SET ASIDE how you feel personally about novelist Ayn Rand—perhaps you even went through a Rand phase in high school—but the fact is that she remains a force to be reckoned with in modern political and ideological life. A new book titled Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed, by Lisa Duggan, traces the extraordinary and ongoing influence that Rand has exerted on the modern conservative movement in the postwar era.
To the extent that much of this movement is anything but sympathetic to LGBT rights—and Rand herself was far from an ally—it would be remarkable to find gay or proto-gay characters or situations in her writings. And yet, there it is: a recurring and distinctly homoerotic subtext in her novels. In her on-line review of Mean Girl in The New Yorker (June 2019), Masha Gessen quipped that “her female heroines refuse to conform to feminine norms, and her male heroes are all in love with one another.” The latter theme is especially well developed in The Fountainhead, as I will try to demonstrate in this essay.
First, for those who did not go through a Rand phase, let me offer a thumbnail sketch of Rand’s life and philosophy. Born in 1905 in Russia, Rand witnessed firsthand the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik take-over. Horrified by Communist tyranny, she emigrated to the U.S. in 1926, landing first in Chicago and moving to New York City before heading for Hollywood with stars in her eyes. There she worked in jobs like file clerk and film extra, but in her free time she wrote short stories, plays, and film scenarios. In her writing, the laissez-faire, individualist philosophy (“objectivism”) that she adopted was largely a reaction to the collectivism of the socialist system from which she had fled.
In 1936, Rand began a novel that would be published in 1943, skyrocket to bestseller status, and catapult Rand to international fame. Of this novel philosopher Stephen R. C. Hicks wrote: “The theme of The Fountainhead was ethical, focusing on individualist themes of independence and integrity. The novel’s hero, Howard Roark, is Rand’s first embodiment of her ideal man, the man who lives on principles and a heroic scale of achievement.”
Rand’s popularity among conservatives is offset by her status as a whipping post for leftish intellectuals. Writes journalist Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times (May 22, 2019):
Rand’s simplistic reversals—selfishness is a virtue, altruism is a sin, capitalism is a deeply moral system that allows human freedom to flourish—have given her work a patina of transgression, making her beloved by those who consider themselves bold, anti-establishment truth tellers even while they cling to the prevailing hierarchical order. Not for nothing does her enormous fan base include Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Tea Partiers, President Trump and innumerable adolescents.
Rand has a strong following among libertarians and conservatives, though the latter are often critical of her atheism and unswerving defense of legal abortion. Interestingly, although many conservatives admire Rand, she did not regard herself as one of them, stating: “Objectivists are not ‘conservatives.’ We are radicals for capitalism.”
Duggan, Lisa. Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed. University of California Press, 2019.
Furie, Sinclair. “The Fountainhead Has Homoerotic Undertones.” Online at www.sinclair-furie.dreamwidth.org/113785.html
Keefner, Kurt. “Sciabarra on Ayn Rand and Homosexuality.” Atlasphere magazine. July 29, 2004.
Szalai, Jennifer. “Think We Live in Cruel and Ruthless Times? Mean Girl Says to Thank Ayn Rand.” The New York Times, May 22, 2019.
Varnell, Paul. “Ayn Rand and Homosexuality.” Chicago Free Press, Dec. 3, 2003.
Denise Noe is a writer whose work has been published inThe Humanist, The Literary Hatchet, and other periodicals.