Politics & Policy

The Dynamic Imp

From the December 13, 2004, issue of National Review.

The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America, by Stephen Cox (Transaction, 418 pp., $39.95)

If you were around in 1943 (which is doubtful: even I, age 17, was only just barely around) you may have noticed that three books important to libertarian history coincidentally appeared: three books by three formidable women. There was Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, and Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine.

This was truly a phenomenon. A disposition to spot creeping socialism, let alone the will to contain it, hadn’t attracted many people in the book world. Americans–in and out of the book world–were preoccupied with reelecting FDR every now and then, and fighting a great war. Much pride was taken in the ship-a-day production achievements of the national economy. This had been a striking response, triggered by the huge demands of a world war, by a nation mistakenly thought unarousably sleepy after ten years of unemployment, desultory growth, inflation, and state welfarism. Also in 1943, we are reminded by author Stephen Cox, Albert Jay Nock published his anarchistic daydream, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, hitting a fatalistic note on any prospect of a return to individualism. One year later, Friedrich Hayek brought out The Road to Serfdom, a formal academic protest against statism, and we have ever since been aware of the growing literature against omnipotent government.

That unforeseen explosion in anti-statist thought and writing in 1943 encouraged the little community of conservatives, here and there. Conservatives were glad for signs of literary and philosophical life from dissenters from the collectivist age. Yet, looking back, it was as if a couple of enterprising buglers had risen in the libraries and sounded trumpets to demobilize the great statist aggregations: Ayn Rand and Rose Lane and Isabel Paterson and Albert Jay Nock and Friedrich Hayek warning against the burgeoning public sector. But nobody paid them much heed. In Britain, socialism was formally affirmed. In the U.S., Americans egged on the New Deal at home, and the colleges’ economics departments settled down as branches of Lord Keynes. The U.S. was not about to change fundamental political direction at the plea of three sob sisters, one superfluous man, and one Austrian doomsayer.

Yet the books were special events. Rand’s Atlas Shrugged eventually competed with the Bible in sales, though Russell Kirk was probably right in saying that most people read her for the fornicating bits. Rose Wilder Lane is gone. But–Isabel Paterson has now attracted a biographer. Stephen Cox has written not so much a book about a book, as a book about that book’s author, a remarkable lady not entirely attractive, not readily accessible, but ever so gifted.

Mr. Cox’s Woman was born in 1886, and died in 1961. Isabel Paterson was born in Canada and raised in rural Michigan in extreme poverty. She worked as a waitress, a dishwasher, a bookkeeper, and was finally spotted as having an acute verbal intelligence, which discovery led to a full-time editorial life. She married and quickly divorced, all but obliterating the memory of her husband, of whom she never spoke. She published nine relatively unnoticed novels and took on her famous book column.

She was everywhere known as “Pat,” and it is somewhere recorded that her bone-lazy in-laws excised one of the t’s from the conventional spelling of Patterson on the grounds that, over a lifetime, that economy would substantially reduce the energies expended in writing out their last name. Isabel Paterson’s third cognomen was “I.M.P.” These were the initials she used in the learned and terrifying weekly book column that, for 25 years, she wrote for the Herald Tribune Book Review. In it she did not disguise her dislikes, which were legion and florid. But the paper’s owners (New York’s Ogden Reids) moved leftward during the war, and her weekly voice was an intensifying irritant to a family that sought composure in Eastern-seaboard liberalism. The owners finally summoned the courage to fire her, in 1949. They gave out the excuse that the Trib was short of funds; which it was, eventually going out of business in the 1960s.

But for a while, the Trib was a vital GOP-oriented publication. The paper’s political protege had run for president in 1940, and for a while the exacting I.M.P. was keen on him. But she finally lost patience when, returned from a tour of the Soviet Union, Willkie wrote that “Russia is an effective society. It works.” That did it for Pat. She was unforgiving, as a matter of principle, and absolutely unforgiving with Soviet apologists. It didn’t matter in the least that Wendell Willkie had run for president against her nemesis FDR, or that he was the full-time lover of her boss, book editor Irita Van Doren. So she was out of work at 63, and lived on, indigently, for twelve years, contemptuously refusing to cash her Social Security checks.

What seemed her entire life was pointing to the grand appearance of The God of the Machine. This volume on man, life, and energy was greeted by those in her ideological company, fellow individualists, as a great event. Her (occasional) friend Ayn Rand labeled it “the best and most complete statement of the basic principles of our side, the greatest defense of capitalism I have ever read. It does for capitalism what Das Kapital did for the Reds.”

The book is complex. It is an intense elaboration on the theme of the individual and the machine. Her ideological thesis is that in order to interact productively, man and his dynamo must be free. Having said this much about the book, one feels the tongue tying up. Professor Cox discloses that Paterson’s friend and enthusiast Sam Welles, who wrote for Time magazine, was so carried away by the book that he undertook a 22,000-word condensation of it, which he tried to sell to the Reader’s Digest. That didn’t work, though it is worth recalling that The Road to Serfdom, by no means an easy book to read, was indeed condensed for the Reader’s Digest, whose editor, DeWitt Wallace, liked to be reminded that there were conservative philosophers out there whose ideas were congruent with those of the Reader’s Digest.

But the point I pause over is that Mrs. Paterson’s book was not readable in 1943, isn’t readable in 2004, and has had no definable impact, discernible to this author, on the corpus of conservative, anti-socialist thought. Having confessed my inability to paraphrase the book’s message, I thought I should let Mrs. Paterson speak for herself. And so I quote herewith an entire paragraph in which she understood herself to be speaking indelibly on the thesis of the God of the Machine.

The catechism of a free and productive society, she began, rests on “considerations” which are not “sentimental”:

They constitute the mechanism of production and therefore of power. Personal liberty is the pre-condition of the release of energy. Private property is the inductor which initiates the flow. Real money is the transmission line; and the payment of debts comprises half the circuit. The possibility of a short circuit, ensuing leakage and breakdown or explosion, occurs in the hook-up of the political organization to the productive process. This is not a figure of speech or analogy, but a specific physical description of what happens.

Well. Her book is easier to read about than to read, and Mr. Cox gives a lively account of some of the trials I.M.P. endured and imposed on others. In the early days of National Review, a considerable effort was made to solicit her writing. The Woman and the Dynamo documents that courtship. (Buckley “offered her help with her mortgage. He offered her a weekly book column. He tried to engage her to teach his four-year-old son to read.”) Mr. Cox quotes letters to her from WFB, some of her replies, all of it illustrating the difficulties she made for collaborations of any kind. I wrested four or five pieces from her. The last one was, I thought, so wantonly abusive of a particular set of people (the Du Pont family), that I attempted a slight editorial modification.

The incident is amusingly related by Professor Cox. “When he [WFB] received Paterson’s manuscript, he telegraphed her, ‘I think your piece is brilliant, amusing, readable and uncharitable and that we should publish it . . . I will suggest a few minor changes aimed at dissipating the impression that you are pursuing a vendetta.’ She would not see the logic of this proposal; in fact, she would not discuss it. She replied in the words of a Civil War general: ‘I tole you twicet, Goddamit, NO.’ That, she told Buckley, was Nathan Bedford Forrest’s response to an insolent request a hundred years ago, and that was ‘the response today of me IMP.’”

“So that,” Mr. Cox tells his readers, “was the end of her association with National Review.” His coda here is worth quoting: “She had already alienated such important conservatives as Russell Kirk. Others, such as Whittaker Chambers, viewed her as a disruptive influence. ‘I am not “sound” on Mrs. Paterson,’ [Chambers] wrote to Buckley. Chambers went on: ‘Unlike many others, I go by the general rule that almost anything she says is likely to be wrong. My observation is that she is capable of brilliant insights which merely confuse things the more because they play upon a corpus of notions, which are neither bad nor undesirable: by and large. I think they have almost no relation to reality as it is. She grew up, as she once told me, in an age when men were men. She seems to me to overlook completely the fact that it was those men who prepared our age when pygmies are pygmies.’”

The Woman and the Dynamo is a fine and conscientious biography of a strange and remarkable woman.

Mr. Buckley’s current book is Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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