Mar 1, 2014
A short biography of Isabel Paterson, one of three women who launched the modern American libertarian movement.
Among the most erudite conservative authors and political thinkers of her time, the sum total of Isabel Mary Paterson’s formal education consisted of two years in a tiny log schoolhouse. Born Isabel Bowler on Canada’s Manitoulin Island, she came to the United States as a young girl, where she lived with her family — including eight siblings — in rural Michigan, becoming a citizen in 1928.
Paterson more than made up for the lack of schooling with self-directed education, voraciously reading the classics of poetry and literature. R.C. Hoiles, founder of the Freedom Newspaper chain, would come to regard his own education in government schools as a handicap partly as a result of his discussions with Paterson and the similarly unschooled Rose Wilder Lane. Their own lack of exposure to government schools, he believed, had left their thinking more unfettered than his own.
The economic importance Paterson would later attach to productive “self-starters” was likely at least a partial product of her own early history. Her family was quite poor, often living in tents, and the work she was required to do at a young age arduous. As a teenager, she had a series of low paying jobs as a waitress, stenographer, and bookkeeper, working at one point as an assistant to future Canadian Prime Minister R. B. Bennett.
In 1910, she would marry Kenneth Birrell Paterson. The union does not appear to have been a particularly happy one: she attributed the unusual spelling of her surname, with a single rather than a double “t,” to the fact that her husband’s family was too cheap to use two. By 1918, the pair had separated, and it seems probable that Paterson was not even sure where he was.
Her writing career began in the same year as her marriage — and would be far more successful. While working as a secretary for the publisher of Washington State’s Inland Herald, she criticized his prose so vocally that he replaced her and made her an editorial writer instead. She would soon thereafter write for several Vancouver papers, as well as the World and the American in New York. Paterson began writing novels in her 28th year, penning two westerns in short succession: The Magpie’s Nest and The Shadow Riders, which contained a strong pro-free trade message. After World War I, she moved to New York, where she worked for Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, who at the time was under commission to produce statuary for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
Paterson met editor Burton Rascoe in 1921, just before he became literary editor of the Herald Tribune, and persuaded him to take her on as his assistant. By 1924 she was writing a column under the initials “I.M.P.” for the paper’s Books section, which she would continue for almost 25 years. Her acerbic wit soon made her infamous, and was exemplified in such jabs as her observation that a talk titled “The History of English Literature as I Understand it,” given by Paterson’s bête noire Gertrude Stein, “should be a very brief lecture. The author John O’Hara confessed, on the occasion of the release of one of his novels, that he was “afraid of Isabel Paterson.” A 1937 study of American letters remarked that Paterson had “more to say than any other critic in New York today as to which books shall be popular.” These columns would also introduce, in embryonic form, many of the central themes of The God of the Machine.
Over the course of the decade, Paterson also wrote three historical novels: The Singing Season (1924), The Fourth Queen (1926), and The Road of the Gods (1930), none of which remain in print. Spanning such diverse periods as 14th century Spain, Elizabethan England, and Germany in the first century B.C., the books already contain hints of the historical theory Paterson would articulate in The God of the Machine. Each shows how cultures are shaped by an underlying set of moral and political principles, and The Singing Season in particular portrays the destructive effects of state control of commerce.
During the ’30s, Paterson would lead discussions with a group of young conservatives who would stay at the Herald Tribune offices late into the evenings helping to paste up the Books section. One of these was a fledgling author by the name of Ayn Rand. Paterson would later use her column to promote Rand’s work, and Rand would reciprocate by recommending Paterson’s books to her own acquaintances. The pair corresponded prolifically, wrangling over religion and philosophy, until they stopped speaking after a particularly ugly argument in 1948. Paterson wrote her final three novels during this time as well: Never Ask the End (1933), which was the most experimental and non-linear of her narratives, The Golden Vanity (1934), and If It Prove Fair Weather (1940).
By the time God of the Machine was published, Paterson was living in Connecticut, where she would remain until the early ’50s, when she moved to Princeton, New Jersey. Her increasingly unfashionable political views led editors to push her out of her job at the Herald Tribune in 1949, but Paterson’s investments enabled her to live well enough without resorting to the acceptance of Social Security benefits. Her Social Security card remained in her papers, the original envelope unopened. Paterson’s remaining years were spent writing and advising — not to mention quarreling with — William F. Buckley, Jr., who was starting a little political magazine called National Review
Conservative icon Russell Kirk, with whom Paterson corresponded during World War II, and upon whom she exerted a profound influence, believed that Paterson would forever be remembered for her columns, novels, and literary commentary. Instead, it is The God of the Machine and its effect on the nascent libertarian movement for which she is best remembered. It is hard to imagine that this would have brought anything but pleasure to the woman who once wrote: “If there were just one gift you could choose, but nothing barred, what would it be? We wish you then your own wish; you name it. Ours is liberty, now and forever.”