The Woman and the Dynamo

The last two years have seen the publication of an encouraging number of new biographies of significant Old Right figures — Mencken, of course, but also less well known writers such as John T. Flynn and Isabel Paterson. I have a review of the new Flynn book by John Moser (John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism) in the forthcoming issue of Chronicles; I’ll discuss Flynn at greater length once that reaches bookstores.

In the meantime, I ought to offer a few words about The Woman and the Dynamo, Stephen Cox’s superb biography of Isabel Paterson, which I’ve reviewed in the Fall 2005 issue of Modern Age. Although I take issue with some of Professor Cox’s literary judgments — he’s an editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and sometimes it shows — the book as a whole is as thoughtful and elegant an appraisal of Paterson’s life and work as anyone could hope for. Paul Cantor’s endorsement of the book is exactly right — it’s “a model of intellectual biography — it allows us to see the human being behind the thought, without at all letting concern for the personal details of Paterson’s life interfere with our understanding of her thought.”

But who was Isabel Paterson? In the interwar period she was best known as a mainstay of the New York Herald-Tribune‘s “Books” supplement; in terms of influence, she was something like the Michiko Kakutani of her day. She was also a novelist herself, though her attainments in that regard were less impressive. And in the capacity for which she’s best remembered today, she was one of the great proto-libertarians of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ayn Rand said that Paterson’s book The God of the Machine did for capitalism what Das Kapital did for communism. (The God of the Machine is not a mere paean to big business or building smokestacks to the moon, though; Russell Kirk thought highly enough of the book to include it in his Library of Conservative Thought alongside works by traditionalists like Irving Babbitt and Eric Voegelin.)

She had an interesting life (though not in the sense of the Chinese curse), from her childhood on the frontier to being the sharp-tongued terror of New York literary salons of the interwar period — to the hard times on which she fell once Communists and Communist sympathizers had gained sway over the publishing industry and her uncompromising libertarianism had fallen out of step with much of the postwar right. There weren’t a lot of happy endings for the Old Right. Her career, and Cox’s deft treatment of her work, also provides a welcome reminder that the individualists of the era before World War II were literary men and women — not policy wonks.

The Fall 2005 Modern Age with my review of Cox’s book should still be on sale wherever Modern Age is sold, which is to say, in some of the bigger and better-stocked bookshops. (The Barnes and Noble and Borders stores in the D.C. area tend to carry it, though I know they no longer do in St. Louis.) There are also quite a few good reviews by others on the web, including Brian Doherty’s from Reason and Alan Bock’s from the Orange County Register. Justin Raimondo reviewed it for TAC, but unfortunately that one’s not on-line.


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