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Representing Isabel Paterson
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American Literary History 17.2 (2005) 244-258

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Representing Isabel Paterson

One night about fifteen years ago, I found myself driving a rental car up and down the main street of a tiny Connecticut town, feverishly hunting for an address. I had gotten lost on my trip into the hinterland, and by the time my car turned hesitantly up the drive of an old house that seemed to match the numbers on my notepad, Iwas hours late for my appointment. When the thick door creaked open, I started my apologies, but the woman I had come to interview paid no attention. "Come out to the kitchen," she said. Muriel Hall, former researcher for Time-Life, knew how to treat other researchers. She had kept the food warm and the drinks cold, and before the night was over, I saw her lift the top of an old wooden box and start laying out the treasure I had hoped to find—the papers of Isabel Paterson.

Paterson—novelist, critic, political theorist, columnist, wit—was one of the most distinctive literary figures of the 1930s. Contemporary reporters on the publishing industry believed that she had "more to say than any other critic in New York today as to which books shall be popular" (Cleaton and Cleaton 130). She was also the person who first assembled the constellation of ideas and attitudes that are called "libertarianism." But even at the height of her fame, her life was shrouded in mystery. So good was she at concealing the big facts about herself by doling out tiny fragments of data that an interviewer predicted her biographers would end in Bedlam.1 During her lifetime, would-be investigators were frightened away by her penchant for angrily disputing public references to her, even when they were friendly but (as she thought) misleading. Since her death, no one but Muriel Hall had read her papers. Looking at the yellow sheaves of letters in Muriel's hands, I knew I had the chance to do something that critics of literature almost never get to do. I had the chance to reconstruct, from the ground up, the life of an important author.

By the time I completed my biography of Paterson, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America (New Brunswick NJ: Transaction, 2004), I had learned more about her than I ever thought I could learn about a fellow human being. [End Page 244] I had also assembled a long list of questions that were difficult or impossible to answer. Some of them had to do with Paterson herself, but most of them were about the process of literary representation—how literature represents the world, and how literature and literary people are represented in what we think, say, and teach about them. Neither my own nor other people's theories helped me much, although the necessities of writing often taught me something. At last I began to wonder whether Paterson's own theories—not her theories about literature, but her theories about society—might be as helpful as any others in representing the ways in which writers and readers connect with one another, or fail to connect.

I first encountered Paterson in the form of her novel Never Ask the End (1933), which as a boy I found gathering dust on my parents' bookshelf, the inexplicable survivor of many changes of residence. I tried to read it, and failed. It appeared to be about the kind of adults who traveled and stayed in hotels, something that my family very rarely did. Much later, I discovered her book about politics and history, The God of the Machine (1943), and became interested in the person who could write such a peculiarly vivid work of theory. I was especially interested to learn that the same author wrote Never Ask the End and many other novels, and that for a quarter century (1924–1949) she was a columnist for Herald Tribune "Books," the nationally circulated literary supplement to the popular New York paper. But there wasn't much in print about her life...