“Atlas Shrugged changed my life. The Fountainhead changed my life.” Phil Donahue quoted these often-heard lines when he introduced Ayn Rand on his popular television talk show in 1979. And a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress put both novels high on the list of the “most influential” books.
Ayn Rand novels have long been reported as life-changing experiences. Why? What is so different about these novels? Why have they been having such a profound effect on readers for 50 years, in the case of Atlas Shrugged, and more than 60 years, in the case of The Fountainhead?
At the age of nine, Ayn Rand decided to become a writer. “I remember the day and hour,” she later recalled:
I did not start by trying to describe the folks next door—but by inventing people who did things the folks next door would never do. I could summon no interest or enthusiasm for “people as they are”—when I had in my mind a blinding vision of people as they could be.
And that is the fundamental reason that Ayn Rand’s novels are life-changing. Her characters are inspiring, but so are the characters in many novels and films—admirable characters who overcome difficulties, believe in themselves, refuse to give up. What makes her characters different? They are inspiring in a fundamental way. Ayn Rand presents people as they ought to be, and life as it ought to be. Heroes, not folks next door. But people not only as they ought to be but people as they ought to be and can be—moral ideals but possible here on earth. Her heroes are realistic rather than science fiction characters. No superhuman powers, no X-ray vision, no ability to fly, no effortless knowledge or achievement. The reader not only admires the heroes but understands why they are worth admiring. And that is because her novels are philosophic; they go to the most basic fundamentals of what makes someone admirable. Ayn Rand’s philosophy holds that reason and independence are primary virtues, and her heroes (Howard Roark, Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart) embody those virtues, dramatizing what it means to be rational and independent. So, what is inspiring is not merely that Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, works hard and has goals, but why he is like that; it is because he embodies the most important human attributes. The reader sees him as happy and successful and also sees why he is happy and successful. The reader says to himself, in effect: “This is the kind of person I can be, and this is how I can achieve it.”
There is another, more cultural reason that Ayn Rand’s novels have such an appeal, especially to young readers: they provide a radical alternative to the view of man and life portrayed in most fiction. They are in stark contrast to novels portraying life and man as rotten, happiness as impossible. They are in stark contrast to the cynicism and nihilism so widely accepted as signs of intellectual sophistication. The alternative provided by Ayn Rand novels is not on the level of “smile and be happy” or “if you just try, you can be whatever you want to be.” The alternative is what motivated Ayn Rand all of her life: the portrayal of the ideal man. In her introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead, she wrote about the effect her novels have on readers:
The best of mankind’s youth start out in life [with]….a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one’s life is important, that great achievements are within one’s capacity, and that great things lie ahead.
It is not in the nature of man—nor of any living entity—to start out by giving up, by spitting in one’s own face and damning existence; that requires a process of corruption whose rapidity differs from man to man. Some give up at the first touch of pressure; some sell out; some run down by imperceptible degrees and lose their fire, never knowing when or how they lost it. Then all of these vanish in the vast swamp of their elders who tell them persistently that maturity consists of abandoning one’s mind; security, of abandoning one’s values; practicality, of losing self-esteem. Yet a few hold on and move on, knowing that that fire is not to be betrayed, learning how to give it shape, purpose and reality. But whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man’s nature and of life’s potential.
There are very few guideposts to find. The Fountainhead is one of them.
That is one of the cardinal reasons of The Fountainhead‘s lasting appeal: it is a confirmation of the spirit of youth, proclaiming man’s glory, showing how much is possible.