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Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged': What the critics had to say in 1957

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Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" has polarized opinion for more than 50 years. At the time it was published, critics weren't fans of the book.

August 26, 2012|By Cary Schneider and Sue Horton
  • Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" has polarized opinion for more than 50 years.
Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" has polarized opinion… (Illustration by David Gothard…)

"There are two sides to every issue: One side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil." — Ayn Rand's hero John Galt speaking in "Atlas Shrugged"

Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" has polarized opinion for more than 50 years. Its fans — including, until recently, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan — applaud the book's celebration of rugged individualism and no-holds-barred capitalism. Its critics dismiss it as heartless, simplistic and elitist.

In the novel, many of the nation's most brilliant and innovative entrepreneurs and business leaders have disappeared, leaving the nation in chaos. It turns out they have all departed for "Galt's Gulch," a secret and parallel society formed to show an increasingly government-dominated America how much it needs pure capitalism and the men and women who drive it.

In a 2005 speech, Ryan cited Ayn Rand as a key reason he went into politics. He said that he had made "Atlas Shrugged" required reading for his staff, and that he still liked to check his "premises" against passages from the book to be sure "that what I'm believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism." Lately, because Rand didn't believe in God and because "Atlas Shrugged" celebrates an adulterous relationship between two of its main characters, Ryan has distanced himself from his former remarks, telling the National Review recently, "I reject her philosophy. It's an atheist philosophy." These days, he said in the interview, he favors Thomas Aquinas over Rand.

But even with all the controversy about the message of "Atlas Shrugged," there's been little discussion of its literary merits. Is it a great book? Here's what the critics had to say at the time of its publication in fall 1957.

Robert R. Kirsch, Los Angeles Times:

It is probably the worst piece of large fiction written since Miss Rand's equally weighty "The Fountainhead." Miss Rand writes in the breathless hyperbole of soap opera. Her characters are of billboard size; her situations incredible and illogical; her story is feverishly imaginative. It would be hard to find such a display of grotesque eccentricity outside an asylum.

Granville Hicks, New York Times

Not in any literary sense a serious novel, it is an earnest one, belligerent and unremitting in its earnestness. It howls in the reader's ear and beats him about the head in order to secure his attention, and then, when it has him subdued, harangues him for page upon page. It has only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds.

Edward Wagenknecht, Chicago Daily Tribune

There is much good sense in this book and it deserves more careful consideration than it is likely to get. For all that, Miss Rand is not quite the Moses to lead us out of the wilderness…. The worst thing in her book is her denunciation of what she calls mysticism, her ideas of which seem derived from Hitler rather than Meister Eckhardt or Rufus Jones. For her a mystic is a parasite in spirit and in matter, "a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others." No, Miss Rand, a mystic is a man who insists upon using those areas of his mind which you block off.

Helen Beal Woodward, Saturday Review

Miss Rand … throws away her considerable gifts for writing by fixing her reader with a glittering eye and remorselessly impressing upon him her convictions. These range from a hatred of Robin Hood as "the most immoral and the most contemptible" of all human symbols to a belief in a kind of chrome-plated laissez faire. Much of it is persuasive…. But Miss Rand is undone by her prolixity and her incontinence. She sets up one of the finest assortments of straw men ever demolished in print, and she cannot refrain from making her points over and over…. Altogether this is a strange, overwrought book.

Newsweek

Gigantic, relentless, often fantastic, this book is definitely not one to be swallowed whole. Throughout its 1,168 pages, Miss Rand never cracks a smile. Conversations deteriorate into monologues as one character after another laboriously declaims his set of values. One speech, the core of the book, spreads across 60 closely written pages. Yet once the reader enters this stark, strange world, he will likely stay with it, borne along by its story and its eloquent flow of ideas.

Paul Jordan-Smith, Los Angeles Times

A neighbor of mine who occasionally reviews books for an eastern magazine dropped in and, seeing the massive volume on my desk, asked what I thought of it. "Challenging and readable and quick with suspense," I replied…. "a book every businessman should hug to his breast, and the first novel I recall to glorify the dollar mark and the virtue in profit…." But how the shabby little left-wingers are going to hate it!

Donald Malcolm, the New Yorker

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