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Preface (1995)

PREFACE TO THE PENGUIN EDITION (1995)
Michael S. Berliner

Answering a letter in 1943 from her friend, well-known political writer Isabel Paterson, Ayn Rand wrote: “I got a special thrill out of your letter—all my life, reading the published correspondence of famous people, I have envied them because they received personal letters on important and abstract subjects, I mean from friends, not just professional correspondence.” At the time, Ayn Rand was just on the verge of fame, her novel The Fountainhead having been published six months previously. Now, fifty-two years later, in the sort of-dramatic development she loved, her own correspondence is being published.

Ayn Rand arrived in the United States in February 1926, having obtained a six-month visa from the USSR to visit her relatives in Chicago. She had no intention of returning to Russia, instead securing a letter of recommendation through a relative to the Cecil B. DeMille Studios in Hollywood. Her intention was to begin her writing career in the movies, having taken a film-writing course at the State Institute of Cinema in Leningrad shortly before her departure. She arrived in Hollywood in early September 1926 and remained there until moving to New York City in 1934. Unfortunately there is almost no extant correspondence prior to her move to New York, but there is no doubt that she wrote extensively to her family in Russia. Her effects contain more than a thousand letters from her parents, sisters, and cousins sent to her during this period, but her letters to them were surely handwritten in Russian, and no copies remain. Her correspondence gradually increased as she began to sell her plays and novels, and it virtually exploded after publication of The Fountainhead, when she often wrote dozens of letters a day, occasionally fifteen to twenty pages long. In 1951, her letter writing came almost to a complete stop for six years. The most likely explanation is that this was the period of her most intense work on Atlas Shrugged, which was published in 1957. In addition, she had now returned permanently to New York, living in the same city as most of her friends and colleagues; this made extensive correspondence unnecessary.

Readers of this book will quickly realize that Ayn Rand's letters seem more like polished documents than casual conversations. This is no accident. For one thing, she took letter writing very seriously, once commenting at the top of page five of a letter to Isabel Paterson that she had already been writing it for four hours. Ayn Rand was uninterested in “small talk,” either in person or on paper. So, her letters—even to friends—are not full of the nonchalant, almost stream-of-consciousness writing that makes up so much general correspondence. But there is an additional reason for the relative formality of her letters, a reason which she explained in another letter to Isabel Paterson: So as not to endanger her family in Stalin's Russia, Ayn Rand had to be extremely meticulous in self-censoring her letters to her relatives and thus became unable to write spontaneously, without careful editing. So, although her letters are generally missing some spontaneous touches, her practice of editing means that the content of her letters is a reliable guide to her intellectual development. The letters, however, are letters and not formal statements of her philosophic positions; hence they should not be taken as definitive. Consequently, the reader should not exaggerate the importance of (a) possible ambiguities caused by her using informal rather than more precise language or (b) seeming conflicts with her published views. In all cases, her published statements are definitive.