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A Barracuda Among Butterflies

The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America, Stephen Cox, Transaction Publishers, 418 pages

The rediscovery of the Old Right in American politics—those who fought the New Deal and resisted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s relentless drive to drag us into another world war—has brought forth a rich harvest of books: reissues of the works of many of its principal figures, such as Garet Garrett and John T. Flynn, as well as biographies of Flynn, Rose Wilder Lane, and now Isabel Paterson. Stephen Cox brings this feisty, acerbic character to life in a way that had me laughing out loud at her idiosyncratic wit and left me wishing I could step back in time and make her acquaintance.

Paterson was born in 1886, a Canadian subject, on Manitoulin Island, the daughter of a feckless wanderer and his long-suffering wife. She taught herself to read at age three and by 1910 had already worked for Canadian politician R.B. Bennett, acquired and quickly ditched a husband, broken into journalism, started writing historical novels, and worked her way to San Francisco. By 1920, she was in New York, where she walked into the offices of the New York Tribune and asked for a job. Such was Paterson’s formidable mien and persistence that Burton Rascoe, the editor, confessed, “I was afraid not to hire her.” In 1924, the newly merged New York Herald-Tribune came out with its literary supplement, the first edition of which carried Paterson’s soon-to-be-famous “Turns With a Bookworm” column—a lighthouse of reason that would continue to illuminate the rocky shoals of American literature and politics for the next 25 years.

Rascoe said that she had a “Thackeray drawing-room air about her—when silent, at ten feet away.” Poet Elinor Wylie described her as “a woman of singularly pointed and ironical speech,” and another contemporary characterized her wit as “so searing that no rubber plant ever grows again in a room through which she has trod.” Quarrelsome, sardonic, and often bitingly sarcastic, her humor skewered many a pretentious phony. She moved through literary salons and teas—the natural environment of the literary critic—like a barracuda among the butterflies, snapping up a tasty tidbit here and there, while swarms of intellectual minnows fled scurrying in her wake. She gave writers “a fair shake,” says Cox, “but it could be a very rough shake.”

She roughed up Upton Sinclair, the socialist novelist and agitator, on more than one occasion, noting his good reviews in the Communist party’s literary magazine: “The meanest remark in the New Masses is about Upton Sinclair’s new book, ‘Mountain City.’ ‘Style and content are one.’ We kind of thought so, but felt it would be harsh to say it.”

Paterson’s libertarian credo was dramatized in her 1924 novel, The Singing Season, set in 14th-century Spain, in a scene where the king of Castile reproaches a merchant for disdaining the knightly virtues. The merchant’s reply encapsulates her view of economics as the source of the vital energy that keeps civilization going. Commerce is the lifeblood of human society, he explains, and enables another—higher and more effective—sort of conquest: “Keep the roads open, the ports clear; make of Castile a safe haven for the merchants of all nations, and your neighbor states will ask for shelter under your protecting hand. It is better to make than take.”

Paterson’s stance was in sharp contrast to the fashionably progressive vision of social planning ushered in by World War I. That bloody conflict, which leveled Europe and with it the laissez-faire tradition of classical liberalism, sickened Paterson and poisoned the intellectual wells with collectivist ideologies of the Left and the Right. She stood like a rock against these threatening currents, lashing out at Reds and brownshirts alike. In 1932, she summed up the American historical record since the Great War with admirable succinctness:

The uplifters got their way, [and] immediately wished conscription upon us. Then the demand for a ‘business administration’ was heard, and look at the darned thing now. After having boasted how well they could run the country, the bankers and business men are asking the government to rescue them from what they did to it. And meantime the internationalists set about saving the world, and what a swell job they did! And the moral legislators sewed us up in a sack with prohibition.

Disdain for uplifters who would run every aspect of our lives was the political expression of Paterson’s radically individualist soul and the credo of a small but vocal band of writers and political figures who stood up against the galloping regimentation that was the spirit of the age. This was the platform of the Old Right—a term that the author of this volume treats with a degree of skepticism largely unwarranted. Cox rightly associates the “Old Right” label with the writings and influence of the libertarian economist and philosopher Murray Rothbard and his followers, but warns that they can get away with this appellation only by giving their criteria “the broadest possible interpretation.” The “theory of the Old Right has the virtue of directing attention to important figures in American history,” Cox concedes, “some of them unjustly neglected. But disliking the New Deal is not the same as advocating libertarian principles.”

Cox cavils at the inclusion of such “veteran enemies of laissez-faire” as Sen. Burton K. Wheeler under the Old Right rubric, averring that what they had in common was “little more than opposition to President Roosevelt’s conduct of foreign relations.” Such a capacity for understatement is baffling in this instance, when what Cox is talking about is the onset of a cataclysmic global conflict in which millions would perish and very nearly the memory of limited, constitutional government along with them.

There is a lot of material about the relationship between Paterson and Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged: they knew each other when Rand was an unknown and Paterson was the one with the influence. The two were great friends, with Paterson in the role of teacher, imparting libertarian political principles as they applied to the American scene to the Russian-born Rand. They collaborated on an idea of Rand’s, the formation of an organization that would fight the collectivist paradigm and advance an alternative vision of economic and personal liberty. But the project never got off the ground. Here Cox refutes his contention that the Old Right is largely illusory.

The chapter on “War and the Intellectuals” portrays Paterson’s dread of the coming conflict and her desperate hope to avoid it. She was not a pacifist; a war for self-defense was justified, but “the idea that America must plan for its own supposedly global mission filled her with trepidation,” writes Cox. “If no one could know enough to plan America’s future, it was certain that no American could know enough to plan the future of the world.” While the War Party disdained the America Firsters as relics of a bygone age when America was isolated, Paterson reminded them “that when it was founded the United States had Europe in the back yard and on both sides—French sovereignty in Louisiana, Spain to the South, and British troops garrisoned in Canada. It had had one European war fought on American soil—the French and Indian war, and George Washington fought in it. He couldn’t have felt so nearly as ‘isolated’ as he would have wished.”

Cox emphasizes the libertarian purity of Paterson’s position on the war question, yet her views reflected those of the Old Rightists of her generation—that we would defeat national socialism in the trenches and witness its triumph on the home front. The intellectuals of the Left, who were now hysterical in their denunciations of anti-interventionists as stooges of Hitler and the Mikado, were themselves stooges who would “join practically any group which begins by denouncing Fascism or Nazism. On such premises the joiner will soon find himself committed to ‘leadership’ demanding—we quote Miss Dorothy Thompson—‘for President Roosevelt the power and the authority completely to organize the economic and moral strength of the country’ on ‘a total war footing.’ What more did Hitler ever ask? What more is there to ask? Nothing.”

There is much here that resonates in our own day and age. As a gaggle of ex-Trotskyists, ex-Black Panther groupies, and ex-liberals of the Scoop Jackson persuasion presume to take over the leadership of the conservative movement, we would do well to recall Paterson’s advice to the repentant Marxists of her day, whose disillusion produced a number of books which Paterson reviewed and praised, albeit with one important caveat. Such people had to be told, “The fact that you have lately given up work on your perpetual-motion machine is no strong recommendation of your new project for squaring the circle.”

After Pearl Harbor, Paterson and her fellow anti-interventionists hunkered down. Many writers with her views were being turned out of the nation’s editorial offices, but Paterson avoided the purge, if just barely. She could not restrain herself, however, when it came to conscription, which she denounced as a barbaric atavism characteristic of the totalitarian states. She also reminded her readers that the Soviet Union had been allied to Nazi Germany and ridiculed FDR’s Four Freedoms as really two—freedom of speech and of religion—while “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” were dangerous illusions. Human beings will never stop wanting, no matter how much they have, and “freedom from fear” is only possible given “courage or rigor mortis.” If our government was really intent on securing these “rights” for its citizens, they would only get “freedom from soap, freedom from shoes, freedom from food.”

The war destroyed the last remnants of the world Paterson had lived in. It was a new age of liberal collectivism in which the ideas of individual liberty and responsibility so ably and charmingly championed by Paterson were not even considered quaint—but were banished entirely from any consideration. Before this dark age descended, however, Paterson launched a volley of intellectual fireworks that would light up the sky for years after her death, a signal to future generations of liberty-lovers that not all hope had been extinguished. Her book The God of the Machine, published in 1943, is a thoroughgoing defense of laissez-faire capitalism and a good many other things besides; here I can only give a general overview of its overarching theme that the material well-being of mankind depends on the unobstructed flow of energy—creative energy—through socio-political structures. Blockage, in the form of government regulation, leads to stagnation.

Paterson retired from the Herald-Tribune—or was fired, depending on how you look at it—in 1949, just as the liberal-collectivist consensus was fastening its grip on the American consciousness. She lived out her last years watching the old America she had loved bloat up into a collectivist colossus. The Paterson persona was summed up by one of her closest friends, who remarked, “I never could argue with Pat. I could only enjoy her.” That her life and work are now being recalled in this fascinating biography is a sign that she may yet have the last word. 

Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com.

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