits and his right to them in terms reminiscent of an Ayn Rand hero. Like Atlas Shrugged, The Driver is a paean to the entrepreneur as creator, and Galt is portrayed in language Rand might have used to describe any in her pantheon of heroic industrialists. “The ready explanation of Galt’s rise in a few years to the role of Wall Street monarch is that he was a master profit maker,” writes Garrett. “The way of it was phenomenal. His touch was that of genius, daring, unaccountable, mysteriously guided by an inner mentality. And when the results appeared they were so natural, inevitable, that men wondered no less at their own stupidity than at his prescience.” This sounds like Rand’s description of Midas Mulligan in Atlas Shrugged: “He had never taken a loss on any investment he made; everything he touched turned into gold. . . . Nobody could grasp the pattern of his investments: he rejected deals that were considered flawlessly safe, and he put enormous amounts into ventures that no other banker would handle. Through the years, he had been the trigger that had sent unexpected, spectacular bullets of industrial success shooting over the country.”
But what is shocking to the reader who is also familiar with Rand is the fact that a stylistic device used throughout Atlas Shrugged also occurs in The Driver. While it is plausible that two different authors could come up with a similar name for their main character, and even; that the two novels might express similar themes, it is too much to believe that use of the same rhetorical device could: also have occurred by happenstance. Atlas Shrugged opens with the question “Who is John Galt?” and the phrase recurs throughout the book. John Galt does not make an appearance until the: last third of the novel; he is the mystery man, the unseen shaper of large events. In The Driver, a similar motif is employed. Henry M. Galt is introduced as a man of mystery, whose secret gradually unfolds. The narrator first meets him on a train, where they get into a political discussion, and then he turns up again:
“Who is Henry M. Galt?” I asked suddenly, addressing the question to the three of them collectively. I expected it to produce some effect, possibly a strange effect; yet I was surprised at their reactions to the sound of the name. It was as if I had spilled a family taboo. Unconsciously gestures of anxiety went around the table. For several minutes no one spoke, apparently because no one could think just what to say.
The same phraseology evokes a very; similar emotional reaction in the open-ing lines of Atlas Shrugged:
“Who is John Galt?” The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum’s face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still—as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
As in Atlas Shrugged, so in The Driver, where Henry Galt plays the behind-the-scenes manipulator of great events and secretly buys up Great Mid-western stock, gradually taking control. At one point he goes out into the field,; to research his reorganization plan.: “Three days after he set out on this errand,” writes Garrett, “we began to receive messages by telegraph from our operating officials, traffic managers, agents and division superintendents, to this effect: ‘Who is Henry M. Galt?'”, Both Galts suffer for their greatness, but triumph in the end. The portrait of Henry Galt in is one of & man who carries the whole country on his shoulders. Garrett describes him as “a colossus emerging from the mist,” surely an image that conjures visions of;; Atlas holding up the world. If Ayn Rand; didn’t read The Driver before writing Atlas Shrugged, then this surely makes the case for the pseudomystical concept of synchronicity.
Rand’s intellectual and artistic debt to Garet Garrett is underscored by yet another coincidence. For it isn’t only Atlas Shrugged that contains echoes of Garrett’s long-forgotten novel. In Garrett’s novel, Henry Galt has a daughter. Vera, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Dominique Francon, ice goddess of The Fountainhead. To begin with, here is how Rand describes the effect of Dominique’s laughter:
Then Keating heard her laughing, it was a sound so gay and so cold that he knew it was best not to go in. He knew he did not want to go in, because he was afraid again, as he had been when he’d seen her eyes.
The laughter of Garrett’s Vera has the same effect on the narrator of The Driver:
She leaped to her feet, evading me, and laughed with her head tossed back—an icy, brilliant laugh that made me rigid. I could I not interpret it. I do not know yet what it meant. Nor do I comprehend the astonishing gesture that followed.
Taken by itself, this juxtaposition proves nothing; certainly it does not prove that these two frigid women, aloof and exulting in their own sterile freedom, are anything but sisters in spirit. The proof comes when we read a bit farther along in The Driver. For the “astonishing gesture that followed” is strikingly similar to a scene in The Fountainhead, where Dominique throws the priceless statue of a Greek god down an air shaft. In The Driver, Vera Galt does the same thing to a costly African sculpture for similarly perverse reasons. As Vera makes this dramatic gesture, she remarks that “So many things turn ugly when you look at them closely,” a sentiment that easily could have been uttered by Dominique. The official version of the origins of Dominique, as given by Barbara Branden, is that the character was arrived at “by introspection.” “Dominique,” said Rand, “is myself in a bad mood.” But in light of Vera in The Driver, this explanation hardly seems adequate.
So much for the authenticity of; Rand’s claim to stand not at the end but at the beginning of a tradition. The Driver proves that this is untrue. Their only question is whether this was a conscious He on Rand’s part. Her leading ex-disciple, the psychologist Nathaniel Branden, attributes the parallels with Garrett’s work to Rand’s subconscious she was not, he asserted to me in a brief interview, the sort of person who would have been capable of appropriating;: names, themes, and fictional devices without acknowledging the source.
My own theory is that Ayn Randi. knew perfectly well what she was doing, and did not regard it as appropriating anything, I believe Rand never acknowledged Garrett’s role in her intellectual evolution for two reasons. First, because she probably considered him to be a minor writer whom she certainly did not intend to imitate or plagiarize, but only to improve on. For her, Garrett’s work was a take-off point, a stimulus that led her to the question “Wouldn’t it be interesting if . . . ?” Secondly, at the time she read The Driver perhaps soon after she arrived in the United States, in 1926—she was far: more friendly to conservatives. In her; mind, Garrett doubtless represented the best of the conservative defenders of capitalism and individualism. It was only later, after the founding of the Randian cult, that she began to denounce conservatives with special virulence, There was, then, an ideological reason for withholding the information: the necessity, as she saw it, of distancing herself from the conservative movement. She failed to acknowledge her intellectual debt because Garrett was a well known figure of the Old Right, one of the hated conservatives.
Certainly there was plenty of opportunity for her to acknowledge Garrett’s unmistakable influence. She might have done so in an article where she briefly (and rather offhandedly): analyzes the “slick magazine” fiction; popular before the Second World War. Indeed, in this essay she discusses a certain class of authors who write “stories of unusual events enacted by conventional characters. The stories are abstract projections, involving actions one does not observe in ‘real life,’ the characters are commonplace concretes. The stories are Romantic, the characters Naturalistic. . . . “
If ever there was a description of The Driver, then this is it. As Henry Galt returns from a hard day of empire-building, he sits down to dinner with Mrs. Galt, his perfectly conventional wife, and his daughters. Vera and the goodnatured Natalie. There is also Grandma Galt, the stern family matriarch, whose single interest in life seems to be the price of stock in the Great Midwestern Railroad; every night she asks Henry the price, and every night he dutifully replies. How Rand must have snorted in derision when she first read it! For it is the exact opposite of her own literary aesthetic, which dictated that the Randian pantheon be peopled by gods and heroes, unencumbered by such unromantic phenomena as mothers, wives, and children.
Nathaniel Branden’s theory that the Garrett material was sitting in Rand’s subconscious is highly unlikely. Giving Miss Rand the benefit of every doubt, there are just too many details one would have to overlook in order to believe she read The Driver and promptly transaction forgot all about it.
While not technically plagiarism in the legal sense, the unacknowledged and—in my view—conscious use of Garrett’s work as a starting point for her own does constitute intellectual fraud. It is fraud because Rand spent so much time denying not only her own past, but also the value of any and all tradition. Especially in view of the fact that the “official” biographical essay (Who is Ayn Rand?, by Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, 1962), based on extensive interviews with Rand, has a long account of the origins of Atlas Shrugged, which makes no mention of Garrett. Rand’s silence on this subject amounted to a deliberate deception. On the other hand, this is not a case of word-for-word plagiarism, as with Martin Luther King’s doctoral dissertation or with the commencement address that a Boston University dean lifted from a speech by movie reviewer Michael Medved. It is a case of denying one’s own roots, curiously akin to Rand’s bizarre attitude toward the concept of family. As The Passion of Ayn Rand relates: “It was a phenomenon to which she seemed monumentally indifferent. ‘It’s not chosen values,’ she would often say when the issue arose in conversation. ‘One is simply born into a family. Therefore it’s of no real significance.'” Ms. Branden attributes this to “obliviousness to the fact that there could be a love not tied to intellectual values.” But, as we have seen, neither did she acknowledge a kinship that was tied to intellectual values, such as her obvious affinity for the ideas first expressed in The Driver.
Ayn Rand vehemently denied her intellectual ancestors, but they have come back to haunt her and her orthodox followers. The legacy of the true individualist tradition in America, of which Rand was a small and somewhat eccentric offshoot, is today being rediscovered. Garet Garrett was a key figure in a movement which included John T. Flynn, H. L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Frank Chodorov, Isabel Paterson—and, yes, Ayn Rand. Rand’s arrogant and ultimately self-defeating insistence on standing aloof from the tradition of which she was a part was an error that her libertarian admirers would be foolish to repeat. At the end of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt and his fellow strikers come down from the mountains, ready to rebuild civilization. “The road is cleared,” says Galt. “We are going back to the world.” Now that the myth of Ayn Rand’s uniqueness has been exploded, perhaps her latter-day followers will come back to the world— and, in the process, discover the secret of their lost heritage.