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02/06/2005 Archived Entry: "The Woman and the Dynamo"
I am currently reading Stephen Cox's biography of Isabel Paterson "The Woman and the Dynamo" from Transaction Publishers and it is a remarkable book that I recommend to anyone interested in intellectual history, individualist feminism or libertarianism. One of the remarkable aspects of the work is how damned well written it is. I was originally drawn to the work...
...because I knew little of Paterson compared to other figures within the individualist feminist/libertarian movement of the Progressive Era through to WWII. Sadly, Paterson has remained undeserved obscure and known primarily for her masterpiece "God Of The Machine." The reason? At least partly because she needed a concerted scholar who was willing to read volumes of (perhaps) antiquated novels to sort through their characterizations and themes for patterns. But much more than this, it was necessary to plough through an ocean of old newsprint which concealed the columns where Paterson's unfiltered voice spoke and where her opinions were concealed. Admittedly, the extraordinarily long-lived, influential column on literary news and criticism that she wrote for the Herald Tribune is probably now available on microfiche or microfilm. But is that an improvement for the scholar's eyesight or enjoyment? (I remember many evenings when I had to back away from researching Benjamin Tucker simply because reading Liberty on microfiche was too visually taxing.) Fortunately, Cox did the hard and thankless work to make this woman emerge.
The book is also remarkable because the biographer is uniquely suited to understand the subject matter; that is to say, Paterson required a biographer with an intimate knowledge not merely of radical individualism but also of literary principles/history. The portrait of Paterson as a literary critic and theorist is the real gift to me. Although the book does not yet use the phrase "art for art's sake" -- I am only 1/2 through -- Paterson seems to be a fellow traveller if not an outright advocate of an aesthetic tradition that I've always found compelling: art for art's sake.
As I read "The Woman and the Dynamo", I continue to ponder a question that has haunted me for years. Why did and does the libertarian movement -- or radical individualism in general -- not celebrate and embrace its fiction writers in the same manner the Left did. Upton Sinclair, Lillian Hellman, Max Eastman, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis...these writers and many more on the Left had a dramatic impact on the culture and politics of their day and -- at least from an historical distance -- they seem to have been treated as intellectuals on the same level as university professors, policy analysts, political aspirants/agitators, and such. It cannot be because libertarians are unaware of the power of novels; so many of us were inspired toward radical individualism by the novels of Ayn Rand who remains almost the sole exception to the movement's neglect of fiction writers. The many other fine writers in our tradition have been given little recognition by the movement proper; even those who have achieved high success in their own fields, as Heinlein has achieved fame in SF, do not receive anything but a passing nod and sometimes a snicker from those who say they wish to spread libertarian ideas. Have we become elitist?
Over the years, I have evolved several answers, some or all of which may be true depending on the circumstances involved. But, with reference to Paterson, the question arises in the form: has this women been ignored by libertarian history partly because so much of her legacy is fiction and literary criticism/theory? Frankly, I don't know.
Back to reading and to work....