Early Life and Education
Ayn Rand was born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Rand was raised in an upper-middle-class, European-oriented family, in the midst of the mysticism and nationalism of Russia. Having taught herself to read, Rand, at the age of 8, became captivated by the heroism in a French-language serial adventure entitled The Mysterious Valley. At the age of 9, Rand decided to become a writer, inspired especially by Victor Hugo’s novels. Hugo’s writing helped arm her against the fatalistic view of life that dominated Russia, a country she later described as “an accidental cesspool of civilization.”
In February of 1917, Ayn Rand witnessed the first shots of the Russian Revolution, and later that year she witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution as well. In order to escape the fighting, her family went to the Crimea, where Rand finished high school. The final Communist victory brought the confiscation of her father’s pharmacy and periods of near-starvation. When introduced to American history in her last year of high school, Rand immediately took America as her model of what a nation of free men could be. Her love for the West — especially America — was fueled by Viennese operettas and American and German films, which the Soviets temporarily allowed to be shown.
When Rand and her family returned from the Crimea, she entered the University of Petrograd to study philosophy and history, graduating in 1924. She entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 to study screenwriting. During this period, Rand produced her first formal writings, essays about Hollywood, published in 1999 by The Ayn Rand Institute Press as Russian Writings on Hollywood.
In late 1925, Ayn Rand obtained permission to leave the Soviet Union to visit relatives in the United States, on the pretext of learning the American film business. After six months with relatives in Chicago, she moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as a screenwriter. On her second day there, she had a chance meeting with her favorite American director, Cecil B. DeMille, who took her to the set of his epic film The King of Kings and gave her a job, first as an extra, then as a script reader. During the next week at the studio, she met an actor, Frank O’Connor, whom she married in 1929; they were married until his death 50 years later.
After struggling for several years at various non-writing jobs, including one in the wardrobe department at the RKO film studio, Rand sold her first screenplay, Red Pawn, to Universal Studios in 1932. Rand saw her first stage play, Night of January 16th, produced in Hollywood in 1934 and then on Broadway in 1935. Her first novel, We the Living, was completed in 1933. The most autobiographical of Rand’s novels, We the Living, was rejected as too anti-Communist and wasn’t published in the United States until 1936. In 1937, Rand devoted a few weeks to writing her novella Anthem, which was soon published in England but not published in the United States until 1947.
Although positively reviewed, neither We the Living nor Anthem garnered high sales. Not until the publication of The Fountainhead did Ayn Rand achieve fame. Rand began writing The Fountainhead in 1935, taking seven years to complete the book. In the character of architect Howard Roark, she presented for the first time the kind of hero whose depiction was the chief goal of her writing: the ideal man, man “as he could be and ought to be.” The Fountainhead was rejected by 12 publishers but finally accepted by Bobbs-Merrill. Although published in 1943, The Fountainhead made history by becoming a best-seller two years later, through word-of-mouth, and it gained for its author lasting recognition as a champion of individualism.
Ayn Rand returned to Hollywood in late 1943 to write the screenplay for The Fountainhead, but war-time restrictions delayed production until 1948. Working part-time as a screenwriter for producer Hal Wallis, Rand wrote such scripts as Love Letters and You Came Along and began Atlas Shrugged in 1946. In 1951, Rand moved permanently back to New York City and devoted herself full-time to the completion of Atlas Shrugged, which was published in 1957. Despite extremely negative reviews, Atlas Shrugged quickly became a best-seller.
Rand’s Philosophy: Objectivism
After the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand realized that she would have to identify the philosophy that made her heroes possible. She termed it Objectivism and described it as “a philosophy for living on earth.” Rand’s theory holds that man gains knowledge only through reason. The “Objectivism in Action” section of the Introduction to the Novel offers further insight into Rand’s belief system.
Rand offered private courses on both fiction and nonfiction writing and, in 1958, helped start an institute that teaches her philosophy. For the remaining years of her life, Rand devoted herself to nonfiction writing, penning, and editing a number of articles for her periodicals. These articles later appeared in numerous philosophic collections and dealt with topics including ethics (The Virtue of Selfishness), politics (Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal), aesthetics (The Romantic Manifesto), and the theory of knowledge (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology). At the time of her death in 1982, Rand was working on a television miniseries of Atlas Shrugged.
A controversial novelist and philosopher — especially in academic circles — Ayn Rand attained widespread recognition, as indicated by a 1991 joint survey by The Library of Congress and The Book of the Month Club, which placed Atlas Shrugged second only to the Bible as the most influential book among American readers. Signs of her influence began to blossom in the mid-1980s and accelerated throughout the 1990s. In 1985, the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, California, was established to increase the awareness of the existence and content of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Also in the mid-1980s, the Ayn Rand Society — an organization of professional philosophers devoted to studying and teaching her theories — was founded within the American Philosophical Association. A steady stream of books analyzing Objectivism has been published in recent years, and in 1995, The New York Times started reviewing those books. In 1997, a documentary film devoted to her life (Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life) was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1999, the U.S. Postal Service issued a first-class stamp commemorating her achievements.
Ayn Rand’s ideas — and Atlas Shrugged, her greatest book and primary means of communicating those ideas — are an enduring part of American intellectual culture.