The Greatest American Hero
By David Henderson
I wrote this one evening in the fall of 1981 after watching an episode of “The Greatest American Hero” in which the key character interacts with the Lone Ranger. I had known nothing ab0ut the show but I was suddenly inspired to write an appreciation of Ayn Rand. As I typed, it came out, almost as if my fingers had a life of their own, as an obituary. A few weeks later I met my wife-to-be, Rena Epstein, who was an English composition professor. I gave her a draft of my piece, hoping that she would praise it. It came back with queries, criticisms, and edits on every paragraph. I was stunned and hurt. I put it away. A few months later, Ayn Rand died and I pulled it out of the file. Then I understood virtually everything my wife-to-be had written on the piece. I started to see the power of a good editor. I implemented the changes she had suggested and sent it off to the New York Times and the Washington Post sequentially. Both rejected it. Barbara Branden quoted from it in her book, The Passion of Ayn Rand. I thank Barbara for digging it out of her files and sending it to me.
The Greatest American Hero
One of my childhood heroes was the Lone Ranger. Every week, he would come to the rescue, fighting for justice, always triumphing over the bad guys, and then would disappear with a hearty “Hi-yo Silver, away.” As I got older, I realized that most adults thought that the Lone Ranger was a great fantasy for kids to believe in–but nothing more. They thought that justice and integrity were impossible in the real world, either because one who strived for them would be defeated or because they were meaningless concepts.
Then, when I was seventeen, I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. It is a novel about Howard Roark, a man who refuses to compromise his standards or his integrity. As I read the novel, I was sure that Roark would fail: that he would go to prison or be killed. I realize in retrospect that that was because I thought that I would fail to achieve happiness. Yet, throughout the novel, no matter how great the adversity, Roark managed to be happy. And Ayn Rand made it believable.
She made me confront my view of the world. I had to read to the end to see what would happen to Roark because I desperately wanted him to succeed. The tension between what I “knew” and what I hoped made me stay up late every night reading it, made me finish meals in five minutes, made me snap at family members for interrupting my reading, made me a nervous wreck. [DRH note in 2011: as you can see, it also made me into a bit of a jerk, short-term.]
What I thought I knew, I realized that I didn’t know at all. I “knew” that it was impossible to live in this world and get one’s way and still keep one’s integrity. Rand taught me that getting your way and keeping your integrity are the same, and that sacrificing your integrity is too high a price to pay for anything. That was what Rand was saying when she had her heroine, Dominique, tell Roark that even if he was put in prison for the rest of his life, it didn’t matter because he had won his battle.
I learned other things from Rand as well. I learned that reality is real, that there is no getting around reality except by changing it. She was the first author I had ever read who thought of the existence of God as an intellectual issue. Thinking through the God issue ended forever my terror [DRH addition in 2011: “that my aunt had instilled in me”] that I would burn in hell because I hadn’t been born again. She got me thinking about what kind of political and economic system is proper for autonomous human beings to live in, and my thinking about that led me to become an economist. She even had something to say about sex and I still agree with most of it. Her writings and those of her former colleague, Nathaniel Branden, made me see that the kind of woman I responded to romantically was not arbitrary, that I tended to be attracted to women who had the same degree of self-esteem that I had.
I don’t know what would have happened had I never heard of Ayn Rand. Maybe I would have come to the same views on my own. But she made it easier. The moral support I felt from her, even though I had never met her, helped me with some difficult choices.
It’s kind of ironic. Many who disagreed with Ayn Rand’s idea that we should live for our own happiness depicted her as cruel, heartless, and uncaring. She fed the image by wearing dollar signs, by disowning her obvious strong desire to change people’s minds, by titling one of her books The Virtue of Selfishness. Yet, whether or not it was part of her intent, she helped me, perhaps more than anyone else, to live my life.
When Ayn Rand was on the Phil Donahue show in 1980, he asked her whether the loss of her husband, Frank O’Connor, had changed her belief that there was no after-life. She replied that if there were any possible way that she could believe in an after-life, she would, but that she couldn’t ignore reality. Well, for her sake, and for the sake of many other people including me, I would like to believe that she still lives. Just in case, may God bless you, Ayn. And thank you.
HT to Patrick T. Peterson for motivating me to write this.
P.S. In the segment of Donahue I link to above, she doesn’t discuss her husband. That’s later in the interview. But this is one of the best 8-minute segments of Donahue ever, with Ayn Rand close to her best and Donahue at his best. It’s a real conversation.