Flannery O’Connor’s Dislike of Ayn Rand

Neal and Cooper in "The Fountainhead"

Neal and Cooper in “The Fountainhead”

Reader Sue Schmidt alerted me to this article about Flannery O’Connor’s abhorrence of Ayn Rand’s novels, expressed in a letter to a friend. As the article notes, O’Connor’s mention of hardboiled detective novelist Mickey Spillane is also of interest. Here’s what O’Connor wrote:

I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

By unfavorably comparing Rand with Spillane, O’Connor is setting a low bar. While Spillane was immensely popular, his hardboiled detective novels are not in the same class with those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Basically, Spillane tickles the pleasure centers of the brain with sex, violence, and satisfying revenge fantasies but little more. He doesn’t have the same existential depth as Hammett. But O’Connor says he at least is closer to a Dostoevskan exploration of existential emptiness than Rand.

I suspect that the mention of Spillane is not entirely accidental. O’Connor must have read somewhere that Rand was a big Spillane fan. As the article mentions (and as Gene Bell-Villada points out in his excellent book on Rand), Rand saw Spillane as one of the big boys and better than Tolstoy:

[Victor] Hugo gives me the feeling of entering a cathedral–Dostoevsky gives me the feeling of entering a chamber of horrors, but with a powerful guide–Spillane gives me the feeling of listening to a military band in a public park–Tolstoy gives me the feeling of an unsanitary backyard which I do not care to enter.

Just as Spillane’s women love how his hero Mike Hammer treats them rough, so Dominique Francon is drawn to her quasi-rape by Howard Roark in The Fountainhead:

She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one hand, took her two wrists and pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades.…She fell back against the dressing table, she stood crouching, her hands clasping the edge behind her, her eyes wide, colorless, shapeless in terror. He was laughing. There was the movement of laughter on his face, but no sound.…Then he approached. He lifted her without effort. She let her teeth sink into his hand and felt blood on the tip of her tongue. He pulled her head back and he forced her mouth open against his.

But there’s more to the Rand-Spillane connection than this. In a sense, Rand ravishes her own readers in ways similar to how Mike Hammer ravishes his broads. She pounds them with her truth and, in an orgasmic intellectual moment, they feel themselves in the presence of a powerful force. Their surrender involves abandoning doubts, which they come to see as weak and pusillanimous. In the presence of real power, they feel reborn as part of a new certainty.

I suspect this is what disturbed O’Connor so much about Rand’s fans. Her own fiction questions received certainties and comes down hardest on those who are smugly convinced that they are in possession of the truth.

Look, for instance, at how O’Connor handles the smug Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation.” The story’s protagonist thinks she has everything figured out, only to be challenged by a girl in a doctor’s waiting room who becomes infuriated at her sanctimony. Here’s the confrontation:

The girl’s eyes stopped rolling and focused on her. They seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them was now open to admit light and air. Mrs. Turpin’s head cleared and her power of motion returned. She leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, know her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. “What you got to say to me?” she asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.

The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” she whispered. Her voice was low but clear. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.

The girl could be O’Connor herself, lashing out against those who assume their superiority over others. But because she is engaged in genuine exploration, O’Connor is also scrutinizing herself for signs of Mrs. Turpin’s pride.

By the end of the story, Mrs. Turpin sees herself as no better than the others in her world. Needless to say, such humility was beyond Ayn Rand.

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