The publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957 was met with extreme reactions, both positive and negative. Few readers were able to react objectively; the novel was either loved or hated. The author, Ayn Rand, created a romantic mystery novel, structured to endorse her philosophy, Objectivism. The heroine, Dagny Taggert, controls a transcontinental railroad, and thrives on industrial achievement and innovation. She must battle to save her company amidst a disintegrating economy created by bureaucratic restrictions and freeloading socialism. Objectivism is illustrated through the story, in which Rand advocates capitalism, individualism, reason, and freedom.
Literary critics and academics denounced Rand's philosophy and writing as mindless propaganda with no literary value. However, to their dismay, Atlas Shrugged climbed up the bestseller lists, holding the attention of many readers, and influencing and entertaining several generations. In a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress and The Book of the Month Club, Atlas Shrugged was named as one of the most influential books that Americans have ever read, second only to the Bible (Ybarra, 1998). The popularity of this novel lies in its appeal to the individual reader, a member of the general public, and not the academic community. It appealed especially to the idealistic young and college students.
Literary critics insulted Rand's writing ability, claiming that the novel was merely a poorly crafted advertisement for her beliefs. Her characters were described as stereotypes, weak and two-dimensional, painted either as the "good guys" or the "bad guys", with no middle ground. With little character development, much of the 1,200-page book is spent detailing the dogma of Rand's philosophy. As a result, her writing has been described as rambling and repetitive. The Times book review complained that Rand's message was "hammered home in endless lecturing"(1957). This is especially true of Galt's interminable and didactic speech near the end of the novel. Her style is romantic in its long descriptions, yet it aggressively commands the reader to examine the message beneath the story. Critics claim that the plot is outlandish and unbelievable, especially the second part of the novel when Dagny finds a self-sufficient productive commune that proves to be the only remnant of order after the complete collapse of the nation.
Enthusiastic readers were able to ignore the rough points of the novel by focusing on the story's deeper meaning and the significance of the philosophies that drive it. Objectivism is seen as a source of inspiration on how to live, succeed, and find happiness through achievement. The power of the individual is greatly inspiring to readers. The plot and the characters do not have to seem believable or well developed; it does not matter because they are mere vehicles of a much greater message. The protagonists, including Dagny and the other leading industrialists, are almost godlike in themselves, deities to be imitated and idolized. Atlas Shrugged did not have to follow any of the regular rules of literature because its spiritual and educational message creates a theme superior to that of most novels.
Like much of Rand's work, Atlas Shrugged has been marketed towards the members of the general public who hope to increase the span of their knowledge. In an advertisement, Rand claims that her philosophy is, "intended for those who wish to assume the responsibility of becoming the new intellectuals." The ad copy goes on to say that such intellectuals are needed to solve the crisis that our nation faces. This type of marketing strategy has proven to be successful for almost fifty years, attracting students, aspiring scholars, and those desiring to save the nation, with the hint of revelation.
The Ayn Rand Institute was established in 1985, three years after Rand's death in order to promote Objectivism and Rand's work. The institute stages protests and creates publicity for Objectivist interpretations of current event topics. A current focus of the organization is the Campaign Against Servitude, which opposes Clinton's attempt to increase community involvement and volunteering. ARI is very active among universities, attempting to attract young scholars with college campus clubs, essay contests, debates and speakers. The philosophy seems most appealing to a younger audience, still searching for a guide on how to live life.
Claudia Roth Pierpont claimed that the popularity of the novel was due to "impassioned readers, emerging from the largely abandoned American class of thinking non-intellectuals-readers, who enjoyed the story and were excited or flattered to just to be put in touch with provocative ideas. If you didn't find the book ridiculous from a literary point of view, chances are you found it immensely stimulating (New Yorker 1996)." Rand claims that her philosophy illuminates metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, politics, and economics, all subject matters that few are well informed about, but many feel they should be knowledgeable in.
Established intellectuals and great academics were offended by the content of the novel because some of Rand's interpretations misrepresent classic sources such as Aristotle and seem twisted to fit her own philosophy. Her illustrations are taken to such extreme situations that they no longer stay true to the original theory.
Rand denounces the ideology behind communism and socialism, however she rejects these socialist systems for emotional reasons without sufficient attention to socialism as either an economic or a political system. She shows the demise of a nation that relies on these socialist movements, but she claims that the failure is because the systems suppress the individual greatness that each man can achieve, ignoring the inherent flaws of each system of government.
The ethical system of Atlas Shrugged is based upon the productivity and the glory of the individual. Those who hang on to the coattails of the industrialists are killed or suffer greatly with the disintegration of the nation. The Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest is taken to a new extreme that some critics compare to genocide.
Rand promotes man's ability for rational thought, professing that reason is the only way to gain knowledge. However some argue that she does not allow the reader that privilege. The bureaucrats and the free-riders are portrayed with an innate evilness that deserves no sympathy. This is not questioned, and no one may decide otherwise, there is a definite good and bad in the book. Some feel that Rand steers the audience forward with blinders, as if her readers were animals, not intelligent enough to see the whole picture without getting spooked.
However proponents of the Objectivism philosophy have not been hindered by criticisms of the novel. In fact the negative publicity may have been exploited to generate more sales. The insults are seen as proof of the controversy that Rand's ground-breaking novel has created. All great intellects had to deal with such criticism, from Socrates to Galileo and Darwin. People were intrigued with reports of new ideas that the critics did not want them to read, and became that much more determined to do so. Fans of Atlas Shrugged could argue that those that did not agree with Rand were merely too ignorant to comprehend the great knowledge that had been bestowed upon them, or were not yet enlightened.
Atlas Shruggedwas also immune to criticism because of the stress that the novel put on the strength of the individual. The protagonists of the novel are met with much criticism, however they never yield their beliefs to accommodate others. Dagny and Hank, the heroic industrialists, did not succumb when faced with disapproval for the production of the revolutionary Rearden steel. Rand's philosophy dictates that outside opinion is secondary, and validation must come from the self, thereby creating an innate defense for criticism of the novel. Readers believe that they are champions of a great cause that will bring them great rewards, despite being shunned by many. The groups of Objectivist supporters can join together for support, just as the great industrialists and innovators did at Galt's commune.
The novel's focus on the importance of the individual should also be considered a factor its success. The confidence and strength of the heroes in times of adversity is inspiring. Readers are led to believe that if the rules of Objectivism are followed in the image of the book, their lives will be full of great achievement as well. The strength of the characters inspires belief in one's own potential, and has most likely been a confidence booster that has contributed to many people's success. The confident personality was illustrated to seem ideal, even though the confidence bordered on arrogance and selfishness.
Egoism, best described by Rand as "intelligent self-interest" is the basis for morality in the doctrine of Objectivism. Rand believes that justice is found when an individual lives in a manner that upholds his own self interest as his first concern. In this way concerns for others can be subordinated to one's own interest, the government's significance is downgraded, and selfishness is considered benevolent. Those who were looking for justification for their selfish actions, or reassurance of their own importance need not look further than Rand's beliefs. In his fifty-six-page speech, John Galt chastises the nation for not living in an Objectivist manner. He preaches that one's own happiness is the only moral purpose of one's own life (Rand, 974). The novel provided an intellectual justification for acting for one's self-interest.
The stress on individualism succeeds in undermining the significance of the government. Objectivism endorses laissez-faire capitalism as the only reasonable economic system, because it is the only system that properly recognizes individual rights, including property rights and provides self-reliant incentive that drives progress. In such a system, the only function of the government is to protect individual rights. Rand fervently opposed all forms of collectivism in government, especially communism, which controlled her homeland Russia. In Atlas Shrugged, the government's attempt to save the nation's economy by converting to a communist form of government fails miserably, pushing the country further into ruin. Rand is very outspoken about her aversion to socialism, devoting much of John Galt's fifty-six page speech to a discussion of the negative aspects the socialist system of government. Rand believes that collectivist forms of government disregard the strong, productive individual by not recognizing his achievement and not allowing him to enjoy the rewards of his own success. The industrialists in Atlas Shrugged are taken advantage of and under-appreciated until they no longer want to remain in the industry. Such communist governments discourage new innovation, because there is less of a reward to entice the amount of time and effort needed to develop new technology. Dagny found a self-generating motor, an invention with amazing potential, which was abandoned because Galt, the inventor, did not want to contribute such innovation to a communist society.
Atlas Shrugged was published in the fifties, a time that was particularly receptive to an anti-Communist novel. The communist Soviet Union was rising in power after an allied victory in World War II; East Germany was now under communist control, and much of Eastern Europe was under the power of the Soviets. American anxiety was rising with the Soviets rise in power, turning into the paranoia of the Red Scare in the early fifties. Americans who were looking to justify the superiority of capitalism welcomed Rand's beliefs, as did those who wanted more reason to distrust communism. This sentiment continued throughout the duration of the Cold War, possibly contributing to the continued popularity of Rand's work.
In recent years there has also been a reaction against income assistance programs promoted by the government. Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, more emphasis has been put on programs for the good of social welfare. The success of such programs has been debated, but many people feel strongly against such assistance programs, opposing any form of socialism. Rand herself endorsed this view, and, according to an advertisement from the Ayn Rand Institute, Objectivism theory states that, "[man] must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life. Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruism" (The Ayn Rand Institute, 1992).
The basic structure of the Republican agenda follows many of the ideals of Objectivism. Republicans focus on cutting taxes, reducing spending, and lessening social assistance. During times of Republican power, such as the Reagan-Bush era of the eighties, government agreed more with the ideals of Objectivism. People that may not want to contribute tax money to the government to be used for Medicare, Social Security, and welfare programs, will agree with the doctrines of Atlas Shrugged.
The Republicans also support Rand in the encouragement of big business. The heroes and heroines of Atlas Shrugged are all the heads of large companies. Rand supports achievement in industry and business, with the success evident in the growth of a company. The structure and beauty of a corporation is seen as a beautiful work of art and triumph. Businessmen, both aspiring and accomplished, would take great satisfaction in reading Atlas Shrugged for inspiration or a sense of accomplishment.
The success of Atlas Shrugged may be attributed to many factors. The political and economic circumstances of the past fifty years may have encouraged Objectivism at times, leading readers to Rand's novels. America's current welfare state so closely approaches the extremes of classic socialism that Atlas Shrugged still appeals to a large mass of individualists. The marketing of The Ayn Rand Institute has made Objectivism and the works of Ayn Rand more visible in society and more available to readers.
Atlas Shrugged fills a hole in many readers' lives, inspiring them with a philosophy for living, and providing an intellectual manifesto. For some, Atlas Shrugged answers the age-old question of the meaning of life. Life, according to Rand, must be lived in devotion to one's self. Man is so great that he is an end in himself, and that greatness is the purpose of life.