Tomorrow, October 12, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged . It was a huge, hotly debated bestseller in its day, and its sales have held steady ever since. Its author, certainly, retains a certain mystique as the exacting thinker still revered by many Americans as a great intellectual and seer. All of us, surely, know someone who has passed through an Ayn Rand phrase, mild or severe. At some point we’ve all heard the words: " Atlas Shrugged changed my life."
In his 1989 memoir, Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand , Nathaniel Branden recalls that Rand once enjoyed a literary friendship with another popular and controversial author¯Mickey Spillane. Branden recalls that when Rand first met Spillane she found the tough-guy novelist crying in his soup. "They sure hate us, don’t they?" he told her, lamenting all those harsh reviews. "Some literary guy," Spillane added, had recently approached him at a dinner party and said, "it’s disgraceful that of the ten bestselling novels of all time, seven were written by you." "You’re lucky," Spillane replied, "that I’ve only written seven books."
Spillane was right to think he deserved a bit more critical praise. When he was bad, he was very bad: gratuitously violent and crude. But the author of I, The Jury and My Gun Is Quick had certain talents too: a clean and vivid style, a sly wit, and a distinctive narrative voice that hints throughout of self-parody. Moreover, Spillane was, by most accounts, a sociable and likable fellow, and seems to have largely avoided the urge to take himself too seriously.
Ayn Rand took herself very seriously indeed. She was a born iconoclast and provocateur: one of those restless souls forever seeking to bend the world to her will. She was not easily impressed, deciding early on that nearly all philosophy after Aristotle was a waste of time. One day, Rand famously assured her university professors, she would produce timeless philosophical writings of her own. She had very little humor but plenty of push.
First, however, she would write movies and plays. Alicia Rosenbaum¯as her family knew Ayn Rand¯spent much of her childhood reading far-fetched novels featuring square-jawed adventurers in exotic locales. Besides Aristotle, Rand’s heroes were all fictional he-men¯late Victorian versions of Indiana Jones. When, in 1926, Rand left her native Russia for the United States, she headed straight for Hollywood, where in short order she found a husband, took an extra’s part in Cecil B. De Mille’s The King of Kings , and started cranking out scripts. Alicia Rosenbaum became Ayn Rand, the headstrong heroine of a decidedly American story.
Rand’s educated, prosperous family suffered terribly under the Soviets, and her hatred of communism burned on like a hard, gemlike flame. But she loved the United States in her own, highly stylized way: She loved its skyscrapers, its technology, its machinery, its energy. Rand’s first big bestseller, The Fountainhead (1940), is in part a long hymn to this America of her imagination, and its hero, Howard Roark, is her first extended portrait of the consummate American¯a world-class architect based loosely on Frank Lloyd Wright.
Rand’s Ideal Man could never be a schoolteacher, say, or a physical therapist, or a claims clerk in the Social Security Administration. He must not be short-winded or fat. He must be perfection in action¯gifted and brave, uniquely talented, and utterly free of irrationality and fear. He must, like Roark, defend the premise that no man should ever compromise his individual will or submit to pathetic notions of "sacrifice"; he must recognize that men of genius like himself will forever fight the lazy, inferior parasites who seek to take what superior minds have made. He must, in short, look like Gary Cooper and think exactly like Ayn Rand.
As The Fountainhead showed, Rand’s beliefs were well-suited for the big screen, where outsize heroes, defiant acts, and stirring speeches have always been the order of the day.
And obviously her ringing defense of personal and economic liberty was not, even in the 1940s, alien to the American cultural mainstream. What made Rand’s works controversial, then and now, was their unashamed elitism and atheism¯their contempt for the values and attitudes held by most human beings who must make their way through the real world with the usual sets of weaknesses and strengths.
Rand hated religion as much as she hated communism; for her Christianity was, of course, the religion of fools and slaves. Rand’s "marginalia," culled from the books in her library and published in 1998, are particularly revealing: The woman who despised emotionalism and valued reason above all became, when faced with C.S. Lewis, like one of those "literary guys" faced with Mickey Spillane. Lewis, Rand averred, was a "driveling non-entity," a "mediocrity," and "scum."
Still, Atlas Shrugged , you’ve heard countless times, is a classic, and apparently it’s soon to be a major motion picture starring Angelina Jolie . And so, finally, you’re ready to give it a go¯all 1,168 pages.
Right away you’ll notice that it is, in fact, full of rich characters: They own steel mills and railroads. Otherwise they’re ponderous and flat¯perhaps Rand found them on De Mille’s movie lot. The book’s big event¯a national strike involving disgruntled industrialists and tycoons¯might have made a good Preston Sturges comedy. But Rand turns it into an earnest melodrama touched up with nobody-can-stop-me arias, paperback sex scenes, and attacks on jack-booted Washington bureaucrats: It’s Tony Robbins meets Harold Robbins meets the Cato Institute.
It’s possible, then, that early on your eyes might start to glaze a bit, and you’ll find yourself thinking "Really, I couldn’t care less" each time the novel demands: "Who is John Galt?" It’s very possible, actually, because fifty years after its publication Atlas Shrugged is much better as a doorstop than a novel. If you want a better read, try I, The Jury instead.
Brian Murray’s new critical guide to Charles Dickens is forthcoming from Continuum.