The Fountainhead: Flyover States

The Fountainhead: Flyover States August 24, 2018

The Fountainhead, part 3, chapter 5

Dominique is on her way to Reno (the divorce capital of the U.S., at the time The Fountainhead was written), so she can divorce Peter Keating and marry Gail Wynand. Along the way, she makes an unscheduled stop:

Dominique sat at the window, listening to the train wheels under the floor. She looked at the countryside of Ohio flying past in the fading daylight.

…When she saw, in the slowing movement beyond the glass, the name “Clayton” on a faded board under the eaves of a station building, she knew what she had been expecting… She ran down the narrow corridor of the car, down the steps. She leaped to the station platform, feeling the shock of winter cold on her bare throat. She stood looking at the station building. She heard the train moving behind her, clattering away.

As the text says, she accidentally-on-purpose took a train that made a stop in the small Ohio town where she heard Roark was working, just so she’d have an excuse to see him. She walks downtown to the building site, her big-city beauty and elegance standing out like a beacon in the poor and hardscrabble town:

She saw a pitted stretch of paving bricks, and small houses leaning against one another; a bare tree with twisted branches, skeletons of weeds at the doorless opening of an abandoned garage, dark shop fronts, a drugstore still open on a corner, its lighted window dim, low over the ground.

…She walked patiently through the dark streets. She walked past desolate winter lawns and sagging porches; past vacant lots where weeds rustled against tin cans; past closed grocery stores and a steaming laundry; past an uncurtained window where a man in shirt sleeves sat by a fire, reading a paper. She turned corners and crossed streets, with the feel of cobblestones under the thin soles of her pumps. Rare passersby looked, astonished, at her air of foreign elegance.

There’s an interesting thing you notice when you read a lot of Ayn Rand: For all that she claimed to love America and hailed it as the capitalist savior of the world, she treated almost all of the country as a cultural and economic wasteland.

In both this novel and Atlas Shrugged, most of the action takes place just in New York City, and really, just in Manhattan. It’s a setting as small as a snowglobe. But when the heroes do have occasion to visit other regions of the country – like this scene, or Dagny and Hank’s jaunt to the Wisconsin countryside, or Dagny’s vacation cabin in Woodstock – we invariably see them as run-down, decrepit, and inhabited by ignorant hicks mired in poverty.

Rand’s own life reflected this mentality. Like those stereotypical elitists who sneer at “flyover states”, she spent her time moving back and forth between residences in New York and California. This is an inversion of the way it usually plays out: nowadays, the conservatives who claim to be red-blooded lovers of capitalism and freedom are the ones who wax rhapsodic about good old-fashioned small-town values, while denouncing Wall Street, Hollywood, and big-city coastal elites of all kinds.

Dominique finds the construction site where the new department store is being built, and of course Roark is there to meet her:

He stopped. He looked at her. She thought that she was standing straight; that it was simple and normal, she was seeing the gray eyes and the orange hair as she had always seen them. She was astonished that he moved toward her with a kind of urgent haste, that his hand closed over her elbow too firmly and he said: “You’d better sit down.”

They sit down together on the steps of a vacant house to talk and catch up. Roark is finding work again, but just barely. Dominique says that he’s done just two country homes in the past two years, and now this:

“Roark, it’s the quarry again.”

He smiled. “If you wish. Only it isn’t.”

“After the Enright House? After the Cord Building?”

“I don’t think of it that way… I love doing it. Every building is like a person. Single and unrepeatable.”

As I mentioned earlier, Roark is a literary version of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous and temperamental American architect. Ayn Rand was a huge admirer of Wright, calling him “a living miracle” and “the only one among the men of this century” who had integrity.

While writing The Fountainhead, Rand wrote a letter to Wright, saying that her new novel would contain a character that was based on him and asking to meet and interview him. (Wright brushed the letter off – although they did eventually meet and strike up a correspondence some years later, after the novel was published.)

This makes it ironic that Wright did experiment with the kind of mass-produced, prefabricated housing that Roark would have derided. They were called American System-Built Homes. Prospective buyers could choose which model they wanted, and a company would send them all the parts they needed to construct the house on-site:

“The Richards Company milled the lumber, cut it to specification, and packaged all the materials needed for construction, including plaster, paint, windows, hardware and fixtures. The customer purchased a complete home, so in addition to the materials, skilled craftsmen were provided.” (source)

Roark, who’s religious in his insistence that there can be one and only one correct design for any site, would have regarded this kind of mass-produced, catalog-ordered home as an abomination. And in all likelihood, the feeling would have been mutual. For his part, Wright had a reputation for leftist politics and didn’t think too highly of the New York skyline which Rand and her characters worshipped:

When asked why he was not enthralled by the New York City skyline, Wright replied: “Because it never was planned, it is all a race for rent, and it is a great monument, I think, to the power of money and greed trying to substitute money for ideas. I don’t see an idea in the whole thing anywhere.” (source)

This just goes to show that human beings don’t fall into the neat ideological boxes Rand seeks to assign them to. For all that she praised Wright’s integrity and modeled her hero after him, if Wright had ever met his fictional counterpart, it seems likely that they would have despised each other.

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