Books that Changed My Life: Atlas Shrugged and The Grapes of Wrath

Originally Published on October 21, 2011 on Daily Kos.

My mother was the real reader in our family.  Although she left when I was very, very young, some of my earliest memories are of her huge towers of books.  She was always reading something.

My father, on the other hand, claimed to have read only one book which he read religiously every year.  That book was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

When my father married my stepmother she brought into our family an infant daughter whose name was Deena.  As the two girls, we were expected to share everything.  This did not always work out well since I was four at the time and still dealing with the trauma of Mommy never coming home again.  But as the childhood years slowly passed, I learned to call my stepmother Mom and Deena Sister.

And then one January day when she was eleven, Deena died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  What I did not know until her death was that Deena was born out of wedlock. My stepmother plunged into a deep depression after her death, feeling that it was God’s judgement on her “immoral” behavior that resulted in Deena’s death. She received therapy and seemed to improve for a while. Then she discovered Ayn Rand.  First The Fountainheadand then Atlas Shrugged.

Naturally, when you have one parent who is an avowed socialist and another who is an objectivist, conflict is likely to occur.

As a bystander to the intellectual argument, it appeared to me that they weren’t even speaking in the same language.  Words of contempt from one of them was a badge of pride to the other.  You could not insult her by calling her selfish because she thought it was a virtue.  You could not insult my father by saying that he wanted to live off of the labor of others because he would boast of being proud to do so, feeling that it was society’s obligation to help those who couldn’t help themselves.

Oh yeah, that was an interesting spring.  The marriage did not survive Deena’s death and my stepmother’s new found philosophy.  By the time they divorced in July of 1965, I had already read some of Steinbeck’s most popular works.  Within a few years I read all of Rand’s work, including the non-fiction.

I think I understand Rand’s appeal for someone like my stepmother who suffered a culturally dictated guilt.  Growing up in a society that sometimes seemed to be based on “motherhood and apple pie,” guilt was a frequent visitor to my heart as well, since I must have been a very bad little girl if my mother left me behind, and Ayn Rand seemed to shift the blame from the individual to the Christian society.  (Which may be where it belonged in our cases.)

Ironically, Rand and Steinbeck condemned some of the same things:  greed, incompetence, and corruption.  Their utopias are strikingly similar. Galt’s Gulch was peopled with industrious, self respecting folks who refused to give or accept charity.  The government camp had the same type of occupants.  They both had a similar take on how charity or the acceptance of the unearned, had a dehumanizing effect on the recipient.

“Las’ winter; an’ we was a-starvin’ – me an’ Pa an’ the little fellas.  An’ it was a-rainin’.  Fella tol’ us to go to the Salvation Army.”  Her eyes grew fierce.  “We was hungry — they made us crawl for our dinner.  They took our dignity.   They — I hate ‘em!  An’ — maybe Mis’ Joyce took charity.  Mis’ Joad, we don’t allow nobody in this camp to build himself up that-a-way.  We don’t allow nobody to give nothing to another person.  They can give it to the camp, an’ the camp can pass it out.  We won’t have no charity!”  Her voice was fierce and hoarse.  “I hate ‘em,” she said.  “I ain’t never seen my man beat before, but them–them Salvation Army done it to ‘im.”

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand envisioned a factory operated under the theory that each would give according to his ability and receive according to his need. Dagny Taggart, the novel’s heroine listened as an old bum told her how it worked as the rewards were divided amongst the six thousand workers:

“It took us just one meeting to discover that we had become beggars — rotten, whining, sniveling beggars, all of us, because no man could claim his pay as his rightful earning he had no rights and no earnings, his work didn’t belong to him, it belonged to ‘the family,’ and they owed him nothing in return, and the only claim he had on them was his ‘need’ — so he had to beg in public for relief from his needs, like any lousy moocher, listing all his troubles and miseries, down to his patched drawers and his wife’s head colds, hoping that ‘the family’ would throw him the alms.  He had to claim miseries, because miseries, not work, that had become the coin of the realm — so it turned into a contest among six thousand panhandlers, each claiming that his need was worse than his brother’s.  How else could it be done?  Do you care to guess what happened, what sort of men kept quiet, feeling shame, and what sort got away with the jackpot?”

In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrants worked hard, when they could find work, but were never rewarded with living wages and had to turn to self-righteous charities like the Salvation Army (ironically, that was where my stepmother turned as a young unmarried pregnant woman in 1953).  In Atlas Shrugged, people voted for a system that would pay a basic pittance and then had to beg for any additional support.  The only real difference was the self inflicted nature of the situation in Rand’s book.  But regardless of how they got there, people tend to react the same way when honest work is not rewarded in an honest manner.

According to Steinbeck:

And all the time the farms grew larger and the owners fewer.  And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more.  And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved until some went home again, and some grew fierce and were killed or driven from the country.  And the farms grew larger and the owners fewer.
…And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact:  when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away.  And that companion fact:  when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.  And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history:  repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.  The great owners ignored the three cries of history.  The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression.  The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out.  The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change were ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.

To Rand:

“We’ve heard so much about strikes,” he said, “and about the dependence of the uncommon man upon the common.  We’ve heard it shouted that the industrialist is a parasite, that his workers support him create his wealth, make his luxury possible  — and what would happen to him if they walked out?  Very well.  I propose to show to the world who depends on whom, who supports whom, who is the source of wealth, who makes whose livelihood possible and what happens to whom when who walks out.”

In Atlas Shrugged, the owners were the victims of nasty criticism by those lacking their uncommon talents and intellect.  In The Grapes of Wrath they were intentionally blind to their own destruction and that “when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need.”

Although Ayn Rand’s world has never existed, Steinbeck’s did.  It did in the thirties and seems increasingly likely to recur once again in this century.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate- died of malnutrition- because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.  In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

The Randian philosophy appears perfectly suited to those who feel somewhat guilty about the fact that today they can feed their children, while others go hungry.  (And fear that tomorrow they may not.)  It assures them that they don’t need to help their neighbor because selfishness is good and compassion is bad.  It stokes their anger and fear and justifies them by labeling those less fortunate as moochers and looters who, if given the chance, will prey on their hard work.  It gives them an answer that I can’t accept, but which perhaps allows them to continue to survive as best they can.

These are the books that changed my life.  Between them they helped tear apart the family I grew up in.  But they also taught valuable lessons.  Ideas matter and have the real power to change lives.

They taught me to look for the other side in conflict.  It makes it hard sometimes to know exactly where I stand on any given issue, because I do try to listen to both sides.  Not always successfully, but I do realize that well meaning people can arrive at totally different conclusions.

And that words matter.  Even though the same word will have a different meaning to others than it does to me.  The passion displayed by my parents when they discussed these two books and their underlying philosophies, coupled with their inability to communicate, with understanding, their meaning to each other taught me yet another lesson.  Probably the most important and yet hardest to remember;  that what appears to me to be so crystal clear can appear to another to be written in Greek.

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2 thoughts on “Books that Changed My Life: Atlas Shrugged and The Grapes of Wrath

  1. Sword of Apollo March 29, 2013 at 6:53 PM Reply

    Objectivism doesn’t hold that compassion per se is bad. Acting compassionately is only bad if it is done toward those who are morally guilty or evil: “Compassion” at Ayn Rand Lexicon.

    Self-sacrifice is always immoral, but it is not synonymous with compassion.

  2. Zeba 'Journo' March 30, 2013 at 3:45 AM Reply

    It teaches you to love yourself more than anything or anyone on this earth. It helps you understand yourself and be considerate enough to acknowledge it, out loud in the public. Love the book. Love Ayn Rand

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