Books Cited or Discussed in This Essay:
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. New York: Modern Library, 1931.
Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. New York: Doubleday, 1986.
Cox, Stephen. The Woman & the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson & the Idea of America. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2004.
Flynn, John T. The Roosevelt Myth. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1948.
—. The Decline of the American Republic. New York: Devin-Adair, 1955.
Garrett, Garet. The People’s Pottage. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1953.
Johnson, Paul. “Introduction to the Fifth Edition,” in Murray N. Rothbard, America’s Great Depression. Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2000.
Manchester, William. The Glory & the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.
Paterson, Isabel. The God of the Machine. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1993.
Postrel, Virginia. The Future & Its Enemies. New York: Free Press, 1998.
What a treat it must have been to be an American libertarian in the last weeks of 1932. The federal government was a tiny, toothless thing then, at least by present-day standards. Its capital city of Washington, according to William Manchester, “was a slumbering village in summer, largely forgotten the rest of the year. In size it ranked fourteenth among American cities,” which made it about as big and important, relatively speaking, as Columbus or Jacksonville in the America of today. “Most big national problems,” Manchester recalls, “were decided in New York, where the money was; when federal action was required, Manhattan’s big corporation lawyers — men like Charles Evans Hughes, Henry L. Stimson, and Elihu Root — came down to guide their Republican protégés. President Coolidge had usually finished his official day by lunchtime.” His successor, Herbert Hoover, “created a stir by becoming the the first Chief Executive to have a telephone on his desk. He also employed five secretaries — no previous President had required more than one — and summoned them by an elaborate buzzer system.” (3)
Still, even the Hoover administration was remarkably compact. As Manchester notes,
Moreover, “[t]here was little pomp. […] If you called on the Secretary of State, he sometimes met you at the door.” (4)
This was a much leaner U.S. government than the one we view with horror today. In 1932 there were no federal “subsidies to farmers, […] handouts to the indigent, [or] support [for] schools.” The federal government did not “build hospitals [or] provide medical care.” (Flynn, Decline 113) And though it did undertake national defense, it did so much more cheaply than libertarians of today are accustomed to seeing. “The U.S. had the sixteenth largest army in the world” in 1932, Manchester reports, “putting it behind, among others, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Spain, Romania, and Poland.” And most of those in uniform “were committed to desk work, patrolling the Mexican border, and protecting U.S. possessions overseas.” What remained to defend the United States from anyone other than Mexico was “30,000 troops — fewer than the force King George sent to tame his rebellious American colonies in 1776.” (5) In constant dollars, this army cost about one-eighth of one percent of what today’s military costs the U.S. taxpayer. In 1932, the federal government was seizing less than five percent of our national income, so it had to be a good deal more frugal than the federal government of 2005, which claims roughly half our national income.
The Great Depression was underway in 1932, of course; around a quarter of the workforce was out of work, banks were failing, times were hard. And President Hoover had only made matters worse, “first pumping more credit into an already overheated economy and, then, when the bubble burst, doing everything in his power to organize government rescue operations.” (Johnson xv) These “rescue operations,” to the despair of any libertarian who watched them unfold and take shape, amounted to an effort to virtually nationalize the U.S. economy, an effort “to organize every profession, every trade, every craft under [government] supervision and to deal directly with such details as the volume of production, the prices, the means and methods of distribution of every conceivable product.” (Flynn, Myth 38)
Fortunately, however, President Hoover, the “born planner, meddler, orderer, and exhorter,” (Johnson xv) had been voted out of office after a single term in the White House. The American electorate had repudiated his planning, meddling, ordering, and exhorting and had elected the Democratic candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man who stood for small government and fiscal responsibility.
This was evident from the platform on which Roosevelt had run — a platform that called for
“2. Maintenance of the national credit by a Federal budget annually balanced ….
“3. A sound currency to be maintained at all hazards.”
Nor was this platform meant to be taken as mere empty rhetoric of the sort modern-day libertarians associate with the political campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. As Garet Garrett pointed out in 1938, “Mr. Roosevelt pledged himself to be bound by this platform as no President had ever before been bound by a party document. All during the campaign he supported it with words that could not possibly be misunderstood.” He said, for example,
Roosevelt was particularly adamant on the subject of government borrowing.
True, Roosevelt’s political track record was somewhat worrisome. After all “as governor he took New York State from the hands of Al Smith with a surplus of $15,000,000 and left it with a deficit of $90,000,000.” (37) Still, “[t]here was nothing revolutionary in” what he was now telling the voters.
By contrast, since the time of Lincoln, the Republican party had always stood for strong central government, top-heavy bureaucracy, and hefty handouts to big business. The fact that the voters had evicted a Republican from the White House and elected a Democrat surely meant that American public opinion was leaning libertarian and on the side of the angels.
Even more important, nearly all the major intellectual journalists and opinion leaders in the American public prints of the time were libertarian in their thinking. Only six years earlier, in 1926, not long after the publication of the sensational popular bestseller Notes on Democracy, Walter Lippmann had called its author, the nationally syndicated newspaper columnist H. L. Mencken, who was also the founder and editor of the monthly American Mercury, “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people.” In December of 1932, Mencken was still at the helm of the Mercury, though he would step down only a few months later and turn the magazine over to the literary editor of The Nation, Henry Hazlitt. Hazlitt would hold the job for only a year or so, however, before defecting to The New York Times, where he would write editorials on economic topics and review books on business and economics for the paper’s Sunday book pages.
The American Mercury was among the most influential magazines being published at that time — as was The Nation — but it was far from the most widely circulated or read. That honor went to the Saturday Evening Post, whose economics editor and chief editorial writer was Garet Garrett. In the same year that Henry Hazlitt took over the reins of The American Mercury, 1933, Felix Morley took over the reins of the Washington Post; within three years, he was awarded a Pulitzer prize for distinguished editorial writing. Meanwhile, the Saturday Evening Post, the American Mercury, The Nation, the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the other popular and influential magazines of the day — to say nothing of the period’s newspapers — were filled with articles by writers like Albert Jay Nock, John T. Flynn, and Rose Wilder Lane — as the nation’s bookstores were filled with these same writers’ books. And for those who haunted the bookstores and tried to keep up with the latest in books, the weekly book review of choice was the one published by the New York Herald Tribune. As Stephen Cox reminds us,
The deputy editor and feared weekly columnist at Herald Tribune “Books” (John O’Hara, Cox tells us, “writing on the day of publication of his first novel,” confessed that he was “very much afraid” of her) was Isabel Paterson.
Surely, to the American libertarian looking around him or her in December of 1932 the prospects for the future must have seemed rosy. But of course, as it turned out, what that libertarian was observing was the last brilliant flowering of a plant that would die all too soon. Safely elected, FDR reversed his campaign promises entirely, rejected the legacy of his party, and proceeded to prove that he could do strong central government, meddlesome economic regulation, and political favors in return for votes and donations better than any Republican who’d ever come down the pike. And though all the journalists I’ve just named went right on writing through the ’30s and into the ’40s (and, in some cases, even into the ’50s and ’60s), though several of them wrote passionately polemical books on the deteriorating political situation in America and kept up their agitation for small government and personal freedom as long as they could go on placing their manuscripts with publishers, there was nothing they could do to reverse the growing tide of public opinion against them and their cause. Today we look at biographies of these writers and marvel at the thought of an American intellectual scene in which they were the acknowledged leaders.
The problem is, there have been too few such biographies. There have been many, many books on Mencken, to be sure — some of them biographies, some of them studies of his work. There have been at least two books on Nock, at least two on Flynn, one on Lane, one on Hazlitt, none so far on Felix Morley or Garet Garrett — and, until now, none on Isabel Paterson. With the publication of Cox’s splendid new biography, The Woman & the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson & the Idea of America, it is now Paterson’s turn in the historical limelight.
As Cox tells it, Paterson was born Mary Isabel Bowler on an island in the Canadian portion of Lake Huron in January 1886. She grew up poor in small towns and on farms in Ontario, Michigan, and points west — in both Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. She taught herself to read at the age of three and was homeschooled thereafter, except for about two and a half years of formal education, all of it completed by the time she was twelve. The truth is that Isabel Paterson seems to have been one of the great autodidacts of the last two centuries, with a voracious appetite for reading.
As a teenager, Isabel went to work serving food in a hotel dining room, then studied typing and shorthand and began taking secretarial positions. She drifted into journalism when, having taken a job as secretary to a newspaper publisher, she made such a nuisance of herself criticizing the writing in his paper that, in exasperation, he offered her a job as an editorial writer. “Let’s see if she can do any better than the people she criticizes!” one can almost hear him saying to himself.
She did. One newspaper job led to another, taking her from Calgary to Spokane to Vancouver to Seattle to San Francisco to New York. In Calgary she spent a few weeks in the throes of holy matrimony, thereby transforming herself from Isabel Bowler to Isabel Paterson. And in New York, in her off hours and when she was between jobs, she began writing novels. The first of these to see print was published just as Europe was exploding into the madness of World War I. Occasionally she found herself between jobs and unable to immediately locate another position as a writer; when that happened, she cheerfully went back to stenography. It was in this way that she met Burton Rascoe.
Rascoe was one of the most important intellectual journalists of the period between the wars, whether as the irreverent literary editor of the Chicago Tribune (1918-1920), the New York Sun (1931-1933), or Esquire (1932-1938) or as an iconoclastic nationally syndicated columnist appearing daily in more than 350 newspapers. In April of 1922, Rascoe was beginning a two-year stint as literary editor of the New York Tribune (by the time he moved on, in August 1924, it had become the New York Herald Tribune). He found that the volume of correspondence he had to deal with in his new post was such that he needed a secretary. Enter Isabel Paterson. But it was not long before Rascoe discovered that there was a good deal more to Paterson than mere secretary material. “He had been looking for a secretary,” Cox writes, “but he had found an assistant and a fellow-critic. The moment at which he recognized her integrity and intelligence was the turning point of Paterson’s career.” (61) In 1924, she began writing an 1800-word weekly column, “Turns With a Bookworm.” She continued writing it through the rest of the ’20s, all of the ’30s, and almost all of the ’40s, along with hundreds of articles and reviews, “a compendium of the literary life of her period, perhaps its largest compendium.” Cox quotes one contemporary observer as saying that Paterson had “more to say than any other critic in New York today as to which books shall be popular.” (81)
“The column started,” according to Cox, “as an outlet for literary news and respectable literary gossip,” but Paterson, who signed her weekly piece “I.M.P.” (for Isabel Mary Paterson), quickly expanded her bailiwick,
One of Paterson’s deepest enthusiasms was for politics. “In 1936,” Cox tells us, “‘a truly amiable correspondent’ wrote to the Herald Tribune to ask why Isabel Paterson did not ‘write on politics.’ ‘This is a refreshing novelty,’ she replied. ‘Others have asked us why don’t we shut up about politics.’” (71-72)
Before long, even more of her readers were posing this second question, for as the Great Depression wore on and on, prolonged and even deepened by the wrongheaded policies of the New Deal, Paterson devoted herself more and more frequently to issues of political economy in her column, until she had transformed “Turns With a Bookworm” into a “glorious soapbox for her political ideas.” (72) And, during these same years, she wrote the one non-fiction book of her career, The God of the Machine, an attempt at a systematic presentation of her political views and the bases for her belief that America had taken a disastrously wrong turn in 1932. The God of the Machine was much admired by Ayn Rand, an acolyte of Paterson’s during the long years when her own writing had not yet brought her much success; and such fame as Paterson’s book now enjoys within the libertarian movement is largely owing to Rand’s ongoing efforts on its behalf during the 1960s, in the pages of The Objectivist and The Objectivist Newsletter.
Still, it is questionable just how far Rand’s efforts enjoyed any measurable success; that is, it is questionable just how extensive is the fame that The God of the Machine does enjoy in the libertarian movement of today. One wonders. When former Reason editor Virginia Postrel published her first book, The Future & Its Enemies, nearly seven years ago, she built the book’s central argument around a distinction between “static” and “dynamic” systems and the “stasists” and “dynamists” who advocate them. Well, as Stephen Cox pointed out in his valuable “Introduction” to the 50th Anniversary Edition of The God of the Machine, published (with considerable publicity in such movement periodicals as Liberty and the then-monthly book review and catalogue of Laissez Faire Books) in 1993, five years before The Future & Its Enemies, “Some of her columns at the end of the decade [of the 1930s] look like abstracts for The God of the Machine. The main connections between her idea of history and her idea of government are set forth, for instance, in her 16 July, 1939, column, which contains a long discussion of ‘dynamic’ and ’static’ systems […].” (xxvii)
Nor is this all. Postrel wrote in 1998 that the essential difference between stasis and dynamism was the difference between “a regulated, engineered world” and “a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition.” (xiv) When we look at a dynamic system, Postrel wrote, what we see is something that is “inherently unstable” — not “disorder, but […] an order that is unpredictable, spontaneous, and ever shifting […].” (xv)
According to Postrel, stasists reject the market, while dynamists embrace it. “Stasists generally portray the market either as an impersonal machine crushing personal values or, quite the opposite, as a small cabal of powerful and greedy men who manipulate the rest of us for their own gain. Dynamists, by contrast, see the market as a process, a decentralized system for discovering and sharing knowledge, for trading and expressing value […].” (35) In no sense, however, are dynamists utopians. For “utopia is by definition static, an unchanging state of perfection.” (58) Stasists attempt to achieve utopia “by stopping experimentation.” (199)
Paterson’s thinking was remarkably similar. Writing in 1943, she declared that “Russia, Germany, and other planned economies are static.” (289) In fact, any
Such is the payoff for stopping experimentation. By contrast, “the dynamic economy” — as typified by the relatively untrammeled and freely experimental market economy of the United States — “creates unprecedented means of mobility and a fair prospect of finding a livelihood almost anywhere.” (157, 285)
No acknowledgment of Paterson is to be found in The Future & Its Enemies. Her name doesn’t even appear in the index. Nor, so far as I have been able to discover, did even a single one of the many reviewers who discussed Postrel’s notably successful book back in 1999 take note of any of its striking resemblances to The God of the Machine. What does this tell us, except that very few people read Isabel Paterson any longer?
Contrast this, for example, with Cox’s decision to devote a few paragraphs of his biography of Paterson to discussion of Henry Adams. Clearly, he said to himself, “At least some of my readers are going to see my title — The Woman & the Dynamo — and recall the famous chapter in The Education of Henry Adams called ‘The Virgin & the Dynamo.’ And they’re going to wonder if there’s some connection.”
There is, of course. Cox acknowledges that Adams’s conception of history “bears a superficial resemblance to Paterson’s” and that, like Paterson, “Adams uses the language of engineering (’energy,’ ’sequence,’ ‘resistance’). He describes the immense increase in energy or ‘force’ during the nineteenth century and marvels at the industrial ‘dynamo’ which radiated that force.” (259-260) Paterson herself discussed Adams briefly in The God of the Machine, writing that
Or, as Cox puts the matter, “Adams’ failure […] was his inability to see that the dynamo was the complement and product of the virgin, not its opposite.” (275)
In point of fact, if Paterson’s work is as infrequently read these days as it seems to be, much of the reason is implicit in the paragraph just quoted. For her own attempt to explain the emergence of the dynamo is muddied and made unnecessarily difficult for the reader by her insistence on using an elaborate metaphor drawn from the world of engineering. Consider, for example, her explanation of the decline of Spain.
By the middle of the 15th Century, she writes, “Spain controlled the richest part of Europe, what with the Spanish and Austrian mines, the industrial towns of the Netherlands, and the diversity of other resources embraced in such extensive territory. The dominant position in respect of the Mediterranean also meant something. And then the wealth of America poured into Spain.”
So what went wrong? “Spain was electrocuted, burned out, by receiving a high voltage of energy into a political structure and mechanism without proper transmission lines, outlets, and insulation.” (58)
“Huh?” you might ask. And well might you ask. But it gets worse. Here is Paterson’s “explanation”:
Except, of course, that it’s not.
The God of the Machine was not a big commercial success on its first publication, and it seems unlikely (to this reader, anyway) that the then-declining fortunes of individualism was the only cause of this failure. Another radically individualist book published in the same year (1943), Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, did enjoy an enormous commercial success, despite its supposed clash with the zeitgeist. One can only speculate as to how many readers, eager to learn what all the buzz is about, begin The God of the Machine, only to give up within the first sixty-five or so pages because of this willfully created impediment to their understanding. Whatever their number, that such readers exist at all is too bad, because there is much of value in Paterson’s book. There are extended historical analyses of considerable power, such as her discussion, in Chapter 16, “The Corporations and Status Law,” of the origins and consequences of U.S. government “regulation” of business, including both subsidy programs and anti-trust prosecutions. Paterson’s analysis in this brilliant chapter will be of particular interest to admirers of such revisionist works of the 1960s and early ’70s as Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism (1963) and Railroads & Regulation (1965) and Roy Childs’s “Big Business & the Rise of American Statism” (1971). The God of the Machine also offers much quotable epigrammatic wit and wisdom.
Cox shows that this flair for concision, for the pithy and succinct, was regularly on display in Paterson’s weekly columns for the New York Herald Tribune as well. “She was not exactly the embodiment of the Jazz Age,” he writes. “The hedonists of the era amused her, from a distance, but she had no sympathy for the ‘lost generation’ — naifs who ‘felt themselves persecuted by “The Saturday Evening Post.”‘ ‘We wish they’d stay lost,’ she said. ‘Nobody would go to look for them.’” (89) Notified that Gertrude Stein, “author of ‘The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,’ [was] “coming over soon for a lecture tour,” she quipped: “One of her lecture topics will be ‘The History of English Literature as I Understand It.’ That should be a very brief lecture.” (73)
But Paterson’s newspaper columns are not easily accessible to most readers, apart from the bits and pieces quoted in Cox’s book. And few readers are likely to stick with The God of the Machine long enough to find the gems lying in wait within its pages. Paterson is likely doomed to continue in the obscurity into which she almost instantly fell after being fired for political incorrectness by the Herald Tribune in 1949. She never worked full time again. Some of the novels she had written “on the side” during the Teens, Twenties, and early Thirties had enjoyed a certain commercial success. One of them, Never Ask the End, had even been a modest bestseller. Paterson had invested much of the money she earned from these books in real estate, so, when she suddenly found retirement thrust upon her, she withdrew from Manhattan, took up residence in one of her country houses, and began living on her Herald Tribune pension and the proceeds of her investments. She refused to file for the Social Security benefits she could have collected, because she regarded the program as a “swindle.” (325) She did some magazine work from time to time, mostly for William F. Buckley’s National Review, but this amounted to very little in the end, because Paterson had no talent for getting along with anyone who disagreed with her about anything — including editors.
Her life up to this time, Cox tells us, had included “few close friends.” (183) And not a few of the people she could count as friends chose to keep their distance. “The door of her house was always unlocked; friends were warmly encouraged to come and stay. But mostly they didn’t come.” (187) Her dealings with most of her fellow writers, and particularly with those of them who were in any sense fashionable, were openly contemptuous. She “appeared to be working night and day to sever her ties to them.” Nor, when they reached out to her, did she “politely demur. She was aggressive, obnoxious, offensive.” (244-245) Ayn Rand’s niece by marriage, Mimi Sutton, told Barbara Branden that Isabel Paterson had “no charm whatever.” (Passion 166) William Buckley found her “full of acid and ill humor” and “maddeningly ill mannered.” (Cox 350-351) And Paterson herself seems to have agreed. “[S]ocially,” she said of herself in a letter in 1958, she was “just a queer, frequently disagreeable, old woman; which is to say, I am in a category of quite tiresome people, unattractive, and best out of the way.” (338) “At my age, in the course of nature,” Cox quotes her as saying in another letter a little earlier in that same year, “one cannot expect to have many friends; and the world being what it is, and me being what I am, perhaps I really can’t expect to have any.” (333)
Yet she did have a few. One of them once told her that “[p]eople who can stand you at all get rather fond of you.” (121) And so it was that in early January of 1960, Isabel Paterson died quietly at the home of some devoted friends, with whom she was staying until one of her own houses was made ready for her to inhabit again.
Cox tells this story with flair and zest. His biography is, for anyone interested in American intellectual history in the 20th Century, both indispensable and compulsively readable.
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