Ayn Rand

"Atlas Shrugged" at Twenty

A tribute


Twenty years ago Atlas Shrugged was published. In 1961 I met two airmen at Andrews AFB, and they sparked my interest in Ayn Rand, the author. That year Gore Vidal reviewed Rand's For the New Intellectual in Esquire. I read the review and reported to my buddies how easily Vidal disposed of Rand's viewpoint. They asked me whether I had ever read any of Rand's works, and I told them I had not. "Wouldn't it be smarter to read her works before you accept Vidal's opinion?" they queried. That made sense; so I read The Fountainhead, and then Atlas Shrugged, and so on.

To say that Atlas Shrugged influenced my subsequent life more than anything else is too pedestrian a way of putting it. For my part I became so interested in the substance of Rand's philosophy that I did not spend too much time on considering just what her works did for me. I think I was ready for them. Indeed, knowing that millions of people have read her and that a good many of them say, "A very nice book, I enjoyed it a lot"—period—I doubt that books can do anything for a person who does not bring a hell of a lot to them in the first place. Yet clearly the works of Rand had and continue to have an impact on my life.

Sociologists would be better than I at assessing the cultural impact of Atlas Shrugged. Literary critics and analysts would do better than I at dissecting it and showing its superb plot structure, integrity, and linguistic artistry. My own praise for the work is personal. I never read a novel with such absorption and stick-to-itness before or since. Nor has any work since given me such heights of elation, joy, and excitement. Perhaps most of all, none other has prompted me to tear out 60 pages to bind and savor for further reading, over and over again.

I recall that after reading Atlas Shrugged, some of my Air Force buddies and I spent many weekends sitting in the all-night coffee shop at Andrews' main terminal, trying to overcome the points Rand advanced. We concocted the hairiest counter arguments in order to make certain for ourselves that her ideas hold. This was not the work of careful philosophical analysis but that of reasonably well-developed laymen trying to come to grips with an enormous intellectual challenge. And there was nothing we could detect that would destroy Rand's case.

Not apart from, but bound to, Rand's point of view were the feelings Atlas Shrugged evoked in me. For the first time, I could articulate something I am certain I had wished to say for years. This was that my life mattered, that I was important, that there is not only nothing wrong but everything right with a person wanting to live his or her own life—my life, in this case. Today the theme of self-assertion echoes through the culture's numerous forums of self-help psychotherapy, but back in 1961 I had only heard of what you owe the world, how you must pay in coins it has legitimized, and how rotten you are if some of your doings don't go to dues—to gods, parents, neighbors, the State, your ethnic group, your country, etc.

So much for my efforts to speak of the initial personal impact of Atlas Shrugged. More important, I believe, is the ensuing life—my own, as well as the lives of those thousands who have paid tribute to Miss Rand, not by mouthing some slogans borrowed from her, not by repeating some arguments in a tone that antagonizes even the most willing listener, not by asking Rand to do the work they must do themselves—but by living well as the individuals they are and could be, by using their heads.

There is much to Ayn Rand's works that could use extensive discussion, but not here. The one point I want to make in closing is that the occasional misemphasis Rand places on cool rationality—more in tone than in substance—should not be held against her. I have never found it necessary to give up laughter, smiling, elation, joy, pleasure, or the less than welcome feelings in my life in the light of my agreement with Rand's view that the sustained use of reason is one's highest virtue. I always suspect that those who concluded differently did not use their reason carefully enough. Perhaps, finding themselves so alone in admiring human rationality, many who found Rand's ideas sound went overboard with a false stiffness. Nothing, in my view, is further from what is implied by her point of view than the rejection of one's emotions qua emotions. Atlas Shrugged would hardly be the masterpiece it is if the place of emotions were to be projected in it as subservient to reason. The whole idea is that the emotions and one's reason should not be expected to do the same job in one's life.

It would be pleasant, indeed, to be able to thank Miss Rand personally for her great work and the rest of her good labors. But, alas, that is not to be in my case. I met Miss Rand once and I was not disappointed; I was even touched by a warmth I am sure few believe she possesses. But shortly after that day in 1962, my contact with her was broken because I offended her and she responded to this with total dismissal. My loss, I am sure—and very likely hers, too. So, also, with quite a few wonderful people I know whom she would admire if she only knew them.

Not before and not since Miss Rand presented her integrated, though by no means complete, philosophical work, via her novels and essays, has there been another voice speaking for human excellence and liberty so clearly and enthusiastically. Enjoying her art and absorbing the central themes of her philosophy could be harmful only to those who bring nothing to what she has to offer.

One of my hopes is that there will be more and more who will bring a great deal to what they find around them and that most of these individuals will have the good fortune of encountering Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's greatest achievement and one of the great achievements of intellectual history, so far as I can judge.

Senior Editor Tibor Machan is associate professor of philosophy at SUNY College, Fredonia, N.Y. He is one of REASON's Viewpoint columnists, has written a number of books, and been published widely in various journals.