To Isabel Paterson [Letter 150]

Item Reference Code: 145_PA5_013_001

Date(s) of creation

February 7, 1948


Isabel Paterson


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10,000 Tampa Avenue
Chatsworth, California
February 7, 1948

Dear Pat:

As I told you on the phone, I have been engaged in a wild orgy of weeding—not of devil’s grass, but of adjectives. Or would you say it is the same thing? I have removed tons of them from the chapter [of Atlas Shrugged] I had left unfinished when I went East. I finished that chapter and have just now finished the next one. This is the first time I have come up for air.

I have had such a wonderful streak of writing that I did not dare interrupt it. I think my trip to New York caused it—and a great part of the credit is probably yours. It was your line about my book having to be written like a piece of sculpture that was extremely helpful to me. I can never learn anything unless I grasp the basic abstraction involved, and that was the line that made clear to me your objection to adjectives and repetitions. I don’t think I will always agree with you on every particular application, but I think I do understand the principle.

Now I promised to tell you about my trip in the locomotive. I will not attempt to describe how it felt, except to say that it was the greatest experience of my life. I have seldom enjoyed anything concrete or in the present tense, I am always in the abstract or future. That locomotive ride was one of the very few times when I enjoyed the actual moment for its own sake.

There is one observation I made that may be philosophical. I have always been a little afraid of riding on trains, particularly now; not actually afraid, but just in the sense of thinking that some dreadful accident may happen at any moment. So I thought that I would be more afraid riding right in front in the engine. But I found that I was not afraid at all. It was the feeling of being in front and of knowing where I was going, instead of being dependent on some unknown power, that made the difference. All I felt was a wonderful sense of excitement and complete security, even a few times when I saw some headlights in the distance coming toward us which, I had read in stories, could have been trains coming on our own track (which, of course, they weren’t).

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Now if you want the specific details: When I entered the first engine in Grand Central, dressed in my slacks and railroad cap, and the old engineer saw me, he said, “Good God!” I asked him, “What’s the matter? Weren’t you told it would be a woman?” He said, “The hat!” I told him that that was given to me by the company, and he said it was more than they ever did for him. He was not offensive about it, but extremely nice and amused in a very friendly way. The most thrilling moment was when the engine started moving, and the ride through the underground tunnel out of Grand Central. Everything I thought of as heroic about man’s technological achievements, was there concretely for me to feel for the first time in my life.

At Harmon [NY] they changed the engines, and I got into my first Diesel. Their efficiency was amazing. It took just a few minutes. Everybody seemed to know about me in advance, and they switched me around as quickly as they did the engines. The moment I got into the Diesel, they took pictures of me leaning out of the cab window. The crew of the Diesel had the same attitude as the one in the electric engine. I had been afraid that they might regard me as a nuisance, but they seemed to enjoy my presence as much as I did. They were patronizingly amused, very superior, and very glad to be asked any kind of questions. The company had sent a road foreman along to give me all the explanations. He took me through the Diesel units behind the engine, and I saw everything—all the motors, the high voltage, the boiling oil, and every sort of gadget that I couldn’t possibly understand, but the total effect was magnificent. The noise in the motor units is unbelievable. You can’t speak at all—the man could only point at things silently. As to riding in the cab—it is much more comfortable than in the best compartment. There is less shaking, not too much noise, and the engine rides as if it were floating. It actually seems to glide; you don’t feel the wheels under you at all. Every time the engine started, I tried to catch the moment of the start and couldn’t; it starts as smoothly as that. Incidentally, the fireman gave me his chair, and it is an upholstered leather armchair, more comfortable than any in the best tycoon’s office.

When I got out of the engine in Albany, the conductor was waiting for me and escorted me in person back to my car. Frank was waiting for me in the vestibule of the car, and the first thing he said was, “You’re marvelous!” In the nineteen years of our marriage, this is the only time he has ever paid me a point-blank compliment like that. When I asked him why, he said, “You do such exciting things.” After which we went into the dining car to have dinner. The steward came up to me to ask how I had liked riding in the engine. Apparently, the whole train crew knew about it. To make the day perfect, there was a young couple sitting

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at the other side of the dining table, and after a while the girl turned to me and said, “I have been urging my husband to gather courage to ask you, are you Ayn Rand?” It seems they recognized me and they were great admirers of THE FOUNTAINHEAD. So you can imagine what a wonderful dinner I had, except that I couldn’t eat at all.

The next morning I had to get up at 6 o’clock and got into the engine again at Elkhart, Indiana. During the night they had had their first snow storm. It was still dark when we started riding through the snow. There was a different crew and a new road foreman. These people had the best time with me. The following is strictly confidential, I don’t want to get them in trouble: They put me into the engineer’s seat and let me drive the engine myself. Believe it or not, I have now driven the Twentieth Century Limited. They let me start the engine from a small station and, of course, there were three men standing behind me watching every move, but still nobody touched a lever except me, and I started the train and accelerated it to 80 miles per hour. The men apologized that they couldn’t give me a real ride, because they were ahead of schedule, so they couldn’t go faster than 80 miles. Otherwise, they said, they could have shown me a speed of 120 miles per hour. I think 80 miles was nice enough, but actually I couldn’t tell that we were going that fast. It was extremely smooth and the only sign of speed was that the signal lights seemed to be coming along every few seconds. The men were as anxious to show me everything as I was to see it. The road foreman broke the seal on a special gadget that registers the speed of the train, to show me how it worked. This was strictly against regulations. There was a Diesel inspector who traveled most of the time in the motor units. He came up a few minutes later, saw the broken seal and remarked that it was broken. Whereupon the road foreman said with the most innocent look I have ever seen, “Yeah, something happened to it.” Later, they took me down into the very front nose of the Diesel, which is under the headlight. It is a kind of secret compartment, and they showed me how the headlight worked. That was something special which I needed to know for my story. The fireman complained that his job wasn’t much; he had nothing to do on a trip except sit in his chair. I said that that would be an ideal job for a writer who could sit there and work out the plot of a story, and I asked why didn’t he try to write a book. He said, “Why should I? The Government would take it all in taxes.” Now there is common sense from the alleged common man.

When we arrived in Chicago, we were met by a photographer from New York Central, who took our pictures right there in the terminal, with all the passengers staring at me. I have a wonderful photograph of me with the engineer, the fireman and the road foreman, standing in front of the nose of the engine. All I can say in conclusion is that I

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am completely ruined now as a train passenger. I was bored all the way out of Chicago, riding in a compartment. That’s much too tame. I would love to travel across the whole continent in the engine.

Now a special message to Stewart Holbrook: Please tell him for me that I will match what he calls a (deleted) Diesel locomotive against any of his old coal burners. Never mind the glamor. There is nothing as glamorous as a brilliant achievement of the human mind and a Diesel engine is certainly that. I was permitted to ring the bell and to blow the whistle, too. And if he boasts that he “waved to a few farm maidens seen along the way,” I’d like to tell him about an old railroad man who was riding on the cowcatcher of a switch engine on a siding; when he looked up, as our train came along with me in the engineer’s seat, the look on his face was something I have never seen on any human face before. It was like an exaggerated close-up in a movie farce. There was a man who was staring, stunned and stupefied. (I suppose it’s better not to mention this last in your column—because it might really get my nice engineer into trouble.)

In Chicago, I had a marvelous time on my visit to the Inland Steel plant. That was a real steel mill, not at all like Mr. Kaiser’s W.P.A. project in Fontana [CA]. It’s funny that I knew that the Fontana plant was a phony, even though I had never seen a real steel plant before. The General Manager of Inland Steel arranged a luncheon, at which I met all the top executives of the plant. These were not the financiers or the directors, but the real working executives of the mills—the chief metallurgist, the chief superintendent, etc. I was the only woman at the luncheon, so you know how I would love that. I think they were more amazed by me than I was by seeing steel being poured and by all the rest of the things they showed me which were truly magnificent. What amazed those men were my political views—the extent to which I am a “reactionary.” They simply could not believe that there was any “intellectual” who intended to glorify them in a book. They seemed to be wearily resigned to getting nothing but smears from writers. They were all conservatives and in quite an intelligent way. The stories they told me about their problems with regulations and regimentations are simply hair-raising. Here is a sample: The I.C.C. now controls the distribution of freight cars. They have threatened an embargo on freight cars for deliveries to steel plants, which, if put into effect, would stop the entire steel production of the country. The excuse given is that the steel companies do not empty freight cars fast enough. The real reason—the buraucrats want freight cars for coal, to ship the coal to Europe. This is an example of stopping a country’s production for the sake of looting—an example which nothing I invent in my book could equal.

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Well, these are the highlights of my trip back. I have done literally nothing since I returned, except, as I said, to work on my book. It is going wonderfully well right now, and I hope it will continue this way. Linda was here for a week right after New Year and has gone back to Tulsa. I enjoyed her visit very much. We talked politics and talked a lot about you. Linda seems to have improved tremendously. She is a much happier and more rational person than she was two years ago, and I admire her for that. I know very few people who ever have the strength to come out of a bad neurotic state.

Incidentally, I asked Linda to read one chapter of my book. By the time she got through, she had read four chapters at her own request, not mine. She said she would keep my theme confidential, but asked me whether I would allow her to tell people only that my novel is going to be the most controversial book of this century. Being a very modest author, I gave her this permission.

If you want details of my home life, as you said you liked, well, I found a lot of my flowers still in existence when I came back, and I was able to collect seeds, so that I will have a second generation of my own flowers next year. My bachelor buttons are still blooming, in spite of the frost. We have had wonderful weather, but it has been very cold for a few nights and one of our moats was frozen solid, which has never happened before. I suppose that is nothing much to boast about, in comparison with what is going on in the East right now. Aren’t you all supposed to be having a terrible time with snowstorms?

And speaking of gardening reminds me to thank you for the very nice column you wrote about me on the Sunday we left New York. I didn’t see that column until I got home and found the Herald Tribune here. You asked how I managed to look elegant while gardening. The answer is, I don’t. That is what I like about gardening—that one doesn’t have to look elegant. In the summer, one of our family fights has been Frank bawling me out for trailing dirt all over the house.

When I try to talk of homey matters, all the politics I would like to talk about rush into my mind. I can’t resist asking you what you think of the Gandhi assassination.[*] Isn’t that an almost crude piece of historical irony? Almost as if there were a higher intelligence in the universe, that indulged itself in a nice sardonic gesture. Here was a man who spent his life fighting to get the British out of India in the name of peace, brotherly love and nonviolence. He got what he asked for.

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I think I had better finish now because I could go on like this for hours. I know you will not accept it as an excuse, but it is true that I am afraid of writing to you because I know that I won’t be able to stop, and I can’t do it casually. There is almost too much I would like to discuss. I miss you terribly, and I hope I will be back in New York when I finish my book.

Love from both of us,




*On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist.