Atlas Shrugged (1957) broke the rules and got very bad reviews. So why is it so popular today?
Atlas Shrugged – the strikes against it
Ayn Rand’s signature novel has several things wrong with it:
It runs to more than 1100 pages.
It has so many characters that one truly needs a scorecard to keep up with them.
It has a speech that easily would need three hours to read out loud from start to finish.
It takes the omniscient point of view. Worse, it often shifts point-of-view several times in one scene, or even one sentence. Almost any recognized literary agent in practice today says that an author shouldn’t do that.
So why is this novel so popular? No publisher in his right mind would buy it today. No publisher would buy it even from an author in its own stable. Even if that author had another word-of-mouth best-seller (The Fountainhead) to her credit, they still wouldn’t buy it. Why Bennet Cerf at Random House bought it, probably no modern acquisition editor can figure out.
But Cerf picked a winner. It ranks 7th in literary fiction sales, 13th in science fiction, and 19th in classical fiction at Amazon.com. Now the first of three films has come out (because it takes at least three films to do it justice). Why?
Who is Atlas, and why does he shrug?
You don't have to be an old fogey to enjoy Atlas Shrugged today. Photo: Seth Tisue, CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic License
Atlas Shrugged speaks to all of us. It speaks to anyone who has a friend or relative constantly “touching” him for money. It speaks to us all on April 15 of every year. It speaks to anyone who has ever wished that he could say, “I’m out of here.”
It speaks to them best of all in this scene. A genius steelmaker and inventor listens as someone offers him a way out of endless servitude:
“[I]f you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?”
“I…don’t know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?”
The man getting that advice is one of the heroes of the novel. The two heroes are trying their best to keep their businesses, and the economy, alive when the government does everything to skim loot off the top of it. In the end, they each discover that every time they “do something” to make a bad policy work anyway, they give the government yet another excuse to make more bad policies. And he has to pay for them, in taxes, wasted effort, and any of a hundred other ways. Finally, they do what the adviser wants them to do: quit. Or rather, go on strike, as others have done before them.
Atlas and his enemies
Atlas Shrugged was a best-seller when it first came out. But no commentator, liberal or conservative, thought it would ever be relevant. The people had elected Ike, not some politician running an administration of moochers and gangsters as in Atlas Shrugged. No one dreamed that the people would elect someone like that.
Today millions of ordinary people realize that their fellow voters did elect such a President. In 1972 George S. McGovern ran and lost—badly. In 2008 Barack Hussein Obama ran and won.
In fact, they are already looking for the shadowy anti-villain in the novel: the leader of the strike of the men of the mind.
Who is John Galt?
That’s what everyone asks in Atlas Shrugged: who is the man who said that he would stop the motor of the world? What did he mean by that?
To the Atlases in the novel, he is the one who clears things up for them. He tells them what kind of burden they carry, who lays it on them, and that it’s OK to lay it down. And he tells them something else: that as soon as they all withdraw their support, the system of looters and gangsters will collapse of its own weight.
As the novel plays out, it makes sense. In the face of businesses relocating overseas, it makes sense. To people who decide not to make too much money, so that they will stay out of higher income-tax brackets or avoid the ObamaCare mandate, it makes sense. To people watching crotchety old once-favorite TV actors openly telling people to get on the dole, or join an organization of “dole” agitators, it makes perfect sense.
So people reading Atlas Shrugged ask, not who is John Galt, but where is he? One may wonder how much more time will pass before someone says, “I am he! I will stop the motor of the world!”
Atlas Shrugged was ahead of its time 54 years ago. Now time has caught up with it. That is why it is so popular today.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect. Your editor will explore that later.