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The Woman and the Dynamo, by Stephen Cox

Given the way Tom and I introduced this place, one might reasonably wonder why I hadn’t reviewed Stephen Cox’s biography of Isabel Paterson much sooner. In addition to the usual challenges of time and money, once I had bought and read The Woman and the Dynamo I found I needed to let my thoughts settle some before writing. Cox presents Isabel Paterson as a complex individual living through important cultural transitions, either of which makes arriving at conclusions more effortful.

Like many, I suppose, I had been dimly aware of Isabel Paterson’s existence and contributions to the freedom philosophy; but she was overshadowed by the other two women forming the Freedom Triumvirate of the time with her: Ayn Rand with her powerful novels and copious nonfiction work; and Rose Wilder Lane with the eloquent spark that set my heart ablaze when I was new to the ideas of liberty. Still grappling with some emotional residue from my involuntary exposure to religion as a child, The God of the Machine was reflexively off-putting—a grievous error I have yet to correct. It is precisely because of her virtually unflinching individualism that I have come to admire Isabel Paterson so—yet it is that same individualism that has in some ways dimmed her light.

Aside from her magnum opus, Paterson’s extant works that one may find “in the wild” are several novels—the bulk of which are characterized as worthwhile reading but not outstanding. In discussing them, Cox asserts that one finds aspects of Paterson herself as well as important relationships from her life in them, but in such form it can be difficult to factor out bias and fictionalizing from history. So it may be that her Turns With a Bookworm column in the New York Herald Tribune served as her primary vent for her individualistic views. If Cox was able to find and pore through those columns, he gives little hint of it. He refers to them, of course, but does comparatively little quoting from them. What is left is to try to excavate a sense of Isabel Paterson from her remaining correspondence and others’ recollections of her. To my mind he does so, richly weaving a tapestry of her life from childhood to her death in 1960.

Born before the advent of identity papers that indelibly stamp some nation’s ownership claim into one’s being, Paterson was actually Canadian, yet her life as cast by Cox could serve as an archetype for the true American pioneer. Frontier life wasn’t ceaseless high adventure, nor bereft of culture: when the prairie or mountain environment wasn’t pressing upon the settlers, boredom could quickly set in; and wherever a meager scattering of homesteads could be found, sharings of ideas—and where possible, their sources as well—and company quickly followed. It was in such an improbable environment that Paterson’s love of books developed:

[I]t was informal processes that mattered most to her; reading was obviously more important than schooling. ....

Her way of experiencing the world was essentially intellectual and literary, and she thought that, in general, the world experienced itself in that way, too. [pp.19–20]

Perhaps the scarcity of fresh reading material—which frequently meant that if one wished to read, one was left with re-reading things—helped Paterson develop her keen analytical mind. Certainly the primitive conditions of her youth helped her understand that the rapidly transforming technologies of her later life were not essential, and more importantly, were not possible without the continued attentions of competent individuals. Cox deftly plucks such threads out of Paterson’s life, without descending into melodrama. Paterson’s views on capitalism, again informed by her youthful experiences, provide a timely reminder for today’s troubled economic climate:
Whatever else it may be, capitalism is not a perpetual motion machine, endlessly securing higher profits for everyone. If attempts were made to use it in that way, well, “even an admirable system can be gummed up or wrecked by folly. Bad driving will strip the gears of the best car; and even a wheelbarrow can be wrecked.” [p. 126]
From that one can easily trace the impetus for The God of the Machine.

Perhaps, lacking a deeper historical understanding of the time span of Isabel Paterson’s life and familiarity with some of her pro-freedom cohorts, I am too easily enamored of the perspective Cox creates. Yet, how can a thoroughgoing individualist—who cares little what others may choose as long as they have the freedom to choose for themselves without coercing others—not be moved by her comments addressing the communal experiments of the time (pp. 152–53)? As one who feels, as Paterson did, that one life is “not enough”; and who has largely turned away from contemporaries in favor of pursuing personal freedom, how can her withdrawal from the arena of ideas not resonate?

Cox’s portrayal of Isabel Paterson as a genuine, human dynamo of individualism obviously speaks to me deeply. The twists of her personal life also resonate. Yet I wonder how I can feel such kinship with a woman whose life, limned as it has been by Cox, mostly remains swathed in shadow. Such is the romance of her time for me, I suspect, and such is the skill of her biographer. I find myself thinking I could ask for no higher praise than to become known as “the Isabel Paterson of her generation”, knowing full well my abilities are dwarfed by hers.

One needn’t be an iconoclastic, pro-freedom femme to extract value from The Woman and the Dynamo. Any student of history, particularly libertarian or political history, will find find Cox’s presentation toothsome. Individualists will gain a fuller appreciation of the tribulations awaiting a perpetual “committee of one”. Like Paterson, I suspect they will—as I do—see Cox’s biography less as cautionary tale and more as promise of intellectual and interpersonal adventure. The only publication focusing on Paterson that might be of more interest is an anthology of her newspaper columns; if such is in the works I am unaware of it—but I am hopeful it may yet come to be.

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