Before Ayn Rand-There Was Isabel Paterson


Isabel Bowler Paterson

Isabel Paterson (1886-1961) was a “radical individualist in both theory and practice,” explains Stephen Cox in his new book about her entitled,

    The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America

Locate book here: Isabel Paterson’s Place in History

Before there was Ayn Rand, there was Isabel Bowler Paterson, who wrote strong pro-free trade Westerns, established her own newspaper, served as an editorial writer and, later, a literary editor for the Herald Tribune. She was married to Kenneth Birrell Paterson but it seemed to be an unhappy union. Isabel separated from him and her career eclipsed his. Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine was one of four magisterial libertarian works to be published in the dark days of 1943.

This is from the CATO Institute: – Paterson met editor Burton Rascoe in 1921, just before he became literary editor of the Herald Tribune, and persuaded him to take her on as his assistant. By 1924 she was writing a column under the initials “I.M.P.” for the paper’s Books section, which she would continue for almost 25 years. Her acerbic wit soon made her infamous, and was exemplified in such jabs as her observation that a talk titled “The History of English Literature as I Understand it,” given by Paterson’s bête noire Gertrude Stein, “should be a very brief lecture. The author John O’Hara confessed, on the occasion of the release of one of his novels, that he was “afraid of Isabel Paterson.” A 1937 study of American letters remarked that Paterson had “more to say than any other critic in New York today as to which books shall be popular.” These columns would also introduce, in embryonic form, many of the central themes of The God of the Machine.

Over the course of the decade, Paterson also wrote three historical novels: The Singing Season (1924), The Fourth Queen (1926), and The Road of the Gods (1930), none of which remain in print. Spanning such diverse periods as 14th century Spain, Elizabethan England, and Germany in the first century B.C., the books already contain hints of the historical theory Paterson would articulate in The God of the Machine. Each shows how cultures are shaped by an underlying set of moral and political principles, and The Singing Season in particular portrays the destructive effects of state control of commerce.

During the ’30s, Paterson would lead discussions with a group of young conservatives who would stay at the Herald Tribune offices late into the evenings helping to paste up the Books section. One of these was a fledgling author by the name of Ayn Rand. Paterson would later use her column to promote Rand’s work, and Rand would reciprocate by recommending Paterson’s books to her own acquaintances. The pair corresponded prolifically, wrangling over religion and philosophy, until they stopped speaking after a particularly ugly argument in 1948. Paterson wrote her final three novels during this time as well: Never Ask the End (1933), which was the most experimental and non-linear of her narratives, The Golden Vanity (1934), and If It Prove Fair Weather (1940).

By the time God of the Machine was published, Paterson was living in Connecticut, where she would remain until the early ’50s, when she moved to Princeton, New Jersey. Her increasingly unfashionable political views led editors to push her out of her job at the Herald Tribune in 1949, but Paterson’s investments enabled her to live well enough without resorting to the acceptance of Social Security benefits. Her Social Security card remained in her papers, the original envelope unopened. Paterson’s remaining years were spent writing and advising — not to mention quarreling with — William F. Buckley, Jr., who was starting a little political magazine called National Review

Conservative icon Russell Kirk, with whom Paterson corresponded during World War II, and upon whom she exerted a profound influence, believed that Paterson would forever be remembered for her columns, novels, and literary commentary. Instead, it is The God of the Machine and its effect on the nascent libertarian movement for which she is best remembered. It is hard to imagine that this would have brought anything but pleasure to the woman who once wrote: “If there were just one gift you could choose, but nothing barred, what would it be? We wish you then your own wish; you name it. Ours is liberty, now and forever.”