John Galt, Man of Letters


Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson


April 2011

Who is John Galt?

It is not too unusual to become more famous after death than in life, for instance if a person is a creative author or artist whose works become better distributed, or better understood, in the course of time. From the Nineteenth Century, for instance, we might name William Blake, Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, and Friedrich Nietzsche — all vastly better known today than in their lifetimes. Some are born posthumously, as Nietzsche says.

John Galt (1779-1839), a British businessman and writer, holds the much rarer distinction of having his name become famous long after his death, as that bestowed upon a fictional character in Ayn Rand's great novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). If not yet a household word, "Who is John Galt?" certainly has become one of the more recognizable of modern literary catch-phrases. But at least one John Galt was a real person, well enough known in his time. It's rather as though the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, somehow had been eclipsed in fame by Arthur Upfield's whimsically baptized Australian, Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. Upfield's joke at the expense of his wonderful character depends on the reader being quite clear whence the name, and serves to help make his character memorable. Rand, however, seemed to think of her motive character's name as a private coinage, deprecating fans' use of it: she specifically opposed, for instance, naming campus fan groups "The John Galt Society" and the like. Fans calling their group "The Ayn Rand Society" of their college or town was okay — using the name of another novelist. "Ayn Rand", of course, refers to herself, a real person; but it is a pseudonym and ironically a rather ingenious coinage. As with her own nom-de-plume, she devoted considerable care to choosing her characters' names.

And whose name is it, anyway?

Rand's primary associate Nathaniel Branden attempted to police misappropriation of the name John Galt:

During the past several years ... Ayn Rand study clubs have been springing up on campuses around the country. ...

Most of these groups call themselves by such names as "The Ayn Rand Society," "The Ayn Rand Study Club," "Students of Objectivism," etc. This is the right policy — and the one that I suggest when and if I am approached for advice in the matter. Such names make it clear that the members of the club are students and admirers of Ayn Rand's work, but not her representatives.

A name to be avoided — Miss Rand has asked me to stress this — is any designation such as "The John Galt Society." As a fiction character, John Galt is Miss Rand's property; he is not in the public domain.

Nathaniel Branden
"A Message to Our Readers"
The Objectivist Newsletter, April 1965

collected in —
The Objectivist Newsletter, 1962-1965

The attempt to restrict John Galt was only an outlying skirmish in the campaign begun to control use of the philosophical term objectivism. Branden continues:

Another name to be avoided is any designation such as "The Objectivist Society." An "Objectivist Society" with which Miss Rand has no connection, and of which she has no knowledge, is misrepresentation and entails a misappropriation of her intellectual property. No admirer of her work can wish to be guilty of this.
Nathaniel Branden
"A Message to Our Readers"

But this effort to establish an official terminology takes us too far afield.

John Galt, man of letters

Rand's preference for concealing her intellectual inspirations and antecedents has become clearer over the years since Atlas Shrugged was published. Are there precedents for the simple, rock-solid name John Galt? Speaking of solidity, via some unconscious association of mine of galt with the word graphite, the name faintly evokes for me qualities of a solid-phase lubricant — which isn't entirely off-base. Of course it is possible for a novelist to thoughtfully construct a name for some character, even building it by syllables, and then discover that the name also is that of a historical personage — I've done it myself. Certainly "John" is one of the most common names in English-speaking countries, while the rarer "Galt" rejoices not only in real surnames but in a handful of town names in North America.

The myriad readers of Atlas Shrugged who have had the phrase "Who is John Galt?" engraved in their memory certainly would notice any other occurrences of that name — just as we might with Napoleon Bonaparte. Those few who run across mention of a prior, real John Galt perhaps are startled by the discovery; and the subset of these who have seen the Rand-Branden arrogation above, have been bemused, at least. The fictional character is Rand's creation and property, but the name belongs to life and history. Behold the man:

John Galt (1779-1839), a man widely experienced in business and travel, success and failure, was scarcely at all influenced by Scott and much by Smollett. The Ayrshire Legatee (1820) is a satiric sketch in letter-form closely modeled upon Humphrey Cliinker. Annals of the Parish (1821) displays powerfully though coarsely drawn types of the new industrialists; The Provost (1822) is the story of a self-made man in the period of the industrial revolution; and The Entail (1823) covers the fortunes of a family through three generations. These are all of value to the social historian and are precursors of an important kind of Victorian fiction. Later Galt wrote too much and sometimes condescended to Gothic supernaturalism which was uncongenial to his broad comedy and hard realism. His biography of Byron (1830) is the shrewdest of all early portraits of the poet; and his Autobiography (1833) is also noteworthy.
Albert C. Baugh, editor
Book IV., Chapter XVI.: "The Novel Between Scott and Dickens"
A Literary History of England  (1948)

In a contemporizing footnote, the Baugh history adds that F. H. Lyell's A Study of the Novels of John Galt was published by Princeton University Press in 1942. The subject's name, with his novelist's interest in the Industrial Revolution in England, thus readily could be encountered in American bookstores, academic catalogs, or journals during the gestational period of Atlas Shrugged.

It's a good name, and a fine choice for the character.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

More insights on naming in Atlas Shrugged:

R.W. Franson's review of
The Secret of the League
by Ernest Bramah

W.H. Stoddard's review of
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne

Ayn Rand at Troynovant

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