Yes, I know I said I would write no more about Ayn Rand. But this little piece of information is just too astonishing to pass up.
I was rereading Scott Ryan's fascinating, albeit highly technical, critique of Rand's philosophy, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, and getting a lot more out of it the second time, when I came across a fact culled from a posthumous collection of Rand's journal entries.
In her journal circa 1928 Rand quoted the statement, "What is good for me is right," a credo attributed to a prominent figure of the day, William Edward Hickman. Her response was enthusiastic. "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have ever heard," she exulted. (Cited in Ryan, p. , quoting Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 21-22.)
At the time, she was planning a novel that was to be titled The Little Street, the projected hero of which was named Danny Renahan. According to Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, she deliberately modeled Renahan - intended to be her first sketch of her ideal man - after this same William Edward Hickman. Renahan, she enthuses in another journal entry, "is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness -- [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people ... Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should." (Journals, pp. 27, 21-22; emphasis hers.)
"A wonderful, free, light consciousness" born of the utter absence of any understanding of "the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people." Obviously, Ayn Rand was most favorably impressed with Mr. Hickman. He was, at least at that stage of Rand's life, her kind of man.
So the question is, who exactly was he?
William Edward Hickman was one of the most famous men in America in 1928. But he came by his fame in a way that perhaps should have given pause to Ayn Rand before she decided that he was a "real man" worthy of enshrinement in her pantheon of fictional heroes.
You see, Hickman was a forger, an armed robber, a child kidnapper, and a serial killer.
Other than that, he was probably a great guy.
In December of 1927, Hickman, 19 years old, showed up at a Los Angeles public school and managed to get custody of a 12-year-old girl, Marion Parker. (Accounts of the crime vary slightly; another gives the girl's age as 11 and the spelling of her first name as Marian.) Apparently Hickman was able to convince Marion's teacher that the girl's father, a well-known banker, had been seriously injured in a car accident and that the girl had to go to the hospital immediately. The story was a lie. Hickman disappeared with Marion, and over the next few days Mr. and Mrs. Parker received a series of ransom notes. The notes were cruel and taunting and were sometimes signed "Death" or "Fate." The sum of $15,000, a huge amount of money in those days, was demanded for the child's safe release. The father raised the cash and delivered it to Hickman. As told by the article "Fate, Death and the Fox" in crimelibrary.com,
At the rendezvous, Mr. Parker handed over the money to a young man who was waiting for him in a parked car. When Mr. Parker paid the ransom, he could see his daughter, Marion, sitting in the passenger seat next to the suspect. As soon as the money was exchanged, the suspect drove off with the victim still in the car. At the end of the street, Marion's corpse was dumped onto the pavement. She was dead. Her legs had been chopped off and her eyes had been wired open to appear as if she was still alive. Her internal organs had been cut out and pieces of her body were later found strewn all over the Los Angeles area.
Quite a hero, eh? No doubt Hickman did indeed have "a wonderful, free, light consciousness," and surely he had "no organ for understanding ... the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people."
But Hickman's heroism doesn't end there. He heroically amscrayed to the small town of Echo, Oregon, where he heroically holed up, no doubt believing he had perpetrated the perfect crime. Sadly for him, fingerprints he'd left on one of the ransom notes matched prints on file from his previous conviction for forgery. With his face on Wanted posters everywhere, Hickman was quickly tracked down and arrested. The article continues,
He was conveyed back to Los Angeles where he promptly confessed to another murder he committed during a drug store hold-up. Eventually, Hickman confessed to a dozen armed robberies. "This is going to get interesting before it's over," he told investigators. "Marion and I were good friends," he said, "and we really had a good time when we were together and I really liked her. I'm sorry that she was killed." Hickman never said why he had killed the girl and cut off her legs.
It seems to me that Ayn Rand's uncritical admiration of personality this twisted does not speak particularly well for her ability to judge and evaluate the heroic qualities in people. One might go so far as to say that anyone who sees William Edward Hickman as the epitome of a "real man" has some serious issues to work on, and perhaps should be less concerned with trying to convert the world to her point of view than in trying to repair her own damaged psyche. One might also point out that a person who "has no organ for understanding ... the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people" is what we today would call a sociopath.
Was Rand's ideal man a sociopath? The suggestion seems utterly unfair - until you read her very own words.
No doubt defenders of Ayn Rand, and there are still a few left, would reply that the journal entry in question was written when she was only in her early twenties and still under the spell of Nietzsche, that as her thinking developed she discarded such Nietzschean elements and evolved a more rational outlook, and that the mature Rand should not be judged by the mistakes of her youth. And this might be a perfectly reasonable position to take. Unquestionably Rand's outlook did change, and her point of view did become at least somewhat less hostile to what the average, normal person would regard as healthy values.
But before we assume that her admiration of Mr. Hickman was merely a quirk of her salad days, let's consider a few other quotes from Ayn Rand cited in Scott Ryan's book:
In her early notes for The Fountainhead: "One puts oneself above all and crushes everything in one's way to get the best for oneself. Fine!" (Journals, p. 78.)
Of The Fountainhead's hero, Howard Roark: He "has learned long ago, with his first consciousness, two things which dominate his entire attitude toward life: his own superiority and the utter worthlessness of the world." (Journals, p. 93.)
In the original version of her first novel We the Living: "What are your masses [of humanity] but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?" (This declaration is made by the heroine Kira, Rand's stand-in; it is quoted in The Ideas of Ayn Rand by Ronald Merrill, pp. 38 - 39; the passage was altered when the book was reissued years after its original publication.)
On the value of human life: Man "is man only so long as he functions in accordance with the nature of a rational being. When he chooses to function otherwise, he is no longer man. There is no proper name for the thing which he then becomes ... When a man chooses to act in a sub-human manner, it is no longer proper for him to survive nor to be happy." (Journals, pp. 253-254, 288.)
As proof that her Nietzschean thinking persisted long after her admirers think she abandoned it, this journal entry from 1945, two years subsequent to the publication of The Fountainhead: "Perhaps we really are in the process of evolving from apes to Supermen -- and the rational faculty is the dominant characteristic of the better species, the Superman." (Journals, p. 285.)
So perhaps her thinking did not change quite so much, after all.
And what of William Edward Hickman? What ever became of the man who served as the early prototype of the Randian Superman?
Real life is not fiction, and Hickman's personal credo, which so impressed Ayn Rand - "what is right for me is good" - does not seem to have worked out very well for him. His attempt at an insanity defense failed, and he was unceremoniously hanged at San Quentin in 1928, the same year of his arrest.