U.Va. Historian Jennifer Burns Examines Rand's Life, Philosophy

November 02, 2009

November 2, 2009 — Jennifer Burns could not escape Ayn Rand.

Burns, an assistant history professor at the University of Virginia, has just published "Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right," a peer-reviewed study of the controversial author/philosopher/atheist/libertarian.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Matt Kelly:

"So much of what was written about her was either pro or con and written by people who had known her," Burns said. "There was no academic book on this important topic."

As a graduate student in history at the University of California-Berkeley, Burns knew writing about Rand would be risky. Author of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," Rand tended to polarize debate. But, everywhere Burns went, she found someone reading Rand. Burns began a study of conservatism and again encountered Rand.

"There was a growing interest in conservatism, but she did not fit into that movement," Burns said, noting that Rand was still on the right of the political and social spectrum. "I wanted to see how she fit into the American tradition of thought. It was like a detective story, and I had the field all to myself."

Rand, a Russian émigré with a burning hatred of communism after the Bolsheviks seized her father's business, created "Objectivism," a philosophy that was "an ingenious synthesis of her critical selfishness and Aristotelian rationality," Burns said. "She hoped to present a comprehensive and cohesive view of the world.

"She had a deliberate plan," Burns said. "In the 1920s, she wanted to lay out the logical mathematics of a philosophical system. She set ambitious goals and she met them. But she was not happy as she accomplished these goals. She wanted it all on her own terms. She wanted her work to be appreciated for what she thought it should be appreciated for."

Rand will be remembered as a novelist who wrote political books, Burns said, not a groundbreaking philosopher.

Burns was impressed with Rand's vulnerability, despite her steely exterior.

"I was surprised how connected she was to other people," Burns said. " She wanted recognition and credit for her ideas and she was deeply hurt when she did not get it."

Working on the book, Burns said, helped solidify her own views.

"I think in greys and I am OK with that. Ayn Rand was a much more a black-and-white thinker," Burns said. "You test yourself against her arguments or her view of human nature. I appreciate her accomplishments and her intentions, but I look at her life as a cautionary tale."

Burns said her love of reading, including historical novels, helped make her an "excellent student of history," so she pursued it as a career.

In her classroom lectures, she constructs compelling stories to hold the attention of undergraduates. Interested in American religious history, conservatism and social thought, Burns currently teaches courses on post-1945 society and politics, and U.S. intellectual history starting at the Civil War.

Burns had been working on the Rand book for about eight years, but her publisher, Oxford University Press, wanted the book finished by March.

She applied for a grant through a U.Va. program called Professors as Writers, to hire an editor to go over the manuscript as she worked on it.

"I was writing so fast and she was getting it back to me in 24 hours," Burns said. "It was sheer madness. I was having 20 research books a day coming in from the library. I would write, lecture, write and stay up to 3 a.m."

At U.Va. , Burns was surrounded by peers interested in her work and willing to help.

"Everyone understood when I said 'My book is due in two months and I am really busy,'" she said. "Nobody argued with me; I got a lot of encouragement and lots of support. It made it an ideal climate to sequester myself away and finally get the book finished."

Despite the intensity of the work, she wanted a fun book, not overly serious; one that people would want to read.

"I was successful," she said, "because I had written the book I wanted to read."

The book has met with a good reception, including a New York Times review and Burns being a guest on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. Timing of its publication has coincided with a revival of interest in Rand and her ideas, and the book has already gone into a third printing.

"I have achieved some personal and academic goals, and I have made a contribution to scholarship in my field and people enjoy reading it," she said. "I've gotten a few weird e-mails. But people care, and that is every author's dream come true."

Burns also has posted her lectures online, starting when she was teaching at Berkeley, and has developed a fan base.

"When the lectures went online, I got an enormous quantity of fan mail," she said.

She meditates, maintains a healthy diet and an active daily regimen, but said her students keep her grounded. "They'll say "Hey, I saw you on TV. Now what is my grade for class participation?,'" said Burns, who is also a resident faculty fellow at Brown College. "I love seeing the students. When I was an undergraduate, I had great mentors, and now it is my turn to help."

For information on Burns, visit her Web site at www.jenniferburns.org.