transcript:
Ayn Rand and the Writing of Anthem

 

1. Introduction

The year is sometime around 1920, the place: Soviet Russia. A teenage girl has just witnessed the Communist revolution and lived through the first years of Soviet rule. The girl aspires to be a fiction writer. She is a hero-worshipping individualist in a country that has just been engulfed by socialism. Throughout her teenage years, she has heard everyone around her preaching the slogans of collectivism, demanding the sacrifice of the individual to the group, to the proletariat, to the communist state; demanding the sacrifice of the “I” to the “we.” 

She asks herself, what would the world be like if men lost the word “I” altogether? She conceives of a story set in the world of the future where the word “I” no longer exists. The girl, of course, is the young Ayn Rand, and nearly 20 years later she would write the story that she conceived as a teenager in Soviet Russia. That story is Anthem

In this course, we are going to explore Ayn Rand’s novel, Anthem, both as a work of literature and as a work of philosophy. We are going to explore various literary aspects of the novel and we are going to explore the ideas and themes that Ayn Rand conveyed in this book. Before we do that, though, let’s spend a bit of time talking about the book’s author, the novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand. 

In this section of the course, we’re going to talk about the back story of Anthem, to say a little bit about the history and the background to the writing of the book. We’re going to spend a bit of time talking about Ayn Rand’s life, talking about her biography, and we’re going to spend a bit of time talking about the state of the world at the time that Ayn Rand wrote Anthem—what was going on in the world at the time that might have had some bearing on the ideas that she brought into the novel and the ideas that she conveyed in the work.

2. Who is Ayn Rand? A brief biography

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum on February 2, 1905. She was born in Czarist Russia, a decade or so before the Russian Revolution. She had a fairly comfortable upper-middle class childhood. Her father was a successful businessman; he owned his own pharmacy, and he was able to provide well for his wife and children. As a young girl, Ayn Rand fell in love with fiction. She fell in love with French adventure stories that her mother found for her. She decided at the age of nine that she would want to be a writer someday. But plans changed, of course, in 1917, when at the age of 12, young Alisa Rosenbaum witnessed the first shots of the Russian Revolution, and she saw the events unfolding that would ultimately lead to Soviet rule. She experienced the brutality of Communism firsthand. She saw the fighting in the streets. Her father’s pharmacy was nationalized and the Rosenbaums were left with almost nothing. 

In 1921, at the age of 16, Alisa attended Leningrad State University, where she studied history and philosophy. But again, the oppression of Soviet rule came to affect her: she was almost expelled from the university during a purge of students without proletarian backgrounds. 

As a teenager, the young woman who would one day become the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was already starting to formulate her political and her philosophical views. She was already thinking deeply about morality, about politics, about philosophy. And she was starting to become quite an outspoken young woman, which, in the first days of communist rule, was not a very safe thing to be. She quickly began to realize how dangerous it was for her to speak out in defense of the individual in a country that has just been taken over by communism. She began to realize that she would not be able to fulfill her lifelong dream to become a writer, to express the ideas she wanted to express, if she remained in Soviet Russia. The way she put it later, looking back on her life, she thought that if she remained in Russia, she probably would have been dead within a year. 

In 1926, at the age of 21, and with the help of her family, she was able to secure a visa to travel to the United States to escape from Communist Russia. She sets out, on her own, as a 21 year old girl, travels all the way to America, all by herself. She eventually makes her way out to Hollywood with the idea that she can try to get her start as a writer, writing screenplays for the silent movies in Hollywood. At this point in her life, her English is not all that great. She thinks if she can write treatments for the silent films, the dialogue is not so important. This would be a way for her to get started. So she sets out for Hollywood and starts to try to make a life for herself. As a young girl with no family around, she has a very hard struggle at first. She works odd jobs, she works for a while as a waitress, and but she does whatever she can in order to make time for her writing. And every minute that she can spare she practices and develops her craft as a writer. She writes plays, she writes short stories, she writes scenarios, she writes screenplays for the movies. And she starts to develop her skills as a writer.

After a few years, she decides that she has matured enough and her English is developed enough that she is ready to start work on her first novel. 

3. Rand’s first novel: We the Living

Ayn Rand’s first novel was called We the Living, and it was set in Soviet Russia. It tells the story of a young woman who wants to be an engineer and her struggle against the Soviet state. 

The heroine, Kira, is a young girl who is very much like Ayn Rand in terms of her ideas and her values, and her convictions. Now, the book is a work of fiction, it is not an autobiography, although Ayn Rand called it her most autobiographical novel. She said the events of Kira’s life are not the same, but her ideas, her values, her convictions, are the same. 

What is also the same is the setting. Ayn Rand paints a vivid picture of what life was like for the people who had to live under the daily reality of Communist rule. She talks about the brutality and the oppression that people suffered. She talks about the censorship, the nationalization of private property, the fear of the midnight knock on the door, executions for political crimes, sentences without trials, people being whisked off to the gulag. All of these grim realities of life under Soviet Communism are portrayed in the novel. And the setting and the background are the all too real portrait of the kinds of things that people experienced there.

Before she left Russia, an acquaintance who knew that she was leaving for America said to her, “When you get there, tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery and that we are all dying.” And, in We the Living, that is exactly what she did. 

Now, unfortunately, what she had to say about life in Soviet Russia was not what people at the time wanted to hear. We the Living was published in 1936, and this was the height of the so-called “Red Decade,” the decade of the 1930s when American intellectuals were strongly pro-Soviet. There was a strongly pro-Communist sentiment among American intellectuals in that period. 

Coming to America, Rand had expected to find the country of individualism, the country that she had learned about in school with the Declaration of Independence and the beliefs of the Founding Fathers, in each individual’s right to his own life, liberty, private property, and the pursuit of his own individual happiness. But what she found when she got here was the same ideas that she had heard preached all her life under the Communists in Soviet Russia, she heard the same moral ideals of collectivism and sacrifice for the “common good.” It was just as dominant in America as it had been in Soviet Russia. 

In 1934, she copied into her working journals a quotation from Petr Kropotkin, a Russian Socialist, and this is a quotation that reflected the general beliefs that she was hearing all around her, even in America: “Social life, that is we, not I, is the normal form of life (in man). It is life itself.” The worship of “we” and the subjugation of “I” to “we” was as common in America as it was anywhere else in the world. Ayn Rand remembered the idea she had for a story about a world that had lost the word “I.” And at this point in her life, in the mid 1930s, as a mature, established writer, someone who had already published her first novel, she was ready now, finally, to tell that story. 

4. The writing and publication of Anthem

Ayn Rand wrote Anthem in 1937 at the age of 32. It took her just three months in the summer of 1937 to write the whole story. Unfortunately, though, the book was not published in America right away. It was published in England in 1938, but she couldn’t get it published in America. The same Red Decade intellectuals who didn’t want to hear what Rand had to say about life in Soviet Russia rejected completely her vision of a fully collectivist state. 

In America, the book was rejected by three publishers, including the publishing company, MacMillan, which was the company that had published We the Living. When they sent the rejection letter for Anthem, the reply that she got from MacMillan, was: “The author does not understand socialism.”

So, initially Anthem was only published in England, and it came out in 1938. In 1943, Ayn Rand completed and published The Fountainhead, which is one of the two major novels that established her fame as a writer. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were her two masterworks that brought her to national attention and established her as an important thinker and an important voice in American culture. 

So after The Fountainhead was published in 1943, there was interest in her earlier writings, in We the Living and in Anthem, and she was able to secure a publisher to bring out the novel in America. So Anthem was published for the first time in America in 1946. Since then, the novel has gone on to sell more than 5 million copies and it has been established as a classic work of literature. It has become a staple in high schools all across North America and it is established as a classic work of literature to be taught alongside all the other novels that portray life under totalitarian collectivist states. It is often compared with 1984, or Brave New World, or Animal Farm and similar novels like those. 

5. Historical context: World politics, 1930s & ‘40s

To understand the novel, Anthem, I think it’s important to understand what was going on in the world around the time the novel was written. So let’s think about what was going on in world politics in 1937. In 1937, we are two years away from the start of World War II. Imperial Japan is already at war with China. Tensions building up to World War II are already there, building in the world. In Soviet Russia, the Communists have already been in power for twenty years. In Fascist Italy, the Fascists have been in power since 1922 and the Nazis in Germany have been ruling since 1933. So, in 1937, you look around the world and you see already that all of these totalitarian collectivist states already exist. These kinds of societies that Ayn Rand is depicting in the novel Anthem actually exist and are spreading around the world. 

So the society that she depicts in the novel is not some sort of fantasy projection; these kinds of societies were real and they were everywhere. Think also, around 1946, when Anthem was first published in America. This is one year after the end of World War II, and these totalitarian dictatorships that have been growing and taking over the world have brought about this massive conflict in which tens of millions of people have died. 

In the aftermath of World War II, the world could see more and more what the results of these collectivist states were, the kinds of acts that they end up perpetrating in the world. In her foreword to the 1946 edition of Anthem, Ayn Rand talks about a world of bloody ruins and concentration camps, and, if you think about what the world had just experienced in 1946, this was no exaggeration. 

6. Rand’s unique perspective: the role of ideas

What was unique about Ayn Rand’s perspective on these issues was her view on what it is fundamentally that brought about all of these horrific events. From Ayn Rand’s point of view, the most important thing to understand were the ideas, particularly the moral ideas, the political ideas and the philosophical ideas that caused, that led to, these collectivist states and that brought about the conflict of World War II.

In particular, the idea of collectivism, the sacrifice of the individual to the group, and whether the group you are talking about is the German race or the proletariat or even if it is just the “common good,” the sacrifice of the individual to some collective group—this was the idea that Ayn Rand singled out as the fundamental evil that brought about all of these horrors. 

Now at the time that Ayn Rand was writing Anthem, this idea of collectivism was a philosophy that was sweeping the world. And even in the aftermath of World War II, the philosophy of collectivism was still the dominant philosophy around the world, in Europe, in Russia, in China, but also in America. The idea of that sacrifice for the “common good” as a moral ideal is an idea that we still hear preached to this very day. 

So what is important to understand is that Anthem is not just an indictment of totalitarian collectivist politics. Fundamentally, what the book critiques and condemns is the moral ideals and the moral ideas that led to these kinds of societies and that lead to this kind of sacrifice on a massive scale. 

So the book is a warning about the consequences of basic ideas. And part of the message of the book is that the same ideas which led to Soviet Russia, to Communist China, to Nazi Germany, the same ideas that led to those societies, exist everywhere around the world and are a danger that could lead to similar kinds of horrors in the future—even in America.

As a teenage girl, in Russia, the young Ayn Rand had already rejected the collectivist ideals that she heard preached all around her. She rejected their political expression in the form of Soviet Communism, but more importantly she rejected them as a moral ideal. Nearly twenty years later, as a mature, published author, she was ready to tell the story that she tells in Anthem—the story of one man’s struggle to escape from a society that is completely swallowed by collectivism—to escape from that society and to go on and define a completely new philosophy, a new morality of individualism.

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