During World War II, while American soldiers fought dictators overseas, three women back home were unleashing a barrage on the ideas at the very foundation of tyranny. Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, all published in 1943, became cornerstones of the American libertarian movement. Their authors, once described as “the three furies of modern libertarianism,” have been the subjects of separate biographies. But Freedom’s Furies by Timothy Sandefur is the first book-length exploration of their relationships and the context surrounding these enduring works.
“There have been many books written on philosophical clashes,” observed Dennis Rasmussen in 2017, “but far fewer on philosophical friendships.” That’s probably true at least in part because, as Rasmussen said, “conflict makes for high drama, while camaraderie does not.” The story of the trio that launched the modern American liberty movement, however, combines both. “At times friends, at other times fiercely estranged,” Paterson, Lane, and Rand were brilliant and devoted champions of an ideal then on the wane: individualism, the view that the individual’s life is his own and that he ought to spend it in pursuit of his own happiness. When they weren’t debating among one another, they were trying desperately to keep America from sinking to the same depths that had swallowed communist Russia, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany.
That required, as Sandefur shows, swimming against two strong cultural currents, one literary and the other political. The first, dubbed the “revolt from the village,” mixed the understandable goal of throwing off the chains of small-town orthodoxy with a sneer at consumerism and “bourgeois values.” Sinclair Lewis, the towering literary figure of the day, became de facto head of the revolt, the spirit of which he conveyed in his blockbuster novel Main Street. It portrayed small-town Americans as “a savorless people, gulping tasteless food, and sitting afterward, coatless and thoughtless, in rocking-chairs prickly with inane decorations, listening to mechanical music, saying mechanical things about the excellence of Ford automobiles, and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.”
All three furies marveled at Lewis’ ability to skewer stifling conformity but, in different ways, each eventually came to revolt against the revolt. Paterson was “wary of the village rebels” because she saw that “the mundane lives of the people Lewis ridiculed were admirable in their own way” and that “bourgeois culture represented something rare and precious: the peaceful pursuit of individual happiness, free of the commands of political authorities,” writes Sandefur. Lane regarded Lewis as having sent American literature into a “ditch,” and some of her best work was done trying to rehabilitate the image and values of America’s hardscrabble pioneers, who conquered the plains in covered wagons and had no time for the sorts of busybodies who now scoffed at hard-won simple pleasures.