349 East 49th Street
New York City
June 8, 1941
Mr. Channing Pollock
Shoreham. L. I.
Dear Mr. Pollock:
Thank you for your letters and—most enthusiastically—for the manuscript of “Life’s Too Short.” No, I have not been ill, but almost wish I had—it would have been pleasanter than the activity which has kept me busy during this last week. I will explain it to you when I see you—and, I think, you will forgive my silence.
I have waited to write to you until after I had read “Life’s Too Short,” which I have just finished. This is going to be a long letter, because the subject deserves it. I shall be delighted, of course, to see you on Tuesday the 10th. (Incidentally, I am only too happy if you find it convenient to “use my flat as an office,” as you put it.) I have several things I would like to discuss with you in connection with our organization. I must say here that it was great news to hear that DeWitt Emery may become our executive secretary. It would be splendid. Thank you for the printed copies of our “Declaration.” I have given a few out to some “prospects”—and I should like to tell you about their reaction when I see you.
I have not received “The Adventures of a Happy Man” as yet—and I am terribly sorry to think that it probably was lost in the mail. With your permission, I should like to inquire at the post office—I have not done so as yet.
Now, I am most eager to speak about “Life’s Too Short.” Let me say, first, that I felt very honored by your wanting my opinion of it. Since you challenged my “honesty”, I tried to bend backwards in being honest; I tried to forget my admiration for all your other works and to read it as severely and unsympathetically as I could, just hunting for flaws and for things to dislike. And—I couldn’t find any. I think “Life’s Too Short” is one of the most charming, gracious, clever and entertaining things I have ever read.
There’s my honest opinion—and I have to say it, even though you might distrust my honesty from now on. In all sincerity, I would have preferred to find something to criticize in it. But I read it with delight—and I only wished there were more of it. I told my husband some of the charming little incidents from it, and we laughed
over them together, and he said: “Why, it’s wonderful!”
Well? You wanted to know why it has not been published? I think I know it—and it’s not a cheerful reason. It has not been published—not because of faults, but because of its chief virtue. It reads like the conversation of a very intelligent man. You feel a clear, bright, cheerful mind behind every sentence. There is no mush, no portentous platitudes, no vague, loud generalities of the kind that sound deep and mean just exactly nothing. The writing has such remarkable economy—nothing said but what has to be said and not an adjective over. Also, the writing is simple—with the most deadly simplicity of all: the simplicity of intelligence. I say “deadly” because that is just what intelligence represents to the contemptible second-raters who are mainly in charge of our literary life at present.
I don’t think that most editors are conscious of it or deliberately vicious about it. But I do think that their instinct—they’d call it their “Taste”—objects automatically to any manifestation of pure intellect, of brains. It is not even a question of subject matter. The subject matter of “Life’s Too Short” is simple and human enough; it can be understood by and would appeal to the most un-intellectual, average reader; there is nothing “difficult” or “high-brow” about it. The intellectual quality is in the writing. It appeals to the emotions through the mind. The effect it creates in the reader is this: what a wise, charming man there is looking at us from between the lines. But the process of reading between the lines is an intellectual enjoyment. It is subtle. It requires intelligence to create it and to appreciate it. Not necessarily an abstract, ponderous, “philosophical” intelligence. But a simple, easy, cheerful mental process accessible to any mind, provided that mind wishes to be exercised. There is the secret. The minds of our present-day “intellectuals” do not wish to function. They dread it. And they resent it above all else. What they want is emotion, but not intelligent emotion. Just plain, cheap, sodden emotion that requires no thinking, that would vanish the instant thought was applied to it.
I can best make this clear by an illustration. I have read, appalled, the kind of autobiographies that are being published today. Autobiographies of nobodies full of nothing at all. Great big life-stories of second-rate newspaper-men who use world events as a background for their nasty little personalities. Like this: “And when I saw the fall of Vienna, it reminded me of a day seven years earlier when I met Jimmy Glutz in a dive in Singapore, and over a glass of absinthe I said: ‘Jimmy, what is the meaning of life?’ and Jimmy answered: ‘Hell, who knows, you old bastard?’”[*] You see
what I mean? Is there any point, reason or excuse for this sort of things? Yet it is being published every day and blown up into best-sellers. An accident? I don’t think so. A deliberate intention. The intellectual revolution of the second-rater. The best method of destroying superiority is not to denounce it. It is to establish standards of superiority that destroy all standards. It is to hail as superiority its very antithesis: the small, the meaningless, the average. And they can get away with it only one condition: that intelligence not be allowed to function, that a good, healthy, questioning mentality not be allowed to speak anywhere. Because one single “Why?” or “What the hell?” would destroy the whole hysterical tribe of glorified nonentities.
Our literature, our theater and all our arts are now one gigantic conspiracy against the mind. Not even merely against the great mind, but against any mind, against mind as such. Down with thought and up with the emotions. When thought is destroyed—anything goes. Thought is the privilege of the superior few. In emotions we’re all equal, even the animals. Look at such a phenomenon as Gertrude Stein. She is being published, discussed and given more publicity than any real writer. Why? There’s no financial profit in it. Just as a joke? I don’t think so. It is done—in the main probably quite subconsciously—to destroy the mind in literature.[**]
It is not surprising, therefore, that most of our editors and other literary authorities are Red. I don’t believe that they are all in the pay of Moscow. The trouble is deeper and more vicious than that. We are living in the century of the Second-Rater. The second-rater is always pink—by sheer instinct. He has to glorify equality and he has to push his own equals to the front. If this is not so—why, then, are all those dashing heroes of the current autobiographies, such as Vincent Sheean, Walter Duranty, Negley Farson, why are they all pink? If there is no deliberate plan behind it all—wouldn’t it be reasonable to suppose that at least one of those heroes would be conservative or neutral? But there is not a single one.
And there, I think, is another reason why “Life’s Too Short” is not published. Not only are you a famous conservative, but you are a man of achievement. That, monstrous as it may sound, is the reason why editors are not interested in your autobiography. They want the autobiographies of men who have never achieved anything and never will. There are some exceptions to this rule, but not many. Of all the autobiographies published, the number of those whose lives are really worth recording is far inferior to the number of those whose lives weren’t even worth living. That is the ghastly reversal of all values that we are now facing.
So, if I have to demonstrate my honesty by criticizing you, I would rather criticize your editorial in “This Week” Magazine where you wrote on “knowing the time to quit.” If you remember, I objected to it—and you cited “Life’s Too Short” as an example of a case where an author should accept the negative verdict of several editors. I said then that I didn’t believe this—and I say it more strongly now. I am afraid that you are thinking of the time when editors were still men of integrity, discernment and achievement, and their opinion could be considered respectfully. We are long past that time. There are still a few editors of that caliber left, but very, very few. The rest? Well…
What makes me want to scream in this case, is the incidious injustice of the whole process. Our Red “intellectuals” and our editors play upon the best instincts of our authors in order to destroy them. It is only the completely mediocre writer who never entertains any doubts on the value of his work. The man of talent is always more severe with his own writing than any outside critic could ever be. A good writer’s first instinct is always to blame himself. His own scrupulous honesty makes it difficult for him to accuse others of dishonesty or injustice. And thus, if his work is rejected repeatedly, he accepts the verdict, even when, in all sincerity, he can find no fault in his work; he simply accepts that he must have failed somewhere. He prefers to doubt his own standards rather than the ethics of editors. Thus, in his own mind, he completes for them their dirty work.
So what I want to criticize is not “Life’s Too Short”, but its author’s attitude towards it. I think this work should be completed and published. I cannot advise you to undertake the struggle—because I know it will be a hard one. But if you are too busy with other work to complete “Life’s Too Short”—then, I think, you owe to it at least the acknowledgment of its value in your own mind. You must consider it a victim of the immense injustice of our century. You must not help the second-raters in power by granting them the benefit of the doubt at the expense of your own work, at the cost of vindicating their bad judgment by questioning your own. Of course, personally, I wish you would finish “Life’s Too Short” and make them publish it.
And—I think it is best not to advise young people to learn when to quit. They could learn it in a society of honest men, where the positions of authority and decision are held by men whose judgment can be respected. The kind of society we had yesterday. That is not what we have today. Today—young people have to go through a living hell and rely on nothing but their own faith in themselves. At the price of a thousand self-deluding mediocrities, I
would like to save the genuine few—who have a very, very hard battle to fight today. And if you hold “Life’s Too Short” as an example of “when to quit”—you’re defeating your own point. You’re proving mine. The case of “Life’s Too Short” sets the time, not to quit, but to begin fighting in very grim earnest.
Well, am I honest?
Forgive me if I made you read such a long letter, but you asked for my opinion and I wanted to give it in full. If you don’t agree with it—you can give me hell Tuesday.
*Readers might recognize this as a parody of Ernest Hemingway’s writing.
**The main ideas from the two paragraphs ending here were used by AR the following year in The Fountainhead, as spoken by villain Ellsworth Toohey later in the novel.
Pollock’s autobiography was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1943 with the title Harvest of My Years. He inscribed a copy: “To Ayn Rand, without whose insistence this book would not have been written.”