What is it about Atlas Shrugged that makes it so popular? Why has Ayn Rand’s dense, hard-to-read, and way-too-long novel sold over seven million copies and inspired such a loyal, even fanatical following?
I was asking myself these questions last week as I finished rereading the novel for the first time in 46 years. I wrote a retrospective review of Atlas Shrugged, which appears in Sunday’s edition of the webzine American Thinker, and I gave the book low marks, both as literature and philosophy. Such were not my views the first time I read it, and such obviously are not the views of most of those who have commented on my review.
What captivated me most about Atlas Shrugged the first time I read it was how different it was from what the culture was offering. Rand actually portrayed businesspeople who were out to make a profit as the good guys! Up to that time, the only work of fiction I had read in which businessmen were treated sympathetically was Sloan Wilson’s novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which gives us a glimpse of the huge personal price that is often exacted from those who build great business enterprises. In Atlas Shrugged Rand does more than just treat businesspeople sympathetically: she exalts them as heroes and presents them as innovators who are as brilliant and creative as the writers, artists and intellectuals who despise them even while depending on them for their livelihoods.
Another thing I liked about Atlas Shrugged was the way Rand skewered those collectivist clichés I had been hearing all my life and that people seem to regard as almost self-evident. It was hard to take them seriously after they came out of the mouths of ridiculous people like James Taggart, Orren Boyle and Philip Rearden.
Anyway, I was hooked. I read all of Rand’s other writings that had been published up to that time and signed up for the Nathaniel Branden Institute’s course on basic principles of objectivism, the name Rand gave her philosophy. (Branden, who later achieved fame as a pop psychologist, was Rand’s top disciple and her designated “intellectual heir” until she severed all relations with him in 1968.)
Every week I would drive from College Park, Maryland, down to the Albert Pick Motor Lodge in downtown Washington, D, C., and, along with about 50 other people, spend two hours sitting in a smoky meeting room listening to a tape recorded lecture on Rand’s philosophy given by Branden, his wife Barbara, or some other high-level objectivist. Except “lecture” was not exactly the right word. It was more like a sermon expounding life lessons to be drawn from the exegesis of passages in Atlas Shrugged and, occasionally, Rand’s earlier novel, The Fountainhead.
Rand’s literary inspiration and favorite novel (other than the ones written by herself) is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and the character in the novel she found most inspiring is the student revolutionary leader Enjolras. But the heroes in Atlas Shrugged remind one, not so much of Enjolras, but Javert, the obsessed police inspector who relentlessly pursues Jean Valjean across the years. Except that Javert manages to elicit some sympathy from the reader — after all, he was born in prison and in the end commits suicide rather than return to prison a man who spared his life. Rand’s heroes elicit none.
But to compare any of the characters in Atlas Shrugged with those in Les Misérables is to insult Hugo. His characters are ideal types that are larger than life, but they are still believable as people. The same cannot be said of Rand’s characters. And this violates a cardinal rule of fiction, even fiction of the Romantic school to which Rand subscribes — i.e., the creation of characters and dialogue that induce the reader to willingly suspend disbelief.
The unbelievability of Rand’s characters was especially evident in the behavior of her followers. For most NBI students, objectivism became a substitute religion, with Rand as the deity, Atlas Shrugged as the bible, and the weekly NBI lectures as the worship services. Students of objectivism — we were not allowed to call ourselves “objectivists”; that exalted title was reserved to Rand and the members of the “senior collective” with whom she had surrounded herself — were expected to emulate Rand’s fictional heroes in their speech and mannerisms. The result was a bunch of rigid, humorless Inspector Javerts.
Randians were Javert-like in another way: they were expected to spy on one another. As a result, real friendships with other Randians were difficult because everybody had to carefully guard his speech lest he be reported to the senior collective.
It was a spying incident that led to my break with objectivism just two and a half years after becoming involved with it. A friend of mine had organized an open seminar in Rand’s philosophy and was reported to the senior collective as having publicly misrepresented objectivism. I was also involved in this seminar and knew the charge wasn’t true. We had made it clear repeatedly that we did not speak for Rand or objectivism — we were just discussing the philosophy, not expounding it.
A member of the senior collective and her husband were dispatched to publicly confront the alleged miscreant. They would not identify what my friend had said that misrepresented objectivism. I wanted to ask, but was afraid to. I was taking an NBI course at the time and was afraid that if I asked I would be booted out; I knew this had actually happened to others who had asked inconvenient questions. Not surprisingly, my friend was excommunicated: his subscription to The Objectivist was refunded and he was barred from taking any more NBI courses.
It was not so much my friend’s excommunication that led to my break with objectivism as it was disgust with myself for lacking the courage to ask a valid question when the only consequence would have been not being able to associate any longer with people I didn’t like much anyway. Even so, for several years after leaving the movement I continued to recommend Atlas Shrugged to friends and family, believing it to be an effective tool for introducing people to the freedom philosophy. I stopped recommending it when, as a result of my studies in economics and game theory, I began to realize that the philosophy it presents is deeply flawed.
Atlas Shrugged seems to appeal mostly to younger readers who have not yet acquired the knowledge and intellectual tools needed to critically evaluate it. And it is such a radical departure from any other fiction they have read — it does have a thrilling plot, even if it takes quite a bit of work to get through it — that its appeal can be irresistible.
Which is why it should be reread, oh, about 46 years later.