essays

Oct 1, 1977

Atlas Shrugged: A Twentieth Anniversary Tribute

“Critics…view the philosophy with a certain detachment, but they cannot come to terms with the sense of life which exudes from every page.”

In October, 1977, twenty years will have elapsed since the first publication of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. The reason I did not read the book until two years later is that I made the mistake of reading the critics before reading the novel. I can think of no parallel case in which the overwhelming majority of critics were so consistently and thoroughly mistaken.

I shall not attempt to recount fully the reasons for this. One is surely that the novel requires detailed and careful reading; skimming will not do, and skimming is all that most critics give to the fiction they review. Another reason is that it contains heavy doses of philosophy, which critics are not accustomed to and are not trained in— nor do they usually feel a need to correct this defect. Moreover, the prevalent assumption is that “if it contains an ideology, it’s got to be preachy,” and evidence for this is given in the form of short quotations ripped out of their context. But the most fundamental reason is that almost all the critics belong to the “Eastern liberal establishment,” and they will fight by fair means or foul to repudiate any work which opposes their (usually unacknowledged) ideology. In most cases they simply ignore these “deviant books” entirely, letting them die a death of oblivion. This technique of less-than-benign neglect, when used against books opposed to their point of view, is often devastatingly effective. Fortunately it did not work in the case ofAtlas Shrugged, which has sold millions of copies through the years and has been translated into most Indo-European languages.

What are the qualities which caused this book, like The Fountain-head, to endure and prosper in spite of the violent antipathy and venom of the critics?

1. The most obvious reason is that it has a marvelous plot, simple in its structural thrust but complex yet entirely coherent in its textural details. It observes the Aristotelian canons: everything necessary is there, but nothing superfluous; everything that happens is necessary to the understanding of everything that comes afterwards (the principle of organic development); it has a strong overall unity, yet holds in suspension an extraordinary amount of diversity; it is teleological through and through, with nothing accidental, nothing purposeless, nothing left to chance. To avant-garde critics, this classifies the novel as “traditional” in structure, and since it contains no new novelistic gimmicks, its plot-structure came to be described as “old-fashioned” or even “unimaginative.” But critics are atypical readers, and readers flocked to it for the very features which the critics scorned.

Even those readers who do not care for ideas in novels can be totally absorbed in the story as it unfolds chapter by chapter. It is so ingeniously plotted, with complex interconnections and previously planted hints coming to life as the story moves on, that it is difficult to see how any reader of fiction from Tom Jones to the present can fail to be involved in the story as it develops. One high-school student I know was so passionately absorbed in reading it that, though she had been forbidden by her orthodox Jewish parents to read the book, she read it until the wee hours every night in her bedroom by the light of the street lamp. Ayn Rand was once asked what features were most important in a novel, and she replied, “Plot, plot, and plot.” Atlas admirably illustrates her conviction.

2. The reader can identify imaginatively with the characters to a high degree. In accord with Aristotle’s dictum that there should be only as much characterization as is needed for purposes of the action, Rand’s minor characters remain (quite properly) two-dimensional. But there are enough major three-dimensional characters to fill a dozen ordinary novels. For me, Rearden is ‘the most interesting character study because he grows and develops from page to page; indeed the portrait of Rearden is a classic of character development. For others, Francisco is the most fascinating character because he is somewhat mysterious, enigmatic, and (in the short run at least) unpredictable. But there are many other vivid character portraits: Dagny, James Taggart, Cherryl, Eddie Willers, Ken Danagger, Ragnar, … the list is too long to need repetition.

3. The writing is nothing short of spectacular. When one realizes that Rand knew almost no English when she came to America, her mastery of the English idiom and vocabulary is phenomenal. Though Rand’s own favorite passage (as far as narrative style is concerned) is the scene in which Dagny and Rearden take the train ride that opens the John Galt Line, my own opinion is that her writing style reaches its greatest heights in the confrontation scenes between various characters, especially when character-contrasts are overlaid with clashes of ideas, as in the various interchanges between Francisco and Rearden. In these scenes Rand’s genius for presenting abstract ideas through concrete images attains its greatest height. These scenes invariably give the effect of high-voltage electricity.

Rand’s writing achieves the peak of intensity when she speaks not about the characters but through the words of the characters. The most famous of these are the “speeches,” e.g. Francisco on money, Rearden on sacrifice, .etc., which are more easily taken from their context and presented separately (in For the New Intellectual). But even more compelling than these, I think, are comparatively neglected scenes like the one between Dagny and the tramp on the train in the Nebraska night—the best account ever written, bar none, that traces with blinding clarity the full consequences of socialistic schemes on the people who initially desired them. This scene should be included in every college political philosophy textbook, though it occurs in not one. The academicians have never forgiven Rand for exploding the myth of collectivism.

Speaking of academicians, has a more concise and slashing expose of them ever been written than this neglected little

“Your kind of intellectuals [said Fred Kinnan] are the first to scream when it’s safe—and the first to shut their traps at the first sign of danger. They spend years spitting at the man who feeds them—and they lick the hand of the man who slaps their drooling faces. Didn’t they deliver every country of Europe, one after another, to committees of goons? Didn’t they scream their heads off to shut off every burglar alarm and to break every padlock open for the goons? Have you heard a peep out of them since? Didn’t they scream that they were the friends of labor? Do you hear them raising their voices about the chain gangs, the slave camps, the fourteen-hour workday and the mortality from scurvy in the People’s States of Europe? … You might have to worry about any other breed of men, but not about the modern intellectuals: they’ll swallow anything. I don’t feel so safe about the lousiest wharf rat in the longshoremen’s union; he’s liable to remember suddenly that he is a man—and then I won’t be able to keep him in line. But the intellectuals? That’s the one thing they’ve forgotten long ago … Do anything you please to the intellectuals. They’ll take it.”

“For once,” said Dr. Ferris, “I agree with Mr. Kinnan … You don’t have to worry about the intellectuals, Wesley. Just put a few of them on the government payroll and send them out to preach precisely the sort of thing Mr. Kinnan mentioned: that the blame rests on the victims. Give them moderately comfortable salaries and extremely loud titles—and they’ll do a better job for you than whole squads of enforcement officers.” (pp. 546-7)

4. Some would say that the most important single achievement of Atlas, which places it even above The Fountainhead, is the presentation of a systematic philosophy. It is stated explicitly in Galt’s speech (which was nearly two years in the writing), but it comes out in diverse aspects all through the novel. The social philosophy is based on an ethics, and the ethics on a metaphysics; and they all surface in the pages of the novel, even in incidental comments made for example by minor characters at a party. It is amazing that the action can be so continuous and so dramatic in view of the omnipresence of the philosophy, which in most other novels stops the action entirely and is not integrated into it. It takes one who is both a seminal thinker and a great writer to achieve this feat, not merely a mixture of fiction and philosophy but a chemical combination of them into an overpowering unity. It has been tried often enough, even by great writers, but with conspicuous lack of success. Thomas Mann tried it in The Magic Mountain; not only was the philosophy confused and confusing, but it was heavy-handed and never integral to the action—the philosophical pages would best be removed for the sake of the novelistic experience. But it is not so in Atlas; Atlas is the conspicuous exception. Here the philosophy is completely interwoven into the action, and the action in turn dramatizes and exemplifies the philosophy.

It is not, then, simply as philosophy that Atlas is a triumph; the triumph consists in the total integration of philosophy and fiction. And I can think of no other novel in which such an integration is successful. (In the Fountainhead, ethics emerges, but little explicit metaphysics or political philosophy. Atlas by contrast is all-encompassing. In Atlas the author takes on everybody, creating in one bold leap a counterweight to the trend of our culture. That is why there are many who accepted and even admired The Fountainhead and yet were hostile to her far greater achievement in Atlas.) Atlas is, indeed, a philosophical mystery novel, in which the solution to the mystery depends on grasping the philosophy. If there is any other novel in existence of which this can be said, I have not heard of it.

5. But even the philosophy, or (as I prefer to say) the integration of philosophy with fiction, great as it is, is not the greatest achievement of Atlas. The supreme achievement of Atlas is the communication of a sense of life, which as the author rightly says in The Romantic Manifesto is the unique achievement possible to art. It is a sense of life so positive, so heroic, so inspiring, that those who have been raised in the tradition of fiction as muckracking or “gutter realism” or any kind of fiction with a negative sense of life cannot endure to read it: the change is too sudden; they cannot grasp the transformation, and it demands too much of them—not only in their intellectual position (re-thinking) but in their whole approach to life (reliving). This, I think, is the main reason for the heated and venomous attacks on Atlas, far more severe than those on all her previous works put together. Critics may sometimes view the philosophy with a certain detachment, but they cannot come to terms with the sense of life which exudes from every page of Atlas.

It was to take hold of and sustain this sense of life, even more than the reasoned philosophy which gives rise to it, that after the publication of Atlas Ayn Rand Clubs sprang into existence on campuses all across the country. Atlas expresses the “heroic sense of life” more than any philosophical nonfiction work could do; and consequently this novel will continue to yield more converts to individualism and liberty than any other book has, or probably ever will. I shall never forget the mixture of triumph and tragedy on the face of the perplexed student who said to me after finishing the book, “But iat she says in this book is true, then most of the things I’ve been taught all my life are false.” Those who rebelled against the prevailing sense of life of American fiction and American culture, in the all-pervasive muck in which parents and teachers and society were content to let them swim, could now hold on to this book as a secure and unyielding rock. Therein lies its immense power, and its guarantee of immortality.

John Hospers, world-renowned authority in the philosophy of esthetics, is the author of a great many essays and textbooks in all areas of philosophy. Presently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, he was the presidential pandidate of the Libertarian Party in 1972, receiving one electoral vote, and is the author of the highly acclaimed book Libertarianism.