Interview with Mimi Reisel Gladstein by Karen Minto

Q: Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas influenced your basic philosophical outlook?

Gladstein: My background is multinational. I was conceived in Poland, born in Nicaragua, and grew up in Texas, which was also once a republic. People are always surprised to find out that I am an immigrant and did not get my citizenship papers until I was 19. My family arrived, via banana boat, in New Orleans, and then made the trek across Texas to El Paso. We lived, for a while, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but moved back to El Paso when I was in the fourth grade. In high school, I won a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest on the topic of “what America means to me.” My theme was our family’s realization of the American dream. My father was so grateful for the refuge and opportunity provided by this country that he even had a positive attitude toward paying taxes.

As for influences, I would have to say that my father was crucial in the formation of my philosophical outlook. Emil Reisel was an extraordinary man. He spoke eight languages and I often watched him add up a column of numbers faster than the adding machine could. He had absolute integrity and was utterly uncompromising about individual responsibility and independence. He and my mother demanded excellence. My mother demanded an explanation if I brought home an A-, which she considered a bad grade for me. Even though my father hadn’t learned English till he was almost thirty and I have a Ph. D., there were times when he corrected my grammar. He was a word wizard; no one could beat him at Scrabble or Boggle. His chess game was so good that, during WWII, he won an ivory and teak chess set in a match with the Air Force champ. His was an unquenchable spirit; when he was sick, he tried to make us feel better. He went through agonizing periods of bad health, but would giggle and make jokes to cheer us up if we walked in to find him on the floor after a stroke destroyed his balance. After he died, we got letters from people he had helped, people we did not even know.

Q: Tell us about your involvement with Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. How did you become involved in the project and what reasons drew you to this enterprise?

Gladstein: It was wonderfully serendipitous. One day, I went to my mailbox and found a letter from Chris Sciabarra, a man I did not know. To this day we have not met face to face. In the letter, Chris asked if I would consider any or all of a number of proposals. He explained that Penn State University Press was interested in publishing a volume of feminist interpretations of Ayn Rand in their Rereading the Canon series. He asked: (1) permission to reprint “Ayn Rand and Feminism: an Unlikely Alliance” since it was the pioneer article in the field; (2) that I consider writing an update or follow-up to that article for the volume; (3) and finally, he asked if I would consider coediting the volume with him. I thought, “Why not?” The rest, as they say, is history.

Intellectually, I’ve always liked to follow unexpected leads. I’m a fan of serendipity, spontaneity, and variety. My publications include such diverse topics as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Mark Medoff, Jose Emilio Pacheco (a Mexican novelist and poet), Robert Raynolds (a Southwestern writer), and I’m even an authority on the Texas Western College 1966 NCAA basketball champions. Sports Illustrated reporters call me as a resource when they write about that historic moment in basketball history.

Q: What was it like working with so many authors and coediting it with Chris Sciabarra?

Gladstein: In the past, I always resisted editing anthologies. I never liked the idea of having to depend on other people to get their work in on time. I like the independence of research and writing. And though I’ve been part of numerous scholarly anthologies, I have always sympathized with the editors. Still, I must say that this experience has been much easier than I expected. Maybe it’s like childbirth and one forgets the pain when one holds the baby.

Working with Chris is another story. From beginning to end, the coediting process was amazingly smooth. We were in accord about almost everything. Our reactions were in sync; we found the same things problematic, marked the same grammatical errors. I like to tease him that we are like the couple in You’ve Got Mail. We fell in love by email. We have a tentative meeting set for May when my husband and I will be in New York.

Seriously, what we found is that we had skills and knowledge that complemented each other. Whereas my expertise is in literature and the humanities, his is in the social sciences. If I missed something, he noticed it. I found his editorial suggestions always on target and he was very positive about mine. If it sounds like we belong to a mutual admiration society, we do. It’s hard to convey the spirit of the experience in print, but we had a great time.

Q: Was it difficult to act as coeditors?

Gladstein: Certainly, my being in Texas and his being in Brooklyn, didn’t make the coediting job easier. But, he is wonderfully efficient and I had copies of all essays almost as soon as he had them. When I had marked each essay, I sent him a page by page listing of my corrections. Then we had long telephone conversations on any items that needed fuller discussion. Cowriting the introduction was made easier by email attachments. It’s like an obstacle course; you have a sense of accomplishment getting around or over each obstacle. Generally, I would say that I liked the challenge of dealing with all the difficulties.

Q: What criteria did you use for selecting among the proposed articles?

Gladstein: Naturally, we were taken with original and provocative perspectives. We also tried to achieve some variety in disciplines and critical approaches.

Q: Do you think the volume is balanced between perspectives and disciplines?

Gladstein: Not unexpectedly, the essays in the volume are predominately pro-Rand and positive about what she has to offer feminism. Still, they are not uncritical. As for balance among disciplines, there are, among others, literary critics, a political and psychological anthropologist, freelance writers, philosophers, psychologists and a professor of linguistics. There is even geographical diversity. Our writers come from as far north as Norway and as far south as Australia, and from sea to shining sea in the United States. It’s quite a mix.

Q: What do you think the impact of the volume will be, especially given that it is part of a series of similarly titled books, each of which examines another thinker in the Western tradition?

Gladstein: I’ve always heard complaints from Rand admirers that she is not given proper consideration in the academy. Well, this is as good as it gets in terms of being treated seriously and respectfully as a thinker in the Western canon. The series includes Plato, Descartes, Hegel, de Beauvoir, Wollstonecraft, Sartre.

Q: The Intellectual Activist sees the Feminist volume as another sign of “the academic deconstruction of Ayn Rand,” the same charge John Ridpath leveled at Sciabarra’s book on Rand. It condemns the book because it is a sign of the “dishonest methods of post-modernist academics.” This condemnation was based on the editor’s perusal of the volume’s website, not on the basis of any actual acquaintance with the text of the book. How do you respond to this?

Gladstein: I teach research and critical writing and if students ever write evaluations of books without reading them, I fail them. It is the first rule of criticism. You must read a work before you can evaluate it. Writing an evaluation from a website is like using Cliff Notes instead of reading the text. It is intellectually dishonest at best, lazy at least.

May I add that you can’t have it both ways. If Ayn Rand is to be part of the canon, her ideas, as they are embodied in her works, both fiction and nonfiction must be subject to discussion. She wrote fiction and essays, not holy writ. Analysis and interpretation is what are done in English and Philosophy classes. I’ll restrict my comments to literature, because that is my field. If we are discussing The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, we can use any number of critical approaches: mythic, feminist, Marxist, sociological, structural, post-structural, formalist, and so on. Approaching the work from each of these perspectives enriches rather than restricts our appreciation. We can admire how Steinbeck took what many considered a strictly temporal political situation and layered it with meaning, informing the particular with a universal significance. If this work were just a political ploy to elicit sympathy for the plight of a group of “Okies” moving to California, it would not be as meaningful today as it was in 1939. It is on almost everyone’s list of greatest works of the 20th century. I have taught that novel in Caracas, in London, and in Madrid and find that all peoples respond to it. Why? It has to be because the work addresses something universal. I don’t know what the Intellectual Activist means by deconstruction and dishonest methods. There are fourteen new essays and the introduction in the book. He has decided, without reading any of them that all use dishonest methods and deconstruct the text? This is a champion of reason?

Times change and even The Bible had to be reinterpreted in response to changing time. Rand’s work, too, has to be viewed in light of changing history. Let me use Rand’s own criterion to analyze her art. In her essay on art and sense of life, Rand explains that in real life if one sees a beautiful woman with a cold sore on her lips, it is just a minor blemish. However, she explains that if an artist paints it, then it is a “corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values—and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist.” When I read Atlas Shrugged and Rand has all the heroic characters putting cigarettes in their mouths, I find it disgusting. In my perception, cigarettes are cancer sticks, coffin nails, disgusting, nasty. However, I don’t discard all of Rand because I think she used an unfortunate symbol in this case. I understand that times changed and we have different knowledge now. That’s part of what happens in criticism. One doesn’t judge a ’50s text by ’90s standards.

One group cannot control the discussion. They can participate in the give and take of academic discourse, point out what they see as the fallacies in this or that argument. Pointing out the deficiencies of previous critics is a time-honored way of beginning a scholarly article. But it is the height of absurdity to condemn something you have not read.

Q: You were the first director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Texas, El Paso. You were also the first person to write about the “unlikely alliance” between Rand and feminism in a 1978 College English article. In the feminism volume, however, you and Chris state that you approached Berliner and Peikoff to contribute to the volume but they declined on the grounds that feminism was irrational, and that any book based on feminism as the premise, rather than feminism vs. Objectivism, they could not sanction. How do you characterize the relationship between Objectivism and feminism? Are they compatible or incompatible?

Gladstein: In the first place, we weren’t looking for their sanction. We thought it appropriate to include their perspective even if that perspective questioned the validity of the concept. Their refusal to engage in a critical dialog in any venue except one in which they set the ground rules is disappointing.

As for my opinion about the compatibility of feminism and Objectivism, I guess that would depend on individual definitions of both. My Funk & Wagnalls defines feminism as “a doctrine advocating the granting of the same social, political, and economic rights to women as the ones granted to men.” Logically, there should be no reason for Objectivism and feminism to be incompatible. I have met many people who call themselves both.

As Chris and I say in our introduction, “Feminism is not a monolith.” Neither is Objectivism. However, what I understood in my brief discussion with Mike Berliner was that the feminism I espoused was invalid as a concept because it was subsumed under the category of individualism. My response is that that is all very well theoretically, but it ignores reality. The reality is that in 1970 when I wanted a bank loan, I needed my husband’s signature. Neither Objectivists nor Individualists were concerned with my problem. Feminists were. It was not until the ERA was passed in Texas that numerous obstacles to my full human potential were removed. That is reality. However, I have never been a collectivist feminist and think that such groups as N.O.W. have done great disservice to women.


Q: You have an upcoming expanded edition of The Ayn Rand Companion. How does it differ from the first edition?

Gladstein: Much has been added. The first edition was published in 1984. At that time there had been only three books about Rand written by academics, six books in all if one doesn’t count Who Is Ayn Rand? which is a special case since it came from within the pale, as it were. My new book bibliography includes 29 titles. That’s quite an increase. It’s hard to remember what we did not know or what had not been publicly acknowledged in those days. For example, I believe I was the first to publish the fact that Rand’s name was Alice Rosenbaum. Remember, none of the biographical works had been published then, except for Barbara Branden’s authorized essay, which does not include it. My biographical chapter was the first independent version of the life. The new biographical chapter certainly benefits from information that has come to light not only in the various memoirs of those who knew Rand, but also from the unique visual perspective of Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life.