Ayn Rand, Capitalism, and Romanticism

Was Ayn Rand right that romanticism is the proper literary reflection of capitalism? I like to work by referring questions to the nature of the genre.

The romance in its most basic form is a symmetrical story of personal status lost and then restored (see Northrop Frye’s excellent study The Secular Scripture). What I’ve noticed is that if you break that symmetry, the story made from the Descent phase of a romance is a classical tragedy: there is no return from the nightmare world, and the anagnorisis (recognition) is the point of the fall. On the other hand, the story made from the Ascent phase is a classical comedy, and the most enduring trope of the comedy is the marriage — the founding of a new proper community or society, to give the social status which is the subject matter of the romance.

Certainly there are elements of romance story structure that echo the experience of personal entrepreneurship — the risk and hard work corresponds neatly to the descent phase and recomplications of the struggle in the nightmare world; the hope of commercial success, in which the struggle pays off, corresponds to the ascent phase and restoration –

– but that is only one aspect of the human activity of commerce. Certainly it is a story that bears retelling, but it is not the only appropriate story that can be told about liberty and commerce. As nearly everyone has pointed out, there is a certain overdeterminism of what attitudes are fashionably associated with the modern novel, going back as far as Trollope — but surely the formation of the mind and the personality of the entrepreneur has the potential to be artistically satisfying, and that seems to call for a novelistic treatment. Rand herself embodied this theme in her giant melodrama, Atlas Shrugged (also, be it noted, a science fiction work), in what is to my mind the finest part of that book — the battle for the soul of Henry Reardon.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. She proposes a much more nuanced view, in which critiques of the market stand side by side with favorable depictions and even sound, encouraging advice for would-be businessmen. It’s time to get beyond the clichés about literature and commerce.

Response Essays

  • William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of the three “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

  • Frederick Turner offers a structural explanation for why literary scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon. Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Amy H. Sturgis argues that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.