Article abstract: Rand first achieved success as a writer of fiction with strong political and ethical content. She later expanded on the ethical and political theme of Objectivism, along with her idea that self-interest is morally good and altruism is corrupting to the human spirit and ultimately self-defeating.
Ayn Rand, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 2, 1905, as Alisa (Alice) Rosenbaum, was raised in a middle-class family. She showed an early love of storytelling and decided at the age of nine to become a writer. In school, she showed academic promise, particularly in mathematics. The Revolution of 1917 devastated her family because of the social upheavals brought by the revolution and fighting, and because her father’s pharmacy was confiscated by the Soviets. The family moved to the Crimea to regroup financially and to escape the harshness of life that the revolution had brought to St. Petersburg. The family later returned to Petrograd (the new name given to St. Petersburg by the Soviets), where Rosenbaum was to attend university.
At the University of Petrograd, Rosenbaum concentrated her studies on history, with secondary focuses on philosophy and literature. She was repelled by the dominance of communist ideas and strong-arm tactics, which had the effect of suppressing free inquiry and discussion. As a youth, she objected to the communists’ political program; as an adult, she would become more fully aware of the destructive effects that the revolution had had on Russian society.
Having studied American history and politics at the university, and having long been an admirer of Western plays, music, and films, she came to value American individualism, its vigor, and its optimism, seeing it as the opposite of Russian collectivism, decay, and gloom. Believing that she would not be free under the Soviet system to write the kinds of books she wanted to write, she resolved to leave Russia and go to the United States.
Rosenbaum graduated from the University of Petrograd in 1924. She then enrolled at the State Institute for Cinema Arts to study screenwriting. In 1925, she finally received permission from the Soviet authorities to leave the country to visit relatives in the United States. Officially, her visit was to be brief; however, she had decided not to return to the Soviet Union.
After several stops in Western European cities, Rosenbaum arrived in New York City in February, 1926. She adopted the name Ayn Rand. From New York, she traveled to Chicago, Illinois, where she spent the next six months living with relatives, learning English, and developing ideas for stories and screenplays. She had decided to become a screenwriter, and, having received an extension to her visa, she left for Hollywood, California.
On Rand’s second day in Hollywood, an event occurred that was worthy of her dramatic fiction and had several major effects on her future. She was spotted by Cecil B. deMille, one of Hollywood’s leading directors, while she was standing at the gate of his studio. She had recognized him as he was passing by in his car, and he had noticed her staring at him. He stopped to ask why she was staring, and Rand explained that she had recently arrived from Russia, that she had long been passionate about Hollywood films, and that she dreamed of being a screenwriter. DeMille was then working on The King of Kings (1961); he gave her a ride to the set and signed her on as an extra. During her second week at deMille’s studio, Rand met Frank O’Connor, a young actor also working as an extra. Rand and O’Connor were married in 1929, and they remained married for fifty years, until his death in 1979.
Rand also worked for deMille as a reader of scripts, struggling financially while working on her own writing. She held a variety of nonwriting jobs until, in 1932, she was able to sell her first screenplay, Red Pawn, to Universal Studios. In 1934, her first stage play, Night of January 16th, was produced in Hollywood under the title Woman on Trial; it later appeared on Broadway.
Rand’s life was often as colorful as those of the heroes in her best-selling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand first made her name as a novelist, publishing We the Living in 1936, The Fountainhead in 1943, and her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged in 1957. These philosophical novels embodied themes she would then develop in nonfiction form in a series of essays and books written in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Rand worked for years on her first significant novel, We the Living, and finished it in 1933. Various publishers rejected it over the course of several years, until in 1936 it was published by Macmillan in the United States and Cassell in England. Rand described We the Living as the most autobiographical of her novels, its theme being the brutality of life under communist rule in Russia. We the Living did not receive a positive reaction from American reviewers and intellectuals. It was published in the 1930’s, sometimes called the “Red Decade,” during which American intellectuals were often pro-Communist and respectful and admiring of the Soviet experiment.
Rand’s next major project was The Fountainhead, on which she had begun to work in 1935. Whereas the theme of We the Living was political, the theme of The Fountainhead was ethical, focusing on individualist themes of independence and integrity. The novel’s hero, architect Howard Roark, is...
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