Why Isabel Paterson Is Great

Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine (this week’s Club release) was one of four magisterial libertarian works to be published in the dark days of 1943. Also released that year were Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man; Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom; and, by far the most famous, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

You may not know of Ms. Paterson, but she influenced many of the brightest stars in the libertarian galaxy, and while she never gained the same status, Paterson may have been the most brilliant classical liberal of her generation.

Last year’s release of the movie Atlas Shrugged: Part I continues to keep a spotlight on Ayn Rand. But while Rand studied history and philosophy in Russia, she didn’t read widely.

Someone had to teach Rand the glories of free markets that most people identify her with. That person was Isabel Paterson.

“They’d sit up until four or five in the morning — and Ayn would be sitting at the master’s feet,” Rand’s niece remembers:

“One night, when they were talking, I went to bed, but I could hear the conversation, and it was if Pat were the guru and teacher — and Ayn didn’t do that. Ayn would be asking questions, and Pat would be answering. It was very strange.”

Ms. Paterson is the “Pat” Mimi Sutton was referring to — a “radical individualist in both theory and practice,” according to Stephen Cox, author of The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America.

In the first third of Rand’s Fountainhead, economic ideas do not dominate. It was only in the remainder of her first great success that “after many months of intense discussions with Paterson about political philosophy and American history and institutions, does she develop the political meaning of Roark’s experience,” Cox explains.

Rose Wilder Lane also picked Paterson’s brain. Cox writes, “It is possible that Lane derived many of her key concepts from her all-night conversations with Paterson.”

However, Lane’s Discovery and Paterson’s God of the Machine are very different books. Cox points out: “Libertarian readers have generally turned to Lane for emotional satisfaction and to Paterson for intellectual challenge.”

When Paterson’s great work first appeared, the book seemed old-fashioned, but with the passage of time, it is prophetic. Paterson defends free enterprise and individualism and exposes the failures of collectivism. Considering not only the tenor of the times, this was absolutely heroic, especially given that Paterson was struggling just to make a living as a writer. This was not some rich industrialist writing.

The individual mind is paramount in Paterson’s view of history. “An abstraction,” she writes, “will move a mountain: Nothing can withstand an idea.” She believed that the American system allowed for the “dynamo” — the creative mind — to be unleashed with energy produced through individual exchange. The circuit extended through the use of money.

Paterson made her living as a novelist and columnist. However, while her column in the New York Herald Tribune was “Turns With a Bookworm,” she was given the latitude to write about almost anything she wanted, which turned out to be economics, politics and whatever else came to her mind.

Her favorite Depression book was Garrett’s A Bubble That Broke the World (part of Economics in One Library), and she understood the Austrian view that the Depression was a curing of the boom created by the government’s cheap money and that the hard times continued because of government price supports and programs that hampered the liquidation of what Austrians would call malinvestments.

She railed against FDR’s gold seizure from a woman’s point of view:

“Never shall we forget the line of women we saw turning in their savings, under threat of 10 years in jail and $10,000 fine, while the multimillionaire Sen. Couzens stood up bravely on the floor of the Senate and promised to ‘hunt them down’ if they tried to hold out a few dollars.”

Paterson was not just adventurous with her words — calling Eleanor Roosevelt “a pathetic fool,” for instance — but the first time she flew, Nov. 5, 1912, she set a record for reaching an altitude of 5,000 feet, flying higher than any woman had to that point. The 26-year-old Canadian frontier girl sat beside pilot Harry Bingham Brown in the tiny Wright biplane, constructed of cloth and wood, and said afterward, “It was the greatest experience of my life.”

Isabel grew up in the rough-and-tumble West; her family was relegated to living in tents while she did farm chores like making soap and taking care of the livestock. In Utah, she attended school for a month before asking to leave. She knew more than the teacher, and at 7 years old was already reading “a consideration of Bryan’s stand on the free silver question.” So readings the teacher offered, like The Little Red Hen, provided no stimulation. She didn’t see an electric light until she was 16 years old.

The Bowler (Isabel’s maiden name) family traveled throughout the West. She left home at 18 and began a series of jobs — so many she lost count. She married Kenneth Paterson, but left him within weeks. Why she married him, no one knows. These experiences provided the fodder for her novels, which to varying degrees were autobiographical.

After leaving her husband, she immediately found a writing career, accidentally. Starting as the boss’ secretary at a Spokane newspaper, within two weeks, she was writing editorials.

Paterson was a much stronger brew than today’s faux freedom-fighting Tea Party, but they would be happy to know she sided with them on the God question and spent many hours arguing with Rand on religion.

In the end, Rand and Paterson parted company over the issue. Their last phone conversation, in 1959, prompted Paterson to write to a friend:

“Talking to her, I realized how impossible it has become to communicate with her at all… It’s the darndest thing, but professed atheists (one of whom she is which) are really more bigoted than any adherents of any religion, except perhaps Whirling Dervishes.”

Paterson viewed men as dreamers, always looking to run off, change jobs, change the world or conduct social experiments. While men are engaged in fanciful thinking and abstractions, women are more practical, getting down to work and raising families. “And on the personal level,” writes Cox, “that is what the libertarian philosophy comes down to.”

Everyone in the freedom movement owes a debt to this brilliant, productive, tenacious and complicated woman. It’s long overdue that she be recognized with the greatest classical liberal thinkers of all time.


Paterson’s great work — The God of the Machine —  is released July 6, 2012, in the Spy Briefing Club.

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