by Ayn Rand

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Cassell: London, 1938
147 pages

— extensively revised for style, 1946 —

forewords by Ayn Rand & Leonard Reed
Pamphleteers: Los Angeles, 1946 ( = The Freeman, Volume III, No. 1)
98 pages

Caxton: Caldwell, Idaho, 1953
105 pages

Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1953

Centennial Edition
introduction by Leonard Peikoff
foreword by Ayn Rand
1938 original text (facsimile of Cassell edition with Rand's hand-written revisions)
1946 revised text (facsimile of Caxton edition)

Dutton: New York, 2005
253 pages

May 2014

Who is reading Anthem?  Why?

I was aged eighteen or so when I first read Ayn Rand's slim book, the science-fiction novella Anthem, and I wondered why it had been written, and why it was kept in print. I already had read much better novels by her. Rand is the author of an interesting novel about the early years in Soviet Russia, We the Living (1936); the two truly great controversial novels of ideas, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957); as well as a range of essays, lectures, and commentaries.

There are several classes of readers for the novella Anthem, and I believe that the larger part of the first two classes at least will be disappointed.

  • The most numerous class is composed of readers of Ayn Rand's major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and are looking for more of the same, even in miniature. Sadly, Anthem is not cut from the same cloth; at most it is a scrap.
  • Next are the tentatively or accidentally curious who approach Ayn Rand obliquely, beginning perhaps with essay collections like Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal or The Virtue of Selfishness, or the novella Anthem. Getting their feet wet toe by toe, as it were, before deciding whether to take the plunge into The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. The risk here is that some readers will decide that a few cold splashes of Rand are sufficient without being compelling; they may never go on to her most important presentations in the two big novels.
  • Then we have Rand completists, who wish to read everything by her, or at least whatever is conveniently accessible. Anthem tends to stay in print because the two major novels are perennial and well-deserved bestsellers.
  • Finally are the Rand scholars or at least serious students and re-readers, who wish to read anything illustrating the sources and development of her thought. For these, of course, Anthem is useful. Here the Centennial edition (2005) is most helpful, since it contains the original edition of 1938 in facsimile with Rand's later hand-written corrections, as well as the 1946 edition which resulted.
Whence it came

As a teenager in the Soviet Union, Rand worked out many of the details for a play that would later become Anthem. She states that she wrote it in 1937 as a break from composing The Fountainhead. But the mature story resulting still seems a juvenile effort, as though she had written it in high school. As Peikoff says, in letters of 1946,

To Cecil B. De Mille, Ayn Rand described the book as a "dramatic fantasy." To Rose Wilder Lane, in answer to a question, she classified it officially as a "poem."

Well, it's not a poem. Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1820) is a poem. As for dramatic, Anthem barely moves the needle off zero. As fantasy, it is relatively unimaginative science fiction. Perhaps it was rather imaginative for the young girl in Russia to devise this — but as science fiction written by an American in 1937, it already was at least five to ten years out of date. Its place in her works should be with juvenilia, canceled scenes, and so on.

An unfortunate detour from Ayn Rand's style

First, a glimpse of the style. The narrator is a designated Street Sweeper, and as we soon learn, an autodidact genius-level electrical engineer. For integral reasons, the narrator thinks and speaks entirely in first-person plural. This is critical to Rand's theme but clogs the comprehension:

It is dark here. The flame of the candle stands still in the air. Nothing moves in this tunnel save our hand on the paper. We are alone here under the earth. It is a fearful word, alone. The laws say that none among men may be alone, ever and at any time, for this is the great transgression and the root of all evil. But we have broken many laws. And now there is nothing here save our one body, and it is strange to see only two legs stretched on the ground, and on the wall before us the shadow of our one head.

The above, from the opening page, is typical. In short, the style makes Ernest Hemingway's deliberately plain style seem luscious and vibrant by comparison.

Science fiction and the Campbell transformation

Science fiction fans may feel that Anthem does not work very well as SF. At age eighteen I already felt that its first publication in 1938 came too late. Why is this?

A bit of genre history: John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and began raising the level of the entire field. Not many writers of pulp-magazine SF in the 1926-1937 era (there were very few books) are read today even by fans. Murray Leinster and Edward E. Smith were among the few to survive the transition to Campbell's higher standards. Those who came into Astounding in the late 1930s and blossomed during the 1940s not only are still read but often reprinted: Asimov, de Camp, Heinlein, Kuttner, Russell, Sturgeon, van Vogt, and so on.

So Anthem is pre-Campbell science fiction. If it had been published in one of the early science-fiction pulp magazines from 1926 to around 1935, it might have had some influence then and be remembered as an dystopian period piece. As it is, the story is out of its time like a coelacanth stranded in a tide pool, a curiosity beside the towers of a new Atlantis.


© 2014 Robert Wilfred Franson

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