Oddly enough, We the Living was the most reviewed of any of Rand's books, receiving more positive than negative notices. H. L. Mencken, who, in the twenties, had been one of the leading literary critics in America, described Rand's first novel as "a really excellent piece of work." The novel, however, struggled to gain an audience in the 1930's, and Rand's publisher, Macmillan, destroyed the plates after a modest print run of 3,000 copies. In 1959, Rand issued a second, revised edition of the work. Rand insisted that "all the changes [she made] are merely editorial line changes." This view has been challenged. It seems that Rand indulged in a little more than mere line changes, that she sought to edit her former self in order to conceal some of the views she had flirted with in her youth.
It appears that, early in her adulthood, Rand went through a quasi-Nietzschean phase. There are only two groups that think this is a big deal. The first are those intellectual lazy people who wish to use Rand's early allegiance to a kind of vulgarized Nietzsche as a way of dismissing her out of hand. These people want to believe that Objectivism is merely a Nietzchean offshoot, and that Rand secretly was a kind of right-wing elitist, dripping with social darwinism and eager to stomp all over the masses. But Rand, under the influence of Isabel Paterson, had thrown off the last vestiges of her early quasi-Nietzchean not long after completing We the Living. adopting, instead, a view of human nature and a kind of hyper-moralism that was poles apart from Nietzche's incendiary elitism and his positivistic immoralism.
Oddly enough, the other group that think Rand's Nietzschean phase are her most ardent and orthodox admirers. These people wish to deny that the Nietzschean phase ever existed, or that Rand ever had opinions that weren't strictly Objectivist in the orthodox sense of the term. The problematic passage in the first version occurs when the protagonist of the novel, Kira (an idealized version of Rand herself) says "What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?"Rand apologist Robert Mayhew attempts to deflate the implications of this passage with the following piece of rationalizing palaver:
We should not conclude too quickly that these passages are strong evidence of an earlier Nietzschean phase in Ayn Rand's development, because such language can be strictly metaphorical (even if the result of an early interest in Nietzsche).
I would argue for a completely different approach. I'm not one of those politically correct zealots who gets all offended because some fictional character in a novel entertains, speculatively, dubious opinions. Nor do I look to fictional characters for ideological guidance. What the real issue should be: what would a woman of Kira's type living in Soviet Russia in the early twenties most likely believe? Would she be a perfectly "correct" and orthodox Objectivist? Or would she more likely spout some sort of vulgarized version of Nietzsche, as an antidote to the soul-crushing collectivism of the Soviet state? I find the Kira of the first version of the novel to be more genuine and real than the sanitized Kira of the second version. Nietzsche was a popular author in the first decades of the twentieth century, and vulgarized versions of Nietzsche's philosophy were quite rife among young, philosophically illiterate individualists. Kira's scorn and contempt for the masses is an understandable over-reaction to the Soviet deification of the proletariat. Seen in that light, it really isn't that big a deal.