The Fountainhead serves as an excellent introduction to both Ayn Rand's writing and her philosophy of Objectivism. All of the major intellectual themes that inform Rand's fiction and her subsequent philosophy are presented clearly in this novel.
Having grown up in the totalitarian dictatorship of the Soviet Union, holding an impassioned belief in political freedom and the rights of the individual, Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead as a tribute to the creative freethinker. Its hero, Howard Roark, is an innovative architect, a man whose brilliant and radically new designs are not understood and are rejected by the majority of society. Roark, like many inventors and creative thinkers of history, struggles to win acceptance for his ideas against the tradition-bound masses, who follow established norms and are fearful of change. The theme, as Ayn Rand states it, is individualism versus collectivism, not in politics but in men's souls. The book is about the conflict between those who think for themselves and those who allow others to dominate their lives.
According to Ayn Rand, the goal of her writing is the presentation of an ideal man. Howard Roark is the first such figure in her novels. His independence, his commitment to his own rational thinking, and his integrity mark him as a distinctive Ayn Rand hero. Rand described herself as a "man-worshiper," as one who revered man at his highest and best. She held man's creative mind as sacred, and consequently admired the great original thinkers of mankind — the artists, scientists, and inventors, such as Michelangelo, Newton, and Edison. In Rand's fiction, she illustrates the heroic battles such great individuals have to go through, both to develop their new ideas and methods and to struggle against a conservative society that rejects them. Ayn Rand presents her heroes as ends in themselves, inviting her readers to simply witness and savor the sight of human greatness. "My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark . . . as an end in himself — not as a means to any further end. Which, incidentally, is the greatest value I could ever offer a reader." Her portrayal of such a character is of great value, because the sight of a dauntless hero performing notable deeds is an uplifting experience, one that requires no further explanation or validation. She points out that, as a benign secondary consequence, a reader witnessing the life of Howard Roark may be inspired to seek his own heroic achievements.
Roark, as a freethinking individual, is opposed by sundry collectivists — some who believe that a person should conform to others, some who believe that a person should rebel against others, and some who believe that, politically, we should have a Fascist or Communist dictatorship in which the individual is utterly subordinate to the will of the people. Regarding this aspect of the book, Rand sets her hero against various collectivist ideas that existed — and to some degree continue to exist — in the United States.
The obvious example of collectivism in The Fountainhead is the political one. Ellsworth Toohey, the novel's villain, is a Marxist intellectual, preaching socialism to the masses. He holds that an individual has no value in himself but exists solely to serve his brothers. As Ayn Rand wrote the novel, in the 1930s, collectivism was rapidly engulfing the world. First the Communists took over her native Russia, then the Fascists came to power in Italy, then Hitler and the National Socialists took political control of Germany. On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as allies, invaded Poland, plunging mankind into the most destructive war of its history. In the early 1940s, collectivism appeared to be on the threshold of military conquest of large portions of the globe. In the United States, many intellectuals, politicians, labor leaders, and businessmen thought of the Communist and Nazi systems as "noble experiments," as new attempts to emphasize an individual's moral responsibilities to his fellow man. Before the war, there was ideological support in the United States for both the Communists and the Nazis; even after the war, support among the intellectuals continued for Communism and does to this day. Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead, at one level, as a fervent warning to her fellow man of the unmitigated horrors of collectivism, whether of the Nazi, Fascist, or Communist variety; the evils that result in concentration camps; the extermination of millions of innocent victims; and the precipitation of world war. Ayn Rand witnessed these horrors firsthand in Europe; she wrote The Fountainhead, in part, to prevent their recurrence in America.
But The Fountainhead is not fundamentally about politics. The book warns against a more subtle manifestation of collectivism, one that underlies the political danger and makes that danger possible. Although all human beings have minds, many people choose not to use theirs, looking instead to others for guidance. Many people prefer to be led in their personal lives by an authority figure — be it parents, teachers, clergymen, or others. Those who prefer to be led by authority figures are conformists, refusing the responsibility of thought and self-directed motivation, taking the path of least resistance in life. In the character of Peter Keating, a conventional architect who goes by public taste, Ayn Rand provides an incisive glimpse into the soul of such an abject follower. The picture is frightening. Keating, in many ways an average American status seeker, desires acclaim from others. In exchange for social approval, he is willing to sacrifice any and all of his personal convictions. He becomes a blind follower of the power broker, Ellsworth Toohey, and in so doing reveals the mentality of the millions of "true believers" who blindly follow a Jim Jones, a Sun Myung Moon, or an Adolf Hitler. Ayn Rand shows that conformity, a widespread phenomenon in contemporary American society, is one of the underlying causes of collectivist dictatorship.
In The Fountainhead, Rand also shows that nonconformity, often thought to be the opposite of blind obedience, is merely a variation on the same theme. In a variety of minor characters (Lois Cook, Ike the Genius, Gus Webb), all devotees of Toohey, Rand demonstrates the essence of nonconformity: an unthinking rebellion against the values and convictions of others. The nonconformist, too, places the beliefs of others first, before his own thinking; he merely reacts against them, instead of following them. It is no accident that Ayn Rand shows these rebels as followers of Toohey, because nonconformists, placing others first, always cluster into private enclaves that inevitably demand rigid obedience to their own set of rules. Nonconformists value freethinking no more than does the herd of conformists. The nonconformist characters of the novel are fictional examples of historical movements of the early twentieth century. They are predominantly writers and artists who rebel against grammar, coherent sentences, and representational art in the same way that the surrealists, expressionists, and Dadaists did in actual fact. This band of real-life rebels, not surprisingly, centered in Weimar, Germany, in the 1920s. Outwardly, some opposed Hitler. But at a deeper level, their blind rebelliousness against others and their slavish conformity to their own little subgroup fostered a herd mentality similar to that of the conformists. The nonconformists, too, were part of the culture that spawned the Nazis. This is why, in The Fountainhead, when Toohey is chided for cultivating a circle of "rabid individualists," he merely laughs and responds: "Do you really think so?" He knows that a thinker like Roark is an individualist; posturing nonconformists like Lois Cook are mere rebels against the crowd.
The issue of conformity in the story relates to another real-life movement of the time. The Fountainhead takes place in America in the 1920s and 1930s. Roark and his mentor, Henry Cameron, are early designers of the modern style. Although the book is not historical fiction, and the lives of Cameron and Roark are not based on the lives of real-life individuals, their struggles parallel the battles waged by Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the architectural style that still dominated American building was Classical. American architects largely copied Greek and Roman designs (or those of other historical periods such as the Renaissance). Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) was one of the first to build in what became known as the modern style. Generally held to be the father of modern architecture and, in particular, of the skyscraper, Sullivan waged a long battle for his ideas against conventional standards. Ayn Rand scholar David Harriman, editor of The Journals of Ayn Rand, points out that Sullivan's life serves as a "concrete inspiration" for the character of Henry Cameron. Harriman also notes that Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959), the greatest of the modern designers, is famous for his "strikingly original designs." Wright was a fiercely independent individual, who refused to collaborate on his work and who learned early in his career not to compromise. Although the events of Roark's life are not identical to the events of Wright's, in the broad sense Wright does serve as the model for Howard Roark. Cameron and Roark, in the novel, struggle against characters like the Dean of Stanton Institute, who believes that all the great ideas in architecture have been discovered already by the designers of the past, and that contemporary architects are simply to copy those ideas. Sullivan and Wright, in real life, battled against similar instances of conformity. Though important similarities between Rand's fictional characters and Sullivan and Wright do exist, it is important to remember that Roark and Cameron are exemplars of innovativeness and independent thought; they are not fictionalized versions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan.
In her previous novels, Ayn Rand had also glorified the heroism of the freethinking human mind, although in different forms. Her first novel, We the Living, published in 1936, tells the story of three individuals who dare to think for themselves in the Communist dictatorship of Soviet Russia. Its heroine, Kira Arguonova, is similar to the author; she is an independently thinking young woman, fiercely opposed to the totalitarian state in which she exists. But Kira desires to be an engineer in a society in which neither her bourgeois background nor her freethinking mind is welcome. Despite being an outstanding student, she is expelled from engineering school. The story focuses on her relationships with two men — Leo Kovalensky, the aristocrat whom she loves, and Andrei Taganov, the Communist who loves her. Leo is a brilliant young scholar, but his aristocratic family and individualistic views leave him no future in the Soviet Union. Andrei, an honest man who believes sincerely in the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution, witnesses the harsh fate to which Kira is condemned, and must question the virtue of the Communist principles for which he has always stood. We the Living shows the fate of freethinking men and women in a totalitarian state.
Her second book, the novella, Anthem, published in 1938, also takes place in a collectivist dictatorship — but in an unspecified future. The dominance of the group over the individual is so absolute in this society that it has even outlawed the word "I." Individuals, referring to themselves in the first person, use the word "we." The story centers around one individual who refuses to obey the all-powerful state, but who, contrary to its wishes, becomes a scientist. With independent thought stifled, this society has lost all technological progress and reverted to a primitive condition. The hero reinvents the electric light, but is condemned to death for the crime of thinking for himself. Further, contrary to the state's decree, he dares to love a woman of his own choosing. In both love and work, he thinks independently, refusing to obey, unwilling to surrender the things most precious to him. Ayn Rand shows in Anthem that all the values that make human life valuable and joyous come from the individual, not from society.
In both We the Living and Anthem, the independent heroes are pitted against a collectivist dictatorship; in both books the theme is political, emphasizing the necessity of freedom for human progress and happiness. But the theme in The Fountainhead is deeper and more complex. It is psychological and epistemological. It concerns the way in which individuals choose to use their minds — whether they think and value independently or whether they allow their lives to be dominated, in one form or another, by the beliefs of others. The story of innovative architect Howard Roark, and his lifelong battle against a society committed to traditional forms of design, The Fountainhead glorifies the great original thinkers of history. Ayn Rand's subsequent Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, carries further the same idea. It shows what happens when the thinkers go on strike — when the Howard Roark types, the inventors, scientists, and men of independent judgment — refuse to practice their professions in a world that expects them to comply. Ayn Rand's masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged shows the role of the mind in man's existence — not merely in the life of one rational individual, as in The Fountainhead, but in the life of an entire culture. All of her books defend man's mind, and uphold the need for an uncompromising independence of thought.
The history of The Fountainhead is like an example of its own theme. It was rejected by twelve publishers. Some thought that it was too intellectual, that there was no market for such a book among a reading public that was interested only in stories of physical action. Others rejected it because it glorified individualism and repudiated the collectivist ideals so popular among modern intellectuals. But Ayn Rand refused to alter her story or dilute her theme. Finally, the book was read by Archibald Ogden, an editor at Bobbs-Merrill. Like an independent-minded Ayn Rand hero, Ogden loved the book and fought for it against dissenting thought in the company. Despite the opposition, Ogden staked his career on this book. It was published in 1943 and made history several years later by becoming a best-seller through word of mouth. It was made into a successful film in 1949 with Gary Cooper as Howard Roark and Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon. By the end of the twentieth century, the book that was "too intellectual" had sold over six million copies and touched the lives of countless readers. To this day, it sells well over a hundred thousand copies every year. The Ayn Rand Institute's high school essay contest on The Fountainhead, initiated in 1986, averages three thousand essays per year. A poll conducted jointly in 1991 by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club showed that Atlas Shrugged was the second most influential book in the lives of the respondents (behind only the Bible) and showed The Fountainhead among the top twenty.
Today, The Fountainhead has achieved the status of a modern classic. It is taught in college literature and philosophy courses, as well as in high school English classes. The Fountainhead continues to be an example of its own theme: the struggle for acceptance of great new ideas in human society. But, in principle and in the long run, truth wins out. Despite continuing intellectual opposition to Ayn Rand's ideas, The Fountainhead has gained recognition as one of the great novels of American literature. Its theme of glorifying the independent mind not only captures the essence of the American spirit but, more fundamentally, expresses the deep human yearning for freedom. The Fountainhead is a theme and a novel that will live forever.