A while back, someone asked me about a blog post on Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged by Aaron Ross Powell — Atlas Shrugged: Initial Impressions. The post begins:
Sans its message, sans its historical significance, sans its ability to turn young people into libertarians, the first thing one picks up on when starting Atlas Shrugged is the poverty of the prose. Ayn Rand, no matter her or her followers’ opinion otherwise, just isn’t a very good writer. The language is plodding, non-lyrical, and often often awkward. For example, in one scene she writes, “He stood slouching against the bar.” To my knowledge, one stands against a bar or one slouches against a bar-but one does not stand slouching.
The only other bit of substance is the following:
What else comes to mind, a mere 200 pages into this monstrous novel? Well, I can’t imagine wanting to hang out with any of these people. Her good guys are, without exception, awful human beings. They display no compassion and evidence no empathy. A world filled with such super men would be a terrible place, indeed. Her bad guys, on the other hand-her collectivists and leftists and academics-are ugly little toads who snivel and beg from the arch-capitalists we’re all supposed to look up to when we aren’t looking for an excuse to leave. Objectivism, at least as presented in this seminal text, affords no nuance.
So, what did I say about that criticism of Atlas Shrugged to my correspondent? Let’s see:
That post was rather offensive, but very typical of some libertarians, unfortunately. It stuck me as little more than a series of snide, cutting remarks without any real substance.
Here’s my view: Ayn Rand’s style is definitely different from standard American novelists, as well as from classic English literature. It has much more in common with the stronger style of the Russian and French classics that Ayn Rand read and loved as a child and young woman. But even relatively well-educated Americans are less familiar with those, if familiar at all, so her style can seem a bit foreign. However, I cannot dislike it.
Moreover, many of the standard charges made — including in that post — are just strange. About the “slouching,” the actual sentence is “Bertram Scudder stood slouched against the bar.” That’s perfectly sensible: a person can slouch while sitting or standing, and in doing so the person might be leaning against a bar. So her sentence seems like a precise and economical description to me.
Moreover, contrary to the blogger, Ayn Rand’s characters are filled with nuance. Francisco seems to be a worthless playboy, yet also so much like his old self; Hank Rearden struggles with his view of sex as depraved; Dagny knows that she is helping the looters yet she will not join the strike; Dr. Stadler betrays his values time and again, with ever-worse results; the “wet nurse” slowly rejects all that he has been taught; Cherryl Taggart sees Jim clearly for what he really is after much painful struggle. Even the villains grow worse over the course of the novel: they work out the logic of their premises.
Oh, and notice the implicit moral standard in the post: Ayn Rand’s good guys aren’t good because “they display no compassion and evidence no empathy.” But that’s exactly part of Ayn Rand’s point: Jim Taggart is plenty empathetic: he’s definitely tuned in to people’s emotions. Yet he’s still downright evil due to his systematic refusal to think. In contrast, Dagny, the woman supposedly without feeling, displays profound depths of emotions. She loves her work passionately. She is beloved by her employees because she is just to them. In fact, due to that concern for justice, she displays the utmost kindness toward Cherryl in her desperate flight from Jim’s evil. Emotion is not what makes a person moral or not; it’s not a primary but an effect of a person’s basic adherence to facts or not.
If you’re interested in studying Atlas Shrugged in greater detail, check out my Explore Atlas Shrugged series of podcasts and discussion questions. (Yes, I have a major update of that site to do, but I make no promises as to when that will happen!)