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Ms. Burns herself notes that Rand’s ideas presented a “fundamental challenge to the new conservative synthesis” and “threatened to undermine or redirect the whole conservative venture.” When the right lined up behind Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, as Ms. Burns writes, quoting Rand, the novelist realized free enterprise was not an absolute for American conservatives. She “knew then that there is … no help that I can expect from any of them … . I’m standing totally alone and have to create my own side.” This she tried to do, and she called herself a “radical for capitalism,” not a conservative or right-winger.

The reader of Ms. Burns’ book will get a proper sense of where Rand really stands in American ideological history. Rand (though she herself despised the word and movement for peculiar reasons of her own) was not a member in good standing of the American right; she was far more a goddess of American libertarianism, that radical philosophy of consistent anti-statism and individualism unconnected to conservative traditionalism.

Ms. Burns, the historian, argues that Rand “can only be understood against the backdrop of her historical moment.” Rand, who believed she had uncovered universal truths about human nature and the proper role of government, would have been outraged at this suggestion. Even 52 years later, hundreds of thousands of Americans are buying “Atlas Shrugged” and getting something - whether philosophical instruction or merely wild entertainment - out of it.

As Ms. Burns successfully demonstrates, Rand’s ideas have remained an important part of the American ideological mix, especially in how she honored the creative powers of American business in a free market to improve human lives. Ms. Burns’ readers will see Rand still has the power to instruct on the meaning and scary implications of government growth in the age of Barack Obama.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason magazine and author of “Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement” (PublicAffairs).