When Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, critics dismissed it as melodramatic, overwrought, and didactic. The dialogue, they said, was incredibly boring, repetitive, and long-winded. Characters launched into philosophical diatribes that had little to do with the action or scene. The novel itself was seen as immoral; it promoted atheism, advocated unfettered capitalism, and honored greed. There was sex, adultery, and rape. The book debuted at #13 on the New York Times bestseller list, rose to #3, and remained on the list for 22 weeks.
Fifty years later Atlas Shrugged has become the bible of the conservative movement in America. Sales in 2009 topped 500,000. Paul Ryan gives it out as a Christmas present. The book was, until recently, required reading for his staff members. Justice Clarence Thomas lists it among his favorites. Glenn Beck, Alan Greenspan, and Rush Limbaugh have all praised the book.
I read it when I was seventeen, and I loved it. Like Scarlet O’Hara of Gone With the Wind, Dagny Taggart was a strong woman, impulsive, willing to flaunt convention in order to get what she wanted. She was passionate, beautiful, and a match for any man in whatever she chose to do. It was Dagny who ran the Transcontinental Railroad, not her brother James who was the titular head of the company. She was competent and decisive where her brother was weak. I loved it for the romance between Dagny and Hank Reardon, never mind that Hank was a married man. His wife Lillian didn’t love him, had little respect for him, and was disgusted by sex. He had a right to seek happiness elsewhere, I thought.
If someone had reminded me that I’d gone to Catholic schools all my life, that divorce is not allowed and extra-marital affairs could send you straight to hell, I’d have shrugged it off. These people were bigger than life, and the narrow morals I’d been taught did not apply. Dagny Taggart was a woman I could admire. “Do not let your fire go out,” she said. “… the world you desire can be won. It exists… it is real.. it is possible.” I was inspired by her words, and I applauded. When the government attempted to destroy her and her railroad, I railed against government interference.
From the beginning of the book, there’s the sense that this is a dystopian world, reminiscent of both the thirties but also of a future time where America is in a precipitous downward spiral. Businesses are failing; men are out of work. When the moochers, bums, and worthless brutes who roam city streets ask the question – Who is John Galt – they have no understanding of what they’re asking or who this man might be. They are like zombies. Businessmen who run the most important companies are disappearing, one by one, leaving their companies rudderless. The great hordes see the world falling apart, but they offer no solution. They simply accept what is happening.
All these years later, I still remember that 60-page speech John Galt gave to the world. At the time I didn’t question exactly how these very talented men could hook up a loudspeaker system that would carry Galt’s voice to the far corners of the earth. These men, these movers of society, these great men who had given so much to the world, they were surely capable of creating such a system. But the speech wore me out. I understood that it was Ayn Rand’s philosophy, but I was more interested in Dagny Taggart and whether she would live happily ever after in the arms of a man as talented as she.
Thinking about the book now, I’m sickened by the elitism, the division of society into producers and looters, creators and moochers, prime movers and parasites, the view of the lower classes as unthinking brutes. I’m appalled by Rand’s characterization of government as obstructionist, of society as composed almost completely of worthless individuals, incompetent, lethargic, and impotent. I hate her portrayal of the poor as being either stupid or lazy, and I profoundly disagree with Rand’s view that society is intent on robbing the entrepreneurs of their riches.
Ayn Rand called it a love story, and it is certainly that. Critics add that it’s a mystery – what is happening to all these important businessmen? Where are they going, and why? It’s also science fiction in that Galt’s Gulch exists in a parallel world, a mysterious valley where the world’s most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs have gone, presumably to bask in the light of all the gold they’ve accumulated. They’re a vengeful lot; by withdrawing their unique talents from the world they will prove their worth. They’ll finally get the credit they so richly deserve. The world will see that without them, there is chaos.
To have nothing but contempt for those who struggle, to believe these unthinking creatures deserve to perish from the earth, is to be less than human. I think I won’t reread this book. Instead, I might just pick up Gone with the Wind. It’s a great romance, full of history, well-rounded characters, conflict, and above all, a protagonist who is deeply flawed, but one who is also human.