The Clare Spark Blog

January 4, 2011

Railroading Ayn Rand/Alissa Rosenbaum/Dagny Taggart

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This blog is about my reaction to the essays in Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, ed. Mimi Reisel Gladstein and Chris Matthew Sciabarra (Penn State UP, 1999). Here is an anthology that encapsulates everything I find discouraging about those feminists have become acceptable in journalism and academe. With the exception of Barbara Branden’s lead essay, I doubt that the other contributors were able to read Rand with the understanding her important and pathbreaking work deserves. But if the contributors were short on the major themes in her fiction, they were long (but boring and uninformative) on the subjects of sex and gender. They are not alone in this preoccupation.

Having lived through (and “acted out” in) the 1970s, and having publicized feminists in the art world on my radio program and in slide shows (on sex and violence in the art of women artists and photographers), and having known many of the radicals who later became academic celebrities, I can attest to the emphasis placed on sexual liberation during those years. It broke up marriages, belittled the psychological meanings and consequences of sexuality, and provoked a right-wing Christian backlash against the threat to the family and to the status of women. When I returned to school to get my doctorate in history (specifically the response of the humanities to Herman Melville between the wars), I noticed that the academic stars were frequently, either as Foucauldians or as pro-gay activists, writing about sex and pornography, and with a strong libertarian slant, even though they were either Marxists or social democrats, and one would think, would be rather preoccupied with the condition of the working class and labor in general.

Hence, it is not surprising that “feminists” would pounce on Ayn Rand’s depiction of sexuality in her major novels to the exclusion of other themes, conceivably of greater importance to the author—themes such as her assaults on fascism, communism, bureaucratic collectivism, irrationalism and all the mechanics of reaction that she observed since her arrival on U.S. soil in 1926. But more, why did none of the contributors notice that Atlas Shrugged took us deeply into the engineering feats and industrial expansion associated with the introduction of railroads? I would guess because 1. It doesn’t fit into the subject matter of “Women’s Studies” or “women’s issues” and 2. They were not aware of the railroad as chief symbol of ever-innovating modernity; the railroad as facilitator of rootless cosmopolitanism, industrial expansion, the stupendous improvement in the standard of living for all, and the broadening of the mind that travel made possible. The new steam engine and the discombobulating speediness (Rand’s shocking use of amphetamines!?) that trains introduced disturbed numerous artists and writers, from Turner to Hawthorne (see The House of the Seven Gables) to Magritte.

Turner’s “Rain, Steam, Speed”

Magritte’s steam locomotive

I am suggesting that Ayn Rand’s selection of the railroad as Dagny Taggart’s chief area of expertise and her leading preoccupation was no shot in the dark; rather, she continued an important Promethean line in the literature of the West. To illustrate that lineage, and some organic conservative opposition to the railroad, I offer a few paragraphs from my essay on Melville and his imagined Robert E. Lee (

[essay excerpt:] …Melville’s Captain Ahab was associated with railroads by “Ishmael” and numerous literary scholars, taking railroading Ahab to be the essential American type, spawned by self-fashioning Puritan New Englanders (the Chosen People), and mowing down everything “spiritual” in its path.[1] [Compare the uproar directed against Alissa Rosenbaum’s/Ayn Rand’s atheism, a refusal of Jesus so typical of secular Jews or, for many Christians, all Jews.]

Supporting the Iowa Railroad Bill of 1852, the fledgling Senator from Massachusetts had looked upon ever-enlarging democratic vistas: “It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of roads as means of civilization…where roads are not, civilization cannot be…Under God, the road and the schoolmaster are two chief agents of human improvement. The education begun by the schoolmaster is expanded, liberalized, and completed by intercourse with the world; and this intercourse finds new opportunities and inducements in every road that is built.”[2] Now, twenty-four years later, comes Melville’s most unbeloved character, the “geologic Jew” Margoth of Clarel, a hammer-swinging little man, and, like Sumner, another liberal avatar of capital, expanding markets, and common sense.[3] Margoth, like Ahab or Sumner, recalls Milton’s rebel angel Mammon, “the least erected spirit”; declining the reverential glance upward,[4] Margoth is “…earthward bent, [who] would pry and pore.” Addressing pilgrims touring the environs of Jerusalem, he obnoxiously desecrates the Holy Land:

The bread of wisdom here to break,

Margoth holds forth: the gossip tells

Of things the prophets left unsaid—

With master-key unlocks the spells

And mysteries of the world unmade;

Then mentions Salem: “Stale is she!

Lay flat the walls, let in the air,

That folk no more may sicken there!

Wake up the dead; and let there be

Rails, wires, from Olivet to the sea,

With station in Gethsemane.” (Clarel, 2.21, 84-94)

Margoth goes off to “explore a rift”–a worrisome idea for Melville as conciliator of unhappily riven natural families of upper-class white people, persons who were, as Margoth’s parting glance would imply, “in decline.” (2.21, 105-111) In his unfinished tome, “The Philosophy of Politics”, Woodrow Wilson too would be fretting over deracinating modern inventions: “What effect may railroads (all the instrumentalities which make populations movable and detach from local connections and attachments) be expected to have on local self-govt., and in producing nationality?” In the same projected work, he defined “Political Liberty” as “Obedience to the laws of the social organism.” As his biographer explained, the Whole, not rule of the many, constituted the Nation. (Quoting Wilson) “It is for this that we love democracy: for the emphasis it puts on character; for its tendencies to exalt the purposes of the average man to some high level of endeavor; for its principle of common assent in matters in which all are interested; for its ideals of duty and its sense of brotherhood.”

Deploying biological metaphors in his description of “industrial development,” Wilson invigorated his prose and his wilting class with the concept of an inexorable life process tending onward and upward; but liberty (including the right to dissent) as a human right had disappeared, along with the concept of the liberal nation: in its place, consensus instructed by the empathic leader, attuned to different points of view. [5]  [end, excerpt from “Margoth v. Robert E. Lee”]

I have suggested that the theme of Promethean man and woman, so evident in the oeuvre of Ayn Rand, is a missing element in the writings of feminists. Moreover, that she continues a crucial line in the history of the modern West. That academic feminists and journalist celebrities can look at her work without emphasizing the symbol of the railroad is a symptom of the decline of reading since the New Left entered Parnassus.

[Added 1-11-2011:] I am reading We The Living and the importance of railroads to Ayn Rand should be obvious. One can see her later work as not only prefigured in this first novel, but the devotion she lavishes on Dagny Taggart’s repairs of her family railroad can be seen as a repair for the trauma that Rand experienced as a dispossessed haute bourgeois and then the brutality of life in the Soviet Union before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. Every detail in this early novel brings me back to the Stalinist or Stalinoid  mentality I experienced at Pacifica and then later in graduate school. It was almost that repressive, and I can only be thankful that I finally escaped, as she did in 1925-26.

[1] The identification of Ahab with railroads occurs at the close of the chapter 37, “Sunset”: “Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!” That Ahab’s railroad image is tied to the civilizing process is borne out in Starbuck’s soliloquy in the following chapter, “Dusk.” “[Complaining about Ahab’s tyranny:] Oh, life! ‘tis an hour like this, with soul beat down and held to knowledge,–as wild, untutored things are forced to feed—“

Compare to Donald Davidson, “Expedients Versus Principles–Cross Purposes in the South,” Southern Review Vol.2 (1936-37), 651. Decrying the habit of South-bashing in Northern newspapers, Davidson complained, “Denunciations of the older Klan disguised the working alliance of Radical Republicans and the Robber Barons. ¼”Urban-industrialized society” demolishes “whatever stands in its path.” The claim of collusion between the radicals and crooked capitalists is challenged in Stanley Coben, “Northeastern Business and Radical Reconstruction: a Re-examination,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XLVI (June 1959).

See also David Herbert Donald, Charles Sumner (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996), for epithets directed against Sumner, e.g. footnote, pp.4-5. Based on the belief that Sumner’s mother, Relief Jacob “’was probably of Jewish descent,’” Frank Preston Stearns (1905) attacked “’the Hebrew element in Sumner’s nature; the inflexibility of purpose, the absolute self-devotion, and even the prophetic forecast.’ Such a theory of inherited racial traits is, of course, highly unscientific. But in any case, the Jewish strain in Sumner’s ancestry is dubious. At no point in his career, when virtually every other possible weapon was used against him, were anti-Semitic charges raised.” On the same page, Donald reports that Esther Holmes, the mother of Sumner’s father (who had been born out of wedlock) was rumored to have had some “Indian or negro blood.” Donald presents Sumner as having covered up his genealogy. Having denied that antisemitic charges were made, on p. 239 (second volume), Donald, while comparing Sumner (who wished to bar all ex-Confederates from government) to the more flexible Thaddeus Stevens, states “He announced principles, as from on Mount Sinai, and deplored the compromises needed to transform ideals into legislative reality.” Opposite p.228 (second volume), in a chapter entitled “Very Like Robespierre,” a cartoon “Free Soil Her” (1864) is shown in which Sumner is kissing an ape-like black woman, with the rhyme: “In vain you’ve preached your precepts round,/ Throughout this whole great Yankee nation;/ I think that you should prove them first,/ And early try amalgamation.” See also caricature opposite p.197, “I’m Not to Blame for Being White, Sir!” Sumner gives alms to a black child, while turning away from a white urchin.

David Donald’s antipathy to Sumner is well known, but his criticisms were preceded, almost to the letter, in Anna Laurens Dawes, Charles Sumner (N.Y.: Dodd, Mead, 1892); Dawes viewed Sumner as archetypal Puritan/American, a prophet and our greatest orator, but not a statesman. Harold M. Hyman countered Donald’s statement that Sumner was “a man inflexibly committed to a set of moral ideas as basic principles,” observing that “in wartime matters Sumner was an immensely effective and intensely practical politician. As a combination, zeal and expertness are hard to beat.” In The Radical Republicans and Reconstruction, 1861-1870 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967): 103.

Also, on “bloody Jacobins,” see Patrick Riddleberger, 1866: The Critical Year Revisited (Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois UP, 1979): 225, for the Herald’s characterization of the Radical’s campaign in the elections of 1866. They were provoking another “reign of terror” in which Northerners would be fighting each other, were they to win.

The sub-text of the animus against Sumner is two-fold; first, as part of a historiographic trend claiming that extremists provoked the Civil War [see Hyman, “Introduction,” Radical Republicans]; and second, as an attack on laissez-faire by the progressive movement. The latter is summed up by Hardin Craig, Woodrow Wilson at Princeton (Norman, OK: U. of Oklahoma P., 1960): 14. “[Wilson believed] that universities should devote themselves always, regardless of other obligations, to the wise and proper service of the state, a belief that runs all through his university career.” Or, “’The chief end of life” is “to discipline men to serve the state, religiously, loyally.’” (10). “Order” for Wilson means “a sense of unity in human existence and in the universe itself.” (11) Leadership should make it clear that “Democracy is not a natural instinct of men–quite the contrary–and the doctrine of laissez-faire is its ruin.” (19). But the national government is not the chief focus of loyalty. Referring to Wilson’s article, “The Study of Administration,” (1887), Craig comments: “This article seems to suggest in education, as in all great social undertakings, a confederation of parts rather than a centralization of power, and a wide union of tolerated divisions of prerogatives in pursuit of common purposes ‘in honorable equality and honorable subordination.’ In other words, educational institutions should assume a form and operation not unlike his idea of the American system of government.” (22-23). Contrast this deified state and its “confederation of parts” to Sumner’s concept of the supreme central government as protector of individual development, and enforcer of “absolute equality before the law” in the states.

[2] Quoted in Jeremiah Chaplin and J.D. Chaplin, Life of Charles Sumner (Boston, 1874), 183-184.

[3] Herman Melville, Clarel, 2.22, 14; 1.24, 27-48. All references from Northwestern/Newberry edition.

[4] See Woodrow Wilson, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” below, p.  . For the explicit linking of Margoth to the rebel angels, see Clarel, 2.28, 9-10, 30-32. Margoth plucks a “fetid” fruit: “Pippins of Sodom? They’ve declined!” Then Margoth is viewed disapprovingly by the other pilgrims “raking their the land./ Some minerals of noisome kind/ He found and straight to the pouch consigned.”

[5] Henry Wilkinson Bragdon, Woodrow Wilson: The Academic Years (Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press, 1967), 257, 258, 259. The idealist intellectual tradition defended by relativists in cultural studies, etc. is plainly illustrated in the communitarian thought of Woodrow Wilson. Note the pseudo-materialism of his approach to history and the Burkean foundation of his approach to authority. See Mere Literature and other Essays, 1896, and republished in the Houghton, Mifflin Riverside Press edition of 1924. Except for his new piece on Edmund Burke, they had previously appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Century Magazine, and Forum. The Wilson essays follow to the letter the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, and illustrate the post-Civil War blood-and-soil organic conservatives co-option of the idea of progress. Organic conservatives were now democrats; they contrasted the ostensibly atomized, hence selfish, individual (the “mad scientist,” a synecdoche for Jacobins, in the tory discourse) with the individual-in-community. [for mad scientist, read Margoth]

In “The Course of American History,” 213-247, Wilson adjusts the prior materialist formulation of American history as a (sectional) battle between [Hebraic] Puritans and Southern slaveholders to control the labor system in the Western territories. This domineering (i.e., Whiggish) narrative, Wilson claims, was a creation of New Englanders who dominate the writing of history. Following his former student, Fredrick Jackson Turner, he shifts the axis from North versus South to East versus West, with the ever- receding frontier shaping American character. And East and West are not in conflict, but interact upon each other, staving off both decadence and overly Jacksonian political styles and objectives (i.e., the negative State).

Wilson emphasizes the importance of the middle states, ostensibly neglected by the New Englanders (aka “the chosen people”). What makes Lincoln the greatest American President and “supreme American” is 1. his ability to synthesize the conservative East and vigorous West; and 2. to understand and appreciate the point of view of all Americans, including most importantly, the South; moreover Lincoln is the great autodidact, bringing harmony instead of endless conflict into his (unfinished) life (206-208). (Autodidacts had been the object of horrified scrutiny since the invention of the printing press, and as materialists had been characterized as archetypal assassins.) Lincoln is contrasted to Thomas Jefferson, an example of “mixed breed” (187) because he had imbibed the French revolutionary spirit, and was hence, in Wilson’s words, “un-American.” (198) Jefferson, like other troublemakers, was impractical and given to abstractions. (196-199). What was at stake here? Supporting Burke, Wilson eschewed “government by contract” in favor of “government by habit.” (155)

“The history of a nation is only the history of its villages writ large.” (214). Wilson’s advocacy of local history (the “vital” kind) is of a piece with his progressivism, also localist, in contrast to the big Leviathan state that increasingly characterized the New Deal in the late 1930s. Literary historians as well as historians of science should read the Wilson essays in tandem with the pro-fascist writers of American Review, edited by Seward Collins in the mid-1930s that attempted to unite the English Distributists, New Humanists, Southern Agrarians, and Neo-Thomists in a revolutionary conservative synthesis. The empiricism of St. Thomas Aquinas was constantly praised, along with the classical notion of the rooted individual as it had existed in the High Middle Ages. It is out of this intellectual tradition, I believe, that the cultural approach to history (to use Carolyn Ware’s phrase) was derived, setting itself against the dangers of “scientific” history that could lead the investigator, Ahabishly, god-knows-where. Such are the wondrous ways of the moderate men, and it seems to me to be the way of those who aspire to activism as historians; that is, their reforms entail non-structural adjustments (ethnopluralism and inter-racial understanding, for instance) that presume harmony as the outcome.


  1. Very interesting gathering and juxtaposition of men & ideas in the notes. As for railroading in Rand: as a rail fan myself since childhood, I always presumed that Rand’s thematic use of railroads in “Atlas Shrugged” was deliberately central. Combining industry with commerce, freedom of movement with the open West, the struggle of Taggart Transcontinental (aided by Rearden Metal) provides the strong spine of the novel.

    Comment by Robert W Franson — September 3, 2014 @ 5:42 am | Reply

  2. Clare,

    If the feminists you dislike really were/are Foucauldians (or other varieties of post-toasties, as a Marxist friend used to call them) they weren’t Marxists, even if they had started that way. By now, many who have been in academia for quite a number of years never were Marxists or social democrats or ’60s/’70s radicals, of course. We are as far from 1989 as the beginning of World War II was from the end of WW I …

    Anyway, Marxists believe in the existence of truth, of reality in the world that can be discerned and understood to greater or lesser degrees and in progressive degree. Foucauldians do not. They believe only in competing discourses used in struggling for political power, none of which has superior inherent truth-value to any other. The Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland was the first Foucauldian.

    The point here is not the accuracy or otherwise of Marxist understandings of truth or of claims that Marxism is “scientific,” but the fact that as a mode of thought Marxism affirms the existence of reality apart from human language or thought, and the knowability and increasing, progressive knowability of that reality. By contrast the hyper-linguistic varieties of post-whateverism amount to latter day solipsism.

    Also I am a bit curious as to how you reconcile your apparently approving characterization of the ideas of Charles Sumner as embodying “common sense” with your valorization of Ayn Rand & her “prometheanism,” and the rather smeary and anti-intellectual way in which a lot of those claiming to be her followers lump together highly disparate ways of thinking and political programs as “collectivism.” (I am not sure if Rand actually does that herself.)

    On the one hand, the idea of “common sense,” sense shared in common by members of communities based on shared experience, has an ineluctable “collectivist” element. It is not purely collectivist. But it involves basic recognition that human beings are at once individual and individualistic, and social and mutualistic, in our being. All of the great ethical traditions recognize that. The seeking after pure individualism apparently embodied in Rand’s thought, at least according to general discourse these days, or embodied in Margaret Thatcher’s famous apothegm that “There is no society, only individuals and families,” is extreme, and contrary to common sense.

    Conversely, from the other side, the valorization of the “promethean” aspects of Rand’s thought seems at least potentially in conflict with valuing common sense as well as the common good (an idea whose content may be debated, but which I would claim does form part of views of common sense almost universally). Certainly Rand’s ideas that I think are what you mean by “promethean” are often represented, sometimes by those hostile to her, but also sometimes by people who think they are agreeing with her, as either elitist or something like Nietzschean (in the more negative senses). Of course both foe and would-be friend might be mistaken & I would be curious what you think.

    As you can probably tell, I have not read Ayn Rand’s work & I have tried to be scrupulous in not making claims about it therefore. I *have* characterized my perceptions of what I see as anti-intellectualism in how she is invoked in current public discourse, particularly in fairly frequent conservative elisions of significant distinctions across the whole political spectrum from the center to the far left, under the rubric of critique of “collectivism.”

    Thus a final question — if I were to take or find the time to read her writings, what would you suggest as the best place to begin to gain a serious understanding that does her thought the justice you think it deserves but often fails to get?


    On a separate point, the Wilsonian authoritarianism you identify seems to me similar to parts of Hegel’s thought, some of which is a source of great mischief in the Marxist traditions, particularly the historicism but also perhaps one root of Marxist authoritarianism.

    thanks, CL

    Comment by Chris Lowe — March 2, 2011 @ 5:07 am | Reply

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