Rereading Atlas Shrugged after all these years is nothing if not deeply nostalgic. For here is a book that fairly reeks of its period. Indeed, it would be difficult to name more than a couple of other novels of 25 years ago that reconjure the atmosphere of the legendary 1960s even a 10th, or a 20th, as vividly as Ayn Rand's magnum opus. Perhaps, in its very different way, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which was published in the same year, 1957. Perhaps Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land or Joseph Heller's Catch-22, both of which were published in 1961. I can think of no others. If any single American novel of the past quarter-century may fairly be described as one of the major definitive documents of the '60s, that novel is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
To some readers this proposition doubtless seems paradoxical, even perverse. Ayn Rand an avatar of the '60s, that decade of campus unrest, acid rock, and flower childishness? The very idea! Was it not Rand who described the Berkeley rebels of 1964 as "savages running loose on the campus of one of America's great universities" and as "contorted young creatures who scream, in chronic terror, that they know nothing and want to rule everything"? Was it not Rand who described the participants in the Woodstock music festival of 1969 as "scummy young savages" who spent the weekend "wallowing in the mud on an excrement-strewn hillside"? Was it not Rand who dismissed the New Left as "wriggling, chanting drug addicts," rock 'n' roll as "primitive music, with the even beat that deadens the brain and the senses," and the spread throughout America of the counterculture lifestyle as an "obscene epidemic of self-destruction"?
Yes, alas, it was Ayn Rand who wrote all these things. But it was not in Atlas Shrugged that she wrote them or in any of her other novels. It was in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, one of the six volumes of essays (mostly reprinted from her monthly magazine, The Objectivist, or its forerunner, The Objectivist Newsletter) that she published between 1964 and 1971, after her novel-writing career had come to an end. And this point raises an issue worth dwelling upon for a moment.
These volumes of essays have never been anywhere nearly as popular with readers as Rand's novels have been. For every reader of The Virtue of Selfishness or Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, there are 100 or more readers of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. And though it is no mean achievement for Atlas Shrugged to have remained continuously in print in hardcover for 25 years—upwards of 90 percent of all hardcover books published in this country are dead in their original editions within a year—still, it is instructive to remind ourselves that almost the same thing may be said for all of Rand's novels. Anthem has now been continuously in print in its original American edition for more than 35 years. In a few months, The Fountainhead will be celebrating its 40th year in print in hardcover. And a year or so after that, we'll be celebrating the 25th year in continuous hardcover print of the revised edition of We the Living. By contrast, every single one of Rand's volumes of essays is now out of print in hardcover. One and all, they survive only in paperback.
What is one to conclude from this except that a great many of Rand's readers—the overwhelming majority of them, in fact—feel no inclination to follow up her novels with her essays? It is the atypical reader of Rand who goes on from the novels to books like For the New Intellectual and The Romantic Manifesto. And two decades ago it was the atypical reader of Rand who subscribed to The Objectivist and signed up for the lecture courses on Randian thought offered by the Nathaniel Branden Institute. Tens of millions of Americans have read Ayn Rand's novels. Only a few hundred thousand have read her essays, and only a few tens of thousands have subscribed to Randian publications or attended Randian lectures.
The typical reader of Rand, the reader whose sheer numbers have kept her novels so persistently in print and made them, over the strenuous objections of almost all the critics and professors of our time, into bona fide classics—this reader of Rand, the one who is really responsible for her success and her longevity, knows nothing of her tantrums in print against what she took to be the spirit of the '60s. The typical reader of Rand knows only her novels. And from her novels this reader gets a very different message indeed.
Were the flower children and the campus radicals of the '60s obsessed with their own youth? Did they regard young people as uniquely qualified by the very tenderness of their years to see through and expose the evils and the hypocrisies of their elders? Did they soberly counsel each other not to trust anyone over 30? If they read Atlas Shrugged, they found nothing in it to dissuade them from this prejudice.
In Atlas Shrugged, all the heroic characters are youthful and all the evil characters prematurely aged. Dagny Taggart looks "like a young girl; only her mouth and eyes [show] that she [is] a woman in her thirties." Francisco d'Anconia, a playboy in his mid-30s, sits on the floor of his hotel room playing marbles and smiling "the unchanged, insolent, brilliant smile of his childhood." Francisco looks at Hank Rearden (who is, at 45, the most elderly of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged) and sees "the eyes of youth looking at the future with no uncertainty or fear." James Taggart, by contrast, "looked like a man approaching fifty, who had crossed into age from adolescence, without the intermediate stage of youth.…He was thirty-nine years old." Philip Rearden "was thirty-eight, but his chronic weakness made people think at times that he was older than his brother."
Were the young radicals of the '60s profoundly unimpressed with the offerings of their colleges and universities? So was the youthful Francisco d'Anconia in Atlas Shrugged. "They're teaching a lot of drivel nowadays," he tells Dagny when she asks him about his classes at the Patrick Henry University of Cleveland. And when his father asks him why he decided to start his own copper business while still a full-time undergraduate, he replies, "I couldn't have stood four years of nothing but lectures."
Were the '60s radicals openly contemptuous of establishment intellectuals, conventional wisdom, and eternal verities? Atlas Shrugged contains the most acid-etched portrait of establishment intellectualdom ever published in America. It stands all of contemporary conventional wisdom on its head. And as far as eternal verities are concerned, Rand herself never tired of remarking that her big novel challenged the entire Western cultural tradition of the past 2,000 years.
Were the '60s radicals feminists who believed a woman was as good as anybody else? Atlas Shrugged could have done nothing but fuel their fire. For here was a deeply intellectual novel written by a woman and depicting the adventures of one of the most extraordinary women to be found anywhere in 20th-century fiction—a beautiful female entrepreneur who flies her own plane, runs her own railroad, and takes her own risks and who is equally good at engineering, philosophy, tennis, housework, and sex—the sort of woman who is not only as good as any man but in fact better, better than almost any man you'll ever meet, in fiction or out of it.
Did the '60s radicals hold a dim view of the military-industrial complex? They would find nothing in Atlas Shrugged to teach them otherwise. If one were to judge the worlds of government, big business, and the scientific establishment purely by reading Atlas Shrugged, one would have to conclude that almost all big businessmen are parasitic incompetents who owe their profits to special deals worked out for them by politicians, that the scientific establishment is nothing but an arm of government, and that the principal function of government is to use its stolen resources in the invention and manufacture of loathsome weapons of mass destruction.
But all analysis of this kind is beside the point unless it can be shown that the hippies really did read Atlas Shrugged. And they did. The evidence for this began coming in before the '60s were over. Rand acknowledged it herself, in the very same 1965 essay, "The Student Rebellion," in which she described the youthful campus protesters as "savages." In discussing a then-recent issue of Newsweek that had also focused attention on the student rebels, she wrote that the magazine had "conducted a number of polls among college students at large, on various subjects, one of which was the question of who are the students' heroes. The editors of Newsweek informed me that my name appeared on the resultant list."
Fifteen years later, the evidence was still there. In the late 1970s, a pair of young journalists, Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman, teamed up with a professional pollster and conducted a wide-ranging opinion poll of self-identified "'60s people." (Sixty-two percent of the respondents reported that they had considered themselves "hippies" during the '60s, and most of the others had been sympathetic to the hippies' cause.) The results were published in 1979 by Viking Press in a book called Woodstock Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties Generation.
One of the questions Weiner and Stillman asked their respondents called for them to list the names of individuals they had "admired and been influenced by." One respondent in six listed Ayn Rand in reply to this question. She came in 29th out of 81. And if the entertainers and politicians are eliminated so that the list contains only the names of the authors that hippies admired, Rand comes in tied for sixth place with Germaine Greer, behind Kurt Vonnegut, Kahlil Gibran, Tom Wolfe, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (who tied for fourth), and Allen Ginsberg, but ahead of Rod McKuen, Hermann Hesse, Paul Goodman, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, and LeRoi Jones.
The hippies read Ayn Rand, all right. They didn't "get into Objectivism," but they read Atlas Shrugged, a great many of them—Atlas Shrugged and Rand's other great novels of individualism. They didn't laud the virtue of reason as Rand did implicitly in Atlas Shrugged and explicitly in her nonfiction writings, and though the hippies might be characterized by her and others as antirational to the core, from her novels they learned to think for themselves, to go by their own judgment, and to put themselves first. They also learned that women are just as good as anybody else and that the educational, intellectual, and political establishment is rotten through and through. They knew nothing of her essays and lectures, most of these readers, so they never learned what Rand the commentator on current events thought of those who paid heed too literally to Rand the novelist and philosopher.
Certainly any hippie who did hear Rand denounce everyone who wore long hair and beads as a "chanting, wriggling drug addict" would have had little trouble ascertaining that this was one uptight lady and no friend of his. But imagine instead a young inventor, "a spot of fire alive in his mind" as he sits thinking, struggling to discover the solution to a stubborn technological problem, with another spot of fire alive in his hand, the burning point of a joint, "as his one expression."
This young inventor is trying to solve the problem of converting sunlight directly to electrical power at a reasonable cost. It is a thorny problem but one well worth the investment of a great deal of hard labor. For solving it would virtually transform human life.
Ask the young inventor what it would mean to solve his problem. "Do you see what I see?" he'll reply. "A brand-new locomotive half the size of single Diesel unit, and with ten times the power. A self-generator, working on a few drops of fuel, with no limits to its energy. The cleanest, swiftest, cheapest means of motion ever devised. Do you see what this will do to our transportation systems and to the country—in about one year?"
If a cheap, reliable solar converter had been perfected a decade ago, the young inventor will tell you, it would have meant "about ten years added to the life of every person in this country—if you consider how many things it would have made easier and cheaper to produce, how many hours of human labor it would have released for other work, and how much more anyone's work would have brought him. Locomotives? What about automobiles and ships and airplanes?…And tractors. And power plants. All hooked to an unlimited supply of energy, with no fuel to pay for, except a few pennies worth to keep the converter going."
As the initiated know, all these quotations I've attributed to the young inventor come from Atlas Shrugged and pertain to John Galt's motor that runs on atmospheric electricity. But the rough equivalent of that young inventor really exists somewhere. And despite his long hair, his faded jeans, and his work shirt, he is a true Randian—just as thousands of the pursuers of self-realization who made the 1970s the "Me Decade" are true Randians—just as thousands of the militant feminists, gay activists, and untraditional businessmen (dope dealers, headshop owners, street artists) who have won so much media attention over the past few years are true Randians.
All of them are truer Randians by far than grim, humorless, regimented, robotlike "students of Objectivism" who are ordinarily regarded as the truest of the true. These wretched conformists, so lacking in self-esteem that they willingly enslave themselves to someone else's ideas on every conceivable subject, so obedient intellectually that they turn their backs on a culture literally teeming with Randian ideas and denounce that culture as evil and irrational merely because they are told to do so by their mentor—these Randians are not representative of the spirit of Atlas Shrugged.
It was the rebels of the '60s who were the true children of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Disowned children, certainly—cast out of the house and into the cold world for the sin of taking their mother's injunctions too literally, for adopting her ideas and ignoring her personal prejudices. But they are her children nonetheless and unmistakably. They are hers. And she is theirs.
Jeff Riggenbach, former executive editor of the Libertarian Review, is a nationally syndicated columnist and radio commentator.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Disowned Children of Ayn Rand".