From an early age, Alisa displayed an interest in literature and film. Throughout her youth, Rand read the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, père and other Romantic writers, of whom Victor Hugo was her favorite.
Rand was twelve at the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, and her family life was disrupted by the rise of the Bolshevik party. Her father's pharmacy was confiscated by the Soviets, and the family fled to the Crimea to recover financially. Rand then returned to Saint Petersburg to attend the University of Petrograd, where she majored in history and also studied philosophy, discovering the literary works of Edmond Rostand, Friedrich Schiller, and Fyodor Dostoevsky as well as the philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche, admiring his depiction of a heroic and independent individual in Thus Spake Zarathustra. She completed a three-year program in the department of Social Pedagogy that included history, philology and law, graduating in 1924.
Rand continued to write short stories and screenplays. She entered the State Institute for Cinema Arts in 1924 to study screenwriting; in late 1925, however, she was granted a visa to visit American relatives.
Initially, Rand struggled in Hollywood and took odd jobs to pay her basic living expenses. A chance face-to-face meeting with famed director Cecil B. DeMille led to a job as an extra in his film The King of Kings, and subsequent work as a script reader. She also worked as the head of the costume department at RKO Studios. While working on the film, she intentionally bumped into an aspiring young actor, Frank O'Connor, who caught her eye. The two married on April 15, 1929, and remained married for fifty years, until O'Connor's death in 1979 at the age of 82. Rand became a naturalized American citizen in 1931.
In an article about Rand that appeared in The Economist in 1999, it is stated that "Rand’s novels sell some 300,000 copies a year, exhorting readers to think big about themselves, build big and earn big. New editions of all her books carry postcards for readers who might be inclined to learn more about Objectivism, the author’s credo, a blending of free markets, reason and individualism.
Her first literary success came with the sale of her screenplay Red Pawn in 1932 to Universal Studios: "Von Sternberg later considered it for Dietrich, but Russian scenarios were out of favour and the project was dropped." Rand then wrote the play The Night of January 16 in 1934, which was produced on Broadway. The play was a courtroom drama in which a jury chosen from the audience decided the verdict, leading to one of two possible endings.
Rand then published the novel We the Living in 1936, which focused on life in Communist Russia. Rand described it as "the most autobiographical of her novels Its harsh anti-communist tone met with mixed reviews in the U.S., where the period of The Great Depression was sometimes known as "The Red Decade" in reference to the high-water mark of sympathy for socialist ideals. Stephen Cox, at The Objectivist Center, observed that We the Living "was published at the height of Russian socialism's popularity among leaders of American opinion. It failed to attract an audience." We the Living was first completed in 1934, but was rejected by several publishers, until 1936, when George Platt Brett of Macmillan Publishing agreed to publish her book.
Rand then wrote the novella Anthem, a dystopian vision of a futuristic society where collectivism has triumphed. Anthem did not find a publisher in the United States and was first published in the UK in 1938.
Rand's first major professional success came with her best-selling novel The Fountainhead (1943), which she wrote over a period of seven years. Its plot centered on a young architect named Howard Roark and revolved around the conflict between independent thinkers and "second-handers." The novel was rejected by twelve publishers before finally being accepted by the Bobbs-Merrill Company publishing house, upon the insistence of editorial board member Archibald Ogden.
The Fountainhead eventually became a worldwide success, bringing Rand fame and financial security. In the sixty years since it was published, it has sold six million copies, and continues to sell about 100,000 copies per year.
In 1949 Rand's novel was made into a major motion picture by Warner Brothers with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal; Rand wrote the screenplay. Following the success of The Fountainhead, she wrote screenplays for two other movies, Love Letters and You Came Along.
Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957. Due to the success of The Fountainhead, the initial printing ran to 100,000 copies, and the book went on to become an international bestseller. Sales of Atlas Shrugged remained strong in subsequent decades, and it has been cited by many interviewees as the book that most influenced them. (See Popular interest and influence, below.)
The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of man's mind in society. It advocates the core tenets of Objectivism and expresses Rand's belief in human greatness. The plot involves a dystopian United States of America in which industrialists and other creative individuals go on strike and retreat to a mountainous hideaway where they build an independent free economy. The characters describe this as "stopping the motor of the world" by effectively removing those in control of the nation's production, creativity, and thinking. Through this strike, they aim to demonstrate that without them society would fall apart. The novel includes elements of mystery and science fiction, and deals with other diverse issues as wide-ranging as sex, music, medicine, politics, philosophy, industry, and human ability. Atlas Shrugged contains Rand's most extensive statement of Objectivism of any in her works of fiction, including a lengthy monologue delivered by the novel's hero, John Galt.
Objectivism embraces objective reality in metaphysics, reason in epistemology, and rational egoism in ethics. In politics she was a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism and individual rights, believing that the sole function of a proper government is protection of individual rights (including property rights).
She believed that individuals should choose their values and actions solely by reason. According to Rand, the individual "must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life. Because she held that faith is antithetical to reason, Rand opposed religion.
Rand considered the initiation of force or fraud to be immoral, and held that government action should consist only in protecting citizens from criminal aggression (via the police), foreign aggression (via the military), and in maintaining a system of courts to decide guilt or innocence for objectively defined crimes and to resolve disputes. Her politics are generally described as minarchist and libertarian, though she did not use the first term and disavowed any connection to the second.
Rand, a self-described hero-worshiper, stated in her book The Romantic Manifesto that the goal of her writing was "the projection of an ideal man." In reference to her philosophy, Objectivism, she said: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
Rand was greatly influenced by Aristotle and found early inspiration in Friedrich Nietzsche (although she later firmly rejected his approach). She was vociferously opposed to some of the views of Immanuel Kant, particularly those claiming the impotence of reason. She also had an intellectual kinship with John Locke, who conceived the ideas that individuals have a right to the products of their own labor and have natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and more generally with the philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. She occasionally reported her approval of specific philosophical positions, including some of Baruch Spinoza and St. Thomas Aquinas.
The group originally started out as an informal gathering of friends who met with Rand on weekends at her apartment to discuss philosophy; later the Collective would proceed to play a larger, more formal role, helping edit Atlas Shrugged and promoting Rand's philosophy through the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), established by him for that purpose. Many Collective members gave lectures at the NBI and in cities across the United States, while others wrote articles for its sister newsletter, The Objectivist. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rand developed and promoted her Objectivist philosophy through both her fiction and non-fiction works, and by giving talks at several east-coast universities, largely through the NBI. "The Objectivist Newsletter, later expanded and renamed simply The Objectivist, contained essays by Rand, Branden, and other associates ... that analyzed current political events and applied the principles of Objectivism to everyday life." Rand later published some of these in book form.
After several years, Rand's close relationship with the much younger Branden turned into a romantic affair, with the consent of their spouses. It lasted until Branden (having separated from Barbara) entered into an affair with the young actress Patrecia Scott, whom he later married. The Brandens hid the affair from Rand, and when she found out, she abruptly ended her relationship with both Brandens and with the NBI, which closed. She published a letter in The Objectivist repudiating Branden for dishonesty and "irrational behavior", never disclosing their affair. Both Brandens remain personae non gratae to the mainline Objectivist movement, particularly the group that formed the Ayn Rand Institute.
Several prominent critics of the movement accused it of being a cult, claiming that it exhibited typical cult traits, including slavish adherence to unprovable doctrine and extreme adulation of the founder. Objectivists counter that even if some of Rand's followers have acted like cultists, this was not intended by Rand, and note that Rand explicitly condemned "blind followers.
Many consider Rand one of the three founding mothers (along with Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson) of modern American libertarianism, although she rejected libertarianism and the libertarian movement.
Rand supported Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which she saw as an attack by a primitive society on a government that largely supported individual rights. While Rand characterized Israel as "a mixed economy inclined toward socialism," this was secondary to the consideration that "when it comes to the power of the mind—the development of industry in that wasted desert continent—versus savages who don't want to use their minds, then if one cares about the future of civilization, don't wait for the government to do something. Give whatever you can".
Rand's views on gender role are controversial. While her books champion men and women as intellectual equals, she thought that physiological differences between the sexes led to fundamental psychological differences that were the source of gender roles. Rand denied endorsing any kind of power difference between men and women, stating that metaphysical dominance in sexual relations refers to the man's role as the prime mover in sex and the necessity of male arousal for sex to occur. According to Rand, "For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship—the desire to look up to man." Rand believed that sex in its highest form is a physical response to intellectual and spiritual values, a mechanism for giving concrete expression to values that could otherwise only be experienced in the abstract.
In a McCall's magazine interview, Rand stated that while women are competent to be President, no rational woman should seek that position; she later explained that it would be psychologically damaging to the woman. She strongly opposed the modern feminist movement, despite supporting some of its goals. Feminist author Susan Brownmiller called Rand "a traitor to her own sex," while others, including Camille Paglia and the contributors to 1999's Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, have noted Rand's "fiercely independent—and unapologetically sexual" heroines who are unbound by "tradition's chains ... [and] who had sex because they wanted to."
Some of Rand's fiction features sex scenes with stylized erotic combat that some claim borders on rape. Rand said that if what The Fountainhead depicted was rape it was "rape by engraved invitation. In a review of a biography of Rand, writer Jenny Turner opined,
"the sex in Rand’s novels is extraordinarily violent and fetishistic. In The Fountainhead, the first coupling of the heroes, heralded by whips and rock drills and horseback riding and cracks in marble, is ‘an act of scorn ... not as love, but as defilement’—in other words, a rape... In Atlas Shrugged, erotic tension is cleverly increased by having one heroine bound into a plot with lots of spectacularly cruel and handsome men.
Another source of controversy is Rand's view of homosexuality. Asked at the Ford Hall Forum at Northeastern University in 1971 about her position, Rand stated that homosexuality is "immoral" and "disgusting." Specifically, she stated that "there is a psychological immorality at the root of homosexuality" because "it involves psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises. A number of noted current and former Objectivists have been highly critical of Rand for her views on homosexuality. Others, such as Kurt Keefner, have argued that "Rand’s views were in line with the views at the time of the general public and the psychiatric community," though he asserts that "she never provided the slightest argument for her position, ... because she regarded the matter as self-evident, like the woman president issue, (although in her article "About a Woman President" Rand said that that issue was not self-evident).
In the same appearance, Rand noted, "I do not believe that the government has the right to prohibit homosexual behavior. It is the privilege of any individual to use his sex life in whichever way he wants it."
Rand opposed ethnic and racial prejudice on moral grounds, in essays like "Racism" and "Global Balkanization," while still arguing for the right of individuals and businesses to act on such prejudice without government intervention. She wrote, "Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism ... [the notion] that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors, but opposed governmental remedies for this problem: "Private racism is not a legal, but a moral issue—and can be fought only by private means, such as economic boycott or social ostracism.
After the hearings, when Rand was asked about her feelings on the effectiveness of their investigations, she described the process as "futile".
For many years, she gave an annual lecture at the Ford Hall Forum, answering questions from the audience afterward.
Rand underwent surgery for lung cancer in 1974, and conflicts continued in the wake of the break with Branden and the subsequent collapse of the NBI. Many of her closest "Collective" friends parted company, and during the late 1970s her activities within the Objectivist movement declined, especially after the death of her husband on November 9, 1979. One of her final projects was work on a television adaptation of Atlas Shrugged. She had also planned to write another novel, To Lorne Dieterling, but did not get far in her notes.
Rand died of heart failure on March 6, 1982 at her 34th Street home in New York City, years after having successfully battled cancer, and was interred in the Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York. Rand's funeral was attended by some of her prominent followers, including Alan Greenspan. A six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket.
After decades of dismissal or outright hostility from the profession, Rand's ideas have found some prominent, if still quite limited, recognition within academic philosophy. At least two universities (Clemson and The University of Texas at Austin) have established chairs or centers which explicitly revolve around her views. Her books continue to be widely sold and read, with 25 million copies sold (as of 2007), and 800,000 more being sold each year.. Following Rand's death, continued conflict within the Objectivist movement led to establishment of independent organizations claiming to be her intellectual heirs.
In 1985, Leonard Peikoff, a surviving member of "The Collective" and Ayn Rand's designated heir, established "The Ayn Rand Institute: The Center for the Advancement of Objectivism" (ARI). The Ayn Rand Institute "works to introduce young people to Ayn Rand's novels, to support scholarship and research based on her ideas, and to promote the principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience."
Another schism in the movement occurred in 1989, when Objectivist David Kelley wrote "A Question of Sanction," in which he defended his choice to speak to non-Objectivist libertarian groups: "It was a response to an article by Peter Schwartz in The Intellectual Activist, demanding that those who speak to libertarians be ostracized from the movement...[I] observed that Objectivism is not a closed system of belief; and that we might actually learn something by talking to people we disagree with. Kelley's description of the reasons behind the break is disputed by the Ayn Rand Institute. Peikoff, in an article for The Intellectual Activist called "Fact and Value" argued that Objectivism is, indeed, a closed system, and that truth and morality are directly related. Peikoff expelled Kelley from his organization, whereupon Kelley founded The Institute for Objectivist Studies, now known as The Atlas Society, which has its own web site that is focused on attracting readers of Ayn Rand's fiction. The associated Objectivist Center division deals with more academic ventures. The Atlas Society/Objectivist Center also publishes The New Individualist (formerly Navigator).
Although Rand's influence has been greatest in the United States, she has a growing international following. Her books were international best sellers, and they continue to sell in large numbers. For example, Atlas Shrugged is consistently in the top few hundred best sellers at Amazon.com; 185,000 copies were sold in 2007, fifty years after it was first published.
When asked in a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club what the most influential book in the respondent's life was, Rand's Atlas Shrugged was the second most popular choice, after the Bible. Readers polled in 1998 and 1999 by Modern Library placed four of her books on the 100 Best Novels list (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, Anthem, and We the Living were in first, second, seventh, and eighth place, respectively) and one on the 100 Best Nonfiction list (The Virtue of Selfishness, in first place), with books about Rand and her philosophy in third and sixth place. However, the validity of such polls has been disputed. A Freestar Media/Zogby poll conducted in 2007 found that 8.1% percent of American adults have read Atlas Shrugged, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points. .
Many notable individuals have acknowledged that Rand significantly influenced their lives, including: Bob Barr, Sinan Çetin, Roy A. Childs, James Clavell, Edward Cline, Chris Cox, Mark Cuban, Paul DePodesta, Steve Ditko, Terry Goodkind, Alan Greenspan, Hugh Hefner, Erika Holzer, Angelina Jolie, Billie Jean King, Anton LaVey, Rush Limbaugh, Mike Mentzer, Frank Miller, Ron Paul, Neil Peart, Robert Ringer, Tracey Ross, Kay Nolte Smith, John Stossel, Clarence Thomas, Vince Vaughn, and Jimmy Wales. Rand's philosophy of Objectivism continues to influence workers in the arts, business, and science. The "Randex" Web site updates a list of recent media references to Rand or her work.
Rand appears on a 33 cent U.S. postage stamp, which debuted April 22, 1999 in New York City.
During Rand's lifetime her work was not given much attention by academic philosophers, and currently only a few universities consider Rand or Objectivism to be a philosophical specialty or research area. Many adherents and practitioners of continental philosophy criticize her celebration of self-interest, and as a result there has been little focus on her work in this intellectual discipline. However, since her death in 1982, there has been an increase in academic interest in Ayn Rand's work. In a 1999 interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra said, "I know they laugh at Rand," while also noting a growing interest in her work in the academic community.
Fellowships for the study of Ayn Rand's ideas have been established by the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship at academic institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin. Courses of the Ayn Rand Institute's Objectivist Academic Center now earn university credits.
The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS), a self-described "nonpartisan" peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the study of Ayn Rand—principally her philosophic work—is published twice yearly.
The Ayn Rand Society, founded in 1987 and affiliated with the American Philosophical Association, has been active in sponsoring seminars. A 2006 conference at the University of Pittsburgh, "Concepts and Objectivity: Knowledge, Science, and Values," featured presentations by Objectivists Onkar Ghate, Allan Gotthelf, James Lennox, and Darryl Wright alongside non-Objectivist academics such as A.P. Martinich and Peter Railton.
In 2006, Cambridge University Press published Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, a volume on Rand's ethical theory written by ARI-affiliated scholar Tara Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin. A review of Smith's book by Helen Cullyer of the University of Pittsburgh, published in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, ends with the following:
"It should be stressed in conclusion that whether one is a fan or a detractor of Ayn Rand, the issues raised by this book are manifold and provocative. This book should force a debate of renewed vigor about what we mean by egoism, whether and how the egoism/altruism dichotomy should be applied within eudaemonistic ethical theories, and what our ethical theories imply about our political outlook. Smith provides us with a version of egoism that will need to be argued against by those who find it distasteful or misguided, rather than simply dismissed.
The Ayn Rand Institute has spent more than $5M on educational programs advancing Objectivism, including scholarships and clubs. These clubs often obtain educational materials and speakers from the ARI. The Objectivist Club Association and ObjectivismOnline provide free hosting and organizational resources for Objectivist clubs. There are also several conferences organized by various organizations, such as the Objectivist Conferences, which draw several hundred attendees each summer and feature philosophy courses and presentations of new publications and research.
A notable exception to the general lack of attention paid to Rand in academic philosophy is the essay "On the Randian Argument" by Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick, which appears in his collection, Socratic Puzzles. Nozick is sympathetic to Rand's political conclusions, but does not think her arguments justify them. In particular, his essay criticizes her foundational argument in ethics—laid out most explicitly in her book The Virtue of Selfishness—which claims that one's own life is, for each individual, the ultimate value because it makes all other values possible. Nozick says that to make this argument sound one needs to explain why someone could not rationally prefer dying and thus having no values. Therefore, he argues, her attempt to defend the morality of selfishness is essentially an instance of begging the question. Nozick also argues that Rand's solution to David Hume's famous is-ought problem is unsatisfactory. Tara Smith responds to this criticism in her book Viable Values.
Rand has also been accused of misinterpreting the works of many of the philosophers that she criticized in her writing. According to Fred Seddon, author of Ayn Rand, Objectivists, and the History of Philosophy (2003), Nathaniel Branden has stated that Rand never read any of Kant's works.
The most famous review of Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged was written by the conservative author Whittaker Chambers and appeared in National Review in 1957. It was unrelentingly scathing. Chambers called the book "sophomoric"; and "remarkably silly," and said it "can be called a novel only by devaluing the term." He described the tone of the book as "shrillness without reprieve." Chambers accused Rand of supporting the same godless system as the Soviets, claiming "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To the gas chambers—go!' Five decades later, The Intellectual Activist published a reply, arguing that Chambers had not actually read the book, as he misspelled the names of two major characters and used no quotations from the novel in his critique.
Another critic, Mimi Gladstein (author of The New Ayn Rand Companion), called Rand's characters flat and uninteresting, and her heroes implausibly wealthy, intelligent, physically attractive and free of doubt while arrayed against antagonists who are weak, pathetic, full of uncertainty, and lacking in imagination and talent.
Rand stated in a 1963 essay, titled "The Goal of My Writing", that her fiction was intentionally different in that its goal was to project a vision of an ideal man: not man as he is, but man as he might be and ought to be. Rand, who described herself as a "romantic realist", presented her theory of aesthetics more fully in her 1969 book, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature.
The Fountainhead was a Hollywood film (1949, Warner Bros.) starring Gary Cooper, for which Rand wrote the screen-play. Rand initially insisted that Frank Lloyd Wright design the architectural models used in the film, but relented when his fee was too high.
A film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged is in pre-production as of early 2008, with production possibly starting in December if the script can be revised in time. In September 2007, Lions Gate Films reported that it had hired Vadim Perelman to revise Randall Wallace's script and to direct the film, with screen star Angelina Jolie cast in the role of Dagny Taggart. Jolie's 2008 pregnancy and Perelman's departure have cast the project into doubt.
The Passion of Ayn Rand, an independent film about her life, was made in 1999, starring Helen Mirren as Ayn Rand, Eric Stoltz, Julie Delpy and Peter Fonda. The film was based on the book by Barbara Branden, one of her former associates, and won several awards including an Emmy for Helen Mirren and a Golden Globe for Peter Fonda.