By Charles Slack
These troubled times have sent me back to a pair of books that I’ve loved for most of my reading life. Though I’ve read both in whole or part more times than I can remember, they seem to hold particular resonance for me just now, and for different reasons.
I first read The Fountainhead in my early 20s. I was struck by Ayn Rand’s vivid, bold, and unapologetic defense of individualism and rational self-interest over the presumed wisdom of the collective. Published in 1943, the book tells of Howard Roark, a young architect whose adherence to his own values and vision nearly sinks his career.
It’s a philosophical novel that moves with the pacing of an adventure. In fact, Roark’s struggle and ultimate vindication amount to one of literature’s great adventure stories.
Born Alice Rosenbaum in the old Soviet Union, Rand loved American-style liberty and capitalism with a level of ferocity peculiar to those who have tasted the opposite. Writing the book as America struggled through the Great Depression of the 1930s, Rand clearly feared that her adopted home was discarding those freedoms in the interest of government-promised security.
Much as I loved The Fountainhead through the prosperous 1980s and ‘90s, Rand’s fears struck me as overstated. But economic calamity once again has people asking aloud whether capitalism is finished and whether we, as a society, have placed too much value on the individual and too little on the common good.
As political debate devolves into partisan distractions of liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican, I hold The Fountainhead closer than ever before.
The second book is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Unlike The Fountainhead, Gatsby was published in the 1920s, at a time of wild economic optimism when, as Fitzgerald once observed, if you didn’t like how things were, you just paid somebody some money.
The hero, Jay Gatsby, is driven not by concerns of individual rights versus the collective, but by getting the girl. Consumed with desire for the rich and remote Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby has acquired a fortune by the shadiest of means and installed himself in a garish Long Island mansion across the bay from Daisy. Night after night he stares at the famous green light at the end of her dock, dreaming of the time when they will be together.
Gatbsy is a novel to be cherished for its exquisite language, and also for its stubborn insistence on a romantic rather than pragmatic view of life. Gatsby’s quest may be doomed, but the audacity of his dreams and the beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose are enough to convince you for as long as you remain in the thrall of those pages that Gatbsy’s short life is better-lived than a dozen longer and more prosaic ones.
As I think about it, these two books are not as dissimilar as they appear. Like Ayn Rand, who cast off her birth name and devised her new one from a Finnish poet and her typewriter, Fitzgerald’s hero was born James Gatz and rechristened himself with the more romantic-sounding Jay Gatsby. Both books speak to the power of dreams and the ability of a determined individual, in this of all countries, to follow them. Reassuring thoughts just now.