"There are two sides to every issue: One side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil." — Ayn Rand's hero John Galt speaking in "Atlas Shrugged"
Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" has polarized opinion for more than 50 years. Its fans — including, until recently, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan — applaud the book's celebration of rugged individualism and no-holds-barred capitalism. Its critics dismiss it as heartless, simplistic and elitist.
In the novel, many of the nation's most brilliant and innovative entrepreneurs and business leaders have disappeared, leaving the nation in chaos. It turns out they have all departed for "Galt's Gulch," a secret and parallel society formed to show an increasingly government-dominated America how much it needs pure capitalism and the men and women who drive it.
In a 2005 speech, Ryan cited Ayn Rand as a key reason he went into politics. He said that he had made "Atlas Shrugged" required reading for his staff, and that he still liked to check his "premises" against passages from the book to be sure "that what I'm believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism." Lately, because Rand didn't believe in God and because "Atlas Shrugged" celebrates an adulterous relationship between two of its main characters, Ryan has distanced himself from his former remarks, telling the National Review recently, "I reject her philosophy. It's an atheist philosophy." These days, he said in the interview, he favors Thomas Aquinas over Rand.
But even with all the controversy about the message of "Atlas Shrugged," there's been little discussion of its literary merits. Is it a great book? Here's what the critics had to say at the time of its publication in fall 1957.
Robert R. Kirsch, Los Angeles Times:
It is probably the worst piece of large fiction written since Miss Rand's equally weighty "The Fountainhead." Miss Rand writes in the breathless hyperbole of soap opera. Her characters are of billboard size; her situations incredible and illogical; her story is feverishly imaginative. It would be hard to find such a display of grotesque eccentricity outside an asylum.
Granville Hicks, New York Times
Not in any literary sense a serious novel, it is an earnest one, belligerent and unremitting in its earnestness. It howls in the reader's ear and beats him about the head in order to secure his attention, and then, when it has him subdued, harangues him for page upon page. It has only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds.
Edward Wagenknecht, Chicago Daily Tribune
There is much good sense in this book and it deserves more careful consideration than it is likely to get. For all that, Miss Rand is not quite the Moses to lead us out of the wilderness…. The worst thing in her book is her denunciation of what she calls mysticism, her ideas of which seem derived from Hitler rather than Meister Eckhardt or Rufus Jones. For her a mystic is a parasite in spirit and in matter, "a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others." No, Miss Rand, a mystic is a man who insists upon using those areas of his mind which you block off.
Helen Beal Woodward, Saturday Review
Miss Rand … throws away her considerable gifts for writing by fixing her reader with a glittering eye and remorselessly impressing upon him her convictions. These range from a hatred of Robin Hood as "the most immoral and the most contemptible" of all human symbols to a belief in a kind of chrome-plated laissez faire. Much of it is persuasive…. But Miss Rand is undone by her prolixity and her incontinence. She sets up one of the finest assortments of straw men ever demolished in print, and she cannot refrain from making her points over and over…. Altogether this is a strange, overwrought book.
Gigantic, relentless, often fantastic, this book is definitely not one to be swallowed whole. Throughout its 1,168 pages, Miss Rand never cracks a smile. Conversations deteriorate into monologues as one character after another laboriously declaims his set of values. One speech, the core of the book, spreads across 60 closely written pages. Yet once the reader enters this stark, strange world, he will likely stay with it, borne along by its story and its eloquent flow of ideas.
Paul Jordan-Smith, Los Angeles Times
A neighbor of mine who occasionally reviews books for an eastern magazine dropped in and, seeing the massive volume on my desk, asked what I thought of it. "Challenging and readable and quick with suspense," I replied…. "a book every businessman should hug to his breast, and the first novel I recall to glorify the dollar mark and the virtue in profit…." But how the shabby little left-wingers are going to hate it!
Donald Malcolm, the New Yorker
Apparently Miss Rand set out to write a novel of social prophecy, something like "Nineteen Eighty-Four." But while Orwell based his predictions upon the nature of the police state, the lady who gave us "The Fountainhead" has based hers upon — well, it is hard to say. Miss Rand's villains resemble no one I have ever encountered, and I finally decided to call them "liberals," chiefly because I can't imagine whom else she might have in mind. In her vision of the future, then, the liberals have brought the world to a sorry plight. America is plunged into a catastrophic depression, caused by the government's infernal meddling with the economy, and most of the other nations of the world have become People's States, whose inhabitants are actually grubbing up roots to keep themselves alive. The last sparks of industrial competence are concentrated in the minds of two dozen — at most — American businessmen, who manage to hold the globe aloft in spite of the best efforts of governments everywhere to bring it down.
Hedda Hopper, in her syndicated column
Ayn Rand, although born in Europe is one of the finest American citizens I know. She worked with John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Adolphe Menjou, Lela Rogers, Charles Coburn and a bunch of us when we formed the Motion Picture Alliance anti-commie group. She's author of "The Fountainhead," and has written a blockbuster of a book titled "Atlas Shrugged." It runs 1,168 pages, and you won't want to miss one word. I couldn't put it down, neither will you be able to once you've started reading. You'll say it can't happen here — but it's happening every day and we sit still while watching our rights as humans being whittled away.
Whittaker Chambers, National Review
"Atlas Shrugged" can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. etc. (This book's aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned "higher morality," which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world…. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.
Cary Schneider is library director at The Times. Sue Horton is Op-Ed editor.