|For Ayn Rand fans: |
h/t Alastair McIntosh
A little-known literary paean to capitalism
One definition of literature is memorable writing. On this basis, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged must be accepted as literary epic. First published in 1957, Ms. Rand's hymn to the creative dynamic of laissez-faire capitalism still sells more than 200,000 copies a year. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the monumental novel may finally soon make it to the silver screen. Writer Steven Zeitchik reported earlier this year that a number of stars - Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway - are interested in the role of Dagny Taggart, the railroad executive who transforms a bankrupt railroad into a profitable corporate empire only to find herself crushed by rapacious government.
A public opinion survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club back in 1991 attested to the extraordinary influence of Atlas Shrugged: Notwithstanding its didactic excesses, people named it as the book that had most changed their lives - next only to the Bible. Now, as befits our recessionary times, Atlas Shrugged has grown more popular than ever. Amazon.com reports that it holds the No. 33 spot in its 2009 catalogue of best-selling novels.
The interesting thing in all this is that Ms. Rand didn't come close to Garet Garrett, the now-obscure American writer who told the same story in The Driver, a more human celebration of capitalism (though less heroic) published in 1922. The book is now, alas, largely forgotten. The Driver tells the tale of a mysterious Wall Street speculator who becomes obsessed with a bankrupt railroad, ultimately gains control of it and builds it into a fabulous corporate empire. Mr. Garrett hangs his story on the Panic of 1893, the golden age of capitalism that preceded it and followed it - and the eventual malicious meddling of the "Trust Busters" who drove the harassed hero to his deathbed. "They could not break him," the narrator observes. "They could only kill him."
The two novels share remarkable similarities, including protagonists surnamed Galt. The Driver asks: "Who is Henry Galt?" Atlas Shrugged, 35 years later, asks: "Who is John Galt?" Mr. Garrett answers the question more persuasively. His hero succeeds in circumstances remarkably evocative of our own, notwithstanding the turbulent century of government intervention that separates us. Ms. Rand wrote a defiant parable. Mr. Garrett wrote a cautionary history. It is Mr. Garrett's hero who emerges as the man of faith, the virtue that always eluded Ms. Rand.
Mr. Garrett begins his story in the spring of 1894, when a real-life populist leader named James Coxey led hundreds of unemployed workers in a march on Washington. The author introduces his hero in conversation with a reporter who narrates the encounter: "You were with Coxey's army?" Galt asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Was there plenty to eat?"
"There was plenty to eat. What does that prove?"
"It proves that this country is rich. Nobody knows it [in the midst of recession]. Nobody believes it. The country is so rich that people may actually live without work."
As Mr. Garrett portrays his protagonist, Henry Galt succeeds in part because he fully understands the corrective nature and purpose of recessions.
"You may define a mass delusion," Mr. Garrett's narrator observes. "You cannot explain it. Mass delusions have destroyed whole races, have covered Asia, Africa and Europe with tragic ruins." People have gone mad, he observes, over God and tulips. In the 1890s, the delusion was silver, a delusion that eventually led Congress to stipulate in law that 50 cents worth of silver was equal to 100 cents worth of gold.
You can read Mr. Garrett's work now and, with only minor mental adjustment, think that you are reading a factual history of the market meltdown of 2008, complete even to the public whipping of "accursed Wall Street," the congressional inquisitions, the desperate reliance on government debt for prosperity. Mass psychology, it seems, hasn't changed in 100 years.
The Panic of 1893 was preceded by a decade of exceptional technological advance, rising productivity - and, in the apt words of the narrator of The Driver, "an ecstasy of profits." No one went to sleep at night "but he was richer still on the morrow." It was a time so plentiful that "wishing was having." It would be thus again, too - though in the intervening tough times people would lose faith in their country and in themselves. In these tough times, the authentic capitalist - the Driver - keeps his faith, knowing this: "If your maladies are not fatal, you are bound to get well."
In stark contrast to Ms. Rand's often turgid masterpiece, The Driver is a charming and somewhat satiric melodrama of human enterprise. Henry Galt is complex, troublesome and wise; a master of persuasion; an irrepressible driver of dreams. What is the secret of Mr. Garrett's Galt? Only this: The great capitalist has the capacity to imagine wealth - and then, against all odds, to create it.
The Driver is available through online book sellers such as Amazon.com and mises.org/store; it's well worth both time and money. Readers interested in its influence on Ms. Rand in Atlas Shrugged can check out the arguments at: