The Fountainhead polarized critics and received mixed reviews upon its release. The reviewer for The New York Times praised Rand as writing "brilliantly, beautifully and bitterly", stating that she had "written a hymn in praise of the individual" that would force readers to rethink basic ideas. Benjamin DeCasseres, a columnist for the New York Journal-American, described Roark as "one of the most inspiring characters in modern American literature". Rand sent DeCasseres a letter thanking him for explaining the book's themes about individualism when many other reviewers did not. There were other positive reviews, although Rand dismissed many of them as either not understanding her message or as being from unimportant publications. A number of negative reviews focused on the length of the novel, such as one that called it "a whale of a book" and another that said "anyone who is taken in by it deserves a stern lecture on paper-rationing". Other negative reviews called the characters unsympathetic and Rand's style "offensively pedestrian".
In the years following its initial publication, The Fountainhead has received relatively little attention from literary critics. Assessing the novel's legacy, philosopher Douglas Den Uyl described The Fountainhead as relatively neglected compared to her later novel, Atlas Shrugged, and said, "our problem is to find those topics that arise clearly with The Fountainhead and yet do not force us to read it simply through the eyes of Atlas Shrugged." Among critics who have addressed it, some consider The Fountainhead to be Rand's best novel, although in some cases this assessment is tempered by an overall negative judgment of Rand's writings. Purely negative evaluations have also continued; a 2011 overview of American literature said "mainstream literary culture dismissed [The Fountainhead] in the 1940s and continues to dismiss it".
One of the most controversial elements of the book is the first sexual encounter between Roark and Dominique. Feminist critics have attacked the scene as representative of an antifeminist viewpoint in Rand's works that makes women subservient to men. Susan Brownmiller, in her 1975 work Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, denounced what she called "Rand's philosophy of rape", for portraying women as wanting "humiliation at the hands of a superior man". She called Rand "a traitor to her own sex". Susan Love Brown said the scene presents Rand's view of sex as sadomasochism involving "feminine subordination and passivity". Barbara Grizzuti Harrison suggested women who enjoy such "masochistic fantasies" are "damaged" and have low self-esteem. While Mimi Reisel Gladstein found elements to admire in Rand's female protagonists, she said that readers who have "a raised consciousness about the nature of rape" would disapprove of Rand's "romanticized rapes".
Rand's posthumously published working notes for the novel indicate that when she started on the book in 1936, she conceived of Roark's character that "were it necessary, he could rape her and feel justified". She denied that what happened in the finished novel was actually rape, referring to it as "rape by engraved invitation". She said Dominique wanted and "all but invited" the act, citing, among other things, a passage where Dominique scratches a marble slab in her bedroom to invite Roark to repair it. A true rape, Rand said, would be "a dreadful crime". Defenders of the novel have agreed with this interpretation. In an essay specifically explaining this scene, Andrew Bernstein wrote that although much "confusion" exists about it, the descriptions in the novel provide "conclusive" evidence of Dominique's strong attraction to Roark and her desire to have sex with him. Individualist feminist Wendy McElroy said that while Dominique is "thoroughly taken," there is nonetheless "clear indication" that Dominique both gave consent for and enjoyed the experience. Both Bernstein and McElroy saw the interpretations of feminists such as Brownmiller as based in a false understanding of sexuality.
Effect on Rand's career
Although Rand had some mainstream success previously with her play Night of January 16th and had two previously published novels, The Fountainhead was a major breakthrough in her career. It brought her lasting fame and financial success. She sold the movie rights to The Fountainhead and returned to Hollywood to write the screenplay for the adaptation. In April 1944, she signed a multiyear contract with movie producer Hal Wallis to write original screenplays and adaptations of other writers' works.
The success of the novel brought Rand new publishing opportunities. Bobbs-Merrill offered to publish a nonfiction book expanding on the ethical ideas presented in The Fountainhead. Though this book was never completed, a portion of the material was used for an article in the January 1944 issue of Reader's Digest. Rand was also able to get an American publisher for Anthem, which previously had been published in England, but not in the United States. When she was ready to submit Atlas Shrugged to publishers, over a dozen competed to acquire the new book.
The Fountainhead also attracted a new group of fans who were attracted to its philosophical ideas. When she moved back to New York in 1951, she gathered a group of these admirers to whom she referred publicly as "the Class of '43" in reference to the year The Fountainhead was published. The group evolved into the core of the Objectivist movement that promoted the philosophical ideas from Rand's writing.
The Fountainhead has continued to have strong sales throughout the last century into the current one. By 2008, it had sold over 6.5 million copies in English. It has also been referred to in a variety of popular entertainments, including movies, television series, and other novels.
The year 1943 also saw the publication of The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson and The Discovery of Freedom by Rose Wilder Lane. Rand, Lane, and Paterson have been referred to as the founding mothers of the American libertarian movement with the publication of these works. Journalist John Chamberlain, for example, credited these works with converting him from socialism to what he called "an older American philosophy" of libertarian and conservative ideas. Literature professor Philip R. Yannella said the novel is "a central text of American conservative and libertarian political culture".
The book has a particular appeal to young people, an appeal that led historian James Baker to describe it as "more important than its detractors think, although not as important as Rand fans imagine". Philosopher Allan Bloom said the novel is "hardly literature", but when he asked his students which books mattered to them, someone always was influenced by The Fountainhead. Journalist Nora Ephron wrote that she had loved the novel when she was 18, but admitted that she "missed the point", which she suggested is largely subliminal sexual metaphor. Ephron wrote that she decided upon rereading that "it is better read when one is young enough to miss the point. Otherwise, one cannot help thinking it is a very silly book."
The Fountainhead has been cited by numerous architects as an inspiration for their work. Architect Fred Stitt, founder of the San Francisco Institute of Architecture, dedicated a book to his "first architectural mentor, Howard Roark". According to architectural photographer Julius Shulman, Rand's work "brought architecture into the public's focus for the first time". He said The Fountainhead was not only influential among 20th century architects, but also it "was one, first, front and center in the life of every architect who was a modern architect". The novel also had a significant impact on the public perception of architecture. During his campaign for US President, real estate developer Donald Trump praised the novel, saying he identified with Roark.