Opposites Attract:
Atlas Shrugged vs. Cold Sassy Tree
By Marilyn Green Faulkner

Every now and then I recommend a book I haven’t read, and regret it. This is the case with Atlas Shrugged, a classic that left me cold and even a little bit angry. This came as a surprise for, like many of my generation, I read The Fountainhead during my college years and was inspired by the rugged individualism of its hero, Howard Roark. Ayn Rand’s fierce faith in the free-market system and the inalienable rights of the individual was a breath of fresh air in the socialism-saturated seventies when I encountered it. My husband, a born entrepreneur, considers The Fountainhead to be the most important book he read as a young man, and, judging from the comments of many members of the club, he is not alone. So I hefted Rand’s nearly twelve-hundred page masterwork with the confident assurance that I was in for a great experience. Ah well, live and learn. 

Ayn Rand is one of America’s favorite authors. In a recent Library of Congress/Book of the Month Club survey, American readers ranked Atlas Shrugged as second only to the Bible in its influence on their lives. For decades, at scores of college campuses around the country, students have formed clubs to discuss the works of Ayn Rand. In 1998, the Oscar-nominated Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, a documentary film about her life, played to sold-out audiences throughout America and Canada. In recognition of her enduring popularity, the United States Postal Service in 1999 issued an Ayn Rand stamp. Every book by Ayn Rand published in her lifetime is still in print, and hundreds of thousands of copies of them are sold every year, so far totaling more than twenty million.

At the age of nine Ayn Rand decided that she would become a writer of fiction, and dedicated her life to that goal. Raised in Soviet Russia, she managed to gain permission to visit the United States as a young woman and never returned. On her second day in Los Angeles, the great director Cecil B. Demille saw her hanging around the studio gate and offered her a job on the set. She worked her way up until her screenplays and novels began to sell. Rand’s philosophy of life was simple and consistent, and is best expressed in her own words: 

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” In other words, find out what you want and need, and go get it. In her own life she lived that philosophy, never asking for help from anyone, and working to achieve her goals as a writer. When she identified a young man she wanted for a life companion, she stuck out her foot and tripped him so that they could meet! They were married for fifty years. Those who knew her were mesmerized by her intensity and passion for life. She never wavered in her belief in the individual, nor in her rejection of the divine. Her intellectual successor, Leonard Peikoff, says that when he met Ayn Rand he thought, “if she exists, then anything is possible.”

Works Without Faith are Dead

We like Ayn Rand because she inspires us to be better than we are, but in my opinion, Atlas Shrugged shows us the opposite of what Rand intended. She attempts to paint a glorious picture of supermen and women who live with their own fulfillment as the highest goal, and productivity as the ultimate ideal. What we actually get are rather cardboard characters who fail to move us. John Gault is the great industrialist (Atlas) who grows weary of the government’s attempts to control business and, by shrugging off his responsibilities, starts a chain reaction that brings society to a halt. Dagney Taggart is the brilliant railroad heiress who is, I suppose, meant to be his Eve in a great new society based on free-market capitalism. But Gault never materializes as a real person, and Dagney bounces promiscuously from one great capitalist to the next in a kind of Social Darwinism that is truly chilling. In the end, she ends up with the biggest, strongest capitalist, but is this love? I hope not. Written to promote Rand’s philosophy (called objectivism,) Atlas Shrugged is a decidedly didactic book, always a dangerous thing in a novel, since great novels get the message across through the story. Preachy novels usually fall a bit flat, and Atlas Shrugged does just that, especially since what Rand is selling is a world where selfishness is virtue and God is dead.

In the Shade of Cold Sassy Tree

Now, I don’t mind preaching, but I say if we are going to preach, let’s preach about Jesus, pure love, and Christianity. Without the tie to a greater good, capitalism spirals out of control just like any other system. I got tired of Atlas Shrugged, and picked up an old favorite that I would much rather discuss, Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns. Here is a book to love. It’s been twenty years since I read this wonderful coming-of-age story set in Cold Sassy, Georgia at the turn of the century, and if you haven’t picked it up in a few years it is well worth a re-read. Will Tweedy’s fifteenth summer is one to remember: his grandmother dies, he gets run over by a train, and his beloved grandfather marries the local milliner three weeks after burying grandma. Grandpa Blakeslee does quite a bit of preaching in this novel, but every word of it is worth listening to, as he searches to find true Christianity in the self-conscious religiosity of his small town. In this wonderful passage, he talks about what it means to pray in faith:

“Well’m, faith ain’t no magic wand or money-back gar’ntee, either one. Hit’s jest a way a-livin’. Hit means you don’t worry th’ew the days. Hit means you go’n be holdin’ on to God in good or bad times, and you accept whatever happens. Hit means you respect life like it is – like God made it – even when it ain’t what you’d order from the wholesale house. Faith don’t mean the Lord is go’n make lions lay down with lambs jest cause you ast him to, or make fire not burn. Some folks, when they pray to git well and don’t even git beter, they say God let’m down. But I say thet warn’t even what Jesus was a-talkin’ bout. When Jesus said ast and you’ll git it, He was givin’ a gar’ntee a-spiritual healin’, not body healin’. He was sayin’ thet if’n you git beat down – scairt to death you cain’t do what you got to, or scairt you go’n die, or scairt folks won’t like you – why, all you got to do is put yore hand in God’s and He’ll lift you up. I know it for a fact, Love. I can pray, ‘Lord, hep me not be scairt,’ and I don’t know how, but it’s like a eraser wipes the fears away. And I found out long time ago, when I look on what I got to stand as a dang hardship or a burden, it seems too heavy to carry. But when I look on the same dang thang as a challenge, why, standin’it or acceptin’ it is like you done entered a contest. Hit even gits excitin’, waitin’ to see how everthang’s go’n turn out.” (363)

Olive Ann Burns was a successful journalist who took her father’s recollections of small town life in Georgia and turned them into an enduring classic. She died of cancer before she could complete the sequel, but left behind one great yarn that has been treasured by millions of readers. If you want a book to make you laugh, cry and think, shrug off godless objectivism and head for the faith-filled pages of Cold Sassy Tree.  

Atlas Shrugged and Cold Sassy Tree are the April selections for the Best Books Club, a gathering of readers who enjoy the classics. Our selection for May is the classic mystery, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. Send your comments about these books or any others you like to bestbooks@meridianmagazine.com, or log on to our website at www.thebestbooksclub.com.


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