"Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand's monumental 1,000-plus-page valentine to the America of her dreams, turns 50 this year.
The occasion has been marked by nerdy paeans to her philosophy, and grudging acknowledgements by sophisticates that Rand's novels may not be so very bad, after all. For the latter ersatz tribute, see, for example, the famous art critic (and my friend) Terry Teachout's essay on Rand at 50 in the current issue of National Review.
Ayn Rand deserves better.
Fifty years after it was published, "Atlas Shrugged" lives on like no other book outside of, well, the Bible. Eight percent of Americans have read it, according to a 2007 Zogby poll. Yet a 1991 Library of Congress and Book of the Month Club poll found that, next to the Bible, it is the book that had most frequently "made a difference" in people's lives. I just checked on Amazon.com: "Atlas Shrugged" was the No. 1-selling book in the category of "literature and fiction-classics" and No. 310 on the overall Amazon list.
Most novelists would kill for an audience this big on the day they appear on the "Today" show, much less more than 25 years after they're dead. Among reading Americans, no other novel has ever generated any response remotely like this.
And "Atlas Shrugged" became a genuine American classic without ever making it into the official "canon" of great, near-great or even so-so novels -- all of which guarantees a certain number of mandatory sales and reads among bored high school students and eager undergraduates.
Why? Teachout concludes that Rand writes a pretty good potboiler, a plot "complete with sex scenes and a shoot-'em-up finale. No wonder that it has sold like soap for half a century."
Really? Let's consider sales among three popular authors with whom Teachout compares Rand: John Grisham's "The Firm" is No. 71,739, Stephen King's "Pet Sematary" is currently No. 148,043 and Zane Grey's "Ranger of the Lone Star" is No. 28,965 on the Amazon list.
Novels, even page-turning potboilers with lots of sex and gunplay, do not typically sell like soap, year-in and year-out, for half a century.
Like Terry, I first read and fell in love with "Atlas Shrugged" when I was 16. At 47, I see her as a great artist in somewhat the same way that I so acknowledge Theodore Dreiser: Despite the obvious flaws in the prose, the whole adds up to a genuinely unique achievement.
The key to Ayn Rand is that she pictured America largely from early films from Hollywood. As a young girl growing up in the grim world of communist Russia, she saw America as we dreamed ourselves to be, and she longed her whole life with a child's intensity to make this vision real, to live in it. We respond to her novels because they offer us one deep strand of American self-identity -- as individualists, yes, but individualists who together dream big dreams, conquer wild frontiers, invent the future, remake our very selves.
She understood, the way so many pampered Hollywood artists don't, that much of the romance of America is in business -- in our dreams of making it, by making big new things, things no man has ever made before. Rand is virtually alone in seeing businessmen as fellow artists: makers, creators, inventors. In her novels, the greatness of the artist was matched by the greatness of the architect, the scientist, the entrepreneur and the railroad executive. The Homer of our era, she sang the song by which so many Americans live our lives.
I gave up being a Randian (as I called it) at 22, when I had my first baby.
For the first time, I saw the limits of the grand myth of the self-made man. I saw how completely life itself depends on a love that cannot be rationalized, but is pure gift.
Grace entered my life, and I submitted to the necessity of gratitude -- including gratitude for the stubborn, peculiar, determined, brilliant little Russian girl who, virtually unassisted, remade herself into one of the best-selling American novelists of all time.