Atlas Revived


Essay by
C. Brooks Kurtz
March 2009


A 23 February 2009 announcement from the Ayn Rand Institute:

Sales of Atlas Shrugged Soar in the Face of Economic Crisis

We Objectivists are a strange lot, but whether or not one is an adherent of Ayn Rand's philosophy or merely a fan of her work, there is no denying that the anti-mystic Rand seems to have had a crystal ball when composing her 1,168-page magnum opus. The novel, one of the longest ever composed in the English language, is one of the most influential American novels ever published, and no American woman has ever rivaled Rand's influence in contemporary American literature and philosophy. Love her or hate her, with every generation a new cadre of Objectivists is born. If one thinks Rand irrelevant, one need only post a query about the influence of Objectivism and — specifically — Atlas Shrugged in a philosophy forum to see what kind of vitriol comes in reaction.

Atlas Shrugged is an acquired taste, or at least it was for me. I read Rand's The Fountainhead in a sitting, and loved every minute of it (it is my favorite novel). Yet Atlas Shrugged is not only challenging in its length (you can't say of many books that it takes 300 pages before it really gets going), it is equally challenging in what it expects readers to conclude about where the United States is heading at the time of its setting. When I read it in 1997, I enjoyed it but considered it political science fiction. With each reading — I read it every other year — I have been astounded by yet another prediction of Rand's coming true.

Although most of you are probably familiar with it, Atlas Shrugged chronicles a period of about five years when America went from being the world's last best hope to a decaying, foundering nation derailed by Collectivism. It is best-known for its catchphrase, the immortal query, "Who is John Galt?" Yet for so many who love it, its special place has to do with making literary heroes out of men and women who produce things. Before (and primarily since) Atlas Shrugged, people of business have been viewed as villainous, scurrilous, unethical and yes, greedy. The novel teaches that there is nothing wrong with mindful greed, so long as it harms no one else. Atlas Shrugged is a salute, a prayer and a triumphal poem to capitalism.

I know quite a few Objectivists, and quite a few more people who are merely fans of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Adherents include those like me, Objectivists before they'd ever read the books, before they ever knew who John Galt and Hank Rearden and Howard Roark were. I envy the others, those who'd never considered the legitimacy and clarity of such thinking until discovering the first chapter of The Fountainhead, before finding out that their distaste for the phrase "the meek shall inherit the Earth" was not a lonely one.

What is utterly strange about the book is how easy it is to apply so many of its minor lessons to current events. The time of Atlas Shrugged is never made explicit, but it is generally viewed as spanning the late 1940s to the mid-1950s (the introduction of jet travel near the end of the novel no doubt coincided with the years it took Rand to write it). Rand foresaw things that most would never be able to predict. One of the strangest comes in the guise of a minor character, Emma "Ma" Chalmers, the mother of Kip Chalmers, a proponent of the substitution of soybeans for meat products. Forecasting the bizarre politicization of food of which we are only now beginning to see the effects, Chalmers manages to get the government to steer to her thousands of railcars for her farm's soybean crop, thus ensuring the failure to market Minnesotan wheat. It is ethanol subsidies a half-century before most were familiar with the term "ethanol".

What is fascinating are the ebbs and tides of Atlas Shrugged sales. While the book is good as literature (English was not Rand's first language, recall) and fascinating as a mystery, its generational renewal is because of its lessons in macroeconomics. Written today, the novel would have been titled The Butterfly Effect. As a lay-student of economics, I have learned more about its applied lessons from Atlas Shrugged and Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics than I did in all the economics in business classes I had in college. Rand no doubt would have had a field day with the Obama Administration, as so much of its maneuvering comes straight out of the playbook of Wesley Mouch and Mister Thompson, especially with the Cuffy Meigs-ian character of Rahm Emmanuel.

Yaron Brook's statement for the Ayn Rand Institute [linked above] underscores the validity and importance of Atlas Shrugged: for people who are desperate, who see the nation moving in a course whose destination is disastrous, Rand's masterwork is the antidote. The novel is quite fatalistic — there is a bit of happily-ever-after, but for the most part its producer heroes are spiritually tortured for the better part of 1,200 pages. Thematically, though, Rand imbues Atlas Shrugged as well as The Fountainhead with the perfect notion that attracted me immediately to her work: Man is a heroic being. He is not flawed by pride nor is he stained by original sin. Ultimately, what he produces is good, and when left to his own devices unencumbered by collective faith or State coercion, his pursuits are usually noble.

As I love quoting it so often, I return to William Faulkner's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a passage that so wonderfully expresses my view of Man as spoken by America's greatest writer:

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

What the again-renewed popularity of Rand's work illustrates is that America is not lost. Since its publication, America has never been closer to the State that comes into being in Part III of Atlas Shrugged, and never before have so many of the insidious beliefs put forth by the novel's villains so captured (or, better yet, enraptured) the American public as what we are currently witnessing. Atlas Shrugged, as both literature and philosophy, is now more relevant than ever.


© 2009 C. Brooks Kurtz

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