Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Isabel Paterson, Part 1:The Fountainhead's Fountainhead

Has there ever been any mortal more cool than Isabel Paterson?
No, there hasn't.

I am nearing the end of my second reading of Stephen Cox's sublime biography of Ms. Paterson, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America. It is interesting that Ms. Paterson had a brief, presumably inconsequential, marriage early in her life, because her marriage of consequence turns out to be the perfect match of biographer to biographee. I cannot imagine a more harmonious pairing of sympathetic natures than that of Dr. Cox's with Ms. Paterson's. The offspring of this union is a highly readable, inexhaustively entertaining tribute to the almost-forgotten importance of one of the best minds of the twentieth century.

Oh - how Isabel winced at the application of the phrase "Best Minds" which so permeated the meddlers' and do-gooders' vocabularies before, during, and after the disasterous FDR administrations. Apologies to Pat (her preferred nickname), but I must bestow the title upon her, despite her misgivings. Her mind was an American original (though she was born in and bred mostly in Canada), and it worked with both a precision and abstraction that can leave her reader dazzled by its brilliance and giddied by its implications and possibilities. She so totally rocks!

And she was funny! Dr. Cox makes full use of all her witty aphorisms that brought delight to her readers and consternation to the objects of said observations. His own sly observations throughout the book also contribute to a light-heartedness too rarely found in non-fiction. While he approaches his subject with a seriousness and thoughtfulness worthy of such a giant, he also frames his story of her life and work with humor and good fun. A delightful instance of this that comes to mind is in Chapter 3, "The Unsheltered Life." Dr. Cox quotes from a letter that Isabel wrote later in her life of her "bachelor girl" days in Calgary as a young, unmarried career woman. He frames what she wrote as such: "She 'was thought rather fast' for bucking the fashion by wearing low shoes - 'anything different was fast!' She was free and she enjoyed her freedom, however mindless the freedom might seem."(26) In the next paragraph, Dr. Cox writes of Isabel's lifelong friendship with Grace Luckhart, whom she met at this time: "Around Grace and Isabel clustered a group of friends whose faint impressions linger in correspondence: nice young working women who rented a room in someone's house or shared a cottage with someone; and nice young men, ditto. Undoubtedly, they all enjoyed the feeling that they were very fast."(27) His phrasing is so wonderfully placed - neither crowding or brow-beating Isabel's original statement by coming too close, nor leaving the reader confused by being too obtuse - just a perfect little summation that evokes so easily the innocence and gaiety of a lost time. I can't help but think that Isabel would have chuckled to read it.

My dad (who, being the man of impeccable taste that he is, also loves this biography) wondered aloud in a recent conversation what drew Dr. Cox to exploring and revealing this undeservedly obscure heroine of liberty. I do not know for certain what sparked his curiosity, but I would bet that it had something to do with Ayn Rand. Anyone who has read Rand, her fiction and her non-fiction, and has found a lot to value in her ideas, has probably also read some of the biographical works written about her, in particular Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand. And in this and other chronicles, you will come across the figure of Isabel Paterson. Ayn Rand was, for lack of a more Randian term, quite the acolyte of Isabel's in the 1940's. Contemporary observers recall her sitting "at the feet" of Isabel, soaking up everything she could from Pat's vast intellectual storehouse of history, politics, philosophy, etc. Pat had what Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice called, "something more substantial [than the commonly accepted accomplishments suitable for young ladies]...the improvement of her mind by extensive reading." Apparently, Ayn was not much of a reader herself, so the impact of Paterson's influence on Rand's contextual understanding of these subjects should not be underestimated.

So, I imagine that Stephen Cox (who is an admirer of Ayn's and a scholar of her work - he writes for The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies), was intrigued enough by this glimpse into Ayn's background to want to investigate further this person so influential in her life. What a thrill it must have been for him to discover - or, rather, uncover - what one reviewer of his biography called "the lost goddess of libertarianism!" After reading about Pat, I have come to the conclusion that Ayn Rand may be the gold flake floating down the river and into the pan of the miner downstream, but Pat is the vein of gold-ore that lies under the stones and earth. It takes a bit more digging to get to Pat, but the riches reaped far outweigh the cost. She is marvelous - the acuity of her thinking has not been dulled by years of neglect - and she is more relevant than ever. In fact, I would say that she is more relevant than the perennial Ayn, because she had a greater, broader understanding of human nature and a greater generosity of spirit toward the human condition.

Okay, it's going to take a lot more writing than I have time for right now to pay proper homage to this amazing lady and exceptional biography, so I'll entitle this "Part 1" and come back later to write "Part 2" and beyond. If you have never read The God of the Machine, and you care deeply about individual liberty, go right now to Laissez-Faire Books and buy it and read it and make it a part of you! Do it! Then, go to same and buy The Woman and the Dynamo. Two books you'll never regret. And that's my public service announcement for the day.

Peace to all, and more Isabel-adulation to come!

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