Paterson's Novel of Life and Liberty

In the Saturday Review of January 7, 1933, the famed belles-lettres author James Branch Cabell commented on Isabel Paterson’s latest novel, Never Ask the End (1933). Cabell wrote,

Mrs. Paterson has made … a book which any tolerably civilized American must regard, throughout, with a sort of charmed squirming.… Here is an honest portrait.… Thus and not otherwise, have we lived, from each moment to the next moment, during the most notable generation, it may be, and during the most disastrous generation, it is certain, in the world’s history.

In short, Isabel Paterson (1886–1961) had a genius for expressing the zeitgeist of her generation, which was precariously poised between World War I and the Great Depression. Ernest Hemingway called it “the lost generation” — the ones who went through World War I and emerged with something forever broken inside of them. A handful of novels exist through which the soul of this generation comes alive again, and Never Ask the End is one. Thus, in her January 8, 1933, review in Books, the contemporary novelist Ellen Glasgow enthused,

The whole modern approach to life, with its eagerness, its lightness, its disenchantment, its feeling for the moment as it passes and because it passes, its joy but not too much joy, its pain but not too much pain, its courage in the face of time, its secret loyalties of the heart, and yet, somehow, somewhere, its lack of the state or quality of mind Spinoza called “blessedness” — all this is woven here into a pattern that seems as real as the hour in which we are living. Never Ask the End is a book of delicacy, charm, truth, interfused with the something different that is personality.

Today Paterson is remembered as one of the three founding mothers of the libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Rose Wilder Lane. Stephen Cox’s definitive biography The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America is largely responsible for the political revival of Paterson’s writing, with a sharp focus on her one nonfiction book, The God of the Machine (1943). Cox credits Paterson with being the “earliest progenitor of libertarianism as we know it today.”

In her own day, however, Paterson was feted primarily as a literary critic and a novelist. Her book reviews in the New York Herald Tribune — signed “I.M.P.” — commanded praise and fear for 25 years. Her nine novels (Joyous Gard, completed ca. 1958, unpublished) were the legacy that literary friends and associates believed Paterson would pass onward. Instead, The God of the Machine became Paterson’s best-known work by far. This sweeping exploration of philosophy, history, and economics has cemented her image as a political figure.

Her image is about to change. It is my extreme pleasure to introduce Isabel Paterson, the novelist, and to do so through her most commercially successful book: Never Ask the End.

I.M.P., the Novelist

Unlike Rand whom she mentored, Paterson did not write explicitly political novels. Moral and political themes surface, but they decidedly take second place to the development of character and the expression of style.

Using Never Ask the End as a pivot point, Paterson’s novels can be divided into the two general categories: before and after. The five before books include The Shadow Riders (1916) and The Magpie’s Nest (1917) which have been called Bildungsromane. The term denotes a “novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character.” Paterson started circulating the two Bildungsromane novels in 1914 but it took years before a publisher accepted them.

Why were there so many rejections? Both novels feature unusually independent young women whose characters and experiences are shaped by the rough and tumble of the sudden towns that appeared along the railroad tracks in Canada. Paterson was intimately familiar with such settings and characters, having lived in similar communities. Moreover, Paterson dealt with sex more candidly than most novelists of the day, especially the female ones. In short, the novels broke formula in a manner that made them a difficult “sell.”

The other three before novels are historical romances: The Singing Season (1924), subtitled A Romance of Old Spain; The Fourth Queen (1926), set in the “bawdy” time of “Queen Bess”; and The Road of the Gods (1930) set in early Germania. Reviews of these books seemed lukewarm, but sales were sufficient for Paterson to continue dipping into history.

It is with her last three novels, beginning with Never Ask the End, that Paterson speaks in a modern voice about the character and concerns of the post–World War I generation of Americans. Specifically, the novels deal with the inward workings of sophisticated modern women who resemble Paterson in significant ways. The two novels subsequent to Never Ask the End are The Golden Vanity (1934), a cynical dissection of the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, and If It Prove Fair Weather (1940), about an associate professor of mathematics and a single fortyish woman who faces an affair with a married man.

All three works have common themes. They feature strong female characters who do not define their identities by their relationship to a man; indeed, in each novel, women leave weak husbands whom they regret having married. The freshness of Paterson’s female protagonists comes partly from their surprisingly feminist attitudes toward men, sex, and prevailing ethics. The women are independent and resentful of their social roles without being hostile to men. Much of the charm of these books comes from the witty and occasionally self-mocking tone of the dialogue.

Cox concludes that the “late novels are subtle, poetic, refined, so refined that I found them difficult to summarize without damaging their intricate patterns.” Of the three novels, Never Ask the End is probably the most difficult, because the style was the most experimental. For some, this makes it Paterson’s most interesting novel; for others, it is a difficult read.

Never Ask the End

In his essay “Representing Isabel Paterson,” Cox writes,

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.

The young Cox was probably puzzled and put off by the style in which Paterson wrote Never Ask the End. An older Cox, now Paterson’s biographer, comments on the style of the novel he had returned to the shelf. Never Ask the End is a reflection on life in which stream-of-consciousness style is used to realize the characters.

Stream of consciousness is the style in which an author presents the sensations, unspoken thoughts, emotions, and impressions of a character through a flow of internal monologue. Typically, the flow does not follow a logical sequence or narrative but, instead, is determined by factors such as association or memories that confront the character. In Paterson’s day, stream of consciousness had become a fashionable style of writing. Shortly before Never Ask the End, several well-received novels had employed the style, including James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Although the nonlinear narrative can be difficult to follow, it is particularly appropriate for what has been called a “meditation novel,” which is one that explores psychology in depth.

Never Ask the End is one such novel. As such, the novel alienated some readers by its virtual lack of plot and its non-narrative style. The book also rapidly shifts perspectives between the three main characters, between past and present, between events and thoughts. Poetry and other snippets of literature are inserted throughout the novel as those lines cross the mind of its main character, Marta. A January 9, 1933, Time magazine review of the work noted, “Many a reader who admires Authoress Paterson’s flip, common-sensical newspaper way [in her column at the Herald Tribune] will shake a puzzled head over Never Ask the End.”

Nevertheless, the novel became a bestseller and was reprinted at least three times in the first month of its publication. Never Ask the End was quickly snapped up as a book-club offering by the well-respected Literary Guild. One reason for the novel’s success was undoubtedly the fact that Paterson was one of the funniest, brightest authors of her day, and her novels brim with witticism, sharp insights, and clever phrasing.

For example, at one point Marta and her traveling companion find themselves on a street in Belgium where shop windows brim over with cheap lace and imitation jewelry. Marta speculates, “These must be the Belgian atrocities” that became propaganda during World War I. Elsewhere she contemplates her accommodations and concludes, “A hotel room is an emotional hospital, sterilized of associations.” Never Ask the End is a carefully crafted book with a style that often sparkles and so carries the reader through its nonlinear narrative.

For readers unaccustomed to giving a novel careful attention, however, a synopsis is useful.


The plot line could hardly be simpler. Longtime friends Marta Brown and Pauline Gardner are two American women in their forties who visit Paris together. They meet Russ Girard, an old acquaintance of Marta’s who now heads a business in Antwerp, Belgium. The three travel to Antwerp and make plans to meet in London. When Russ reschedules, however, Pauline is forced to depart for America without saying goodbye. Russ and Marta spend a few days in London and begin an affair with no strings attached before returning to Paris together. Russ leaves for Italy on business. Marta goes back to her job in America. A possible remarriage is hinted at for Pauline.

Most of the “action” takes place within each character’s internal monologue. As the characters talk and dine, tour ruins and flirt, the reader learns of past events that affect and, perhaps, determine the present. For example, there is Marta’s youthful passion for a married man, Pauline’s recently deceased and alcoholic husband, and Russ’s failing health from which he seems destined to die young. Common themes in their lives make for easy companionship with each other: they all started in poverty and have risen to financial comfort; each has been married unhappily; both women feel sexual attraction to Russ, which causes some tension but seems to enrich rather than damage the friendship.

It is not the plot but the themes of Never Ask the End that make the novel move powerfully forward. One theme is the fast-changing role of women since the turn of the century. At one point,

Marta knit her brows, tracing through the confusion of her experience a thread of pattern … An army of girls, without banners, in mutiny.… Going out of the home, each alone, but multitudes at once. We didn’t intend to go back, to be caught; we were leaving it behind forever. Child-bearing and drudgery and dependence.… Just as we grew up, the door was open. Our mothers hadn’t had the chance. But they told us to run for it. And we did.

Elsewhere Paterson, in the voice of her main character, rages against the role society expects women to play.

At her age, Marta thought, women were supposed to be overcome by regret if they were childless. When she was depressed, reckoning her errors, she was glad that at least she had no children. Otherwise she did not think of it at all. The exhortations of priests, moralists, statesmen, aroused only her remote contempt. Fat comfortable men in robes of office … Their insistence that tired, overworked, unwilling women must “submit,” bear more and more children, the fruit of apathy, fear, or even disgust, seemed to Marta a mental rape, a refinement of lust. She would answer to neither man nor God for her refusal.

And yet much of Never Ask the End is a quest for answers of another sort. What do men want, what do women want, of each other and of life? Marta reflects,

The extent of her ignorance was the measure of her interest. Of men she knew nothing at all. She wished she could take one to pieces, to get at his motives and impulses.

If men are “another species” and unfathomable, Marta finds solace in her friendship with Pauline. “Friendship is personal,” Marta concludes. “Love, passion, don’t seem to be. We recognize our friends, we fall in love with strangers; they remain strangers.”

And yet even with Pauline, communication is often impossible.

How difficult, how impossible communication is, Marta thought.… At the moment, she and Pauline were about four feet apart in space, with no material obstacle to confidences, and no external distraction. The difficulty lay in the fact that an emotional truth is clothed in circumstance, and derives from a series of untraceable causes dating back to creation. To make it understandable, and the action resulting from it, one would have to reconstitute the universe as it was at precisely that interval of time, with the auditor in the center of it, and gifted with omniscience.

Thus, the characters in Never Ask the End are alienated from each other and even from themselves. “What was the matter with her?” Marta wonders of herself. “Her own life was toilsome, solitary, insecure. She had made a wilderness and called it peace.” In this manner, Paterson does not merely characterize “the lost generation,” but becomes the voice of women within it.

The Novel’s Biographical Nature

Cox notes the biographical nature of Paterson’s novel. In July 1929, she had toured Europe with a female friend named Grace Luckhart who was recently widowed. Cox observes,

Never Ask The End is about a woman who is studying the ruins of the past and trying to make sense of her own history. By the time Paterson finished that book, she was standing in the ruins of the Great Depression and trying to rescue some order and meaning from American history.

He continues,

While writing it, she had many opportunities to meditate on its themes. She suffered acutely from the crisis of middle life that it unsparingly invokes. The novel manuscript’s seemingly perpetual lack of completeness, manifested in repeated revisions of every page, suggested every day that human life was finite. She felt tired and old; she saw graves opening all around her.

People she loved were dying, including her mother. In early Spring 1931, her best friend, Alta May Coleman, became suddenly ill and died several weeks thereafter. The losses devastated Paterson.

And, yet, as the Nation stated on February 1, 1933,

It is part of Mrs. Paterson’s skill that the sense of disillusionment is not the ultimate mood of the novel. Though she constantly conveys it to us with a subtle and civilized irony, it is the behavior of the three characters themselves that the moral of the tale must be read. Desperately gallant in the wearisome adventure of Europe, they have at last hit upon the expedient of substituting wit for emotion. And this, one feels, is not merely the technique of the novel, but a solution that Mrs. Paterson offers us — a complete philosophy for living in these times.

Never Ask the End concludes on a life-affirming note with Marta awakening from a dream of Russ’s death.

“Oh,” she cried, “he didn’t want to die.” The words echoed in her inward ear, as though she had spoken aloud, while she knew she had not.

She must have dreamed it. Why did she say that? No, no, no.… But she knew.… In the stillness, her inward voice said again sorrowfully: Honey, you’re in luck. You’ll miss a lot of trouble.… Strange she should be the one to tell him.… But he knows that. He’s telling me.… Oh, brave! He knows it, and he didn’t want to die. We had a good life. We would do it all over again, and hope to do better.

The rest of the novel consists of one capitalized word, END, as though Paterson wanted to strongly emphasize the concluding line as a conclusion. “We would do it all over again, and hope to do better.”

The overarching theme of the book can be discerned both from the last few words and from the very first ones — Paterson’s title itself. Never Ask the End was derived from the poem “A Lament from the Breton,” written by Elinor Wylie, Paterson’s friend. Paterson claimed that the “strange little poem” revealed life as a constant and hazardous adventure. Life was a rewarding challenge that human beings should meet with honesty and courage. It is a mystery that may never be solved and it demands our relentless effort to solve it. Our best tools are words, inadequate though they may be. As Marta concludes, “What we desire is communication … Perhaps, some other where, we achieve it, by a persistence to which even granite must yield.”

The Politics of Never Ask The End

As noted, Paterson is remembered today as a political figure. But anyone who reads Never Ask the End on the basis of her libertarian credentials will be disappointed. Expressions of social and political feminism are explicit and frequent but expressions of libertarianism are not.

Politics surfaces in more subtle ways such as through characterization. The peripheral character of Ernest becomes a symbol of Puritanical America, which Marta scornfully rejects. Although residing in Antwerp, she calls him a “transplanted small town, from the Middle West.” When she discovers that Ernest has castigated a married woman for kissing another man, Marta silently expresses sympathy for the woman, “You have to worry about the rent and wash the dishes and get the children to school and rush to work in the morning, and soon you’ll be old and tired and all the moonlight and the roses will be gone to waste; and if you lean out of the window, pick a flower, wish on a star — there is Ernest peering obscenely through the curtain — yah, I saw you!” Ernest represents the sort of person against whom Paterson consistently railed — snoops and meddlers.

Politics also surfaces in some of the novel’s reflections and commentary:

  • She made the introduction with the brevity characteristic of a nation without titles or labels, which has almost dropped the last perfunctory honorific, leaving everything to private judgment.
  • So Marta took possession of unknown potentialities, by the act of earning her living. Her own money, her own room, her own life entirely at her own disposal. Toward the end of the year she was half asleep on her feet, drunk with fatigue. She was on duty never less than ten hours a day, and after hours she studied. She didn’t complain. It was a reasonable down payment for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  • “We’ve had ours … we oughtn’t to go back on ourselves.” Americans, she meant. They had been free. It wasn’t a joke; their freedom had been bought with a great price, and was worth it. She was grateful to all those valiant minds who had wrought and endured for her. Now those who had profited by it were going to destroy it, so no one else should ever have it.

The actions of the characters also speak to politics at times. For example, when Never Ask the End was published (January 1933) Prohibition was in effect in America. It ended in December of the same year. Yet the two women drink throughout the book, with Marta becoming deliberately drunk at one point.

One aspect of Never Ask the End is almost entirely political, however: politics is almost certainly the reason Paterson’s novels have been ignored for so long.

Paterson became actively and directly involved in American politics beginning in the late ’20s. Strongly opposed to governmental interference in the private sphere, she took a particular interest in the presidential election of 1928. By “private sphere,” Paterson meant not merely business but also morality. She detested vice laws and anti-vice crusaders. “Laws based on how people ought to feel, but don’t, are nothing new, and conspicuously unsuccessful,” she stated.

We’ve always been fearful of highbrow reformers; they are useful in opposition only, as a dissenting minority. The passion for doing good to others against their will is an alarming thing.

She utterly rejected “social ends by political means.”

This led her to utterly reject Herbert Hoover, the Republican presidential candidate in the 1928 race. As secretary of commerce, Hoover had been instrumental in introducing the “New Era” to America — a prelude to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the New Era for America (circa 1919–1933), politicians tried to use experts to engineer society so as to create a continuous and increasing prosperity. This involved exerting an unprecedented level of control on business and, predictably, on other social behavior as well, such as the consumption of alcohol. Indeed, Hoover himself was called “The Great Engineer” and took pride in the title. Therefore, Paterson supported Al Smith, the Democratic presidential candidate, who favored less meddling.

Hoover won. And Paterson became an outspoken political activist against some of the most dominant political trends of her day, including Keynesian economics. This economic theory holds that government’s aggressive intervention into the free market and manipulation of monetary policy ensure both financial stability and prosperity for a nation. Paterson held the Austrian economics counterview. Cox explains,

To her, the notion that Hoover and his associates were engineering an economic millennium was nothing short of gruesome, and national confidence in this kind of planned social progress was plainly self-defeating, since it inevitably led to foolhardy investment on a massive scale.

Although Paterson was revered by a new generation of classical liberals and libertarian writers, including Ayn Rand, she was increasingly reviled by a rising flood of left-liberals. In her typical fashion, Paterson responded by ratcheting up the criticism. Golden Vanity, the novel directly after Never Ask the End, spotlights the fact that the financial engineers produced the Great Depression rather than the continuing prosperity they promised.

And so, despite her popularity as a novelist, her fiction career and subsequent reputation were damaged by the same factor that led to the cancellation of her popular book-review column in the Herald Tribune. Paterson was out of step with the Left, due to her support of laissez-faire capitalism; she was out of step with the Right, due to her opposition to all vice laws, including antiprostitution ones. The powerful social and literary critic Edmund Wilson declared Paterson to be “the last surviving person to believe in [the] quaint old notions on which the republic was founded.” She was marginalized because of this.


The publication of Never Ask the End is an important step toward restoring an appreciation of Isabel Paterson, the novelist. The removal of her contributions from literary history was an act of political theft for which restitution is now being rendered.

In a review of Never Ask the End, the left-libertarian philosopher Roderick T. Long wrote,

What’s important is that Paterson was a good novelist, one whose work deserves to be rescued from obscurity. Never Ask the End, the gracious and haunting semi-autobiographical story of the entangled fates of three American expatriates in interwar Europe, is one of her best. I hope this republication helps to rekindle interest in this marvelous and unjustly neglected author.