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Atlas Summer: Atlas Shrugged: Part One: Chapters 1 & 2


The Book: Atlas Shrugged, 35th Anniversary Edition, by Ayn Rand, “with a new introduction by Leonard Peikoff” (New York: Dutton, 1992)

Pagination will be based on the Dutton edition.

The Notoriety:

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

—Dorothy Parker on either Benito Mussolini’s The Cardinal’s Mistress or Atlas Shrugged.

“Yes, at first I was happy to be learning how to read. It seemed exciting and magical, but then I read this: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of this garbage, and because of this piece of shit, I am never reading again.”

– Officer Barbrady from South Park


Here we go!

Welcome to Atlas Summer, our team reading of Atlas Shrugged in the Great Recession.  Matt and I will give our impressions to the book.  Let us know what you think.

At present, I am restricting myself to chapter summaries and initial reactions.  Further into the book, the chapter posts may involve a more detailed presentation.  The project will also involve posting on specific topics, since this is an Issue Novel.  The issues will be confronted, pored over, and discussed.

Part I: Non-Contradiction

Chapter I: The Theme

Pages: 3 – 26

Summary:

“Who is John Galt?”  The question plays like a refrain throughout the chapter as the reader meets a few of the important characters.  A bum meets Eddie Willers, an employee at Taggart Transcontinental, a powerful railroad concern.  He remembers a large oak tree he saw when he was a child on the Taggart estate.  When lightning struck the tree, he discovered it was hollow and rotten.  (Hmm, metaphor?)

Willers discusses business matters with James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental.  The reader is thrown into the cutthroat world of the railroads.  There are lots of accidents happening, the Rio Norte Line is in competition with Phoenix-Durango, and Taggart Transcontinental has lost the Wyatt oil fields.  The necessary steel shipments have not arrived.  James Taggart refuses to take action.

Meanwhile, the beautiful Dagny Taggart, Vice-President in Charge of Operation for Taggart Transcontinental, gets delayed on a Taggart Comet.  She uses her position and iron will to get the train moving again, despite the reluctance of the employees.  The employees, who stopped the train at a red light, refused to move the train unless they received direct orders.

In a brief scene, she allegedly hears a new piece of music from Richard Halley, even though he has not composed anything in years.

She enters the office of her brother, James, takes command, and orders a new alloy called Rearden Metal.  The metal will be used to upgrade construction of railroad track.  She does this without permission from the Board, her brother, or anyone else.  What a dame!

The chapter ends as it began, with the ominous question, “Who is John Galt?”

Observations:

The novel wears its self-importance on its sleeve, but that is par for the course with an Issues Novel.  The success or failure is based on the subtlety of its execution.  While not subtle, the novel begins by introducing many of the main characters and several conflicts (personal, business-related, and others).

Rand’s authorial voice is insistent and forward-driving, much like the trains that are pivotal to the narrative.  The narrative contains a hardness I have rarely encountered.  Laudatory passages about machines and achievement coexist with a strong female character.  Intriguing.  Since it has been decades since I have read The Fountainhead, I am not sure what to expect.

I wonder how the reading public treated Atlas Shrugged?  The eccentric Senior Partner Bert Cooper has mentioned it a couple times in Mad Men.  What other books were published in 1957?

(During this reading project, I am also reading A Confession by Leo Tolstoy; Capital: a Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx; and the memoirs of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  These other works will create a fascinating set of associations and friction when reading Rand’s controversial work.)

Bon Mots:

  • “Who is John Galt?”  (Obviously.)
  • “Taggart Transcontinental, thought Eddie Willers, From Ocean to Ocean – the proud slogan of his childhood, so much more shining and holy than any commandment of the Bible.”
  • Talking about Rearden Metal: “Because it’s tougher than steel, cheaper than steel and will outlast any hunk of metal in existence.”
  • “I’m not interested in helping anybody.  I want to make money.”  (Dagny Taggart)
  • “Other people are human.  They’re sensitive.  They can’t devote their whole life to metals and engines.  You’re lucky – you’ve never had any feelings.  You’ve never felt anything at all.”  (James to Dagny)

Another tunnel and another ruthless individual Rand might admire, Tony Soprano:

Chapter II: The Chain

Pages: 27 – 43

Summary:

Henry “Hank” Rearden observes the first firing of Rearden Metal, the revolutionary alloy mentioned in Chapter 1.  During his walk home, he fingers a bracelet made of this new metal.  He plans to give it to his wife as a gift.

At home, he is beset on all sides by his castrating wife, chiding mother, and chiseling brother.  Following the triumph of casting the Rearden Metal, his wife, Lillian, complains that he is never home.  She also has to prompt him to remember when their wedding anniversary is.  His mother acts in a passive-aggressive manner, possibly in accordance to his Minnesota upbringing.  His brother, Philip, asks for a donation to the Friends of Global Progress.  (Subtle!)  To add insult to injury, Philip asks him to donate the money in cash, since the Friends would not want to be associated with a nefarious tycoon like Henry Rearden.  The chapter ends with Lillian dismissing Hank’s gift, “Appropriate, isn’t it?  It’s the chain by which he holds us all in bondage.”

Observations:

  • This chapter was unbelievably manipulative.  Objectivist philosophy notwithstanding, the chapter had less subtlety than an Animaniacs short.
  • The description of the factories reminded me of Hard Times, J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of Mordor, and the anti-industrialization tirades in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  The irony is Rand describes these factories in gushing praise, prose-poems to mass production.  Machines and engines have not had this much positive adulation since the Futurists.
  • There isn’t a single likeable character.  Hank comes across as a workaholic sociopath, not to mention uncharitable.  His brother, Philip, comes across as an ungrateful dick.  His wife, Lillian, seems to take pleasure in giving him shit.  And his mother harasses him to no end.  Ugh, I hate all these people.
  • Hank Rearden is described like a tall, blonde superman.  The first image that came to mind was the glamorous Nazi henchman Reynard Heydrich.

Bon Mots

  • “Of what importance is an individual in the titanic collective achievements of our industrial age?”
  • “It was his mother’s voice; he turned: she was looking at him with that injured look which proclaims the long-bearing patience of the defenseless.”
  • “It was so childishly blatant, thought Rearden, so hopelessly crude: the hint and the insult, offered together.”
  • “And then Rearden thought suddenly that he could break through Philip’s chronic wretchedness for once, give him a shock of pleasure, the unexpected gratification of a hopeless desire.”
  • “You don’t really care about helping the underprivileged, do you?”  (Philip to Hank)

I wonder how Rearden Metal stacks up against Adamantium?

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  1. December 7, 2010 at 11:15 am

    So I’m reading this book too right now, and I’m curious about your reaction to it so I am planning on addressing your critique as I go along with the novel to see where the misunderstanding is between you and Rand.

    Already, you seem to show a strong disdain for Rand without much of a refutation of her ideas, instead you try to invalidate her by attacking her methods of presentation. I would love a hearing on what tenets of Objectivism you disagree with and why.

    That being said, the notion that Ayn Rand’s characters are supposed to be a part of some Third Reich because of their physical attributes is such a tired cliche and last ditch effort to try and tie her to some notion of totalitarianism. Dagny has gray eyes and brown hair, Howard Roark had bright orange hair and gray eyes, and Rand never implies that these physical features are the mark of some instant Godliness among humans. This argument is the most contrived and the most baseless of all criticisms of Rand’s fiction.

    I plan on commenting on all of these Atlas Summer posts, so you’ll hear more from me.

  1. June 19, 2012 at 6:48 pm

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