Ayn Rand and the Writing of The Fountainhead

1. Introduction: An American Classic

Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead is a quintessentially American character. He embodies and represents the individualist spirit of America, in Ayn Rand’s view, what the essence of America and what made America the country that it is. And what makes it a great country, is the fact that it was founded on the principle of individual rights, on each individual’s right to his life, liberty, property, and most importantly, to the pursuit of his own happiness. Ayn Rand’s view was that the pursuit of ones own happiness is ones highest moral purpose in life. And, this is the spirit that Howard Roark represents, the individualist who lives independently for the sake of his own happiness. So it is fitting that Howard Roark’s story, The Fountainhead, has become a classic of American literature. It is taught in high school’s across the country, and it is seen as a quintessentially American novel, a story that is set in America and that represents the spirit of America.

What is interesting is that, this quintessentially American novel was written by a Russian born immigrant, from the communist Soviet Union.

2. Ayn Rand’s Background


Ayn Rand was anything but a product of her background. She was born in Czarist Russia in 1905 and she lived a fairly normal happy childhood in the early years of her life. But at the age of twelve, in 1917, she witnessed the Russian Revolution, communist takeover of Russia. And, she went to school under the Soviets, she went to college under Soviet rule, and all around her, she was surrounded by the ideals of communism and collectivism, of selfish sacrifice for the sake of the state. You know the sacrifice for the proletarian, etcetera. And Ayn Rand recoiled at the ideas that she was surrounded by, she was horrified by them. She completely disagreed with the idea that people have duty to sacrifice for the state.

When she first learned about America in school, she felt a greater affinity for America and for the spirit that America represents, than for anything else. And all she wanted in life was to escape from Soviet Union, escape from Communism and be able to come to America and achieve the freedom where she could pursue what she wanted in life. And what she wanted in life was to be a writer. From a very early age, she decided she wanted to be a writer, she wanted to be a fiction writer, writing stories, writing plays, writing movie scenarios, writing novels. This is what she wanted to do with her life, and she wanted come to America where she could do this.

In 1926, at the age of 21, she had an opportunity, she was able to get a visa to go to America, and she traveled by herself at the age of 21, to go to America. Now when she started out in America, she stayed with relatives at first but she eventually made her way to Hollywood where she would try to get a start as screenwriter. And she had a fairly difficult struggle, and she worked odd jobs, basically doing whatever she could in order to be able to find time for her writing.  

Now the first novel that she wrote was a novel called We the Living. And what she wanted to do in that novel was describe the conditions of what life was like under, in the Soviet Union, under communism. Now her purpose in doing this was not to write a story particularly about Soviet Russia in the 1920s. Her purpose was to expose the evils of collectivism as a philosophy and to show what happens to individuals, people who have a spirit of independence and individualism, and how their lives are crushed by the Collectivist State. And it was, the novel was set, in Soviet Russia for the very natural reason that she knew that background, better than anything else, and she was immersed in it all her life and she understood it completely. She was able to write the novel, she did not have to do all kinds of research or preparation in order to be able to write the novel. And so she wrote We the Living to expose the evils of collectivism and to show the kind of life that people were living under the tyranny of Soviet Rule.

After she completed We the Living, Ayn Rand had basically gotten Soviet Russia out of her system as it were. And she was ready to turn to novels that were set in America. And so she had completed the novel that had a sort of negative theme that was exposing the evils and the horrors of the Collectivist State. Once she had completed she was ready to turn to expressing her vision of the human ideal. So Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, is her first expression of her ideal man. And her first portrayal of the kind of spirits, the individualist spirit that her ideal man represents.

3. Roark-Rand parallels: Clash with dominant ideas

It is interesting to look at Ayn Rand’s life in relation to the story that she tells about Howard Roark and The Fountainhead. There are certain parallels between her life story and the fictional story that she creates of Howard Roark’s life that are interesting to take note of. So in The Fountainhead, she has her character, Howard Roark, decide at the age of ten, that he wants to be an Architect and devote everything in his life to the purpose of achieving that goal. He works in the building trades, he starts out on his own, penniless and works his way through the building trade, and works his way through school so that he can study Architecture. Ayn Rand decided at the age of nine that she wanted to be a fiction writer. And everything that she did in her life was calculated toward the goal of achieving that goal, of being able to write and to achieve success as a writer.

She came to America as I said, in 1926, at the age of 21. She came to America with nothing, she had no money, no prospects, basically nothing, and she worked her way, she worked odd jobs, she worked as a waitress at one point, and she worked in the wardrobe department at one of the Hollywood studios. She did whatever she could in order to find, in order to make time for herself to be able to write. In The Fountainhead, she portrays Howard Roark as an innovator whose ideas in architecture, clash with the prevailing ideas in his profession. So he is surrounded by a profession that basically thinks that what architecture consists of is copying the historical styles of the past, of taking the great buildings, and the great structures of the past as models and essentially copying them to create new designs. Well, Howard Roark, as an Architect does not design classical buildings or Renaissance buildings or Gothic buildings, all his buildings have a uniquely Howard Roark stamp on them. And he is portrayed as a creative innovator with his own artistic ideals. And his ideals clash with the prevailing ideas of his profession.

We there is a similarity in Ayn Rand’s story to that as well. She came to America in 1926 and started her career as a writer. And her first novel, We the Living, was set as I said, it was set in Soviet Russia and it is an indictment, a critique of the Collectivist State and it exposes the horrors and exposes the tyranny of life under Communist rule in Soviet Russia. Now she wrote this novel and was trying to get it published in the early 1930’s. Now remember, in the 1930’s, in America, this was the so-called “Red Decade.” This was a period in American History when American intellectuals were enamored of communism. They supported the Collectivist, the Altruist Collectivist ideals that had led to these Collectivist States around the world. So the ideals that Ayn Rand was expressing in We the Living clashed with prevailing ideas that intellectuals in America were expressing. And she actually had a hard time getting We the Living published because none of the publishers wanted to publish a book that was such a searing indictment of communism and of collectivism.

So just like Roark was clashing with his profession, Ayn Rand, her ideas were, there was a clash between her ideas and her ideals and the ideas that she was surrounded with.

4. Rand-Roark parallels: Artistic integrity

In The Fountainhead, she portrays Howard Roark as having an absolute commitment to his artistic integrity in refusing to compromise in any way on the integrity of his artistic designs. Well, Ayn Rand felt the same way about her writing. Her goal was to make herself into the best writer that she could be, and she defined her own standards of what she regarded as exceptional fiction writing. So just as she has Howard Roark say that he sets his own standards, she set her own standards as a fiction writer. And she absolutely refused to compromise on those standards, no matter what opposition she faced, just as Howard Roark does in the book. As an interesting parallel, so in The Fountainhead there is an incident where Howard Roark, in Part one of the book, it receives a commission for the Manhattan Bank Building. And this comes at a time in the book when he is struggling in his career. He has run out of funds, he has run out of clients, this is sort of his chance to keep his office open. And he gets the commission on the condition that he alters the design, that he includes a classical motif, that he includes these non-Howard Roark elements that he rejects as architecture. And he refuses to compromise, he refuses to change his design so he loses the commission and basically ends up, this is the point in the book where because he loses his commission, he has to accept a laborer job in a granite quarry.

The struggle that Ayn Rand had in trying to get her novel We the Living published and trying to get The Fountainhead published, there are certain similarities and she displayed the same absolute commitment to her own artistic integrity. Her literary agent relayed to her that one of the publishers suggested that perhaps she could have a collaborator to help her polish, edit the novel, and polish it. This was her answer to her literary agent:

As to the matter of the suggested collaborator, I give you full authority to refuse at once, without informing me, any and all offers that carry such a suggestion. I do not care to hear of such offers, I consider them nothing short of an insult. Anyone reading my book must realize that I am an individualist above everything else. As such, I shall stand or fall on my own work. I hope you do not consider this as a beginner’s arrogance; it is merely the feeling of a person who takes pride in her work. At the cost of being considered arrogant, I must state that I do not believe there is a human being alive who could improve that book of mine in the matter of actual rewriting. If anyone is incapable of improving that book, he should have written it himself. I would prefer not only not ever seeing it in print, but also burning every manuscript of it, rather than having William Shakespeare himself add one line to it that was not mine or cross out one comma. I repeat, I welcome and appreciate all suggestions of changes to improve the book, without destroying its theme. And I am quite willing to make them. But, these changes will be made by me.

So that same kind of absolute integrity to her art, you know she displayed kind of absolute integrity to her art that she has Howard Roark display in the novel.  

5. Rand-Roark parallels: Attitude toward work

The most important parallel between Ayn Rand and her character Howard Roark, though, is the fact that Roark’s attitude toward his work and toward his profession, is Ayn Rand’s attitude towards her work and towards her profession in creating the character of Howard Roark. She projected certain aspects of her own psychology and the individualist spirit and independence that Howard Roark represents, is a reflection of Ayn Rand’s individualist spirit and the determination that she had that Howard Roark has to do his work his way. This was Ayn Rand’s attitude towards her writing and towards what she wanted out of life. Now she of course was a writer and she had Howard Roark as a character an architect. So why did she choose architecture as his profession? Well, she wanted to show the attitude that a creative innovator has toward his work. And she regarded architecture as an ideal field to represent it, because there is a certain combination of science with art, of Engineering with design. And that it unites these two elements in a very interesting way. And so you have to be both scientifically minded thinker as well as a creative artist. So she actually got this question from time to time, why she chose architecture as the field. And this was one way that she answered the question.

Readers have asked me why I chose architecture as the background of my book. Was my choice motivated by any previous knowledge of architecture or architect? No, when I made my first notes for The Fountainhead, I knew nothing whatever about architecture, had never dealt with it in any way, and had never met an architect. I chose it deliberately as the background best suited to my thesis. A builder is one of the most eloquent representatives of man’s creative faculty. Once I chose that background, I had to face the somewhat terrifying task of learning something about it. I did two years of reading and research, then got a job in the office of a New York Architect.

6. Rand-Roark parallels: the pattern of their success  


A final parallel between Ayn Rand’s story and the story she tells about Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, has to do with the pattern of their ultimate success. In the novel, she portrays Howard Roark as, even though he is someone who struggles in the face of opposition from all of society and from all the experts in his profession, but he breaks through in the end and succeeds never the less, because he is able to find his kind of people. Even though all of the experts in the field of architecture oppose what he is doing and think that he is crazy and his stuff, his work is too innovative and too new and he faces the opposition of everyone around him. Nevertheless, he is able to find people of independent judgement who recognize the value of his work and seek it out. He is able to find his kind of people.

The pattern of Ayn Rand’s success is similar, when she wrote The Fountainhead and she submitted it to publishers, and the novel initially was rejected by twelve publishers. All the experts in the publishing business thought that the novel would never sell. It was too intellectual; they disagreed with its ideas, with its message. It was too innovative, it was too—you know, the ideas that she was expressing were too radical and it was rejected by twelve publishers. But the final publisher, the company that accepted it, accepted it on the conviction of one person. So the editor who, the novel was assigned to one of the editors to read, and they were going to, the final company Bobbs-Merrill was the publishing company, they were going to reject the novel as well. But this one editor on the strength of his own independent judgement, he basically wrote to them and said if this is not the novel for you, then I am not the editor for you. So he basically was willing to stake his own job and his own career, on his conviction that this was a great book, that it deserved to be published and that it would be a successful novel. So again, Ayn Rand and in terms of how the novel did once it was published, it was not promoted in the way that she wanted to, it was not an instant success as a result of critical reviews that propelled it the top, the pattern of the novels success was that it became successful through word of mouth. Again, it was people who, of their own independent judgement, read the book thought it was amazing, passed it on to their friends and it actually, it achieved a certain level of success when it first came out and then it sort of dropped down on the bestseller list. And it actually came back up onto the bestseller list a couple of years after it was published. Which is something that is sort of unprecedented in the business. Normally a novel comes out and it rises to the bestseller list and then it sort of, and then the sales sort of tail off. But it is because it took awhile for word of mouth to get around and for Ayn Rand in effect, to find her kind of people who could recognize the value of the novel and through word of mouth, spread it around to their friends and for the success of the novel to build gradually over time.

So she actually thought this was an interesting parallel herself. She wrote this story of Howard Roark and she talked about the pattern of his success, before she had achieved success herself. She was still struggling as a writer. She had not achieved best selling international stardom or anything, and she describes the pattern of Roark’s success in the book and it is interesting that after the novel was published, her success came in the same way that she described Howard Roark’s success coming in the novel. And she thought this was an interesting parallel and she had this to say about it.

The success of The Fountainhead has demonstrated its own thesis. It was rejected by twelve publishers who declared that it had no commercial possibilities, it would not sell, it was too intellectual, it was too unconventional, it went against every alleged popular trend. Yet the success of The Fountainhead was made by the public, not the public as an organized collective, but by single, individual readers who discovered it of their own choice, who read it on their own initiative, and recommended it on their own judgement. I did not know that I was predicting my own future when I described the process of Roark’s success. It was as if an under ground stream flowed through the country and broke out in sudden springs that shot to the surface at random in unpredictable places.

7. Theme and structure of The Fountainhead   

Ayn Rand described the theme and the basic story of The Fountainhead as follows:

Its theme is individualism versus collectivism, not in politics but in mans soul, the phycological motivations and the basic premises that produce the character of an individualist, or a collectivist. The story presents the career of Howard Roark, an Architect and innovator who breaks with tradition, recognizes no authority but that of his own independent judgement, struggles for the integrity of his creative work against every form of social opposition and wins.  

Ayn Rand’s goal in telling the story of The Fountainhead was to present Howard Roark as an embodiment of her moral ideal. As an embodiment of individualism in a man’s soul. And to show what that means, in the concrete reality of the life of a character, of a person. Now in order to really make clear and to show what Howard Roark represents, she shows him in contrast to other characters who represent the opposite principle. In different ways, their variations on collectivism in a man’s soul.

The novel is divided into four parts. And each of the parts of the novel is named after the four principle male characters in the novel. Part one is named after Peter Keating, Part two Ellsworth Toohey, Part three Gail Wynand, and Part four is Howard Roark. And there is a certain sense in which each of those parts tells the story of those characters. Part one sort of tells the story of Peter Keating, it portrays Keating in contrast to Roark in their early careers, and you really get a focus on Peter Keating and his motives, and his method of function. And the same thing is true in the other parts. In Part two, there is a certain focus on Ellsworth Toohey, this is where we get Ellsworth Toohey’s life story and we see him in action. We see how he acts towards the other characters. And there is a certain focus on Toohey and his motives, and his method of action, and his method of operation. Part three is where we meet Gail Wynand. And again, there is a certain focus on him. We have got his life story, and there is a certain focus on his method of operation and on his qualities as a character and his conflict as a character. In Part four, is named after Howard Roark. Now the whole story is the story of Howard Roark. But there is a certain sense in which Part four represents, it shows Howard Roark’s final triumph and his final success in his profession and in his life. He finally reaches the stage where he has achieved success in his profession and he is able to do his work, his way.

So Ayn Rand is showing Howard Roark in contrast to a number of variations on the opposite theme. Now her working title for the novel was Second-Hand Lives. And the idea is that Howard Roark is a first handed thinker, and he lives firsthand, he lives by his own independent judgement. And in different ways, the other principle male character of the novel are variations on the theme of second handedness. Peter Keating and Gail Wynand are second handed in a particular sense. So both of them are represent and embody a conventional view of what we normally take as selfishness. So they represent selfishness in the sense that we normally think about it as a selfish person as somebody who uses and exploits other people, who sacrifices to his ends, who tramples on other people to get what he wants. And Keating and Wynand, in different ways, represent this conventional concept of selfishness. And what Ayn Rand is trying to show through their characters and through their stories, is that in fact, Keating and Wynand, neither of them are really fundamentally selfish in the true spiritual sense that Howard Roark represents. In different ways, what they really are is not selfish in the sense of living independently for the sake of their own happiness, what they are, is fundamentally dependent on other people. By placing their goals and their motives in other people, what she shows is that in fact they are—in a very fundamental sense—they are really selfless and not selfish. So Keating is selfless in the sense that he literally has no self. What he wants out of life is fame and admiration, and greatness and success, in the eyes of others. So even though he is portrayed as being in our conventional understanding being selfish in a certain way, in fact, in the core of his being, he is literally selfless. And he lives second handed in a way that is opposite to how Howard Roark lives his life.

Similarly for Gail Wynand, he is portrayed as the man who wants to rule over others. And he so again, because he seeks power over others, he is portrayed as somebody who, by our conventional understanding of the term selfishness, seems to be somebody who is selfishly out to rule and to trample on other people and to exploit other people. But what Ayn Rand shows through the character of Gail Wynand, is that by adopting this goal of seeking power over others, he too makes himself dependent on others. And he makes himself into a fundamentally selfless person. He too is a second hander in this very fundamental way.

Now the ultimate contrast to Howard Roark is the character of Ellsworth Toohey. And she describes Toohey as the paragon of secondhandedness. He is the arch exponent of collectivism in the novel and he is the representative of collectivism in mans soul. And so he is a second hander in the sense that he preaches collectivism, he preaches selfless sacrifice, he preaches the rejection of all personal values and independent goals and personal happiness. And he represents exactly the opposite principle to Howard Roark.

So what she does in The Fountainhead is she takes the character of Howard Roark as her representative of individualism in man’s soul. And she tells his story in contrast to the other characters and she shows the differences in their motive functioning. She shows in what way, Roark represents a new kind of moral ideal, a new kind of selfishness that does not involve exploiting or using other people. And it is a rejection of the idea that self sacrifice and the renunciation of ones self, is a moral ideal.

Now her working title for the novel was Second-Hand Lives. And I think she probably chose this as the working title because there is a certain focus on these other characters, these second handers in contrast to Howard Roark. Now once it was pointed out to her that by calling the novel Second-Hand Lives, it places the emphasis and the focus on everybody except Howard Roark. You know soon as she realized that, she said okay, well, we are going to completely change the title and she chose a title that placed the emphasis back where it belongs which is on Howard Roark. So the title The Fountainhead is an expression of the idea that the independent mind is the source of all innovation and all creativity. It is The Fountainhead of human life in effect. So her goal in telling the story of The Fountainhead was to portray Howard Roark and the moral principle that he represents.

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