On this day in 1943, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was published. It tells the story of an impoverished architecture school dropout, Howard Roark, and how he navigates—or fails to navigate—the New York architecture scene. Rand is a hero in many minds and a villain in many more. And why wouldn’t she be? She wrote, in addition to her fiction, books titled The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The virtue of…selfishness? The reckless and greedy pursuit of gain as an ideal? How awful. Doesn’t she know there is more to life than money?
Of course she did. To claim that she only cared about money and said that people should only care about money is to show that you either haven’t read her books or at least haven’t understood them. This isn’t to say that there’s a subtlety you missed in between the long speeches and the rough-bordering-on-violent sex. This is to say that you have missed what is plainly there.
Consider The Fountainhead. I tried to read it in college, gave up, and finally read it (along with Atlas Shrugged) as a graduate student. The Fountainhead is an entire novel about an artist who refuses to sell out. It seems odd in a writer famous for her paeans to capitalism and profit. To focus solely on what she says about profit and selfishness is to neglect her deeper ethic of fidelity to objective standards of right and wrong.
Unyielding and unwavering commitment to principle is why Roark won’t budge. He cares about designing to his standards and being faithful to his vision of what a building should be, how that changes based on the materials available, and what the building is being designed for. He doesn’t care about being famous. He doesn’t care about being rich. He doesn’t care about getting credit. He cares about his vision and seeing it fulfilled.
By contrast, his nemesis Peter Keating is the star of the New York architecture world. He is rich. He is famous. But he is a fraud and unprincipled faker. He designs poorly but after the style of the day as dictated in part by Ellsworth Toohey, an intellectual and architecture critic who surrounds himself with mediocrity and who works to destroy genuine excellence (he hates Roark, therefore). Keating’s only good work isn’t his work at all: it is Roark’s. But Roark, again, doesn’t want credit. He just wants to see his vision made a reality.
Keating is commissioned to design a housing project. As usual, he gets Roark to do the design work for him, and again Roark wants only to see that the building is done exactly to his specifications. But then other people involved in the project get their hands on it. They add an element here, a little theater there. They mangle Roark’s vision, and Keating does nothing to stop them. Roark does: he dynamites the building.
The book has all the elements that make a Rand novel an Ayn Rand novel. One-dimensional, perfect or perfectly flawed characters who are written to highlight very specific virtues or vices. Courtroom drama. Long speeches. Sex. At the end of the novel, Roark stands triumphantly atop a tower he is building, a beacon of the triumph of reason and principle over vanity and avarice.
Object, if you will and must, to some or most or all of Rand’s philosophical and ethical position. I myself disagree with her atheism, among other things. But before you cast aspersions on a writer and a stack of books that have had a marked influence on so many people because you disagree with her exaltation of “selfishness,” think it possible that you misread her.
[Originally Published at Forbes]