Editor’s note: This is a lightly edited version of a speech delivered at TOS-Con 2022, which was adapted from Timothy Sandefur’s forthcoming book, Freedom’s Furies: How Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand Found Liberty in an Age of Darkness (Cato Institute, November). The article contains spoilers of Ayn Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Those of you who have read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged may remember that the first time the word “Atlantis” is mentioned is in chapter six. Dagny Taggart is at a cocktail party and overhears someone utter the book’s catchphrase, “Who is John Galt?” She turns to walk away but is stopped by one of the guests, an unnamed woman who says in a conspiratorial tone, “I know who is John Galt.”

“Who?” Dagny asks.

“I knew a man who knew John Galt in person,” the woman answers. “This man is an old friend of a great-aunt of mine. . . . Do you know the legend of Atlantis, Miss Taggart?”

“Vaguely,” Dagny replies.

“The Isles of the Blessed,” the woman says. “That is what the Greeks called it. . . . They said Atlantis was a place . . . only the spirits of heroes could enter . . . because they carried the secret of life within them. . . . A radiant island in the Western Ocean. Perhaps what they were thinking of was America.”

The woman explains that John Galt actually found Atlantis—and Dagny loses interest, thinking the woman must be crazy—whereupon the woman becomes belligerent. “My friend saw it with his own eyes,” she says. “You don’t have to believe it.” When Francisco d’Anconia interrupts them, the woman “brusquely” walks away.1

The incident is so brief that it’s easy to miss the fact that this brusque and belligerent woman who knew about Atlantis was actually a real person. Just as Ayn Rand famously included herself in a “cameo” in the novel—as the character of the fishwife—so the woman at the cocktail party is a cameo of a real person—a woman who helped inspire Atlas Shrugged—Rand’s onetime friend and mentor, Isabel Paterson.

In 1943, Rand, Paterson, and a third writer—Rose Wilder Lane—published books that would jump-start the libertarian or free-market conservative movement. These were Rand’s The Fountainhead, Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, and Paterson’s The God of the Machine. At the time, both Rand and Lane acknowledged Paterson as their teacher and intellectual mentor. Although she’s largely forgotten today, Paterson was then one of the country’s most important literary intellectuals, a pioneering journalist, novelist, and scholar—and the woman who gave Ayn Rand the image of America as Atlantis.

Paterson was born on an island on the Canadian side of Lake Huron in 1886.2 She was named Mary Isabel Bowler. Her family was poor, and she had only a year or two of formal schooling, which ended when she was eleven. Little is known about her early life, except that her family moved to Michigan, then Utah, then the Northwest Territories of Canada. In other words, she was a product of the American West, and she grew up witnessing Indian ceremonies, living in log houses, seeing covered wagons on the plains, and watching as railroads stretched across the frontier. She saw her first lightbulb at the age of sixteen—she was too afraid to tinker with it, so she left it on all night. A year later, the Wright Brothers took their first flight at Kitty Hawk.

In 1910, she married a man named Kenneth Paterson, but the marriage lasted only a few weeks before they separated. Despite their breakup, they never officially divorced, and Paterson kept his name. Months after the marriage failed, she moved to Spokane, Washington, where she got a job writing editorials and short stories for a newspaper. She signed her column “I.M.P.” for Isabel Mary Paterson. She would make these initials famous, but her closest friends called her Pat.

In 1912, she moved to New York, where she worked as a journalist and novelist. On one occasion, she rode along with pioneer aviator Harry Bingham Brown to set what was then a world altitude record of five thousand feet. Aviation was “a lot more fun in the early days,” she wrote years later: “You sat on a six-inch strip of matchboard and held onto a wire strut, and looked down past your toes at nothing but the earth.”3 That was why Paterson came to speak of herself as a member of the “Airplane Generation.”

By 1920, she had moved to Connecticut and was working for the opinionated, iconoclastic, bold, and vehemently American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, best known today for carving Mount Rushmore. Borglum had been recruited five years earlier to create a monument to the Confederate Army generals near Atlanta. A decade of tedious and bitter infighting with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association ensued.

“Sketches and models leaned up against one wall,” Paterson remembered, “and every while or two he would drop whatever else he was doing and dash down to Washington to get a bill passed in favor of the Memorial, or to Atlanta to rally the home guard.”4 At last, Borglum became so fed up with the political bickering and meddling with his work that he dramatically shattered his plaster miniatures, and threw the pieces from the top of the mountain. (The work was completed by another sculptor.)5

Paterson admired Borglum’s defiance and his commitment to his artistic vision. Long afterward, she would fondly recount stories of her time with him and lament the disappearance of that kind of bold masculinity. After her death, an acquaintance recalled that she often said “she grew up . . . in an age when men were men.”6

Why she left Borglum’s studio is not known, but in 1922, she embarked on a career at the New York Herald Tribune, which, two years later, gave her a weekly column called “Turns with a Bookworm.” She would write it every week for the next quarter century. It was not a book review column, although she did write hundreds of book reviews and other items. Instead, it was a news, gossip, and opinion column about the publishing industry, and it contained everything from her thoughts on new best sellers to reports about upcoming events and answers to letters from readers. She had a wry sense of humor, often quoting poetry or comparing different authors’ techniques, and wrote in a clipped, editorial style that gave the sense of reading a news bulletin. Here’s a sample, from her July 7, 1934, column (the ellipses are hers):

The best new book on the Virgin Queen is Milton Waldman’s England’s Elizabeth; but here is still another, J.E. Neale’s Queen Elizabeth, which has solid merit. . . . Yes, there is too such a place as Humptulips. . . . We’ve been there. . . . You might prefer Snoqualmie, Kitsumcallum, or Supzzum.7

That column went on to discuss a new play by Edward Hope, a novel called You Can’t Be Served, a box of chocolates a writer had sent her, and her views on the gold standard.

Paterson’s extraordinary breadth of reading and friendship with leading intellectuals made her a brilliant raconteur, and her column became a must-read for the literary world. One writer said 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.”8 She could be brilliantly witty—but also unapproachable, even misanthropic. She was the “Goddess of Common Sense,” wrote one colleague, who thought she “contemplate[d] the world with a mild impatience that people can make such a stupid mess of things.”9 But others did not find her impatience mild. One writer said she had a wit “so searing that no rubber plant ever grows again in a room through which she has trod.”10 Regularly described with words such as “acidulous,” “caustic,” and “waspish,” she was sometimes ferociously stubborn, even when she was obviously wrong—a habit that worsened as she grew older.11

In 1929, the America she’d grown up with began to transform. First, the Depression wiped out much of her savings. There had been depressions before, notably in 1893, but in those cases, the government had let buyers and sellers, investors and producers, resolve economic downturns through private negotiations—thus enabling markets to right themselves and grow stronger. But this time, the Progressive president Herbert Hoover took a different route.

Convinced that the cure for the Depression lay in keeping wages high, he implemented policies designed to reduce productivity and increase government spending. His administration paid farmers to keep produce off the market and urged cotton and wool producers to destroy their crops to prevent prices (and corresponding wages) from falling. He approved severe restrictions on immigration and the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which raised the cost of imports and encouraged other countries to retaliate by imposing their own tariffs, destroying foreign markets for American farmers. He browbeat industries into keeping wages up—which meant companies spent much-needed capital, thus hastening their bankruptcy. And he vastly expanded government building projects to keep people working—but because these were government jobs funded by taxes extracted from the market, that was the economic equivalent of scooping water out of one end of a pool and pouring it in at the other.

Hoover’s belief that expert bureaucrats could manage the economy was shared by many intellectuals worldwide. The revolutions of Lenin and Mussolini were greeted by many as the dawn of a new era, in which expert planners could organize production and trade to serve everybody’s needs and eliminate inequality. Many thought that individualism had been superseded by a new, modern age of collectivism. In fact, as the 1930s began, the idea that America should become a dictatorship became frighteningly popular.

On inauguration day 1933, the new president, Franklin Roosevelt, told Americans that he had two priorities: to “put people to work” through “direct recruiting by the Government” and to redistribute land to “those best fitted” to own it. And although he planned to “recommend” these proposals to Congress, he was also prepared, “in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses,” to demand “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” The American people were looking for “discipline and direction under leadership,” he said, and he would make sure they got it.12

To anyone familiar with communism or fascism, these words were alarming. It seemed there was much more to fear than just fear itself. But, as I’ve said, intellectuals of the time largely embraced authoritarian politics. Only weeks before Roosevelt’s speech, Barron’s magazine published an editorial advocating “a mild species of dictatorship,” and Walter Lippmann advised Roosevelt in his column, “You have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.”13 In May, a New York Times journalist proclaimed that Americans had given Roosevelt “the authority of a dictator” as “a free gift, a sort of unanimous power of attorney. . . . America today literally asks for orders.”14

Paterson did not think Americans wanted orders, or a planned economy, or any of the transformations proposed by Roosevelt’s Brain Trust. “What everyone yearns for,” she wrote, a day after the inauguration, “is to return to private property, to get out from under the heavy load of taxes and too much government.”15 But Roosevelt had little respect for the Constitution or individual liberty. Among his first acts was to end the gold standard and declare that the government would no longer honor contracts that required it to pay people in gold. These so-called gold clauses were a protection against inflation, because they stipulated that if the government engaged in inflationary policies, people could demand payment in gold instead. By refusing to honor these promises, Roosevelt sought to make the dollar worth whatever he said it was worth.

Paterson was indignant. She began devoting her columns to bitter and brilliant lectures on the meaning of money. Currency, she explained, is not a mere social construct but a tangible representation of production. For government to manufacture money by fiat—to, essentially, engage in counterfeit—is a form of theft, because it diminishes the value of dollars held by people who earned them. And that cheating was the “prime object of inflation,” she wrote. Roosevelt’s policies were intended to operate as a hidden tax, which would “wipe out the savings of the smallish people” who “have the deplorable habit of paying their debts,” in order to transfer their wealth to the government.16

When Walter Lippmann wrote that debates about inflation and the gold standard gave him a “headache,” Paterson shot back that if he found monetary policy hard to understand, he should “go home and take an aspirin.”17 Ridiculing the idea that the administration’s gold measures were a form of theft, Lippmann argued that gold, “like an umbrella,” is “the property of the man who holds it.” No, Paterson replied, “all gold in the U.S. Treasury belonged to whoever had gold certificates,” and by nullifying those certificates, Roosevelt was forcing people to accept a risk of inflation that they had tried to avoid. Gold was indeed “like an umbrella in that the owners were keeping it for a rainy day and it was stolen, seized by main force.”18

In the years that followed, Roosevelt imposed federal control on virtually every aspect of the nation’s economy, and Paterson became one of the most eloquent and insightful of the few media figures who opposed these New Deal policies. Government economic planning was foolish arrogance, she thought, because planners would have to know “absolutely all the factors of present and past out of which the future must proceed, and to anticipate inerrantly all the possible new discoveries which may be made.” Lacking such omniscience, their efforts to organize society would only put it in a straitjacket—and encourage cronyism by using government power to serve private interests. “Government and business can be entwined only in the same way as Laocoön and the python,” she wrote. “It doesn’t do either of them any good and it’s very hard to untangle them again.”19

Paterson thought Roosevelt’s advisers were a bunch of “young men who went to college on an allowance, and then came out in nice white collars to jobs on politely radical magazines supported by kind wealthy ladies,” and whose political ideal was “a mother’s boy economic program with a kind maternal government taking care of everybody out of an inexhaustible income drawn from mysterious sources.”20 And she thought the New Deal’s basic fallacy lay in ignoring the role that individual personality traits play in generating productivity. Roosevelt’s Brain Trust “never ask themselves” how wealth comes to exist in the first place, she wrote. They just “take it as a fact of nature” and go about redistributing it.21

But Paterson thought wealth creators—whom she called “self-starters”—practice a specific set of virtues: thrift, industry, diligence, foresight, and independence. Self-starters were the people who “manage to plow and sow and reap, to build and make . . . against the tempest, though all bureaucrats stand massed against them.”22 Critiquing a book by a socialist in December 1933, Paterson objected that the author

assumes as his set-up a self-existent “economy of plenty.” There is no such thing. That potential plenty depends entirely upon a minority being allowed to function. We do not mean a class, but a certain type of mind. It exists in various degrees and forms—business men and farmers and foremen and housewives, the people who will always somehow get things done. . . . They are self-starters . . . and their particular function is to hold everything together. One can’t always see how they do it. A business may be so admirably organized that it looks as if it would run itself, but if you take out one or two men who keep it running and put in some bureaucrat who knows all the graphs and charts the business will go to pieces . . . And in an effort to regulate everything those people may easily be eliminated. They have been very nearly exterminated in Russia.23

While she was writing these columns, Paterson was also working on her novels. Never Ask the End was published in 1933, The Golden Vanity a year later. Never Ask the End, which became a best seller, was an introspective, naturalistic novel with almost no plot centered around the life and thoughts of a character named Marta—obviously a stand-in for Paterson herself—who feels her youth vanishing under the onslaught of modernity and bureaucracy. Marta frequently contrasts the present day with the America she knew when she was young. “We’ve come so far,” she thinks. “Starting in a prairie schooner and covering the last lap by aeroplane. There and back. . . . To experience all the stages of civilization in one lifetime, from the nomad to the machine age, demands the utmost.”24

Yet, in the Roosevelt Age, that vibrant sense of opportunity seemed to have vanished under the mandates of bureaucracy and government compulsion. And that theme of lost innocence was a frequent subject of Paterson’s writing. In The Golden Vanity—her novel about the Great Depression—one character, named Mysie—again, a stand-in for Paterson—visits Washington State, to see the place where she grew up, and is mortified to see her neighborhood has been demolished.

She was gazing at an open square of naked and infertile sand, with not a stick nor a stone nor a blade of herbage on its arid surface. A new concrete pavement bounded it rectangularly, one city block in an extensive grid of dismal blocks, of which the others were meagerly built over with new bleak small buildings. . . . “Whoever was responsible, I hope they’re dead broke,” [she thought]. “That’s what the planners are going to do for us everywhere.”25

In one of her columns, Paterson wrote that the Wright Brothers were lucky to have lived before the New Deal, because otherwise they would never have invented the airplane—they would have been forced instead to join “a cooperative social group to study leadership” and fill out reams of paperwork.26 “The airplane was invented in the United States precisely because this was the only country on earth, the only country that ever existed in which people had a right to be let alone and to mind their own business,” she said. New Dealers should ask themselves what would happen if innovators and inventors—whom Paterson called the “Intelligence Section” of society—were “put out of action by a system of ‘economic controls,’ rationing, political restriction, and a devouring plague of bureaucrats throughout the world.”27

That was not an idle question. In 1937, the American economy fell into a second collapse, in some ways worse than the 1929 crash. It was caused by Roosevelt’s massive new taxes on businesses, such as Social Security, as well as his new pro-union legislation, such as the National Labor Relations Act. Wages fell by 35 percent, and four million people (the equivalent of ten million people today) lost their jobs.

Refusing to admit that his programs had failed, Roosevelt instead blamed this depression-within-a-depression on what he called the “strike of capital.” He claimed that it was “the result of a concentrated effort by big business and concentrated wealth to drive the market down just to create a situation unfavorable to me,” and he ordered the FBI to begin investigating bankers and business leaders.28 Attorney General Robert Jackson told an audience that business owners were trying to “liquidate the New Deal” and establish “a new manifestation of ‘aristocratic anarchy’” by refusing to invest or hire. Four days later, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes gave a radio address claiming that the nation’s “sixty richest families” were engaged in a “general sit-down strike—not of labor . . . [but] of capital.”29

In truth, there was no such conspiracy; business owners and investors were simply reacting to the administration’s policies, which punished economic growth and seized earnings. But Roosevelt’s scapegoating sounded all too familiar. After all, leaders in Russia and Germany were also blaming their own economic catastrophes on “saboteurs” and secretive “counter-revolutionary forces.”30

The following May, Paterson pointed out why the whole idea of a “capital strike” was fallacious. “If there are sound opportunities which the banks pettishly refuse to take advantage of,” she wrote, “will the ‘capital strike’ theorists name even one—some person or firm who has without reason been refused a loan, for proper and profitable use?” The “recession” was no conspiracy—it was caused by the fact that “any form of investment may be clubbed over the head by arbitrary rate fixing, or by property seizures . . . or by punitive ‘investigations’ . . . or by taxes piled on taxes.”31

A month later, former New Dealer Hugh Johnson—who had left the White House and become a Roosevelt critic—revealed that after the Supreme Court struck down some major parts of the New Deal in 1936, Roosevelt had told him, “Business has bucked me, and when business wants to play with me again, it will be on its hands and knees.”32 Paterson was astounded that nobody seemed outraged by this “grave and repulsive” language. “‘Industry on its hands and knees’ is not a pretty idea,” she wrote. “What can be the state of mind which could anticipate that condition as something to ‘play with’?” But instead of speaking up in their own defense, “acquiescent” businessmen chose to remain silent. “If they don’t resent [such treatment],” she said, “they may come near deserving it.”33

It was in this environment that Roosevelt decided to run for a third term. His decision did not surprise Paterson—she had predicted four years before that he would be the “permanent nominee” of the Democratic Party.34 There was little hope that Republicans could unseat him, because so much employment now depended on his funding and favoritism that he was essentially buying votes with taxpayer money. But Republicans made a surprise decision in 1940 by nominating a virtual unknown—a businessman named Wendell Willkie—to run against him.

Willkie happened to be known personally to Paterson, because he was carrying on an extramarital affair with her boss at the Herald Tribune, editor Irene Van Doren. Willkie even attended some of Paterson’s private get-togethers at the Herald Tribune offices.

One of the many Americans who volunteered for Willkie’s campaign was a Russian immigrant and author named Ayn Rand. After escaping the Soviet Union, she had published a novel and written a successful Broadway play. Now she was at work on a new book, centering on a brilliant young architect. But convinced that Roosevelt’s campaign for a third term meant it was “now or never for capitalism,” she laid aside her manuscript to work for Willkie’s campaign.35

She was quickly disappointed by his lack of intellectual coherence. He had seemed like a principled defender of individualism and freedom, but on the campaign trail, he descended into a weak, “me too” style that left voters unenthusiastic. “We received letters by the thousands, begging us for information,” she later said.36 But the campaign had no intellectual ammunition to offer, and Willkie was easily defeated.

That experience persuaded Rand that America needed a strong, intellectual voice for individualism. She began trying to organize a group of thinkers to take up that work, and among those she invited to join was Isabel Paterson.

Paterson said no. She never joined groups. But she invited Rand to visit her at the Tribune offices, and it was there, probably in the spring of 1941, that the two first met. They hit it off right away. Rand was awed by Paterson’s historical and literary knowledge, and Paterson was fascinated by Rand’s intellectualism and personal history. They began meeting weekly at the Tribune offices, and Rand loved the experience. “When Pat is in a good mood, she is like quicksand,” she told a friend—“completely irresistible.”37

Paterson invited Rand to visit her Connecticut home, and soon the young writer was a regular guest, joining Paterson for weekends during which they stayed up late discussing literature, history, and philosophy. Other times, Paterson spent evenings at Rand’s Manhattan apartment, talking until sunrise about philosophy or joking about books and politics. Rand particularly treasured the memory of one late-night conversation about consciousness, during which the two tried to figure out what goes on inside the mind of a beaver. Rand even worked a reference to this into The Fountainhead. In one passage, newspaper magnate Gail Wynand recalls how, when he was young and poor, he sometimes escaped his unhappy surroundings by thinking about his pet kitten, which “was clean—clean in the absolute sense, because it had no capacity to conceive of the world’s ugliness. I can’t tell you what relief there was in trying to imagine the state of consciousness inside that little brain, trying to share it, a living consciousness, but clean and free.”38

In fact, the friendship between Wynand and Howard Roark owes much to the feelings that developed between Paterson and Rand. Around this time, Paterson—who took to calling Rand her “sister”—inscribed a copy of her novel, If It Prove Fair Weather, to Rand, with a touching quotation from the French essayist Michel de Montaigne: “Because he was himself; because I was myself.”39 It was a line Montaigne used to describe his relationship with Etienne de La Boétie, which Montaigne called the ideal companionship—one in which “souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together.” Rand reciprocated with a copy of The Fountainhead in which she wrote, “You have been the one encounter in my life that can never be repeated”—a line that in the novel Roark speaks to Wynand as an expression of the deepest possible rapport.40

Of all the aspects of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, the element that would prove most controversial was her rejection of the morality of sacrifice. Rand viewed herself as “challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years.”41 But she was not alone in this: Paterson, too, thought a morality of rational self-interest is proper for human beings, who are inherently individuals responsible for their own lives. It’s also the only sound basis for political freedom. “‘Sacrifice’ and ‘unselfishness’ seem to be the motives causing wholesale destruction, devoted to death,” Paterson wrote in her column. “When men relapse into ‘selfish’ and unsacrificial motives they create a living human world—grow food, build houses, invent and construct and produce, strictly ‘for themselves.’”42

Freedom must mean freedom for each person to pursue his or her own life for its own sake—an inherently self-interested proposition. “After all,” Paterson continued,

wasn’t it selfish of the slaves to want to be free? Why weren’t they satisfied to live for their masters and die for them too . . . [?] The masters said it was for the good of society that they kept slaves, and their argument was quite as sound as any other argument for the good of society.43

Modern intellectuals were drawn to altruism precisely because it “call[s] for the antecedent need or misery of its objects” and therefore gives politicians grounds to demand power over others.44

Thus, in her 1943 book The God of the Machine, Paterson would condemn what she called the “purest altruism” of “the communal cult,” because it stood opposed to the principle that “every person is born with a right to a life of his own.”45

That book’s general thesis is that economic exchange is a kind of “circuit” whereby individuals, acting on their own local knowledge and circumstances, can cooperate to create and exchange wealth while respecting each person’s freedom to run his or her own life. This distinguishes it from centralized, command-and-control economies in which people are forced to pursue a single, unified goal and occupy social positions determined by authorities. Paterson’s book represented an intellectual breakthrough, partly because it offered an explanation of economics in terms of the transfer of energy—an innovative way of understanding how markets operate. But it was equally notable for the connection it drew between the morality of self-sacrifice and the politics of collectivism. In a passage that strikingly echoes the theme of The Fountainhead, Paterson distinguished between two different conceptions of “power”: power directed toward “the mastery of nature” and “power over other men.”46 The latter is the essential characteristic of collectivism and “is most easily disguised under humanitarian or philanthropic motives.”47 Such a focus on power over people leads to a society that is frozen and changeless, as opposed to the fluid, ever-evolving society of freedom created by a culture that focuses on mastering nature. Static societies cannot invent or innovate, because “creative processes do not function to order.”48 To live, people must think; and to think, they must be free. This explains why collectivist countries such as the Soviet Union stagnate or are forced to borrow or steal technology from freer societies.

Rand called The God of the Machine “the greatest defense of capitalism I have ever read.”49 It “could literally save the world,” she told one businessman, “if enough people knew of it and read it.”50

But she and Paterson did not agree on everything. They differed about religion—Paterson thought there must be a supernatural or immaterial essence in the human spirit to explain free will; what some philosophers have called an élan vital—and they differed in their literary views, too. As an advocate of romanticism, Rand did not admire the plotless, stream-of-consciousness quality of Paterson’s novels. Paterson, by contrast, respected the romantic approach but was committed to naturalism.

In fact, Rand’s fiction shows little evidence of any debt to Paterson—with three exceptions. First, Rand originally intended for Howard Roark to mention Hitler and Stalin in his climactic courtroom speech, but when Paterson saw the outline, she urged Rand to remove these references, because they would date the novel and reduce its impact in years to come. That was good advice, and Rand followed it.

Second, when Rand was working on Atlas Shrugged, Paterson urged her to omit unnecessary descriptive passages that slowed down her prose. “I have been engaged in a wild orgy of weeding,” Rand replied, “not of devil’s grass, but of adjectives.”51 Rand was probably familiar with this age-old writing advice before encountering Paterson, but the reminder may have been helpful.

And the third influence was the legend of Atlantis.

That legend was destined to play a prominent role in Atlas Shrugged, which Rand started writing shortly after The Fountainhead was published. In October 1943, Paterson wrote her a letter enclosing a quotation from the Medieval Islamic scholar Averroës, who had urged his fellow philosophers not to bother debating the mystics who claimed the truth was revealed to them directly by God. Reasonable people, Averroës wrote, should stay silent and simply “content themselves with a solitary possession of rational truth.”52

Didn’t that attitude of intellectual retreat, Paterson asked, explain how the Muslim world had lost its position as the world’s intellectual leader in the 12th century? Intellectuals such as Averroës had withdrawn from the world, and civilization had collapsed.

Rand enjoyed the quotation. “I know that I will now have to write [Atlas Shrugged],” she wrote back. “You’ll push me into it.”53 By that time, Rand was living in southern California, having moved there to work on the film version of The Fountainhead. That project took much longer than expected, because World War II rationing slowed film production, so in the interim, Rand got a job as a screenwriter for producer Hal Wallis, who in 1945 released the film Love Letters, for which Rand wrote the script. She managed to include a sly reference to Paterson in that film: In one scene, a character holds up a toy boat he played with as a child and mentions that it’s called The Golden Vanity—the title of Paterson’s 1934 novel.

Rand would occasionally take a break from working on screenplays and Atlas Shrugged to write Paterson about her progress on the novel.54 In February 1948, she traveled to New York and Chicago to research railroads and steel mills, and she wrote Paterson a long, enthusiastic letter describing the trip. She had even been allowed to operate the locomotive. “Believe it or not,” she beamed, “I have now driven the Twentieth Century Limited.”55

She was by then far enough into the manuscript that she shared part of it with Paterson, who offered some suggestions on what became part 1, chapter 8.

In this part of the story, Dagny Taggart and steel magnate Hank Rearden ride on a train over a new bridge built of Rearden Metal. Reading Rand’s description of the characters’ sensations on the train sparked Paterson’s joyful memories of watching and riding railroads on the prairie in her youth. “A train streaming across the landscape,” she told Rand, was “not quite like any other visual impression of things in motion.” It was

not exactly a feeling of speed in the obvious way, as with a bird flying or a stone thrown or a creature running—not exactly that it is going “fast,” but that it cuts space, it gets there so positively that the relative quality of “speed” becomes unnoticeable; it’s on another scale. Almost an effect of planetary motion.56

Rand wrote back to say that she loved Paterson’s way of putting it, and the final version of this passage captured some of what Paterson was trying to describe:

[Dagny] felt no wheels under the floor. The motion was a smooth flight on a sustained impulse, as if the engine hung above the rails, riding a current. She felt no speed. . . . She had barely grasped the sparkle of a lake ahead—and in the next instant she was beside it, then past. It was a strange foreshortening between sight and touch, she thought, between wish and fulfillment.57

Paterson also passed along other helpful tidbits for the novel. In 1943, she sent Rand an advance copy of Boot Straps, a memoir by Tom Girdler, president of Republic Steel. Five years earlier, Girdler had refused to negotiate with the militantly left-wing Steel Workers Organizing Committee, leading to violent protests at Republic Steel’s Chicago plants, which left ten people dead. Rand admired Girdler for his refusal to cave in to the union’s demands, and she based the character of Rearden partly on Girdler.

One reason was Girdler’s philosophical naivete. She and Paterson found his memoir disappointing because he failed to understand that the reason why he was demonized in the press was not economic but moral. Paterson wrote in her column that the book’s most remarkable feature was the contrast between Girdler’s “enormous practical ability” and his “utter absence of general ideas.”58 Girdler was bewildered that although everyone agreed that workers had a right to strike, nobody spoke up for “the much more venerable and important right to work.”59 And he complained that “the rotten core in all of the New Deal thinking” was the presumption “that a man with payroll responsibilities is necessarily less of a humanitarian than people of prominence without such responsibility.”60

“That is not true,” Rand told Girdler in a long and patient letter. The real reason socialism was growing in popularity was “because we accepted altruism as an ideal.” That allowed self-professed humanitarians to claim a moral high ground they did not deserve. “In principle and in fact,” Rand wrote, socialists are “parasites,” because

they are primarily concerned with distribution, not with production, that is, with distributing what they have not produced. Parasites are neither honorable nor kindly. So it shocked me to read you, a great industrialist, saying in self-justification that you are just as good as a social worker. You are not. You are much better.61

She closed by urging him to read The Fountainhead and The God of the Machine.

But the most significant of Paterson’s contributions to Atlas Shrugged was the Atlantis metaphor. Paterson had been fascinated all her life by this ancient myth, and she invoked it often in her column. “In spite of [my]self, [I] have always believed in Lost Atlantis,” she wrote in one. She speculated that perhaps the myth had its origins in some prehistoric discovery of North America—that there had been an Island of Atlantis and that it was the New World. Even if that was not literally true, Atlantis symbolized for Paterson the America she had known before the Depression—a land of possibilities in which bold men were free to accomplish great things. Commenting on a book about the history of the American West—the land of her childhood—she called it “a strange sunken world, a real lost Atlantis, which is the element in the American mind that Europeans do not understand.” And in Never Ask the End, she wrote that “[Marta] could remember reading of the Wrights’ first flight. . . . So she could also remember before that. It left one gasping, to think of belonging to both ages—to have seen the world swing out in space, and nothing to steer by but one far-off nameless star.”62

As a child, she thought about how the American West was “a wild land . . . [that] has never been plowed or fenced. . . . One used to come to the end of a board sidewalk and step off upon virgin sod.” But now Marta thinks that the people of her generation “belong[ed] to a sunken continent; lost Atlantis, submerged under the westward tide of the peoples of the world. . . . After us, nobody will know what it was like.”63

Simply put, Atlantis represented the world the Airplane Generation had grown up in—a prewar, pre-Depression, pre-New Deal country full of boundless possibilities and brilliant innovators.

In Atlas Shrugged, the world’s great industrialists have disappeared into a refuge they call Galt’s Gulch—and also call Atlantis. Atlantis, says John Galt,

exists, not in the past of the [human] race, but in the past of every man . . . somewhere in the starting years of your childhood, before you had learned to submit. . . . The independence of a rational consciousness facing an open universe. That is the paradise.64

The Atlantis myth that Rand and Paterson had discussed in their late-night conversations became in Rand’s metaphor a spiritual place of possibility, opportunity, freedom, and devotion to one’s highest values—a place like the American West of legend. It might seem ironic that Rand, who always considered New York City her spiritual home, would invoke the spirit of the West as the salvation of American liberty. But she did, in large part thanks to her Western friend, Isabel Paterson.

Paterson’s own book, The God of the Machine, did not sell well, and by 1948, Paterson’s violent temper was getting out of hand. Rand once told a friend that she had “never approved of Pat’s incredibly offensive manner toward people” but couldn’t figure out how to react when she witnessed it, because she had so much admiration for Paterson’s “fierce intellectual honesty [and] her strict devotion to ideas.”65

When the wealthy philanthropist Jasper Crane—who they were both hoping would fund a new magazine devoted to free-market ideas—told Paterson that he thought God of the Machine was too hard for average readers, Paterson exploded in a letter that called Crane stupid and cowardly and likened herself to Newton and Euclid. She then proudly forwarded a copy of the letter to Rand, who was startled by its ferocity. Another time, Paterson chewed out a businessman so savagely for failing to support free-market ideas that he replied that he now understood how the Germans must have felt after being firebombed. “That is nothing,” Paterson told Rand. “I’ll give him Hiroshima yet.”66

Paterson knew how off-putting she could be. “Slowly but surely I am fixing it so that I won’t speak to anyone but you,” she told Rand, “and if you then won’t speak to me I’ll be all set for peace and quiet.”67 Rand mused in her journal about Paterson’s rage, wondering why she alternated between uncontrollable fury and a clingy need for attention. It seemed as though Paterson had been “wrecked by a fierce sense of injustice”—an indignation toward cruelty and irrationality—which erupted into “exaggerated pride” as well as an “insane arbitrariness”—a tendency to say “I am right because I’m right.” This habit had become so extreme that it “turned to hurting those whom she likes.”68

Rand wrote to Rose Wilder Lane to ask if she had observed Paterson losing control. Among Rand’s papers is a fragment of Lane’s reply, detailing examples of Paterson’s angry stubbornness. Yes, Lane said. She told Rand about a time when she got into an argument with Paterson over whether rosebushes could grow in the shade beneath trees. Paterson insisted they could not. But the two were then sitting together on Lane’s patio, beside a maple under which a rosebush had flourished for years. When Lane pointed this out, Paterson still angrily maintained that it was impossible. It was “an irresistible force meeting the immovable rosebush-under-the-tree,” Lane said. “An idea once in her head cannot be dislodged.”69 Rand decided her mentor was a tragic case, someone who might have become “a great rational thinker” but was instead succumbing to a bitterness that handicapped her ability to speak in defense of freedom.70

In May 1948, Paterson flew to visit Rand in Los Angeles, in hopes of interesting California investors in her idea of starting a new magazine. But the visit proved disastrous. Paterson treated Rand’s friends rudely and offended businessmen who might have been able to fund the proposed magazine. Then, toward the end of her visit, Paterson told Rand that she had been offered the chance to review The Fountainhead five years earlier and had declined. As a result, the Herald Tribune had published one of the few negative reviews the book received—which would never have happened if Paterson had chosen to review it.71

Rand felt betrayed. After a tense ride to the airport, Rand bid her good-bye, saying, “I hope you’ll be happier than you are.”72 They remained cordial and continued to correspond about a new magazine, but their friendship was essentially over.

Rand was now forty-five, an accomplished writer with a best seller, a major film, and a growing circle of admirers. She felt no further obligation to make excuses for Paterson’s behavior. Yet she could never betray her appreciation and admiration for her former mentor. Consequently, just as she included herself in a Hitchcock-like cameo in Atlas Shrugged, she included Paterson in the book, as the character who first speaks of Atlantis and stubbornly insists that it existed—before angrily storming away.

Despite the end of their friendship, Paterson was thrilled by Atlas Shrugged when it was published. It was “far more complex than War and Peace,” she told a friend, and “cram-jammed . . . with action.” She was delighted by its defense of capitalism. “The great fraternity of eggheads and deadheads, ‘Liberals’ and Commies and bureaucrats, are carrying on a deliberate campaign to kill the book, if they can,” she wrote.73

Indeed, reviewers were almost uniformly hostile, denouncing its unwavering individualism. Left-wing reviewers hated it, and conservatives were equally hostile. The National Review published a “review” that claimed Rand wanted to murder her ideological opponents. Paterson, who had written for the National Review, was furious. She complained to the editor, William F. Buckley, calling the article libelous, but Buckley dismissed her complaints. That, combined with Buckley’s refusal to publish an article of her own in which she denounced businessmen who failed to defend capitalism, led her to sever ties with the National Review. She spent the rest of her life living on a modest pension and seeking a publisher for her last novel. She died in January 1961 and was buried in an unmarked grave in New Jersey. Even Buckley, who found her “intolerably impolite” and “impossibly arrogant,” had to admit in the obituary he wrote that she was “a great woman.”74

Paterson’s biographer Stephen Cox said that she “provided an intellectual link between a frustrated and alienated older generation of anti-collectivist Americans and an aggressive and optimistic younger generation.”75 Certainly, as a member of the Airplane Generation—of the vanished America of opportunity created by 19th-century capitalism, which she thought of as the island of Atlantis—Isabel Paterson considered herself the last survivor of a golden age. But she helped bequeath to us a vision of that free world—and not just a vision, but something more precious: a rational intellectual argument for it. It would be nice to think that she was not the last of Atlantis’s inhabitants, but the first of their return.

Isabel Paterson considered herself the last survivor of a golden age. But she helped bequeath to us a vision of that free world—and not just a vision, but something more precious: a rational intellectual argument for it.
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1. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957), 153–54.

2. The only biography of Isabel Paterson available is Stephen Cox, The Woman and the Dynamo (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2004).

3. Isabel Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” New York Herald Tribune, August 8, 1943.

4. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” February 27, 1927.

5. Howard Shaff and Audrey Karl Shaff, Six Wars at a Time: The Life and Times of Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor of Mount Rushmore (Sioux Falls, SD: Center for Western Studies, 1985), 214–15.

6. Whittaker Chambers, Odyssey of a Friend: Whittaker Chambers’ Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr. (New York: Putnam, 1970), 94.

7. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” July 7, 1934.

8. Irene and Allen Cleaton, Books and Battles: American Literature 1920–1930 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 130.

9. Basil Davenport, “The Apostle of Common Sense,” Saturday Review of Literature, October 27, 1934, 237.

10. Cox, Woman and the Dynamo, 84.

11. John Chamberlain, A Life with the Printed Word (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1982), 35; Angna Enters, Silly Girl: A Portrait of Personal Remembrance (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1944), 136; Bruce Gould, American Story: Memories and Reflections of Bruce Gould and Beatrice Blackmar Gould (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 92.

12. Franklin Roosevelt, “First Inaugural Address,” in Great Speeches: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ed. John Grafton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999), 28–33.

13. Benjamin L. Alpers, Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 26; Page Smith, Redeeming the Time: A People’s History of the 1920s and the New Deal (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987), 432.

14. Anne O’Hare McCormick, “The Excitement of the Hundred Days,” in The New Deal and the American People, ed. Frank Freidel (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 15.

15. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” March 5, 1933.

16. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” June 11, 1933.

17. Walter Lippmann, “The Metaphysics of Gold,” New York Herald Tribune, January 26, 1934.

18. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” February 4, 1934.

19. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” April 2, 1933.

20. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” April 23, 1933.

21. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” January 18, 1942.

22. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” January 18, 1942.

23. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” December 17, 1933.

24. Isabel Paterson, Never Ask the End (New York: Literary Guild, 1933), 165.

25. Isabel Paterson, Golden Vanity (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2017), 176. Paterson was probably referring here to the “regrading” of Denny Hill in Seattle—specifically to Denny Regrade Number 2, which began in 1928 and took two years. Regrading consisted of flattening enormous swaths of the city with steam shovels and hydraulics, reconfiguring much of the area that now encompasses the Space Needle.

26. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” January 17, 1943.

27. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” August 8, 1943.

28. Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 313; H. W. Brands, A Traitor to His Class (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 654–55; Jack Mitchell, Executive Privilege (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1992), 169–82; Burton W. Folsom, “FDR and the IRS,” Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI, 2006, https://www.hillsdale.edu/educational-outreach/free-market-forum/2006-archive/fdr-and-the-irs/.

29. “Ickes Lashes at Big Business,” Boston Globe, December 31, 1937.

30. Michael Janeway, The Fall of the House of Roosevelt: Brokers of Ideas and Power from FDR to LBJ (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 93.

31. Isabel Paterson, “Capital Is on Strike,” New York Herald Tribune, May 25, 1938.

32. Isabel Paterson, “On Hands and Knees,” Sioux City (IA) Journal, June 12, 1938.

33. Isabel Paterson, “Notes on President’s Vocabulary, Particularly Anent Opposition,” New York Herald Tribune, June 6, 1938.

34. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” July 5, 1936.

35. Shoshana Milgram Knapp, “‘Seven Shows a Day’: Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, Individualism, and the Presidential Election of 1940” (presentation at the Social Science History Association Annual Conference, Boston, November 11, 2021).

36. Ayn Rand, Letter to Earle Balch, November 28, 1943, in Michael Berliner, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), 102.

37. Ayn Rand, Letter to Linda Lynneberg, February 21, 1948, Ayn Rand Letters, Ayn Rand Institute, https://courses.aynrand.org/works/previously-unpublished-ayn-rand-letters-4/.

38. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1943), 569.

39. Michel de Montaigne, “On Affectionate Relationships” (De l’amitié), in Montaigne: The Complete Essays, trans. M. A. Screech (London: Penguin, 2003), 230. Screech translates Montaigne’s original wording (“parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi”) a little differently. See also Adam Sutcliffe, “Friendship in the European Enlightenment: The Rationalization of Intimacy?,” in Conceptualizing Friendship in Time and Place, ed. Carla Risseeuw and Marlein van Raalte (Leiden: Brill-Rodopi, 2017), 152. Paterson’s book inscribed to Rand is in the possession of a private collector.

40. Cox, Woman and the Dynamo, 221.

41. Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, Who Is Ayn Rand? (New York: Paperback Library, 1962), 186.

42. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” September 1, 1946.

43. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” September 1, 1946.

44. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” May 7, 1944, November 19, 1933.

45. Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine, ed. Stephen Cox (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1993), 91–92.

46. Paterson, God of the Machine, 153.

47. Paterson, God of the Machine, 155.

48. Paterson, God of the Machine, 89.

49. Ayn Rand, Letter to John C. Gall, July 4, 1943, Ayn Rand Letters, Ayn Rand Institute, https://letters.aynrandarchives.org/document/1329.

50. Ayn Rand, Letter to Earle Balch, November 28, 1943, Ayn Rand Letters, Ayn Rand Institute, https://letters.aynrandarchives.org/document/76404.

51. Ayn Rand, Letter to Isabel Paterson, February 7, 1948, in Berliner, Letters, 188.

52. Isabel Paterson, Letter to Ayn Rand, ca. December 30, 1943, Isabel Paterson Papers, Hoover Presidential Library. The quotation is from Étienne Gilson’s, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (New York: Scribner’s, 1939), 49. Paterson had recommended that book in “Turns” alongside The Fountainhead on October 10, 1943.

53. Ayn Rand, Letter to Isabel Paterson, October 10, 1943, in Berliner, Letters, 174.

54. As Rand later told the story, Atlas Shrugged was inspired by a phone call in which an unnamed friend—evidently Paterson—told her she had a “duty” to publish a nonfiction book about her philosophy, to which Rand responded by angrily suggesting she would go “on strike.” It seems likely that this conversation concerned The Moral Basis of Individualism, a nonfiction treatise that Rand never completed. The most plausible explanation is that Rand and Paterson discussed the idea of a “strike” novel for some time before that call.

55. Ayn Rand, Letter to Isabel Paterson, February 7, 1948, in Berliner, Letters, 190.

56. Isabel Paterson, Letter to Ayn Rand, ca. February 14, 1948, Hoover Presidential Library.

57. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 239–40.

58. Paterson, “Turns with a Bookworm,” September 19, 1943.

59. Tom Girdler, Boot Straps (New York: Scribner’s, 1943), 363.

60. Girdler, Boot Straps, 357–58.

61. Ayn Rand, Letter to Tom Girdler, July 12, 1943, in Berliner, Letters, 81–85. Girdler replied politely, but made clear in Boot Straps that “I don’t think of hope of reward as selfishness. . . . Most of the people I have known in my life have been constantly trying to get a fatter pay envelope, not for themselves, but for those they love.” Boot Straps, 458.

62. Isabel Paterson, Never Ask the End (New York: Literary Guild, 1933), 162.

63. Paterson, Never Ask the End, 69.

64. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1058.

65. Ayn Rand, Letter to Leonard Read, May 18, 1946, in Berliner, Letters, 276.

66. Isabel Paterson, Letter to Ayn Rand, ca. August 30, 1945, Hoover Presidential Library.

67. Isabel Paterson, Letter to Ayn Rand, ca. October 7, 1943, Hoover Presidential Library.

68. David Harriman, ed., Journals of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1999), 412.

69. Rose Wilder Lane, fragmentary undated letter to Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Institute, (143_LN3_012_001).

70. Harriman, Journals, 412.

71. It is not known why Paterson declined to review The Fountainhead. It is possible she believed doing so would be improper, because she had advised Rand on the manuscript. It is also possible that Paterson had misgivings about the book that she declined to mention to Rand. After Paterson’s death, her copy of The Fountainhead was discovered; it included numerous handwritten edits. Cox, Woman and the Dynamo, 305.

72. Cox, Woman and the Dynamo, 314.

73. Isabel Paterson, Letter to Muriel Hall, ca. November 1957, in Stephen Cox, ed., Culture and Liberty: Writings of Isabel Paterson (New York: Routledge, 2015), 237.

74. William F. Buckley, Jr., “RIP, Mrs. Paterson,” National Review, January 28, 1961, 43.

75. Paterson, God of the Machine, il.

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