where the writers are

Published in 1957 after years in the works, Ayn Rand's magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged" is one of the most influential novels in history. It, and its author, have been vilified and deified. Reviewing this book is as challenging as it was reading all 1168 of its pages. "Atlas Shrugged" is truly a "piece of work." It is a triumph of philosophy, much more so than the quintessential "great American novel." The greatness of this book is in its ideas more so than its literary value. Rand is not a writer on par with Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, or Thomas Wolfe. However, she is a visionary, like her hero, Aristotle. Her fans are fans of her vision, not just her words, and she has spawned millions of them over the years.

            "Atlas Shrugged" was Ronald Reagan's favorite novel. It was the most influential book William F. Buckley, Jr. ever read. Obviously, this gives away its premise, which is conservative in nature and therefore anathema to liberals and the literary establishment they control. "Atlas Shrugged" and Rand herself were shoved into second-tier status by college professors and bookstore chains, but long before talk radio, she proved that conservatives win in the marketplace of ideas. Her works have been international best sellers for decades. Clubs, forums, seminars, web sites, and chat rooms devoted to Rand have given her legions of loyal supporters a chance to ask and get answers to the many, many questions that her novels have inspired. For years, Rand toured the country, delighting audiences who seemed to literally worship her. Following her own novel, "The Fountainhead", and influential non-fiction books "God and Man At Yale" by Buckley, and Whittaker Chambers' essential "Witness" (1952), "Atlas Shrugged" gave impetus to the conservative movement, which broke from the Rockefeller wing of the Republican party to launch Barry Goldwater's Quixote-like 1964 campaign; eventually the Reagan Revolution; and finally the sea change which promises to make the first half of the 21st Century an era of unparalleled American power.

             As a reviewer of "Atlas Shrugged", I think it is necessary to declare my political allegiance in a way that is unnecessary in dissecting Hemingway, or even the works of John Steinbeck. I came to Rand late in life. After hearing mythological stories of Rand's influence, I felt the need to know what others have come to know before me. However, I have never attended a Rand seminar, and outside of reading a few web sites, I am a relative babe in the Randian woods. I think this is to my benefit, since I do not possess the answers to the many questions "Atlas Shrugged" inspires. I shall endeavor to ask these questions in the course of this review.

            I am conservative, and therefore pre-disposed to accept Rand's philosophy. Upon learning that "Atlas" helped form the minds of Buckley and Reagan, no self-respecting member of the "vast right wing conspiracy" could resist Ayn Rand. That said, this book has many faults, and I will list them first.

            First, the characters are not the most believable. Rand has created people who make her points, through their virtues or their faults. Sometimes this leads to black-and-white characterizations, and language that nobody really speaks. Her heroic characters tend to break into speechifying, sometimes going page after page, laying lofty, perfect language on each other. It would be like expecting John Kennedy to give his "ask not what you can do for your country" speech while in casual conversation with his brother Bobby.

            The main heroes are supermen (plus one superwoman, Dagny Taggart). They are very close to perfect, if not actually perfect, which is not wholly believable. They are like the Greek gods who made up the human ideal that Aristotle, Plato and Socrates strived to attain, or describe. They are physically beautiful, inspiringly intelligent and completely impervious to human corruption (although the liberals would argue their philosophical moorings are corrupt in and of themselves).

            Their enemies possess few traits that might be considered admirable. There is a propagandistic quality to Rand's descriptions which, I hate to say this, reminds me (in a subtle manner) of the way undesirables were painted by the Nazi public relations machine. Knowing little about Rand personally, I have the freedom to conjecture about her motives based solely on my virgin reading of "Atlas Shrugged". If one is prone to finding racism behind every tree, which many are, I suppose Rand's cast of WASPISH upper crust heroes could be viewed as lacking in diversity. However, this book was written in the 1940s and '50s, so it should be judged accordingly. Few novelists of that era were creating great black or Jewish characters. Even Steinbeck's Okies were all white. Rand, being a woman, centers the book on Dagny, who I think must be the model for how Rand sees herself, so give her credit there. Furthermore, all the "bad guys" are rich (or connected) white guys, so the racism angle very possibly has no legs.

            Rand's background no doubt plays a major role in her philosophy. She was born in Russia, and achieved a literate education, with the desire of becoming a writer. Her formative years ran smack dab into the Communist revolution. Being an educated woman, Rand was given the chance to rise in the Communist hierarchy of V.I. Lenin. Whether she ever bought into Communism or not I do not know. At some point, which seems to coincide with Josef Stalin's ascension to power, Rand found herself opposing the system. She fell out of favor, and managed to escape to America, the country she identified as the ideal place for her budding philosophy, which combines entrepreneurialism, freedom, and Aristotle's realism into something she calls objectivism.

            Rand made her way to Hollywood, where her exotic European good looks and intellect made her stand out. She found work behind the scenes, and wrote screenplays. She struggled to succeed as a novelist, enduring the rejection letters of publishers. Eventually, "The Fountainhead" was published, and over time it became a huge success. She wrote the screenplay for "The Fountainhead", which starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. By the time "Atlas Shrugged" was published, it was highly anticipated by her millions of devoted fans, and it did not disappoint. Rand married a man named Frank O'Connor, who is the archetype of her male characters and inspired her notions of male-female romance.

            To those of you who are new to Ayn Rand, I suggest as a primer watching "The Fountainhead" on video, available in most public libraries. After reading "Atlas", then read "Getting It Right", Buckley's novel about Rand's influence.

            Describing "Atlas Shrugged" is a challenge. There is a mystical quality to it. At times, one gets the feeling that you are reading a "Twi-Light Zone" episode. There are events that seem too convenient, coincidental or unexplained. Like Rod Serling, Rand writes scenes as much for effect as for organic reality. "Atlas" is not for everyone. Many readers could labor through this beast without a clue. Sometimes the reader feels as if he or she should be a member of Mensa in order to get what Rand is trying to convey.

            However, the story is not as fanciful as it may appear at first glance. As best I can gather, it takes place either in the 1950s, or in some future projected beyond the '50s. While it does not provide the information, it seems to describe what America and the world would have been like had World War II not interrupted the Great Depression of the 1930s. The world remained at peace, but without the U.S. ascending to power via military dominance. Socialism has become the world's political system. The U.S. valiantly fights its overwhelming tides, while many in its midst advocate socialism on American soil. Every country except the U.S. calls itself a People's State, as in the People's State of Mexico, the People's State of England, etc.

            Dagny Taggart is the heiress of a huge railroad company, Taggart Transcontinental. Dagny is totally self-sufficient and never for a second apologizes for being a woman in a man's world. She has inherited wealth, but her intelligence and work ethic is greater than any who might aspire to replace her. She is attractive but avoids the accoutrements of feminine flash. She is sexually liberated, but there are only a handful of extraordinary men who are capable of stirring her passions. She believes that she and her company are entitled to the profits earned through hard work and the creation of a better product in a competitive marketplace.

            Dagny's brother, Jim, co-runs the railroad. He may be a capitalist, but he holds lofty notions of man's duty to society. The problem with this is that his altruism is based on theory, not reality.

            Early on, a bum is heard asking the question, "Who is John Galt?" This is the repeated question that fuels the mystery of "Atlas Shrugged". This question is a catchphrase of society, echoing an increasing agitation among the masses that life is bound to result in fruitless disappointment.

            The legend revolves around the question of who and what Galt is. An urban myth has it that Galt created the "engine that runs the world," but destroyed it, then took his knowledge to some kind of modern Atlantis. Dr. Robert Stadler provides one clue. Stadler is a brilliant scientist who sold out, choosing to run a pedestrian state-run institute instead of using his great mind to create the inventions that optimize modern society. Stadler had three great students.

            One is Hank Rearden, who has developed a metal that is cheaper and easier to make than any previous metal. If his metal proves to be reliable, it will change the steel industry. Another is Francisco d'Anconia, the scion of a Latin American copper dynasty. D'Anconia is the only "non-white" among Rand's cast of major characters, but he is from old Spanish stock, so he is far from the "affirmative action" hero of the story. The third of Stadler's prodigies is Galt.

            Dagny and industrialist Ellis Wyatt take a chance on the unproven Rearden Metal, which proves to be reliable. The result is an expansion of the railroad lines into the Midwest and Rocky Mountains, and huge profits for the companies that take a chance on the Metal.

            Dagny has an affair as a young woman with Francisco, but he inexplicably cuts it off. Then he goes on a wild playboy spree, letting his copper empire suffer terrible losses. Dagny then moves on to Hank Rearden, who is married to a loveless woman in it for his riches. Rand makes no effort to apologize for this act of adultery. Dagny's intellect and respect for Rearden make up for any immorality associated with marital infidelity.

             As the world economy gets worse and worse, the government institutes a series of draconian taxes and laws designed to cut into profits, for the "good" of society. It is possible that Rand was inspired to make the steel industry the locus of her story based on President Harry Truman's handling of the steel crisis during the Korean War, although she never makes any mention of Presidents or how the formal American government works. She chooses to portray the government through a scummy cabal of bureaucrats, who are described as little more than looters. Their socialist creed is called evil, but it is in demonstrating why it is evil, more than the basics of the story itself, in which Rand achieves her triumph.

            Eventually, the interference and outright theft of profits by the government makes it extremely difficult for Dagny, Rearden and Wyatt to do business. Wyatt disappears, supposedly a suicide victim. He leaves an oil derrick burning uncontrollably. Seen from 100 miles away on the steppes of the Rocky Mountains, it is called Wyatt's Torch.

            The economic depression gets worse and worse. The government loots more and more. Most of the top minds in America mysteriously disappear - oilmen, scientists, inventors, industrialists, business geniuses. Eventually, Dagny flies her private plane into a seemingly uninhabitable gulch in the Southwest. She has "found" Galt's Gulch. The mystery is revealed: Galt, at the age of 26, had built a motor that would change the world. It would make all forms of transportation and machinery obsolete, replacing old tools with new technology that would cost less and produce more. His engine promised to have an effect on the world in the manner of Henry Ford's Model T, the radio, Edison's creation of electricity, railroads, and other huge innovations. But Galt, frustrated at the interference of government bureaucrats and attempts to cut into his projected profits, abandoned the motor and disappeared. He created a self-sustained society, hidden by some kind of ray that prevents it from being detected by the outside world. He then ventured undetected into the world, recruiting the greatest minds in America with the promise of life free of socialist intervention and plans for a future in which their minds could be free to re-build a broken world; broken by the lack of entrepreneurialism, free market capitalism and unfettered genius.

            Among Galt's recruits are Wyatt, d'Anconia, and eventually Rearden. Wyatt has not committed suicide. D'Anconia has let his company be run into the ground to deny the government from looting his profits, and his playboy spree was a façade.

            The best way to describe Galt's world in modern terms would be to imagine if Bill Gates just closed Microsoft, disappeared, and recruited all the top minds in America to simply go on strike. Their strike is simply to stop thinking and producing. This is the heart of Rand's philosophy. Without great thinkers, the world crumbles. Thus, the title, "Atlas Shrugged". Galt is the man who holds the world symbolically on his shoulders. He shrugs, and the rest of the world is unable to maintain its equilibrium.

            Rand's story is one in which greatness is rewarded by brutal taxation, and bureaucrats steal intellectual property. She defends capitalism and the profit-motive, not just for the sake of money, but as the incentive that creates the kind of production that makes the world's populace able to live in health and comfort, yet the industrialists are accused of taking advantage, of plundering, the poor and the helpless. Rand makes no bones about describing the unfairness of a world in which Third World savages hate those who, through intellectual superiority and hard work, make products and create a world that allows them to survive instead of dying of diseases that would go untreated if not for their inventions.

            Like George Orwell's "Animal Farm", Rand demonstrates through ruthless realism why Communism is evil, without ever saying a single word about Communism, or mentioning any of its dictators.

            The one question I had while reading "Atlas Shrugged" revolved around Rand's religious convictions, particularly whether she believes in Christianity. The best way of describing my feelings about her philosophy is that I agree up to about 90 percent. Rand's objectivism is based on the concept that any man is responsible only for himself. He is due the profits of his labor, and the benefit that society derives from his inventions is secondary. I have never adhered to the concept that Christianity and capitalism are opposed to each other, since capitalism is the engine that makes people strive to make for a world in which everyone can benefit. However, man does owe his fellow man. Pure selfishness is wrong.                    

            In the end, Galt is captured by the bureaucrats, who attempt to get him to lead the country, lending his talents and the team he has recruited, to re-build the economy. Galt will not give in, insisting that taxation be revoked and that the government "get the hell out of the way" so "men of the mind" will be free to do great work. Society will revive as a natural by-product of their work, even though its revival will not be the motivation of these great men. When Galt is tortured in order to force his acquiescence, his followers rescue him, and they retreat to their hideaway. The world crumbles into a terrible depression. Galt and his followers simply plan to wait it out, and when anarchy has taken over, they will return to purify society with their great works.