Ayn Rand’s surviving letters track the arc of her career from a budding playwright and novelist in the 1930s to an accomplished author of best sellers in the 1940s and 1950s to a philosopher and cultural commentator in the 1960s and 1970s.
Collected and organized by editor Michael S. Berliner, the Ayn Rand Institute’s first executive director, Rand’s letters are consistently full of original observations, reflecting the force of her intellect and personality, as she writes to literary agents, editors, producers, publishers, directors, screenwriters, actors, journalists, intellectuals, other novelists, ministers, artists, political activists, attorneys, prominent businessmen, fans, and friends and relatives.
“Here is Ayn Rand talking about everything under the sun,” writes Rand’s longtime associate Leonard Peikoff of these collected letters, “and now we have the privilege of listening in.”
No matter what might interest a reader about Ayn Rand — her novels and plays, her political thinking and activism, her philosophical ideas, her business transactions, her personality, her relations with friends and family, her sense of humor, her emotional life, her morality in action — it’s all here in the pages of this collection.
One chapter contains letters to Frank Lloyd Wright. Other chapters include fiery correspondence with Isabel “Pat” Paterson, a prominent individualist of the 1940s, and philosophical discussions with UCLA professor John Hospers. Then there are the letters to dozens of other individuals, from the prominent (H. L. Mencken, Alexander Kerensky, Barry Goldwater, Bennett Cerf, Mickey Spillane) to the obscure.
On constant display is the range of Rand’s interests and observations (from the broadest philosophical abstractions to the most detailed matters of personal choice) and the range of her emotions (from tender concern and childlike delight to outrage, disappointment and sorrow). Oh, and don’t miss the love letter to her husband, complete with drawings of tearful pet cats who are missing him.
(From an August 18, 1945, letter to an army enlisted man):
Dear Gerald James:
Thank you. I’m glad you thought The Fountainhead was “out of this world.” That’s what I intended it to be — in more ways than one. . . .
Are my characters copies of people in real life? No. . . . What an author actually does is this: he observes real life, deduces the abstract principles behind certain actions or characters, and then creates his own characters out of the abstraction. The resemblance to real people is one of principle — not of literal, personal copying. . . .
Have I embodied some of my own qualities in Dominique? Yes. Am I Dominique? No. As the enclosed picture of me will demonstrate. Sorry to disappoint you there, but I never thought I’d live to be a pinup girl, so I couldn’t pass up such a chance — if that space on your wall is still blank. . . .
I’m glad you liked my book. We’re even. I liked your letter.
Ayn Rand’s letters offer a “behind the scenes” view of the diligent promotional efforts that helped her succeed as a playwright, screenwriter, essayist and novelist. Rand left nothing to chance — she energetically and intelligently guided the entire process by which her literary works were presented to the world.
Here are letters to her literary agents, seeking news and offering suggestions — to her publishers, with ideas for advertising campaigns — to producers and directors, addressing criticisms and working out solutions — to fellow writers, comparing notes and offering moral support — to attorneys, reviewers, columnists and fans.
Together, these letters comprise a “how-to” manual for the aspiring writer, with vivid lessons on the need to thoroughly understand the value of one’s own work, to actively protect that value against dilution by others, and to form definite opinions on how that value can best be communicated to the public.
Ayn Rand’s letters are remarkable for their consistently high intellectual tone. This holds true not only for theoretical discussions (of which there are many) with other intellectuals, but also for the many letters concerning more particular issues. In every letter, what stands out is Rand’s solemn commitment to conceptual clarity in all her personal relationships.
Rand proactively gives of herself intellectually, identifying important issues in great depth. “I didn’t intend to write at such length about it,” Rand says at the end of one long missive to a friend, “but this subject interests me very much — and I wanted to make it as clear as I could.” The same postscript could properly be attached to every letter in this collection.
Ayn Rand’s letters on political matters suggest an arc consisting of three stages. Early in her career, Rand is an outsider who yearns to influence American politics but has not yet broken through. Emblematic is her fan letter to H. L. Mencken in 1934, describing herself as a “very ‘green,’ very helpless beginner” in the fight for individualism.
In the 1940s, Rand’s publishing successes earn her a place in pro-individualist, anti-communist circles in Hollywood and around the country. Rand spends long hours writing about and arguing for her unique political philosophy, explaining to prominent businessmen, activists, columnists and conservatives how to promote capitalism without appeasing its enemies.
In her later letters, Rand’s initial enthusiasm for collaborating in a pro-freedom political movement gives way to disappointment, even bitterness, at the failure of others (especially conservatives) to think philosophically and recognize the value of her work and apply it in political debate.
Many of Rand’s most poignant letters express gratitude to those who helped or inspired her. For example:
To Lorine Pruette, who wrote a favorable review of The Fountainhead in the New York Times: “I am grateful for your integrity as a person, which saved me from the horror of believing that this country is lost . . . .”
To Archibald Ogden, the Bobbs-Merrill editor who championed The Fountainhead despite skepticism from his superiors: “My gratitude to you is not fading, it is growing stronger,” Rand wrote, four years after the novel’s publication. “You have become a kind of private legend in my mind and nothing can change it. Time only makes it more so.”
And to actress Mia May, whose films Rand saw in Russia: “you were . . . the symbol of the only beauty and relief I had while being imprisoned in hell.”
Ayn Rand’s correspondence offers many examples of the distinction between self-sacrifice — surrendering a higher value for a lower one, or a non-value — and generosity (both spiritual and material) toward those about whom one actually cares. Rand’s correspondence is packed with examples of benevolence and goodwill toward friends, relatives, professional associates and fans.
For example, after writing a long letter to a 16-year-old fan in 1946, Rand sat down the next day to reassure the sensitive youngster that despite her several mentions of his age in the previous letter, “I don’t intend to write to you as a child, but as to a person who is my equal in intellectual interests, if not in experience.”
And in several letters, Rand comforts the woman who first taught her English in Russia, offering to pay for her passage from Europe after World War II, give her a place to live and employ her.