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Two Books about Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand, by Jeff Britting

Ayn Rand and Song of Russia, by Robert Mayhew

Reviewer: Richard Lawrence

Review Summary: Two useful books about Rand's life, one a brief general biography, the other a detailed study of Rand's role in fighting Communists in Hollywood.

At the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s birth, scholars and fans alike can enjoy two recent biographical studies about her life, one a general biography and the other a narrow study of a specific incident.

The more general of the two is Jeff Britting’s Ayn Rand. Britting’s book is a compact (less than 140 pages in a smaller-than-average hardcover edition) birth-to-death biography. As part of the Overlook Illustrated Lives series, Ayn Rand is richly illustrated with photographs, drawings and document reproductions, many of them provided by the Ayn Rand Institute, where Britting works as an archivist. The photos and their captions provide numerous tidbits about Rand’s life not found in the main text, such as a list of the publishers who rejected The Fountainhead and the fact that Fritz Lang was Rand’s first choice to direct an adaptation of Atlas Shrugged.

Unfortunately, the downside of so many illustrations in a small book is that the biography lacks extensive detail on many aspects of Rand’s life. Rand’s early years and the writing of her major novels get the lion’s share of the coverage. Many interesting aspects of Rand’s life are treated very briefly, including the tumultuous Broadway production of Night of January 16th (two paragraphs), her anti-Communist activism in post-war Hollywood (one paragraph), the production of the movie of The Fountainhead (one paragraph), and her relationships with Isabel Patterson (one paragraph) and Nathaniel Branden (two paragraphs). Many people in her life, including Alan Greenspan, Bennett Cerf, and others, get only passing mentions, sometimes relegated to photo captions. Readers will have to turn elsewhere for more information on these topics.

That said, Britting does a good job with the space he has. His writing is clear and concise, and his historical facts appear to be well-documented. (In some cases, he implicitly corrects material from other biographies, such as the legend that Rand took her last name from a typewriter.) He provides a good general overview that will be helpful to those less familiar with Rand’s life, while providing enough little-known trivia to keep the interest of more studied readers.

At the opposite end of the detail spectrum is Robert Mayhew’s Ayn Rand and Song of Russia. From a biographical perspective, Mayhew is focused on one specific incident in Rand’s life: her testimony before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in 1947. For those not already familiar with Rand’s testimony, she spoke as a “friendly” witness before HUAC during one of its investigations of Communist influence in Hollywood. She spoke at length about Song of Russia, an obviously pro-Soviet movie made during World War II and approved by the federal Office of War Information as a supposedly desirable piece of propaganda in favor of a US ally in the war.

Mayhew gives a wealth of detail culled from Rand’s personal papers (once again provided courtesy of the Ayn Rand Institute), government files (including declassified FBI files), interviews and other sources. We learn not only what Rand said before HUAC, but behind-the-scenes details about why she was selected to testify, what she wasn’t allowed to discuss, and what she thought about the hearings afterward. Even her travel schedule for attending the hearings is covered.

However, Mayhew’s book is not simply biographical. Rather, he uses Song of Russia and Rand’s testimony as a case study of Communist influence in Hollywood. He reviews the movie in detail, covering both the finished product and the production process. He also recounts the general history of HUAC’s investigations and the reactions they prompted, including the circumstances of the “friendly” and “unfriendly” witnesses at the 1947 hearings. In a number of areas, Mayhew is openly revisionist, challenging commonplace views (largely dominated by leftist perspectives) about such topics as blacklisting and naming names. He also shows the biased and inaccurate way subsequent commentators dealt with Rand’s testimony specifically.

Beyond the differences in scope, Mayhew’s tone is also a contrast to Britting’s. While both books are scholarly in their attention to accuracy and sourcing, Britting maintains a somewhat detached attitude towards his subject (although his admiration for Rand and her ideas does show through at times). Mayhew, on the other hand, makes no bones about his feelings towards the unfriendly witnesses, Communists and leftists in general. He refers to Hollywood Communists as “Benedict Arnolds,” and at one point even borrows an explicative-laced phase from Lenin to describe Lillian Hellman. Mayhew’s sometimes strident tone may put off some readers, especially those whose own views lean left -- though I wonder how many leftists will even bother to read a book that defends Ayn Rand’s HUAC testimony.

Another minor concern is Mayhew’s references to details from Rand’s work, which may confuse general readers who are more interested in HUAC and Hollywood Communists than in Rand herself. For example, a comparison between Rand’s character Wesley Mouch and Lowell Mellett, the former head of the Office of War Information, might be apt in some ways, but it is likely to puzzle anyone who hasn’t read Atlas Shrugged -- Mayhew’s attempt to explain it notwithstanding. It also seems unnecessary to make a literary comparison to understand Mellett’s trite history as a political operative turned government bureaucrat.

All that said, Mayhew has nonetheless produced a provocative and useful snapshot of the clash between Communists and anti-Communists in Hollywood, complete with a wealth of detail on specifics and a clear understanding of how these issues relate to the larger historical picture of the Cold War.

I recommend both books. Britting’s is appropriate for those interested in Rand’s life, be they interested newcomers or those already knowledgeable of her biographical details (but especially the former). Mayhew’s is good for those looking for intense detail about Rand’s life, or for general readers who know little of Rand but are interested in HUAC and the issue of Communism in Hollywood.

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