Biography of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was born on February 2, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia, as Alissa Rosenbaum. During her younger years she lived a comfortable, affluent, middle-class existence. Her father Fronz had become a chemist despite quotas on Jews studying at the university. Her mother Anna subscribed her to children's literary magazines, which inspired her to write her own stories. (According to the Rand mythology, she decided to become a writer at age nine.) In 1917 she and her family witnessed the Russian Revolution as the Communist party took over the government. The family lived in relative poverty from that point on, for her father did not have many friends in the new government.

At age 16 in 1921, she enrolled at Petrograd State University. During her second year she was expelled as anti-proletariat, but thanks to protests by foreign governments, she was reinstated. After she finished her degree, she enrolled at the State Technicum for Screen Arts, where she studied screenwriting. At this point Rosenbaum (Rand) knew that her philosophy did not fit with the Communist agenda, and realized she needed to leave Russia. In January 1926, she got a passport to visit relatives for a short time in Chicago, but she never returned.

As a child, Rand had been particularly influenced by Maurice Champagne, Victor Hugo, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Respectively, these authors gave her intelligent, independent protagonists as role models, showed her the power of a complex story with larger-than life characters, and taught her about the importance of heroism and individualism, although she did not necessarily agree on all points with the authors. In addition, Rand's negative experiences with communism caused her to become a lifelong opponent of Communism, although she remained an atheist in the manner of Nietzsche (Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement: Modern Writers, 1900-1998).

Soon after her arrival in Chicago, Rand left for Hollywood, hoping to get a job as a screenwriter. Around this time she changed her name. In addition to the usual reasons that people change their names upon entering Hollywood, Rand may have intended to protect her relatives in Russia, who could be punished for the ideas and arguments she was planning to express through film.

Rand claimed that she arrived in Hollywood with only fifty dollars in her pocket and that the day after she arrived in Hollywood, she was given a car ride and a job as a movie extra by film director Cecil B. DeMille. While this account is probably at least partially untrue, Rand did work as an extra in several of DeMille's films. In fact, it was on the set of DeMille's film King of Kings that she met her future husband, actor Frank O'Connor.

Rand's career as a writer was launched in 1932, when she successfully sold a screenplay to Universal Studios. While the film was never produced, she then wrote the play The Night of January 16th, which was produced on Broadway in 1934. Her first novel, We The Living (1936), portrays life in post-communist Russia. In the preface Rand readily points out the autobiographical similarities between her own youth and the life of her protagonist. However, it was negatively reviewed in a time when many educated thinkers were in favor of the ideal of Communism. This novel was followed by Anthem (1938), a science fiction novel about a future dystopia where the world has been corrupted by communism. Rand did not enjoy real success until the publication of The Fountainhead in 1943. Rand's last novel, which most consider her masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957.

Rand introduced what she called Objectivism through a 60-page speech given by the hero, John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand characterizes Objectivism as "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." She also states in her writings that Objectivism is intended to be a practical philosophy grounded in man's ability to reason. In a speech in 1963, Rand summed up her views. “The motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself – to which any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values contained in a novel are only the means.” John Lewis writes of her, "Her vision of the ideal man was a theme uniting her early life, her literary career and her later philosophical work." (Literary Encyclopedia).

Rand also proposed a theory of aesthetics which she publicized in a series of essays published between 1965 and 1971. According to Louis Torres and Michelle Kamhi, "Rand's esthetic theory forms an integral part of her total philosophic system . . . Objectivism [is] a neo-Aristotelian philosophy of individualism based on reason and an objective view of reality" (15). Rand usually named Aristotle as her most important philosophical influence, though Nietzsche also had a clear influence on her. She also claimed to have been inspired by John Locke's ideas about property.

One of the fundamental problems of learning about Objectivism is that almost no one has written about it who is not a proponent of it. Those who disagree with Objectivism tend to argue that Rand's philosophy is not important enough to write about (for instance, that it is a weak derivation from Aristotle with some other ideas thrown in), so there is minimal significant literature critiquing it. Rand is also controversial as a literary author because of the intense academic disagreement about whether her books should be studied as literature or whether they are merely popular novels. One should note that Rand intended to remain outside of academia because of her many criticisms of it, and she did not see the need to be accepted by the academy. Perhaps she was afraid she would not be taken seriously as a philosopher without a Ph.D. or other relevant formal training. Moreover, the very argument for Rand's popular importance, her popularity in some quarters, is explicitly rejected in The Fountainhead. Another possible explanation of Rand's unpopularity in academia is that in 1947 she testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about communist penetration of the film industry. Although many now do not know of her choice in this case, at the time it would have been likely that Rand would be called a fear-monger and a traitor to certain American ideals in that she chose not to defend a person's right to be a member of the Communist Party.

Another event that may have influenced Rand negatively is a scandal that surrounded her and her coterie (known as the Collective). In 1949 Rand began corresponding with a young man named Nathan Blumenthal. By the late 1950s, Nathan Blumenthal (who had changed his name to Nathaniel Branden) and his then-wife Barbara were at the center of a group of young intellectuals who were devoted to Ayn Rand--both to her works and to Rand personally. Branden formed an institute with the intent of sponsoring lectures and publications on her philosophy. At some point during this time, Branden stated, their relationship moved beyond friendship. For almost a decade Branden was Rand's biggest supporter, advocate, and colleague. In 1962 he and Rand started the Objectivist Newsletter, which became a small magazine called The Objectivist by 1965. According to Branden (his claims are supported by his ex-wife Barbara), Rand ended their relationship in 1968 when she discovered he was having another affair with a woman he would later marry. Rand expelled Branden from the movement, announcing their break in an article in the Objectivist without mentioning their relationship. They never reconciled.

Rand's life grew more complicated over the following years. She developed lung cancer, the Nathaniel Branden Institute fell apart, and the Collective slowly disintegrated. Rand's husband died in 1979, and she began to reduce her activities. She never completed another novel, though she was working on the notes for one when she died from heart failure and the effects of surgery on her lung cancer and gallstones on March 6, 1982.

Study Guides on Works by Ayn Rand

Anthem is one of Ayn Rand's earlier works, and presages the fears of collectivism that characterize Objectivism and her later work, such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The novel is set in the future and has a universal, timeless feel in...

A huge sweeping novel, which has never been out of print since its publication, Atlas Shrugged has become a part of the national dialogue about personal freedom, economic policy, and political philosophy in America. There have been several...

When The Fountainhead was released in 1943, Rand's publishers did not expect much from it. To their surprise, the work quickly became a word-of-mouth bestseller. While most people consider Atlas Shrugged her most important work, The Fountainhead...

We The Living is the first novel by Russian-American writer Ayn Rand. It is the story of life in post-revolutionary Russia and was her first public statement against communism. In the foreword of the book Rand observes that We The Living is the...