This Day in Jewish History

1946: Ayn Rand Begins Writing Her Magnum Opus, Critics Shrug

But the world went wild over the Russian-born philosopher’s paean to selfishness; 70 years later Atlas Shrugged is still selling strong.

AP

On this day in 1946, Ayn Rand, the Russian-born American author and philosopher, began writing her magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged.” The over 1,000-page-long novel was panned by critics when it was published in 1957. Among the public, however, it was a huge success. Predating Gordon Gecko by decades, Rand’s “Objectivism” - her controversial “selfishness is good, altruism is bad” philosophy - has since been cited by many a corporate executive as a major influence.

The novel – which, incidentally, also begins on September 2 - is a fictional vehicle for Rand’s belief of the validity in being guided in life by pure self-interest.

Set in a futuristic America in recession, the world’s greatest minds - led by the mysterious John Galt - have gone on strike against state interference in the economy, “stopping the motor of the world” in order to save it. At the end of the book, America is in complete collapse and Galt and his cronies are planning their return. Toward the end, Rand put in a long speech by Galt on the tenets of her philosophy of rational individualism.

Rand’s philosophy was born out of her experience of Communism.

She was born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in 1905 to a Jewish family in St. Petersburg, the eldest of three daughters. Her father was a pharmacist whose business was confiscated by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution.

In 1926, Rand fled to America by herself: Later attempts to bring her family to the United States failed.

Arriving in Hollywood, a part as an extra on a Cecil B. DeMille movie led to screenwriting work. It also led to marriage; she met her husband, actor Frank O’Connor, on set. They wed in 1929, and she became a U.S. citizen in 1931.

During the 1930s, Rand took on odd Hollywood jobs to support her writing. She wrote scripts and plays, achieving her first commercial success with a screenplay she sold to Universal Studios in 1932, “Red Pawn.” In 1934, she and Frank moved to New York, where she worked on her play, “Night of January 16th,” a commercial and critical success. Soon, she began writing novels. Her first, the semi-autobiographical “We The Living,” published in 1936, was set in the Soviet Union. Rand couldn’t find an American publisher for her second book, the novella “Anthem.” It was published only in England in 1938; an American publisher picked it up in 1945.

But with her 1943 novel “The Fountainhead,” Rand made it – in the end. The story of an architect determined to live by his own standards, it took her seven years to complete and was rejected by 12 publishers.

Once finally published, though, aside from fame, it also brought her back to Hollywood, where she wrote a screenplay based on the book.

Along with writing, throughout the 1940s Rand was involved in anti-Communist and free-market activism. Among other things, she and her husband volunteered for the Republican presidential campaign in 1940 and in 1947, she testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee about her experiences in the Soviet Union.

Still in Los Angeles, she began writing "Atlas Shrugged" in 1946. The couple moved to New York in 1951, where they met regularly with a group of Rand’s admirers, aptly titled “the collective,” to discuss philosophy. A young Alan Greenspan, future Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was a notable member of her clique. The group was privy to earlier drafts of the novel.

When her magnum opus eventually came out in 1957, critics on the left and right slammed it, but it was an international bestseller.

“Atlas Shrugged” would be her last novel. After it, Rand dedicated her life to Objectivism, which she saw as “a philosophy for living on earth.” . She wrote seven books of philosophy, and more volumes of her work were published after her death on March 6, 1982.

Though Rand was never taken seriously in academia, her way of thinking has been a key influence on American conservatives and libertarians, as well as on corporate bigwigs. Chief executive of Whole Foods John P. Mackey, for instance, has cited Rand as key to his success, as have others. The Ayn Rand Institute, established in 1985 by Leonard Peikoff, her heir and former member of “the collective,” makes sure her fiction continues to influence new generations, giving copies of her novels to high schools. But when it comes to "Atlas Shrugged," there is little need for promotion: It continues to sell. In fact, after the 2007 financial crisis, sales of the book boomed. In 2009, it stayed in Amazon’s top 50 for over a month.