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Paterson, Isabel (22 Jan. 1886-10 Jan. 1961), noted book critic and libertarian thinker, was born on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada, to Francis and Margaret Bowler, recent settlers in the area who ran a grist mill. In the years after her birth her parents moved their family of nine children between Michigan, Utah, and other western territories before returning again to Canada, where they established a ranch. Isabel's childhood was marked by poverty and persistent clashes with her shiftless father. She and her siblings were expected to help support the family, and she received only about two years of formal schooling. Nonetheless Isabel loved to read and sought out books wherever they could be found. She was proud to identify herself as a daughter of the frontier and would later ground her individualism in the values of self-sufficiency and hard work she had learned as a child.
Eager to escape the family claim, in her late teens Isabel left home. Her exact whereabouts during the following years are unclear, but by 1920 she was living in Calgary and working as a clerk and secretary. Around this time she married Kenneth Birrell Paterson, but the two separated after only a few weeks. It is unknown whether or when the two legally divorced, but Paterson kept his surname for the rest of her life. They had no children. After the breakup Paterson moved to Spokane, Washington, and began writing for a local newspaper. According to Paterson she became a journalist accidentally, but the work suited her well. Before long she had moved to another newspaper in Vancouver, where she wrote her own column. From Vancouver Paterson headed next to New York City and found positions at several newspapers as a reporter and writer. She made headlines herself in 1912 when she broke an American altitude record by reaching fifty-three hundred feet as a passenger of the famed aviator Harry B. Brown.
More substantive was the role she carved out as a book critic for the New York Herald Tribune, a post she assumed in 1925. Her weekly column, Turns with a Bookworm, offered book reviews along with Paterson's personal observations about literary life in New York. Paterson's chatty style and strong opinions made her indispensible to a large and loyal readership, who followed her cues about what fiction to buy. Though she published eight novels, including the bestsellers The Golden Vanity (1934) and Never Ask the End (1933), it was as a critic and tastemaker that Paterson achieved her greatest success. Armed with a quick wit and a famously abrasive personality, Paterson was both feared and admired by authors and editors. Idiosyncratic and opinionated, Paterson did not hesitate to break with conventional wisdom, calling the author Ernest Hemingway "as good as one can be without being a great writer" (Cox, p. 71). Her fame was such that in 1935 the liberal critic Mary McCarthy singled her out for vituperative attack in the New Republic as she launched her own literary career, writing: "ignorance is her fetish. She is easily swayed by her emotions. Her criticism is often petty, often spiteful. It is unsystematic and personal." Interestingly given Paterson's background, McCarthy alleged that "Whatever common sense Mrs. Paterson possesses is, unfortunately, closer in spirit to the horse sense of the cowpuncher than the high rationalism of the eighteenth century." As historians have recognized, however, the very personal nature of Paterson's criticism was essential to her success. In contrast to McCarthy's explicit elitism, Paterson's columns gave readers an irreverent glimpse inside the rarefied literary circles she frequented and helped make the world of books and authors accessible to a broad middle-class readership.
Turns with a Bookworm also showcased Paterson's political views, which became increasingly conservative during the 1930s as President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal unfolded. Paterson had lived through economic downturns before and believed that government action would only make the Great Depression worse. She was particularly critical of Social Security, which she argued infringed on individual rights because contributions were not voluntary. Paterson's criticisms of the New Deal and her open defense of capitalism and private property made her increasingly out of step with the New York literary world. By the late 1930s Paterson was publishing fiercely political stand-alone columns in the Herald Tribune, with catchy titles like "New Deal Likened to Small Boy Always Stalking the Jam" and "'Free Education' Declared Myth, Since Somebody Has to Pay Bill." If Paterson's new militancy dismayed some of her peers, her views also attracted admirers, notably the writer Rose Wilder Lane and the Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand. Rand and Paterson first met in 1940 and became fast friends because of their shared political outlook and mutual taste for long philosophical conversations. Rand knew little of American history or government and later remembered Paterson as one of her most important teachers, telling her in a letter, "I learned from you the historical and economic aspects of Capitalism, which I knew before only in a general way" (Burns, p. 131).
Much of what Paterson taught Rand can be found in her 1943 treatise, The God of the Machine, a defense of capitalism and limited government based upon Paterson's own understanding of natural law. Paterson explained the structure of governments and societies in engineering terms, arguing that individual man was the "dynamo" that powered the system. Therefore if government action infringed upon the rights of the individual, the society would cease to function. A similar emphasis on the power of individuals and the danger of government can be found in Rand's novel The Fountainhead, completed the same year as The God of the Machine. Later Rand would claim that Paterson plagiarized her ideas, but this accusation is without merit. Though Paterson criticized humanitarianism, unlike Rand she did not call for a revolution in values, writing in The God of the Machine, "Nor it is suggested that the virtues of good people are really not virtues" (Paterson, God of the Machine, 1993 ed., p. 236). Paterson also developed her ideas with reference to history, economics, and religious thought, whereas Rand used the abstractions of fiction to convey her message. The two women shared a common outlook on many social and political issues, but the intellectual differences between them were significant, as the later dissolution of their friendship demonstrated.
The God of the Machine received little notice or acclaim in the popular press and sold poorly but was hailed as revolutionary by a number of early conservatives and libertarians, including the journalist John Chamberlain and the writer Russell Kirk, who established a correspondence with Paterson after reading the book. Along with Lane and Rand, during the early and mid-1940s Paterson became a central figure in the developing libertarian intellectual world. In his A Life With the Printed Word Chamberlain remembered Lane, Paterson, and Rand as marking a turning point in his ideological evolution: "[They] made it plain that if life was to be something more than a naked scramble for government favors, a new attitude toward the producer must be created" (p. 136) Paterson stressed that businessmen must become involved in defending capitalism and stop supporting leftist and socialist intellectuals, a cause also taken up by Rand. Though Paterson's book was praised by a number of conservative businessmen, she was also known as a difficult personality and was unable to establish any lasting alliances. In 1948 she and Rand ended their friendship after personal and intellectual clashes, and in 1949 Paterson lost her column at the New York Herald Tribune.
Paterson published little in subsequent years, although she did write a few articles for early issues of the conservative magazine National Review at the request of its editor, William F. Buckley, Jr., who admired her work. She died in 1961.
In the early twenty-first century The God of the Machine received increased attention as a foundational text of modern conservative and libertarian thought. Paterson's influence upon Ayn Rand also remained a topic of ongoing controversy and scholarly inquiry. Paterson is recognized as one of several thinkers who crafted a new radical individualism in response to the New Deal, European totalitarianism, and the rise of the American welfare state.
Isabel Paterson's papers are held at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. She is the subject of an appreciative biography by Stephen Cox, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America (2004). Her relationship with Ayn Rand is considered at length in Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009). Paterson's literary career is given a brief treatment and set in a wider context in Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992).
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Jennifer Burns. "Paterson, Isabel";
American National Biography Online April 2014.