In 1928, just two years after Ayn Rand arrived in the U.S. from Soviet Russia and settled in Los Angeles, she scribbled diary notes in her brand-new language that formed a story she called The Little Street. Its protagonist, Danny Renahan, is modeled on a real-life Los Angeles murderer, 19-year-old William Hickman, who strangled and dismembered a girl in a kidnapping-for-ransom gone awry.
In her notebooks, Rand makes a hero of both Hickman and the fictional Renahan, who murders a church pastor instead of a child, and extols the killers’ beautiful souls, which rise and set without a trace of “social instinct or herd feeling.” Of Hickman she writes, “A strong man can eventually trample society under his feet … That boy was not strong enough.” Meanwhile, Renahan “does not understand,” she writes quite rapturously, “because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people.”
In the end, Rand’s hero, like her most famous protagonists to come, is condemned to judgment by “fat, shabbily dressed,” homely, insignificant, snickering, “boot-licking” onlookers and jurors, members of “the little street” and of “the human herds … who have but one aim: to ruin all individuals and individuality.”
These squalid American types, based in part on Rand’s reading of Nietzsche and Sinclair Lewis and in larger part on a Russian-Jewish horror of social and political majorities of any kind, filled her novels and essays until her death.
Rand went on to write two immensely and timelessly popular novels about rock-ribbed capitalist-individualist heroes who were strong enough, first The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. These novels have been cited as inspirational by Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and a number of their friends and funders. But few are familiar with The Little Street–or with Ideal, a previously unpublished novel that Rand wrote in 1934 that is close to it in spirit. Ideal explains much about what the late convert to conservatism Whittaker Chambers called Rand’s “shrillness without reprieve,” even in those of her books that celebrate human freedom. Rand hated ordinary people with a vengeance.
At 125 pages, Ideal is slightly longer than its 1936 stage adaptation. The story opens after the death of a bankrupted tycoon, found with a fatal gunshot wound on the floor of his mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif. Kay Gonda, a tall, thin, impossibly beautiful, universally revered screen idol, is believed to have shot him; after dining alone with him, she has fled into the night.
Where is she? If innocent, why has she disappeared? The police search, but it is the novel’s lucky readers who find her. She is on a hallowed pilgrimage to test fans who have written to declare that she is their ideal and to swear that they would gladly die for her. She needs just one honest fan to shore her up; for three days, she drops into shacks, garrets and bungalows, asking avowed admirers for shelter and protection. The odyssey affords Rand an opportunity to censure some of her least favorite recurring characters: a henpecked husband (Atlas Shrugged’s Hank Rearden before Dagny), a cowardly chicken farmer (on Ventura Boulevard!), a false-hearted artist, an unctuous preacher (in the mold of the one Danny Renahan had to kill), a despairing male socialite and a misfit drifter named Johnnie Dawes who is the story’s hero and a precursor to The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark. All but Johnnie conspire with authorities to betray their beloved Gonda for money, religion, dark sexual impulses or just the untroubled resumption of their daily lives. Johnnie, who “sees too much of what is not,” longs for more: to live as if in a temple, looking up at something much resembling Kay Gonda. Without giving away too much more of what happens here, suffice it to say that Rand goes on to demonstrate the aptness of one of her favorite Nietzschean maxims: “The noble soul has reverence for itself.”
After the author’s improbable commercial success with a creaky Broadway courtroom drama called Night of January 16th, and during the first wave of midcentury anticommunist fervor, she adapted Ideal into its familiar iteration as a play. That version replaces the novel’s hypocritical preacher with a hypocritical communist labor organizer, who proves equally willing to betray his creed for gain. It’s less fun to read than the novel, if possible, because dialogue was not Rand’s strong suit.
What was? Unfamiliar ideas embedded in complicated, rollicking plots that hinge on the gradual unfolding of those ideas in her characters’ fates. That was Rand’s gift, and it is nowhere evident in Ideal.
What is evident is the “inflexibly self-righteous stance” that Chambers also noted in his famously bitter 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged, “Big Sister Is Watching You,” for National Review. The novel “supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation,” he wrote. “Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. [It] can only be willfully wicked.” And wickedness is punishable by the murderous contempt of a Danny Renahan, the tainted idealism of a Johnnie Dawes or the empyreal indifference of a Kay Gonda.
As Rand’s biographer, I came to appreciate certain things about her: her willingness to persevere as an outsider; her hard work; her ferocious drive to formulate and articulate what–like them or not–were ideas, not dictums or even policy papers. Yet reading Ideal today, I can’t help glimpsing Charleston gunman Dylann Roof and his lethal ilk in the undoubting fanaticism of Johnnie Dawes, and I am appalled.
Heller is the author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times.
This appears in the July 20, 2015 issue of TIME.