A look at Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, one of the three books that launched the modern American libertarian movement.
“Howard Roark laughed.” So begins Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the improbable bestseller that established Rand’s fame and reputation as a novelist-philosopher.
Rejected by twelve publishers, The Fountainhead was finally accepted by Bobbs-Merrill when a young editor taken with the book threatened to quit if it were not. “If this is not the book for you,” he wired the publisher’s head office, “then I am not the editor for you.” His confidence was justified: to date, The Fountainhead has sold some six million copies all told, and continues to sell over 100,000 copies each year. At the time of its publication, Lorine Pruette wrote in the New York Times that “it was the only novel of ideas written by an American woman that I can recall,” with characters who are “amazingly literate, romanticized as larger-than-life representatives of good and evil.” However, it was not critical adulation, but the incredible word of mouth that spread about the book that made it a bestseller.
From its memorable opening line, Rand’s prose camera pans out to reveal Howard Roark, a young student of architecture, poised nude on a cliff’s edge and preparing to dive into the lake below. The scene sets the tone for the book, and hints at the “sense of life” that animated Rand’s fiction: Roark has just been expelled from architecture school for refusing to ape the styles of past masters in his designs. His response is not despair, but an indifference grounded in a supreme confidence in his own artistic vision. Explaining that vision to the school’s dean several scenes later, Roark says:
Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the materials determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets ever detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.
Like Pruette, Rand saw her characters as ideal types, embodied principles. She always denied that her protagonists were modeled on any actual people, and in particular was adamant that Roark was not a fictionalized Frank Lloyd Wright. Still, it is hard not to hear in Roark’s own theories of architecture echoes of Wright, especially his 1930–31 lectures at Princeton, which Rand had read. Wright had said of his own buildings: “Consistency from first to last will give you the result you seek and consistency alone.” Even their biographies overlap: Roark’s mentor Henry Cameron, a brilliant innovator whose star had faded, evokes Wright’s own, Louis Sullivan.
Rand sought unsuccessfully to interview Wright as a source for The Fountainhead. (Instead, she gathered source material for the book by working without pay as a typist for New York architect Ely Jacques Kahn.) In her letter to Wright, Rand described her project as a “story of human integrity. That is what I am writing. That is what you have lived. And to my knowledge you are the only one among the men of this century who has lived it.” She wanted to interview Wright, not for information, but for “the inspiration of seeing before me a living miracle.” The two later became acquainted, and Wright even began designing a house for Rand, though it was never built.
The reference to “integrity” must be taken to refer not only to the internal coherence of Wright’s architectural philosophy, but also his famous stubbornness with clients when it came to seeing his plans realized as he had intended. Roark’s fidelity to his own vision makes it difficult for him to find work, despite his genius, and the conflicts this creates drive the book’s plot.
Roark’s own approach is thrown into relief by a parallel portrayal of the career of his classmate Peter Keating. A thorough mediocrity, Keating’s sense of self is as derivative as his building designs. While Roark toils in obscurity, Keating rises through the ranks of the prestigious New York firm Francon & Heyer. But on major commissions, Keating’s lack of inspiration forces him to seek help from Roark, who is the unacknowledged designer of Keating’s most renowned buildings.
The contrast between the two is meant to illustrate what Rand would later call “the virtue of selfishness.” A conventional story would have set up Roark’s “selfless devotion to his art” against Keating’s “grasping, selfish careerism.” Rand reverses this expectation. Keating’s pathology, Rand shows, is precisely the result of selflessness. Lacking a strong identity of his own, he seeks to construct one second-hand by absorbing the opinions of others. Lacking self-respect, he struggles to do whatever will please others and win him their adulation. Roark’s apparent “sacrifice,” on the other hand, is nothing of the sort. If he insists on his own methods and designs, it is because they are his own. The true sacrifice, Rand makes clear, would be to compromise his artistic integrity for mere popular approval, or even material comfort.
That integrity makes it impossible for Roark to fit in with conventional architecture firms, and equally difficult to secure commissions when he opens his own office. Eventually, he leaves the city to work as a manual laborer at a granite quarry owned by Guy Francon of Francon & Heyer—which by now has become Francon & Keating. There, he meets Francon’s fiercely independent daughter Dominique. Recognizing Roark as a kindred spirit, she begins to pursue him, and in what has become the book’s most famous scene, they make violent, passionate love that, while consensual, seems on the surface like an act of rape. But Francon, unsure she is prepared for a serious romantic affair with Roark, pulls back. Soon, a businessman who admires the buildings Roark managed to have built finds him at the quarry and brings him back to New York to work on an apartment building. There, he finds growing success—and a new enemy.
While Keating is Roark’s professional rival, he is not quite Roark’s adversary: by turns contemptible and pathetic, Peter Keating is not up to the role of archenemy. That is left to journalist and architecture critic Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey is something of an aberration in Rand’s fiction, in that he is perhaps her only really memorable villain.
In Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, intelligence, rationality, and achievement are all associated with her own ethics, and therefore with her protagonists. Typically, these are opposed by bland, bromide-mouthing mobs who evoke nothing so much as Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil.” Toohey is the exception: he is the one character in Rand’s work who fully comprehends the difference between good and evil, between individualism and collectivism, and consciously chooses evil. Incapable of Roark’s form of creative achievement, which he despises, Toohey has made his own goal power over the opinions of others. A clue to his motive is provided by his childhood reaction to the famous Biblical query: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Toohey asks in response: “Then in order to be truly wealthy, a man should collect souls?” His adult life has been devoted to precisely that end, through the formation of a series of organizations across many different fields, including a collective of fashionable second-rate writers who promote each other’s work ceaselessly.
Determined to crush Roark, Toohey manipulates a spiritually inclined pawn, Hopton Stoddard, to commission an ecumenical temple from the atheistic architect. Stoddard, on Toohey’s advice, convinces Roark to take the job by telling him: “But you’re a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark—in your own way. I can see that in your buildings.” Toohey has detected, not religious reverence in the ordinary sense, but the reverence for the best in the human spirit that permeates Roark’s designs. Once the temple—a masterpiece, of course—is complete, Toohey denounces it as blasphemous, and pushes Stoddard to sue Roark for breach of contract. Roark’s defense is merely to offer the jury photographs of the temple—but swayed by the testimony of an architectural expert (Toohey, of course) they vote against him, destroying his reputation.
The verdict comes as a blow to Dominique Francon, who more than ever despairs that individual achievement and integrity have little chance of surviving in the world as it is. She resolves to purge herself of the capacity to appreciate heroic achievement—and to destroy Roark, who is a constant reminder of the individualism society cannot tolerate. Attempting to drown herself in inanity, she marries Peter Keating, only to leave him for newspaper tycoon Gail Wynand, publisher of the Banner, where Toohey’s column appears. Like Roark in many ways, Wynand differs from the architect in having decided that the only way to survive and flourish is to pander to the public, which he does on a daily basis in his widely read newspaper. Wynand, though, cannot help but respond with admiration to Roark’s work… and to Roark himself when they meet. Through Wynand’s influence, Roark once again begins to work.
Keating’s fortunes, in the meantime, have soured. Lacking his own creative voice, he is at a loss when the architectural trends he has spent his career emulating cease to be fashionable. Desperate to salvage his career, he begs Roark to design one last building for him: a low-income housing project to be called Cortland Homes. Roark, knowing that the project is under Toohey’s control, and that a plan under his own name would never be accepted, agrees, on the condition that his plan be built precisely as designed.
When Toohey has some frivolous ornamentation added at the last moment, spoiling the integrity of the building, Roark dynamites it, with help from Dominique. Wynand believes he can use his media empire to sway public opinion in Roark’s favor as the trial approaches, but he discovers that power over others is ephemeral. Once he is no longer telling the people what they want to hear, his papers stop selling. In a bid to take over the Banner, Toohey engineers a strike. Finally, Wynand caves and reverses his editorial position on Roark. At the trial, however, Roark offers an eloquent defense of his right to destroy his creation, whose integrity had already been destroyed in violation of his agreement with Keating. He tells the jury:
Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons—a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man—the function of his reasoning mind.
But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act—the process of reason—must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.
Roark is acquitted. Wynand, realizing at last the necessity of integrity, shuts down the Banner rather than allow Toohey to control it in the wake of the strike. Roark is commissioned to rebuild the Cortland Homes by a private businessman, and Wynand decides the time has come to build his Wynand Building, which will be the city’s tallest skyscraper. The book closes with Roark standing triumphant atop his work in progress, alongside an admiring Dominique.
The book’s surprising success led to the production of a 1949 movie version starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, and directed by King Vidor. Warner Brothers had sought to have Wright himself design the film’s sets, but that plan was scrapped when Wright demanded 10 percent of the film’s gross profits on top of his $250,000 fee. The screenplay was, of course, penned by Ayn Rand. It is safe to assume that Warner Brothers didn’t dare change the dialogue.