To Hugh MacLennan, novelist [Letter 131]

Item Reference Code: 143_MBx_003_001

Date(s) of creation

March 19, 1944


Hugh MacLennan


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590 North Rossmore
Hollywood, California

March 19, 1944

Dear Mr. MacLennan:

Thank you. I have admired your book and wondered about you for almost three years—so I was more than happy to hear from you. I read “Barometer Rising” in galleys, when I was a reader for Paramount, and I stayed up all night, to do the best synopsis I ever did for them. I certainly tried my best to have them buy it for the screen—but you know that readers have very little influence on a studio’s decision.

Since you read “The Fountainhead”, you must know that I admire nothing in people—except the quality of genuine originality, the ability to do one’s work in an unborrowed way of one’s own. That, to me, is the only virtue. That is the quality which “Barometer Rising” had—and that’s why I loved it and why I’m very interested in you as an author and a person.

The two things I liked above all in “Barometer Rising” were: beautiful writing, completely un-trite, and a brilliant plot structure. Contrary to the cheap high-brows who scorn plot, I think that a good plot is the most important part of any literary work, and the hardest part to do well. A sense of plot structure is the rarest one of all the qualifications of a writer. I don’t mean a mechanically contrived sequence of events with some thriller-action. I mean a truly integrated story. And the only modern novel I’ve read in years, that showed a beautiful skill of plot integration was “Barometer Rising.

If you want to know what particular sequences stand out in my mind, for sheer beauty of writing and treatment, it’s: the scene between Penelope and the doctor on the train, the scene when Neal returns and meets her again, the description of the explosion. These were great—my compliments to you. I loved the strength of your characters—Neal, Penelope and even her father. I’m so sick of noble humanitarians who serve everybody and intellectuals who seek the meaning of life and find it by going off to fight for Loyalist Spain—which is about all we’ve had in novels for twenty years (oh yes, and “the little people with hearts of gold”)—that characters like yours had to be admired, if only as contrast.

The thing that did not seem to fit the rest of “Barometer Rising” was the final sequence where you reverted to the “and so he solved his personal problems by losing himself in unselfish service” pattern. That didn’t ring true. It never does, anyway, but it seemed particularly out of place in your book because all your characters were too strong and too good for that.

When I finished your book, my guess about the author was: here’s a brilliant writer, with the natural talent and instincts of an individualist, who felt that he had to apologize for himself by sticking in some “social significance” at the end of his book. Here was an interesting story about interesting people—and suddenly, the author seemed to feel that interesting people couldn’t be an end in themselves, that

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they and their story had to be “justified” by “something higher.” At that point, the story lost conviction. So I thought: here’s something the author doesn’t really believe.

That is why, when Dick Mealand wrote to me that you said you were “profoundly influenced by ‘The Fountainhead’,” I was thrilled and I thought you were the one man who needed that particular influence. I thought, in effect: Hugh MacLennan should go on writing about men of Roark’s type, and not attempt to apologize for it with any kind of a Toohey philosophy. And if he hasn’t yet realized that Neal was a better man when he fought for himself than when he “served the community”—maybe “The Fountainhead” will show him how and why.

Has it?

Your letter contains the same kind of contradiction. Here’s the passage I can’t figure out: “It seems to me very significant that techonologists would welcome the idea of Statism, while no creative man would. In its ends, I have for years approved of socialism, but can see no hope for the ends being fulfilled by such American socialists as I have met.” What ends? What is socialism—except Statism? When the State (the community, the nation, the race, the class, the collective, it’s all one) owns the means of every man’s livelihood, the product of his labor, his energy, his time and his life—what in hell can that possibly be except Statism? The ends of socialism are all listed in Ellsworth Toohey’s speech on pp. 689–695 of “The Fountainhead,” (as well as the reasons which make people accept such ends). But that isn’t what you want, is it?

You can’t really think that Ellsworth Toohey is a “bad” socialist, a hypocrite, but that there are “good” socialists, who are “good” yet preach the very same things. Toohey is the completely good socialist—the honest one—because he doesn’t fool himself and really desires what he preaches, with his eyes open. What he says in his speech represents the real, logical, consistent, naked ends of socialism. Once we say that man must live for others (which is the basic premise of socialism), we have accepted all the ideas of Toohey’s speech. There can be no “good” way of living for others or “bad” way of living for others (who, incidentally, would decide what constitutes such a distinction, and by what standards?)—just as there can be no “good” slavery or “bad” slavery. Living for others is slavery—and nothing else whatever—and no names, ends or excuses can alter the fact. The issue is simply: does man live for others or does he live for himself? Slavery or freedom. Not one version of slavery against another.

No, I certainly don’t think that Henry Wallace is a good person. I think he means, proposes and desires exactly what he says and writes. It was Henry Wallace who said (I quote it as exactly as I can remember) that instead of stressing rights, liberties and all the things which keep people apart, we should stress duties, responsibilities and all the things which bring people together. Don’t you realize what is meant and intended here? So we shouldn’t “stress rights” at a time when the whole world is perishing from the destruction of human rights?

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If you are disappointed in all the socialists you know—are you fooling yourself by thinking that they betray their ideal? Don’t you realize that they are produced by their ideal, that they are its logical, consistent exponents—and the only types who could be? Do you really think that all the horrors perpetrated by altruists and socialists were due to the mistakes or hypocrisy of their leaders? Look at the premises, leaders and results of the French revolution and the Russian revolution. “The worst butchers were the most sincere.” Robespierre and Lenin were completely sincere in their devotion to their ideas. So, for that matter, is Hitler sincere in whatever ghastly nonsense it is that he believes. Can you name anyone anywhere who can equal the record of horror achieved by just these three? They were not hypocritical, nor were they “mistaken.” They were frighteningly consistent—in true accordance with their idea. That idea could produce no other results. Once you accept the idea of man as servant for or tool of others—once you reject the total and sacred inviolability of the individual—the guillotine, the G.P.U. and the Gestapo will follow automatically and inevitably—no matter what other trimmings you put on the idea and no matter who is the great altruist in charge. The guillotine is implicit in the idea of altruism.

Do you think it is a mere co-incidence that all the Fascist leaders are ex-socialists? Mussolini, Hitler, Laval, Oswald Mosley and all the lesser ones. Fascism, Nazism, Communism and Socialism are only superficial variations of the same monstrous theme—collectivism.

If you care to continue the discussion, please write to me and tell me what it is you really believe and why. I want to discuss it because I am interested in you and your talent. I hate to see another talent choked, twisted, ruined and turned upon itself by the Toohey philosophy. I’ve seen many tragic instances of that.

Thank you for the things you wrote about “The Fountainhead.” I was glad to hear them from you. You were the second of only two men who understood that “The Fountainhead” was a dramatization of abstract principles—and a very difficult one to do.

I am very interested in your new book. When will it be available—and do you care to tell me more about it? I’d like to know.

I should like very much to meet you and Mrs. MacLennan—but I’m afraid that I won’t be back in New York before May. If this type of letter doesn’t frighten you, let’s correspond until we meet—as I hope we will some day.

With my best and most real regards,



MacLennan’s four-page response on March 26 combined praise for The Fountainhead and opposition to capitalism. There is no record of another letter from AR to him.