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How 'Freedom’s Furies' Helped Save American Individualism
In the 1930s and 1940s, three remarkable women helped relight the torch of liberty in America
This piece is based on Sandefur’s new book “Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness” (Cato Institute, 2022).
In his poem “September 1, 1939,” the poet W.H. Auden called the 1930s “a low, dishonest decade,” and it’s easy to see why. During those 10 years, fascism spread from Italy to Spain and Germany; Stalin massacred and enslaved millions in Russia, Ukraine and Poland; and even in the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt established a network of government controls over economic and political life so pervasive that even his admirers likened him to a dictator. His New Deal transformed America from a society premised on each individual’s right to lead his or her own life to one in which government presided over the people, as caretaker and supervisor.
But only a few months after Auden wrote his poem, a series of events would begin that would revive interest in the American tradition of individual liberty. At the forefront of that change were three remarkable women, whom William F. Buckley later called the “three furies of modern libertarianism”: Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand. In 1943, these friends and colleagues would publish books that sought to rekindle the idea of freedom in an era that they sometimes feared might literally mark the end of the world.
Leading the ‘Airplane Generation’
By common consent, Paterson was the prima inter pares among the “furies.” Born in 1886 to a poor family on America’s western frontier, she had only two years of formal education. But her youth was a time of dramatic technological and social change; she saw her first lightbulb at the age of 16. A year later, the Wright Brothers flew their first plane at Kitty Hawk, and 10 years after that, Paterson herself set a world altitude record of 5,000 feet as a passenger in a rickety airplane.
Flight, in fact, symbolized for her everything marvelous about the America in which she grew up. “Nobody here got much excited about the invention of the airplane at the time,” she recalled later—not because they didn’t care, but because their attitude had been “of course people could fly…. In this country at that time anyone could do anything.” When her peers began calling themselves the “Lost Generation,” Paterson would spurn that label in favor of the “Airplane Generation.” She thought of America as a land of opportunity and enterprise, in which those she called “self-starters” enjoyed the liberty to build, to experiment and improve the world.
In 1924, her modest success as an author brought her the opportunity to write a weekly column for the books section of the New York Herald-Tribune. Called “Turns with a Bookworm,” it was less a book-review feature than a gossip column about the publishing industry. Writing it every week for the next quarter-century made Paterson a crucial figure on the literary scene. One author concluded in 1937 that she “probably has more to say than any other critic in New York today as to which book shall be popular and which shall be passed by.”
Alongside comments on contemporaneous novelists, poets and historians—and occasional gardening advice—Paterson often used “Turns” to offer thoughts on economic and legal issues, particularly after the Great Depression ended the exuberant prosperity of the 1920s and initiated a wave of government controls over the economy—first under Herbert Hoover and then, more expansively, Roosevelt’s New Deal. Bemoaning the counterproductive, dangerous, and often dishonest federal schemes to yoke the nation’s economy to the dictates of government bureaucrats, Paterson warned that the central planning practiced in Washington, D.C., would likely have the same consequences as in Moscow, Rome and Berlin: the crushing of industrial progress, national prosperity and personal liberty.
“The airplane was invented in the United States precisely because this was the only country on earth,” she reflected in her column, “in which people had a right to be let alone and to mind their own business.” But as Hoover and Roosevelt piled up the burdens of bureaucracy and taxation, the engine of economic prosperity began to falter. Americans should consider what would happen if future Wright Brothers were “put out of action by a system of ‘economic controls,’ rationing, political restriction, and a devouring plague of bureaucrats throughout the world.” America, she feared, would become the next Lost Atlantis.
Escaping the Frontier—and Learning the World
Among the writers Paterson befriended in the 1930s was Rose Wilder Lane. Then known primarily as a journalist and short story author, Lane would later become the silent half of a writing partnership with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, producing the “Little House on the Prairie” series of novels. Those books did more than perhaps any other books to romanticize American frontier life. But the reality was that Lane, who like Paterson was born in 1886 and grew up on the frontier, hated the experience. She despised it so much, in fact, that she fled her parents’ home as soon as she could, and by the 1920s, she had moved to Albania.
In those days, she considered herself a communist. But traveling throughout Europe in the 1920s shocked her out of that belief. Visiting Georgia and Armenia during the Bolshevik takeover, she witnessed the brutal collectivization imposed by communists who confiscated grain from peasants and then forced them to work on railroads and canals to get it back. “We intend to redistribute [food] to the neediest,” one Soviet official told her. “We will see that they are the most needy by making them work for it.”
Five years later, Lane abandoned her dream of living in Albania when that country became a battleground in the proxy war between Soviet-sponsored communists and Italian-supported fascists. Returning to her parents’ farm in Missouri, she began studying economics and history in an effort to understand why America differed so radically from the oppressive societies of the Old World. Europe and Asia, she decided, were dominated by hierarchical thinking—a belief that social and economic order must be imposed by an authority figure. America, by contrast, was “wholly dynamic…. A civilization always becoming, never being.” That dynamism proceeded from the nation’s recognition of the fact that political authorities have no special power to establish order or create prosperity. Instead, the source of all creativity and wealth is the individual, and freedom is essential to that creativity—not as a mere matter of tradition or political choice, but as a consequence of the fact that each person is ultimately responsible for him- or herself.
That led Lane to one of her most interesting insights: that free people can create stable social orders without oversight from above. Her clearest explanation of this idea, which would be independently discovered by Friedrich Hayek years later and dubbed “spontaneous order,” came in her 1936 book “Give Me Liberty,” in which she illustrated her point by contrasting the way a teacher maintains order in a classroom with the way an audience leaves a theater after a performance.
“Any teacher knows that order cannot be maintained without regulation, supervision, and discipline,” she wrote. Children must be constantly monitored to ensure that they sit up straight and stay on task. The audience, on the other hand, might seem unwieldy and chaotic in its motions, “yet we usually reach the sidewalk without a fight.” The teacher represents the authoritarian order, forcing people toward a single task not of their choosing. The audience represents the free society, in which each self-directed person is free to pursue his or her own goals in peace.
Tall Buildings and High Ideals
By the time “Give Me Liberty” was published, Lane and Paterson had been friends for years, trading long letters on literary and political subjects. In the years to come, they would become even closer, spending weekends at each other’s homes, discussing the future of freedom. Lane idolized Paterson, sometimes transcribing entire conversations into her diaries. Paterson, in turn, helped publicize Lane’s books, and she lauded “Give Me Liberty” in her column.
But she was equally taken by another book published that year, by a Soviet refugee who, after fleeing to America a decade before, had adopted the name Ayn Rand. “Miss Rand left Russia because she preferred the terrific hazards she has surmounted to the ‘security’ of a ‘planned society,’” Paterson reported. And Rand had indeed hoped her novel “We the Living” would awaken American intellectuals to the evils of Stalin’s tyranny.
Grateful as she was that Paterson mentioned it in “Turns,” she was disappointed that few other critics paid the book much attention. So she decided to broaden her scope in her next novel, to address the philosophical and spiritual foundations of individualism. She would do so in a story organized around the profession of architecture.
Rand had become fascinated by tall buildings in her teenage years; there were no skyscrapers in Russia, but she glimpsed them in the backgrounds of American movies. And she arrived in the United States during what architectural historians call “the Second Skyscraper Revolution,” when structures like the Chrysler Building and Tribune Tower were climbing toward the sky. When her ship approached Manhattan, the 21-year-old Rand burst into tears at the sight of the Woolworth Building, then the tallest in the world.
But as Paterson observed in an article published that same year, writing about architecture might prove challenging. American literature was then dominated by a movement scholars later called “The Revolt from the Village”—a trend that expressed contempt for bourgeois attitudes and commercial enterprise—and voiced a longing for deeper, more profound values. Paterson thought this “lofty contempt for the men of the marketplace” was “inadequate, not to say unjust.” But she admitted that it was hard to imagine a novel “dramatiz[ing] a man figuring the overhead of a factory, or drawing the plan of a skyscraper.”
Paterson was thinking particularly of Sinclair Lewis, the immensely influential author who in 1930 would become the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His 1920 novel “Main Street” had helped spark the “Revolt” movement by depicting American life as a suffocating swamp of tedium and conformity. Yet beneath his cynicism lay a yearning for greatness that broke out, for instance, in the words of his protagonist, Carol Kennicott, when she tries to organize a community theater production.
When her neighbors complain that she’s taking the play too seriously, she replies, “I wonder if you can understand the ‘fun’ of making a beautiful thing, the pride and satisfaction of it, and the holiness!” Carol dreams of a life of significance and cannot stand the feeling that it’s beyond her grasp. “Is that the real tragedy,” she asks herself, “that I shall never know tragedy…? No one big enough or pitiful enough to sacrifice for[?]”
Rand considered Lewis her favorite writer and deeply sympathized with Carol. Her finished novel, “The Fountainhead,” owes a substantial debt to Lewis’ unique observational prose style. She strove, like Lewis, to capture the distinctive American idiom and satirized many of the preoccupations of the age, as he did. More importantly, she wanted her novel to offer a solution to Carol’s predicament, to provide an alternative to the triviality and conformity Lewis thought inescapable.
Her novel’s hero, the ingenious architect Howard Roark, would embody the pride and holiness of making a beautiful thing—or, more precisely, the values of self-respect, productivity and integrity that make genuine creativity possible. The values he embodied would also solve the problem Paterson had posed about the absence of creative businessmen in fiction.
‘Now or Never’
Yet Rand made slow progress on her manuscript, often setting it aside to work on other projects, and when Roosevelt announced plans to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940, she halted work again to volunteer full time for his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie. The vast bureaucratic pyramid upon which Roosevelt sat now controlled most of the nation’s economy, and he dominated the news media too—especially radio, which was tightly regulated by the loyal members of his newly fashioned Federal Communications Commission.
He used the FBI and the IRS to intimidate political opponents, and when the economy crashed in 1937 as a consequence of New Deal policies, he sought to deflect blame by accusing the nation’s business owners of engaging in a conspiracy to destroy his reforms—a rhetorical trick all too familiar to students of fascist and communist revolutions. Thus, like many Americans, Rand feared that by breaking the two-term tradition, Roosevelt would become president for life, irreparably damaging American democracy. It was “now or never as far as capitalism was concerned,” she said.
But Willkie’s campaign was a letdown. He offered voters no meaningful alternative to the New Deal, but just watered-down versions of Roosevelt’s own promises. To Rand, his defeat made clear that America needed an intellectual movement for individualism, and she set about recruiting prominent, freedom-minded writers to form an organization to challenge the moral and political arguments advanced by New Dealers. One name on her list was Isabel Paterson.
Paterson refused: She made it a rule not to join groups. But she invited Rand to visit her at the Herald-Tribune offices, and within a few months they were fast friends. Paterson was fascinated by the younger writer’s intellectualism and drive, and Rand was spellbound by the columnist’s encyclopedic knowledge of literature, history and politics. In the years that followed, they visited each other’s homes, helping each other complete their books and staying up all night to discuss deep philosophical subjects.
Three Groundbreaking Books, Three Groundbreaking Women
Although Americans had grown increasingly restive about the New Deal’s failures, the intellectual tide truly began to shift with entry into World War II, as fighting the German and Japanese tyrannies helped revive interest in the meaning and value of freedom. In 1943, Paterson, Rand and Lane each published books that sought to reinvigorate individualism: Paterson’s “The God of the Machine,” Lane’s “The Discovery of Freedom” and Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”
Paterson’s book argued that the economy is a kind of circuit, which generates and transmits the creative energies of individual thought and allows people to cooperate over vast distances to accomplish great tasks without government control. Lane’s book took a more historical approach, examining how human beings had gradually discovered the principles of individualism. Rand’s novel sought to portray the ideal individualist: the creator who focuses primarily on accomplishments, rather than on obtaining public approval.
Proud as they were of their own work, Rand and Lane both regarded Paterson’s as the true pathbreaker and tried their best to publicize their teacher’s work. “The God of the Machine,” Rand wrote, “could literally save the world if enough people knew of it and read it.” It “smashes to bits the whole basis of nearly all previous work in political economy,” Lane declared. But their efforts were not particularly successful. On one occasion, Lane arranged for Paterson to dine with former President Hoover, whom Lane had befriended 20 years earlier, and who had expressed admiration for Paterson’s book.
But their hopes that Hoover would help publicize it were disappointed. Paterson reported to Rand that Hoover was rude and ignorant, and she was offended when, in answer to her question about why so few business owners spoke out in defense of free markets, he said they were too busy. “Whereas you and I,” she grumbled to Rand “with the extraordinary advantages we have possessed—being women, with a living to earn as best we can, and no backing, and the dishes to wash, and no firsthand experience in the engineering and industrial field … it is obvious that we can very well do the thinking, is it not?”
Indeed, it was often remarked during their lifetimes that the cause of individualism was being championed primarily by women. Hoover’s idea may have had some truth to it: At a time when government control over the economy was so pervasive, men—who were then still the primary breadwinners in society—may have been more reluctant generally to speak out against the New Deal and other government controls. But a better answer is that women in the early 20th century had experienced unprecedented social and political changes.
Lane and Paterson had been in their 30s when women gained the right to vote, and they were all too aware that they were the first women in their families to escape the drudgery of farm labor for careers in intellectual pursuits. Like Rand—who had barely escaped the catastrophic oppression of communist Russia—they were well aware how precious their freedom was. Moreover, as women, they were particularly keen to the ways being “protected” or “cared for” can deprive people of the opportunity to make the most of themselves. Women individualists, wrote the conservative editor Albert Jay Nock in 1943, the year the “three furies” published their pathbreaking books, “have shown the male world of this period how to think fundamentally. They make all of us male writers look like Confederate money.”