The Fountainhead: American Eclectic

The Fountainhead: American Eclectic June 16, 2017


The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 9

After months of hitting one dead end after another, Howard Roark finally gets a lucky break in his job hunt – not that Ayn Rand ever acknowledged the existence of luck:

John Erik Snyte looked through Roark’s sketches, flipped three of them aside, gathered the rest into an even pile, glanced again at the three, tossed them down one after another on top of the pile, with three sharp thuds, and said:

“Remarkable. Radical, but remarkable. What are you doing tonight?”

“Why?” asked Roark, stupefied.

“Are you free? Mind starting in at once? Take your coat off, go to the drafting room, borrow tools from somebody and do me up a sketch for a department store we’re remodeling. Just a quick sketch, just a general idea, but I must have it tomorrow… Can you stay?”

“Yes,” said Roark, incredulously. “I can work all night.”

We never find out how Roark learned about John Erik Snyte – the first time his name is spoken in the text is the first line of the passage I quoted above – which is just a little strange. We saw last week that Roark had been unemployed so long and gotten so desperate, he was reapplying to firms that had already rejected him. How did Snyte come into this picture? From the evidence, his firm isn’t brand-new.

Was he someone Roark had known about, but held in such contempt that he refused to interview there until he literally had nowhere else to turn? Or was Roark tipped off about a job opening there – but by who, since he has no friends or colleagues?

An obvious answer is that he saw a help-wanted ad in the paper and thought the position might suit him, but we’re never told that if so. It’s possible that Rand deliberately chose to omit this information, because she couldn’t think of how to have Roark find out about the job opening in a way that didn’t seem like a stroke of good luck.

As I said above, Rand was fiercely opposed to the idea that there’s such a thing as luck or random chance, since that might call into question her view of the world as a perfect meritocracy. Having her hero stumble across a job opening that suits him, something that would have been easy to overlook or miss, wouldn’t accord with her view of how the world works. (As possible evidence of this, I skipped a section where Roark comes across an editorial by an unfamiliar architect named Gordon L. Prescott, who claims to want fresh blood and originality; but when Roark goes to interview there, it turns out he just wants to build more copies of the Parthenon.)

Personally, my headcanon is that Henry Cameron told Roark to apply with Snyte, and then secretly sent the recommendation letter that Roark always refused to accept, figuring his protege was too stubborn for his own good. It does fit with a line where Snyte says about his new hire, saying, “That’s just what I’ve always needed – a Cameron man,” even though we never see Roark actually tell his new boss anything about his background. Did it ever occur to him to wonder how Snyte knew?

Here’s how the text describes John Erik Snyte:

He considered Guy Francon an impractical idealist; he was not restrained by an Classic dogma; he was much more skillful and liberal: he built anything. He had no distaste for modern architecture and built cheerfully, when a rare client asked for it, bare boxes with flat roofs, which he called progressive; he built Roman mansions which he called fastidious; he built Gothic churches which he called spiritual. He saw no difference among any of them.

Snyte’s system is to hire five designers, each specializing in a different style, and to blend the best ideas from each of their sketches to create the final product. Roark is the “modernistic” designer in the room, although he dislikes being called that:

He met his fellow designers, the four other contestants, and learned that they were unofficially nicknamed in the drafting room as “Classic,” “Gothic,” “Renaissance” and “Miscellaneous.” He winced a little when he was addressed as “Hey, Modernistic.”

Roark takes individuality to comical heights. He’s so obstinate about it that he can’t even stand to be described as part of a movement. Whatever he does, it’s important to him to believe that he’s the only one doing it.

Of course, it’s impossible for every architect in the world to be a movement of one, with styles and aesthetic choices that are completely unlike anything else in the history of humanity. All culture is a mix of imitation and improvisation. We coin terms like “Gothic” or “Modernist” to describe broad trends and patterns that, yes, are influenced by the fashions of their era. This is as true for Roark – or his real-life inspiration, Frank Lloyd Wright – as it is for architects of the ancient past. But Ayn Rand conceived of herself as a special snowflake, someone who stood apart from the crowd, and she wrote her protagonists the same way.

You’d think that Snyte’s mix-and-match design scheme would infuriate Roark, since he hates anyone else altering his work with the ferocity of a Klan member opposing miscegenation. Instead, he grudgingly goes along with it:

Roark knew what to expect of his job. He would never see his work erected, only pieces of it, which he preferred not to see; but he would be free to design as he wished and he would have the experience of solving actual problems. It was less than he wanted and more than he could expect. He accepted it at that.

What explains this temporary outbreak of reasonable behavior? It seems that long months of unemployment have worn him down, to the point where he’s actually angry with himself for feeling relief at getting a job:

Roark looked at the clean white sheet before him, his fist closed tightly about the thin stem of a pencil. He put the pencil down, and picked it up again, his thumb running softly up and down the smooth shaft; he saw that the pencil was trembling. He put it down quickly, and he felt anger at himself for the weakness of allowing this job to mean so much to him, for the sudden knowledge of what the months of idleness behind him had really meant.

It’s difficult to tell what Rand intends us to make of this. Some commentaries, like this one from SparkNotes, call Snyte “a supposedly progressive architect who is in fact the ultimate plagiarizer”, but I don’t buy that. I doubt even Ayn Rand could have believed that it’s plagiarism for a boss to use ideas from his employees.

I think this is the more accurate description of the fault we’re meant to find in him:

As a man willing to give the public anything it wants, no matter how vulgar or inane, Snyte represents conformity in yet another form.

Snyte is another illustration of Rand’s belief that selling what your customers want to buy is a sin in business. The proper attitude is to be like Howard Roark: tell your customers what they’re going to accept, rather than vice versa, and on no account consider their preferences or tastes. Her ideal businessman is someone who sticks so obstinately to this principle that he’d rather go broke and hungry than accept money from someone who insists on having opinions of their own about what the end product should look like.

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