Saturday, November 20, 2010

Author Interview: Jennifer Burns on Ayn Rand's Latter-Day Popularity

To many people, the unusually high level of interest in the works of Ayn Rand and her surge in popularity are puzzling.

In January 2009, the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore published an article called “’Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years,” in which he wrote:

“Many of us who know Rand's work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that 'Atlas Shrugged' parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.”

Two months later, The Economist reported that according to “data from TitleZ, a firm that tracks best-seller rankings on Amazon, an online retailer, the book's 30-day average Amazon rank was 127 on Feb. 21, well above its average over the past two years of 542. On Jan. 13 the book's ranking was 33, briefly besting President Barack Obama's popular tome, ‘The Audacity of Hope.’”

Earlier this year, Marsha Enright and Gen LaGreca noted in The Daily Caller that Moore’s 2009 article “seemed to ignite an explosion of interest in Ayn Rand. Sales of this prescient novel tripled; two Rand biographies have been selling like hotcakes; and references to her in the media have skyrocketed.”

What explains this phenomenon: A philosopher/novelist who died in 1982 is more popular now than when she was actively writing and promoting her books?

On April 15, 2010, after a panel discussion at the University of Virginia on whether libertarians should seek an alliance with liberals (with the resulting combination called “liberaltarian”), I put this question to one of the authors of the two Rand biographies that were published last year, UVA historian and panel moderator Jennifer Burns, who wrote Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.

Burns said that Ayn Rand “has become a rallying point for the opposition to Obama. Definitely, she has become a really strong presence in the Tea Party. I think a lot of people are seeing her writing as prophetic, both predicting what’s happening now and warning about what can happen if the state gets too big.”

In Burns’ opinion, Rand’s “time has come, in many ways.” She cautioned, however, that “it’s probably a temporary boom. She may fade away and then she’ll probably come back the next time we see this kind of state expansion.”

Burns said that so far her book has received “a very enthusiastic reaction.” Rand, she said, “is a really important figure in American intellectual life [who] hasn’t been recognized as such [and who] hasn’t been treated as such. Most readers of Rand simply appreciate that I take her on her own terms and explain just why she matters.”

(This article originally appeared on April 18, 2010, in slightly different form, on

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