The Woman and the Dynamo
Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America
Novelist, columnist, cultural critic, political theorist— Isabel Paterson was one of the most extraordinary personalities of the 1930s, renowned for her incisive wit and her unique interpretation of the American experience. The Woman and the Dynamo is the first biography of a woman who has long been a source of rumor and legend. From interviews, private papers, and her millions of published words, Stephen Cox weaves a narrative that brings Paterson vividly to life.
A radical individualist in both theory and practice, Paterson spent her early life on the Western frontier, "lavished" two years on formal education, set a record for high-altitude flight, became a journalist by "accident," and made herself a fearless chronicler and conscience of New York literary life. At the same time, she made a permanent contribution to American political thought.
Paterson identified the fundamental issues at stake in the crises of the twentieth century and responded with an original theory of history and political economy. In her view, the individual mind is the dynamo of history, working through the "long circuit" of institutions that maintain and enhance individual liberty; and America is the place where the advanced forms of those institutions were invented and are currently undergoing their severest trial. While other intellectuals derided the American ideal of progress and called for the restraint or abolition of the capitalist system, Paterson demanded a scrupulous application of the "engineering principles" on which American civilization had been built.
The Woman and the Dynamo provides one of the few broad and detailed accounts of the origins of the American political Right, emphasizing the special role that women and imaginative writers played in its creation, and posing new questions about what it means to be "left" or "right," "liberal" or "conservative" in America. This will be compelling reading for those interested in twentieth century intellectual history, literature, and politics.
“Of special interest in Cox's biography is the discussion of libertarianism and feminism in the chapter titled "Implications of Individualism." Cox cites an observation by the "modern liberal historian" Alan Brinkley, who said the American Right has never "received anything like the amount of attention from historians that its role in twentieth-century politics and culture suggests it should." This thorough, readable study helps to redress that imbalance. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.”
—J. J. Benardete, Choice
"The Woman and the Dynamo is a valuable addition to the history of the libertarian movement... it should serve as a springboard for futher research into a woman and her writings, which are still highly relevant after half a century."
—The Learning Curve
"In this immensely readable biography, based on exhaustive research, Stephen Cox gives his readers the opportunity to discover or rediscover Isabel Paterson as one of the great champions of freedom in the twentieth century. Cox deftly fills in the economic and political background to Paterson's life story, and also provides useful summaries, analyses, and critiques of all her major works, fictional and non-fictional. Cox tells Paterson's story with the skill of a novelist, bringing her to life in all her brilliant wit and intelligence, This volume is a model of intellectual biography—it allows us to see the human being behind the thought, without at all letting concern for the personal details of Paterson's life interfere with our understanding of her thought."
—Paul A. Cantor, Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English, University of Virginia
"Isabel Patterson, the brilliant and unjustly neglected pioneer of libertarian thought, has found her ideal biographer in Stephen Cox, With an acumen and erudition worthy of his subject, Cox provides a fascinating portrait of Paterson's career as a journalist, novelist and political theorist and the result is a compelling work of intellectual history that should be essential reading for all students of American culture."
—Ross Posnock, Professor of English, New York University
"In his seminal biography of Isabel Paterson—the benchmark against which any further investigation of her life and work must be measured—Professor Stephen Cox has respectfully, yet critically, resurrected one of the most original and influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Drawing on access to private papers never before made available, the author has traced Paterson's personal and literary life from her humble rural childhood to the pinnacle of New York's literary world. Professor Cox has brought that journey to life not only by providing countless colorful, even eccentric, details, but also by projecting Paterson against the wider culture and politics of her time. Regrettably, there have been few serious biographies of the handful of women who, in the last century, espoused and lived an individualistic/libertarian philosophy—let alone those whose lives and work profoundly affected today's America, and even the world beyond these shores."
—Henry Mark Holzer, professor emeritus, Brooklyn Law School
"I picked up The Woman and the Dynamo without knowing what to expect—and couldn't put it down. It is more than a beautifully written, utterly absorbing biography of a great libertarian thinker who deserves wider recognition than she has hitherto received. It also offers insightful portraits of some of the key figures in the march of libertarianism and free enterprise conservatism through the 20th century."
—Nathaniel Branden, author of "My Years with Ayn Rand"