Bridging Ayn Rand and Pittsburgh

Illustration by Anita DuFalla Bridging Ayn Rand and Pittsburgh
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While conducting research for “Atlas Shrugged” during a cross-​country train trip in 1947, Ayn Rand wrote in her journal what she saw when she came upon Pittsburgh while traveling east:

From the parkways, to the old, vertical houses on steep hillsides, to the slums, with narrow, cobblestone streets — then the sudden view of the river and the blurred silhouettes of skyscrapers — the rise to the triumphant goal and spirit of the place, of the great effort that made it.”

Rand’s admiration for Pittsburgh was, in at least one important instance, reciprocated — Pittsburgh Press critic Bett Anderson’s glowing review of Rand’s 1943 novel “The Fountainhead.”

I don’t expect you to remember that review,” Anderson wrote to Rand in care of her publisher in 1948 while requesting an inscribed copy of “The Fountainhead,” which was about to be adapted as a movie starring Gary Cooper. “But I was wildly enthusiastic about the book and still am. I have read it literally dozens of times and have told many people about it. I hope that the picture is as good as the book. I don’t see how it could be.”

Anderson had reported that the epic about an architect who does manual labor in a quarry and is forced to reclaim rather than compromise his creation “gives the reader a new set of values by which to judge not only the building but also the builder… She has set up a temple of words dedicated to all that is good and noble in man. She has written a book that is magnificent and bitter and challenging.”

Rand would later write that Anderson’s article was “one of the only two reviews which I shall always remember. At a time when so much senseless drivel was being written about ‘The Fountainhead’ by the majority of the reviewers, these two [Anderson and Lorine Pruette for the New York Times] gave me hope that some real intelligence still existed in the world. I shall always be profoundly grateful to Mrs. Anderson for that.” Rand also wrote to Anderson: “Thank you for giving me hope at a time when I needed it badly.”

By then, Rand had written a hit Broadway play, an Oscar-​nominated movie and three best-​selling novels. She would lecture at Columbia, West Point and Yale, dine at the White House and twice be a guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” A Jewish atheist who escaped from Russia to the U.S. in 1926, Rand became, by the time of her death in 1982, America’s foremost woman thinker.

She referenced Pittsburgh in her final novel and masterpiece, “Atlas Shrugged” (1957). In the plot, the best minds — including industrialists such as a Western Pennsylvania metals inventor — go on a secret strike. Essentially these extremely productive Americans are the equivalent of Atlas, and, when faced with government control by dolts, cronies and bureaucrats, they shrug. Rand, who sought to depict “man as a heroic being,” portrayed Pittsburgh when the heroine visits a steel industrialist with whom she forges a bond — and extramarital affair — to investigate the mysterious strike. The epic novel introduces Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism.

The University of Pittsburgh now publishes an advanced series of volumes on Objectivism, edited by Greg Salmieri, a Rutgers University philosophy professor who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at Pitt and James Lennox, Pitt emeritus professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Lennox is a founding member of the Ayn Rand Society, which is affiliated with the American Philosophical Association’s eastern division.

The University of Pittsburgh Press introduced the first edition of the Ayn Rand Society’s philosophical studies, “Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue,” in 2011. The university press followed with “Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge” in 2013. A third volume, “Foundations of a Free Society,” focusing on Rand’s political thought, was published in the spring. Pitt plans to publish two more volumes. The next edition, still in progress, will probably cover Rand’s relationship to her hero, Aristotle.

We’re at the point in history of Rand’s passing from being a controversial contemporary figure in the history of thought,” said Salmieri. “It’s time for reference works.”

I think that readers who associate her with conservatives or libertarians might not know that she viewed government as good and necessary. Her thoughts on freedom of speech and intellectual freedom relate to the views of John Locke and the founding views of America. She held that there are principles governing how societies operate — that there’s a real need for a government and that government [should] stick to certain proper functions and fully perform those functions. I think the structure of her view is not well understood by people who just think of her as a kind of propagandist against Big Government.”

Salmieri said the notion of Rand as an exclusively right-​wing thinker stems from the left/​right dichotomy that dominates American politics.

This was particularly [prevalent] during the forties through the early seventies — when Rand was writing — and the issue that most obviously separated them was the growth of the welfare state.” Because Rand was critical of communism and socialism, Salmieri said, she was strongly opposed by the left.

As a result, Rand was popular among people who felt dispossessed by the left, such as Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane, “so she’s thought of as more on the conservative side, although I don’t think anybody was as nasty and as anti-​Rand as the “National Review” in the fifties and sixties. So, it was never that the hatred of her came exclusively from the left — it came from all over — pockets of interest in her [philosophy] arose among people who didn’t see themselves as parts of the left. So, she’s often aligned on the right.”

Salmieri cited Rand’s desire to preserve freedom of speech, secularism, abortion rights, end of life decision rights and equal protection of minorities. “I think some leftists could find a lot to like in Rand, but she’s seen as being on the right as opposed to the left so people don’t look for it there, whereas, people on the right will often look for what they agree with as opposed to just what they disagree with.”

Asked what Rand would think of President Trump, Salmieri said she “probably would’ve applauded the move of the [U.S.] embassy [in Israel] to Jerusalem.” He also noted that certain Trump appointees to regulatory agencies have engaged in deregulation.

I think she would’ve thought that was a small change for the good. But it would’ve been a really small change — it was certainly a lot less deregulation than took place under [President] Carter, and she was no fan of Carter. But Trump is anti-​intellectual, which Rand railed against.”

Scott Holleran

Freelance writer Scott Holleran was born in Pittsburgh and lives in southern California.

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