An Interview with Mimi Reisel Gladstein

One of the first academics to treat the work of Ayn Rand as worthy of scholarly treatment, Professor Gladstein discusses Rand, Steinbeck, and the academy.

Professor Mimi Reisel Gladstein might remind you of an Ayn Rand heroine.

When her article, “Ayn Rand and Feminism: An Unlikely Alliance,” appeared in College English in 1978, Dr. Gladstein became one of the first academics to treat the work of Ayn Rand as worthy of scholarly treatment.

Since then, she has expanded her scope to entire books about Ayn Rand, including The Ayn Rand Companion (updated as The New Ayn Rand Companion) and Atlas Shrugged: Manifesto of the Mind.

Founder of the women’s studies program at the University of Texas at El Paso, Dr. Gladstein’s further work in that area includes writing The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, co-editing (with Chris Matthew Sciabarra) the controversial Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, and writing the “Ayn Rand” entry in The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States.

Dr. Gladstein is a noted Steinbeck and Hemingway scholar as well, serving as Consulting Editor of Steinbeck Studies and of College Teaching, and as a referee of The Hemingway Review. She received the Burkhardt Award for Outstanding Steinbeck Scholar in 1996.

After explaining Mimi’s Law (“The more labor-saving and time-saving devices we have, the harder we work and the less time we have”) Dr. Gladstein was interviewed by The Atlasphere in her office at the University of Texas at El Paso.

TA: How did your interest in Ayn Rand come about?

Gladstein: Well, of course I read The Fountainhead in high school. Obviously I’ve always been an omnivorous reader. And then I read Atlas Shrugged in Germany when I was an Army wife — where I had a lot of reading time, because in Germany it was twenty below zero for days on end!

I became very involved in the women’s movement and founded the Women’s Studies program here on campus. I was teaching a women in literature class, and I was using the, at the time, fashionable feminist novels — Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Up the Sandbox, and this kind of stuff — and my students were getting depressed! And they’d ask me, “Dr Gladstein, isn’t there ever a situation in American fiction where a woman comes out all right, where a woman succeeds?”

And of course the first thing that flies to my mind is Dagny Taggart — and so I wrote an article about it. I don’t know if you’ve seen it —

TA: Was that the one for College English?

Gladstein: Yes! So I sent it to College English, and of course every Objectivist living will tell you that you can’t get stuff about Ayn Rand published in mainstream academic journals — but you cannot get more mainstream than College English. And they get something like three hundred submissions an issue! (Laughs.) But I was just a young assistant professor and I didn’t know any better but to send it to the best. And I immediately got a response back that they were very interested in publishing it. Basically that was it.

And I thought, well, all right — I wasn’t thinking any more of it, because I was publishing on Steinbeck.

Incidentally, the connection is interesting, publishing on Steinbeck and publishing on Rand. Shoshana Milgram, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic and Virginia State, has found what she thinks is a connection between Steinbeck and Rand, and she thinks Steinbeck must have read Rand.

He puts words in his characters’ mouths, and he’s got certain paragraphs that seem to indicate that he read Rand — and as I mentioned in my Full Context interview, Steinbeck comes to the conclusion that a committee doesn’t create anything, that the individual mind is the most important.

I hadn’t thought of it as Shoshana does, but she goes through and she sees all these places where there’s evidence for this in the Steinbeck texts. Steinbeck was very much ... well, he was never literally a communist or a socialist, but his earlier works were very much in that vein. And then by the time he’s writing East of Eden, he’s in a very different, very much more of an individualist vein, and she wonders if he read Ayn Rand.

I keep telling her to write it up, so it can be published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, because I think she’s on to something.

Anyway, that was my article, and that was it. I then got a letter from an editor at Greenwood Press, asking me if I would be interested in doing an Ayn Rand Companion, because they had this Companion series. And I didn’t know any better, so I said, “Sure, why not.” All my colleagues were dying to get book contracts, and here is this publisher asking me to write a book!

TA: Do you approach Rand and Steinbeck differently, or in each case is it just a matter of critical concern?

Gladstein: I think I approach them differently on one level, but the same on another. When I’m doing critical analysis I approach them the same. I look at the text, and I’m approaching the text any number of ways. I can talk about reader response, I can talk about images and metaphors, I can talk about themes, character analysis, that sort of thing, whoever I’m writing about — Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck.

However, in the case of Rand, there is something much more personal involved, in that the message of Atlas Shrugged resonated with me, and it gave me the kind of spiritual and intellectual support that I needed to do what I did in the sixties and seventies, so that, as a married woman with three children, to pick up my children and go to college — that was just not what people did. It’s probably even unusual today. I mean, usually people do that before they get married and have their children.

But Ayn Rand talks about the responsibility to the self, talks about the sanction of the victim and a lot of other things, and they just resonated with me. The other thing she talks about is not sacrificing something good for something lesser, and I had a belief in my ability, I knew that I was a good teacher, and I knew that I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to unless I had the Ph.D.

So in that way I approach Rand a little differently than I do other writers.

TA: You mentioned intellectual and spiritual support, and that you received that from reading Atlas Shrugged. My impression, reading you, is that you don’t regard yourself as an Objectivist and perhaps never did.

Gladstein: I never did. I’m not an Objectivist and I never did regard myself as an Objectivist. Certainly not in the way she defines it, or the way the Ayn Rand Institute defines it, and probably not even in the way I define it.

TA: What, in your view, is promising right now in Ayn Rand studies, or in academic response or openness to serious study of her?

Gladstein: Interestingly enough, I think she’s probably benefiting from this recent far left attack on the canon. Because if you destroy the canon, then anything is possible, and any work is equally valid of study, so you certainly can’t use the old arguments against Ayn Rand, that she’s just a popular writer and so forth.

The only problem with her, still, is that the academy is so left-leaning — but I’ve been teaching Ayn Rand at this university for decades, and no one’s ever said boo to me.

TA: Are there any barriers or pitfalls that still exist there?

Gladstein: In the academy? Well, that kneejerk reaction is still there: “Ayn Rand? Why are you writing about her? She’s such a fascist!”

TA: Which is ironic, since in literature, you get writers such as Pound, and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and Mishima —

Gladstein: Who were real fascists —

TA: Yes, and who are yet viewed as possessing real literary merit — but not Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand is just beyond the pale. Is that why, do you think? Is it just political bias against her?

Gladstein: (Slowly) Yeah, I think so. I don’t know what the percentage is, but university professors are overwhelmingly left-wing. So those biases are there. But Pound and Mishima are already in the texts. (Shrugs.)

TA: Other than Professor Milgram, are there any other scholars’ Rand projects that are of interest to you?

Gladstein: I get the literary essays that are submitted to the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, because I’m on the editorial board. I really love Doug Den Uyl’s read on The Fountainhead — I thought it was wonderful, his whole “American novel” thing.

I’m an immigrant myself and I respect so much of what he said about how an immigrant coming to America appreciates things that Americans who were born here take for granted, and how The Fountainhead celebrates so many of those basic American qualities.

TA: What do you appreciate about Steinbeck?

Gladstein: (Long pause.) Among other things, Steinbeck had this great sense of humor, and he’s got this enormous variety — I mean, he can write something epic like The Grapes of Wrath, and then he can turn around and write this wonderful comedy, Cannery Row. But Cannery Row’s a very dark comedy. There was another one, Tortilla Flat

TA: Not quite as dark —

Gladstein: No, not quite as dark — and “The Short Reign of Pippin IV,” which was a satire on what was going on in the French government at the time. Well, he did a lot. Before Hemingway did The Old Man and the Sea, Steinbeck did The Pearl. There are amazing correspondences there. So I’ve enjoyed writing about Steinbeck.

TA: Steinbeck’s appeal just doesn’t go away.

Gladstein: Because it’s universal and archetypal. The book The Grapes of Wrath is tied to a particular historical incident. But its theme is universal. I’ve published an article about that; I call it “Steinbeck and The Eternal Immigrant.”

His Okies are migrants, not immigrants, but they are treated like immigrants in California — the Californians use call them “outlanders,” “foreigners” — and that is the experience that the Moluccans have in the Netherlands, and that different groups had in the United States. It’s an archetypal experience, which includes the creation of derogatory terms, where you have, for example, “Okies,” “spics” —

TA: “Newfies,” in Canada?

Gladstein: Exactly. That’s why I think he lasts, and that’s why I think Ayn Rand lasts. Atlas Shrugged is concretely about railroads, which are sort of passé; but she’s talking about archetypal issues, the importance of the human mind. And that doesn’t change. It doesn’t ever change.

TA: And sales of her books haven’t dipped.

Gladstein: No, not at all.

TA: You’ve been teaching Ayn Rand at the university level for decades. What have you found to be the most challenging part of that?

Gladstein: I think the toughest issue I have with students and with Atlas Shrugged is that it is such a long book. That’s the book I want to teach, because that’s the book that has everything in it, everything you could want to discuss. But you really can’t include it in a semester, with other novels. It’s overwhelming, and it becomes such a chore and such a task. And when you say, you’ve got to read to this chapter by this day, then you really can’t give it the time and the attention it deserves.

By the way, I’m not the only one in the English department who teaches it. I have a colleage, Dean Mansfield Kelly, and she also teaches it regularly.

TA: How do you get around that length issue? How do you devote the necessary time?

Gladstein: Well, I can’t, really. At least I haven’t yet been able to. I include it, and this is in part a political statement I’m making: I’m teaching American literature, this is one of the important books of that period of time. But I’m also teaching Faulker and Hemingway and Steinbeck and Bellow, so I can’t devote as much time to it as I’d like. If I were teaching a course on Ayn Rand, that would be a different story.

TA: How do you compare The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged?

Gladstein: I think The Fountainhead is a better novel than Atlas Shrugged. Her prolixity detracts from the latter work. It’s like the night I went to see the third installment of The Lord of the Rings: if they’d cut one hour from that movie, it would have been a much better movie. They just kept hammering us on the head with these huge scenes of Orcs marching. Well, all right, I get it: the Orcs are marching!

TA: The Fountainhead is not a short novel: seven-hundred-some pages.

Gladstein: No, no, it’s not, but it’s shorter than Atlas Shrugged. And in Atlas Shrugged she’s giving you a lesson and she’s giving it to you again, and then John Galt’s got to give it to you in sixty pages, and so ... I mean, I love the book, but I just don’t think it’s as good a novel, qua novel, as The Fountainhead.

TA: How do you regard Ayn Rand as an esthetician?

Gladstein: Well, she certainly wrote about it, and I certainly respond to her idea of Romantic Realism. I would much rather read about people who are interesting, people who do interesting things, exciting things, people who are as people should be rather than how they all too often are.

I think she said this, too: “If I want to see the girl down the corner, I’ll go down to the corner and see her.” I can look out my back window and see the girl next door. I wouldn’t want to read about her — no more than I watch these reality shows on TV. I’m not interested in that.

TA: How well do you think her esthetics describes her own work?

Gladstein: Well, I think there are some discrepancies. An example would be The Night of January 16, where I don’t find the heroine to be an admirable character. And in one of the endings, she’s going to commit suicide? That whole thing, that sounds as traditional a heroine as you can get. She would dedicate her life to this guy, who doesn’t sound very attractive to me, either. So that whole thing was traditional, melodramatic Thirties Hollywood.

And in We the Living: what in God’s green earth does Kira find so noble in Leo? He just seems to me like some kind of decadent aristocrat. Certainly Andrei is the much superior person, in terms of fighting for his principles. Leo just drinks for his principles. So she at times intended things which didn’t necessarily come out.

TA: Last question: Is Dagny Taggart still the character to whom most of your students respond?

Gladstein: Oh yes. As I said in my book, she’s the female fantasy, the heroine. She not only runs a railroad, but she keeps the attention of three men, so that’s nice. (Laughs.) I’ve always liked that idea. And not only three men, but look at what three men! (Laughs.) And didn’t Ayn Rand once tell Nathaniel Branden, “This is my fantasy, not yours”?

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To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.