Toward the end of a recent Bloggingheads between Timothy Noah of Slate and Megan McArdle of the Atlantic, they discussed whether Ted Kennedy would be remembered 100 years from now and whether Ayn Rand would be remember (around the 50 minute mark). McArdle is a fan of Rand, but referred to her novels as “beach reading.” (Although I believe she was a better philosopher than novelist, I do believe she was a writer of tremendous power) I’d like to make the case for why I believe Ayn Rand will be more remembered 100 years from now than Ted Kennedy, or least more remembered than 99% of Members of Congress from this era.
Looking back at any era in history, the writers, artists and poets always have a more enduring legacy than the politicians. Michelangelo is far more renowned today than the Popes who commissioned his works. Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone are two of the most famous British Prime Ministers, but neither is as famous as Charles Dickens. With the exception of Lincoln, Walt Whitman is more famous than any American President from his era. This isn’t to say that Rand will be as an enduring a figure as Michelangelo, Dickens or Whitman, but the fact that Atlas Shrugged sold 200,000 copies in 2008 shows that Rand already has endured the test of time. Outside of Rand’s circle, I’m sure that very few people in the late 1950s thought her popularity would sustain itself for more than half a century.
In the introduction to 25th anniversary edition of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand wrote:
Many people have asked me how I feel about the fact that The Fountainhead has been in print for twenty-five years. I cannot say that feel anything in particular, except a kind of quiet satisfaction. In this respect, my attitude toward writing is expressed by a statement of Victor Hugo: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away” Certain writers, of whom I am one, do not live, think or write on the range of the moment. Novel, in the proper sense of the word, are not written to vanish in a month or a year. That most of them do, today, that they are written and published as if they were magazines, to fade as rapidly, is one of the sorriest aspects of today’s literature, and one of the clearest indictments of its dominant esthetic philosophy: concrete-bound, journalistic Naturalism which has now reached its dead end in the inarticulate sounds of panic.
Almost all politicians are exclusively focused on the immediate, i.e. “What’s going to help me win the next election?” This is the reason why almost all of them are quickly forgotten. A proper novelist (one not writing for immediate profit) is writing for all of time. Whatever Ted Kennedy accomplishments were in civil rights, womens’ right, etc., they will be added onto and altered by future legislators, but a novel can never be altered. (Hipster trends like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” be damned.)