Skip to comments.FReeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged, The Theme
Posted on 01/17/2009 11:27:40 AM PST by Publius
Who is John Galt? The words come from the mouth of a bum to Eddie Willers, as he walks down the streets of New York. Willers notes the un-maintained spire of a building, whose gold leaf has pealed off and never been fixed. Its September 2.
Eddie enters the office of Jim Taggart, president of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad (From ocean to ocean!) to inform him that there has been another wreck on the Rio Norte Line. The track is shot, and people are giving up on using the line. Jim says that eventually there will be new track. Its a...temporary national condition. Eddie points out that Orren Boyle of Associated Steel has failed to deliver rail for the past thirteen months. Jim forbids Eddie to approach Rearden Steel. The Phoenix-Durango Railroad is eating Taggarts lunch, and Taggart is failing to serve Wyatt Oil, which has brought the Colorado oil fields back to life. Jim is furious that all Wyatt cares about is money and that his oil has dislocated the economy of the entire country...How can we have any security or plan anything if everything changes all the time?
As Eddie leaves Jims office, he notes that Pop Harpers typewriter is broken and has not been fixed. Pop wont requisition a new one because theyre substandard, and he recites a litany of bankruptcies and mechanical failures in New York. Pop doesnt care any longer.
We first meet Dagny Taggart in the coach section of the Taggart Comet, not the sleeper section. (The description of Dagny no doubt matches what Ayn Rand wanted to look like; its the description of a movie star.) Dagny hears a brakeman whistling a tune that she recognizes immediately as something by Richard Halley, but a piece she hasnt heard before. The brakeman mentions that its Halley Fifth Concerto. Dagny informs him that Halley has only written four concertos. (This is a significant plot point.)
After dozing restlessly, Dagny awakes to discover that the train has been shunted onto a siding at a red block signal for about an hour. The Comet has never been late before, but the crew doesnt care. Their sole intent is to avoid blame for anything, and they want to wait for somebody else to take responsibility. Dagny orders them to move to the next block signal and stop at the next open office. At the crews insistence she agrees to take responsibility.
Arriving in New York, Dagny, with Eddie in attendance, tells Jim that she has ordered from Rearden, not Boyle, to rebuild the Rio Norte Line. Jim is furious but will not take the responsibility for canceling the Rearden order. He whines that its unfair to give all the railroads business to Rearden just because he produces on schedule. He is horrified when Dagny tell him that the order is for Rearden Metal, not conventional steel. But...but...but nobodys ever used it before! Dagny then turns to Jims noble experiment of the San Sebastian Line which Dagny states will be nationalized shortly by Peoples State of Mexico. Jim comes unglued. Its more moral to spend money on an underprivileged nation that never had a chance than to spend it on Ellis Wyatt, who simply wants to make money. Selfish greed for profit is a thing of the past.
Dagny interviews Owen Kellogg of the Taggart Terminal Division in order to give him the top spot at the Ohio Division, replacing an incompetent who is a personal friend of Jims. But Kellogg wont take the job, resigns from Taggart Transcontinental and nothing Dagny says can keep him on the railroad. When Dagny asks why, Kellogg answers, Who is John Galt? Thus the plot is set in motion.
New York and the Railroads
New York was a railroaders nightmare in the19th Century. The Hudson River was an insurmountable barrier. Approaching from the west, the Pennsylvania, Reading, Baltimore & Ohio, Jersey Central, Erie, Lackawanna and Lehigh Valley railroads all terminated at Jersey City or Hoboken, and each railroad operated its own private navy to get people across the Hudson to downtown Manhattan. From the east, the Long Island Railroad ended at Brooklyn, and passengers for Manhattan took a ferry across the East River. Only the New York Central and the New Haven had direct access to New York into midtowns Grand Central Station, a wooden structure built in 1871.
After the War Between the States, the Pennsylvania made two attempts to bridge the Hudson, one killed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the other by its exorbitant cost. A tunnel project was impossible using the technology available at the time. A coal-fired steam locomotive hauling a passenger train under the Hudson from New Jersey would arrive in New York with its passengers and crew dead from asphyxiation. This could cause problems with return business.
In 1899, Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander Cassatt visited Paris to see his sister, the famous impressionist artist Mary Cassatt, and while in Paris he dropped by the newly opened Gare du Quai Dorsai. This station had been built for electric railroading with an approach via a tunnel under the Seine. Cassatt saw the solution to his Hudson River problem.
Unlike the New York Central and the Great Northern, two railroads that were run under a cult of personality, the Pennsylvania Railroad was an arch-conservative company run by faceless gray men in Philadelphia who just happened to know how to run a railroad. It was the most financially successful railroad in America, and its bonds were as good as gold. The Pennsy never did anything without a lot of planning and advance work; the quality of the accountants in its Planning Department was legendary. In 1900, Cassatt acquired the Long Island Railroad, put the main stem on Brooklyns Atlantic Avenue underground and electrified most of the system, causing its ridership to double.
In 1906, Cassatt announced that the Pennsylvania Railroad would build two tubes suspended in the Hudson River silt. These tunnels would carry electric trains powered by DC third rail, which would run from a location in the New Jersey meadowlands (Manhattan Transfer) into the new Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan. This station would be designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White and would be modeled on the Basilica of Constantine and the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, creating a true temple of the American railroad. This architectural monument opened in 1910 and was one of Americas great railroad stations until its demolition in 1963. Its replacement, Penn Station, is an underground warren sitting under the latest version of Madison Square Garden. The destruction of Pennsylvania Station created an uproar, was considered an act of corporate vandalism and was directly responsible for the movement to preserve Americas great railway stations.
With the opening of Pennsylvania Station, the railroad hooked the Long Island Railroad in by tunneling under the East River and also provided a connection to the New Haven Railroad via a high-rise bridge over the Hell Gate in Queens.
The Pennsys arch-rival, the New York Central, had a terrible accident in 1902 when two steam trains collided in the Park Avenue Cut, killing many. New York City banned steam trains on the island of Manhattan, and the New York Central was dragged kicking and screaming into the electric age, along with its partner, the New Haven.
Upset by the presence of a greater temple of railroading, the New York Central built a station to replace the 1871 wooden structure, which had become rather dowdy with age. Atop two levels of underground tracks would stand the New York Centrals temple of railroading, Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 1913. (Corporate egos!)
In Rands book, there is only one great railroad station in New York, Taggart Terminal, which has characteristics of both Pennsylvania and Grand Central. As a combination of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, its as though Nat Taggart created the Penn Central a century before 1968.
America and the Railroads
Today there are seven Class I railroads in North America: Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Kansas City Southern, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. Only the Canadian National is truly transcontinental, although the Canadian Pacific has achieved a degree of transcontinental status by purchasing trackage rights on the CSX in the US. The Kansas City Southern is more Mexican than American, and the remainder are large regional carriers. All were created by a series of mergers and acquisitions spanning nearly 150 years.
At the time of Rands book there were a vast number of Class I railroads, but none were transcontinental.
In Atlas Shrugged, there are two transcontinental railroads: Taggart Transcontinental dominates the northern half of the US and the Atlantic Southern dominates the south.
Railroad baron Nat Taggart founded his railroad in the 19th Century, and it was transcontinental in scope from the very beginning, not achieving that status by a process of slow merger and acquisition. This is a serious departure from railroad history. It would appear that after creating the Penn Central and buying a whole slew of other lines, Taggart created his own version of the Union Pacific to go transcontinental. Taggart did not rely on Lincolns government land grants for financing but did it the hard way, which makes his model the real life James Jerome Hill, the man who built the Great Northern. Like Hill, Taggart worked his way up from the bottom in railroading and was not a financial operator.
One story about Jim Hill might give an insight into Nat Taggart. Jay Gould had been using political leverage in DC to prevent Hill from laying tracks across Montana. So Hill charged into the Western Union Building in New York where Goulds fortress of an office was located, lifted Gould bodily out of his chair and dangled him by the ankles outside his office window six stories above Wall Street until Gould agreed to call off his lobbyists. (They made em tough in those days!)
Dagny Taggart and Richard Halley
Classical musicians and people who are heavily involved in classical music have a technique, called dittersdorfing, where they hear a piece with which they are unfamiliar and guess the composer. It is named after Karl von Dittersdorf, a contemporary of Franz Joseph Haydn, whose music sounds a lot like Haydn, but lacks Haydns facility with musical architecture.
In the book, there is no indication that Dagny Taggart had ever taken music lessons or that her interest in classical music extended beyond contemporary composer Richard Halley. Yet a brakeman on a train whistles a melody, and Dagny immediately recognizes it as Halley, but unpublished Halley. For an old classical music person like myself, this is a stretch.
Some Discussion Topics
Question for our members: Should this thread go up next Saturday or sooner? Give it some time for thought and get back to me.
Ping! The thread has been posted.
Our First Freeper Book Club: Atlas Shrugged
Jim also represents the mediocrity that Galt & Co. shun. Left to his own devices, Jim Taggart could not make the railroad run, any more than the mediocrats in other industries can keep them working. Yet they reject the strict ethic that breeds excellence, in favor of a more inclusive, "democratic," egalitarian philosophy that ignores merit. It is that "altruism" that Rand considered the greatest threat to mankind's ultimate success. And it is a theme that will be repeated ad infinitum throughout the book.
Ping for later...
I work in a hospital, and I saw a beat up copy of Atlas Shugged on a countertop, in a tech area. When I asked who was reading it, a young hispanic guy said he was. Couldn’t have been more than twenty.
I asked if he was reading it for a class or something, and he said no, just reading it because someone suggested it to him.
When I asked him what he thought of it, he said: “Kind of sounds like what is going on today...”
From the mouth of babes.
And the first time I read the book, I had this urge to punch Jim Taggart into the next state.
Would you like to be pinged to this FReeper Book Club?
Consider yourself pinged.
Jim Taggart obsesses about stability, planning and maintaining an atmosphere of stasis. Change is to be avoided, even if it improves conditions. What parallels can be drawn to current events?
The parallel is the obverse of Jim Taggert's position, that change for the simple sake of change can be even more harmful. Many people vilify conservatism with the slander that conservatives don't like change. The truth is conservatives don't believe in change just because it is different, we ask for evidence that change will be beneficial. (At this point, liberals usually get huffy)
Jim believes that priority of corporate effort should be determined by need, putting emphasis on helping the disadvantaged people of Mexico who never had a chance. Is there an echo of this in American foreign policy today, particularly with respect to delegating blame?
I don't see this in Foreign Policy as much as I do immigration and domestic policy.
FReeper Billthedrill made this interesting observation about the book: ...her villains are drawn so perfectly it's almost painful to read them and a newspaper too close together. The first villain the reader meets is Jim Taggart. Does he resemble anyone today and, if so, whom?
He resembles Barney Frank, Chuck Schumer or nearly any liberal you can think of.
Is there anything disturbing about the Mayor of New York wanting the current date displayed on a large calendar mounted on a skyscraper? What are the implications of this?
Liberals think that people are too stupid to think for themselves and take responsibility for knowing what the date is.
Indeed...that would be great, thank you.
Good start. But what about the train crew on the Comet? Profit is not a part of their world, but look at their behavior. This is a different kind of rot, and it shows up again and again in the book.
The parallel is the obverse of Jim Taggert's position, that change for the simple sake of change can be even more harmful.
This opens up an intersting idea. When Al Pearlman ran the New York Central, he would look at procedures on the railroad, and if one had been observed too long, he ordered that the procedure be re-thought. Pearlman feared any kind of stasis.
I don't see this in Foreign Policy as much as I do immigration and domestic policy.
Don't you see some of this in the Blame America First impulse? Our capitalism has made the world miserable, therefore we are at fault for things going wrong elsewhere.
Liberals think that people are too stupid to think for themselves and take responsibility for knowing what the date is.
Very good. I was looking for a lnk to government paternalism and the nanny state. And the fact that it was an elected official who did this.
Consider youself pinged.
BTW, with our next book, could we have a couple of week’s notice before the first ‘meeting’ to have time to get a copy of the book?
Your synopsis is great too. It’s a great way to remind me what I’ve read - I was wondering if I should take notes while reading because I have such a bad memory. Now - I don’t need to and can enjoy the book more.
But what about the students? Don't you see the same thing? Are all students excited and ready to learn? Or are many there because they have to be and are just marking time, considering their school time akin to prison time?
Isn't there some rot there?
“Jim believes that priority of corporate effort should be determined by need, putting emphasis on helping the disadvantaged people of Mexico who never had a chance. Is there an echo of this in American foreign policy today, particularly with respect to delegating blame?”
“I don’t see this in Foreign Policy as much as I do immigration and domestic policy.”
Obama’s Global Poverty act comes to mind.
IMHO, “the bottom line” has ruined this country.
For over 30 years, management types have looked for ways to increase profit and eliminate “waste”. Their underlings bonuses depended upon cutting costs, and jobs of others, wherever possible.
To me, there is no service any more. Very few will take a problem and solve it. Pass the buck seems to be the order of this day.
The beginning of the chapter reminded me of the old adage:
Nothing works, and nobody cares.
Pithy and right on the mark.
And what kind of society lives by that slogan, and why did it get that way?
Still sifting the archives for my copy...
Consider yourself pinged.
Probably stemming from the natural desire to NOT be in school as well as them absorbing the attitude of the teachers and other staff.
Good. Let's connect that to bureaucracy and bureacratic thought and procedures.
And here's a talking point. Compare what Microsoft was like in its early days versus what it's like now that it's a huge corporation.
Bump for later reading.
Consider youself pinged.
True...I thought about that, but it has not come to pass...yet.
I re-read chapter one today. Jim Taggert reminded me of some people I have worked with in the past. You can’t make the obvious decision and act on it because you have not been through their process. And they use their process to inhibit any progress.
I take personal responsibility for service, not only in my own job, but in the jobs of those around me. I am a sysadmin for a Radiology department, and I had 10 years of direct service to patients.
I know what constitutes good service, and it is contagious and rewarding. I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping provide that for our patients...
Don’t despair yet!
You sho' said a moufful!
I went through that 30 years ago in an IT shop where I worked. They were so obsessed with Process that it was impossible for anything to get done. The next places I worked after that had all gone through the same mess at about the same time, and the shops had been destroyed.
Years later, I worked at a place where we moved from one building to another, and in the process of moving, all the documentation created by that Process ended up in dumpsters for recycling because the information was so out of date.
Been there, done that.
I last read the book about six months ago, so I may be a little fuzzy on some specifics, but I remember thinking that the train crew that wouldn't move for lack of someone telling them what to do reminded me of stories of people who stayed in their offices in the WTC because no one had told them what to do.
I have always been puzzled by that. How do you not take responsibility for your own life and try everything you can?
I WAS in the same situation. I enjoyed helping people. I still enjoy helping others.
Some, where I worked, asked me why I took things so personally. I said because my customers do.
That is why I have an unending burr under my saddle for bureaucrats, and automated assistance from huge companies.
There's some of that in this. The train crew was petrified of having to take responsibility -- read "the blame" -- for something. They insisted that Dagny take responsiblity for the orders she gave, which she did. They were content to do nothing because that's what the Process said.
James Taggart was endeavoring to run Taggart Transcontinental as a zero sum game.
The parallel to the Kennedy's is that they want to run the country that way, except, of course, for them.
In the case of Taggart, if one desires to run their business to simply break even, then that's their prerogative and they only hurt themselves.
On the other hand, the Kennedy's (and the liberals in general) want to run the country that way at the cost of the taxpayer.
The "zero-sum game" concept is one of the things that seems to separate liberals and conservatives. Liberals can't or won't see that if wealth is created, more people benefit. The firmly believe that every dollar I make is a dollar that someone else won't make.
I don't know if it my job or my upbringing or what exactly, but I just cannot relate to this.
Lettng my ego slip out a bit here... taking responsibility also means you get to get the credit and that it gets done the way you think it should be done. I also find that it gives others the cover that they feel like they need to suggest better ideas because they know that I will be the one that takes the heat if their idea doesn't work.
Please add me to the book club list. It has been years since I read Atlas Shrugged, and I have been wanting to refresh my memory.
This is foreshadowing. As Eddie passes, he is searching for the phrase that fits the calendar, but can't think of it. Then, Pop Harper uses the phrase about an old, technologically obsolete typewriter, but Eddie lost the connection.
"Your days are numbered."
Nice touch. That calendar plays a vital role in the story, not just because it tracks the dates, but because of what d’Anconia does to it later in the book.
I see this starting to happen in the "green" movement. Suddenly the highest purpose for both individuals and companies is "saving" the planet (from something unspecified at that).
That always brings to mind the words of my mountain climbing guide years ago: "Never say you conquered the mountain. The mountain let you climb it today - you might not be so lucky next time." Nature is a lot tougher than we give it credit for. But suddenly we must spend tons of money and give up many conveniences all for the sake of saving the planet. Of course, we know that that is just a smoke screen for more government control of our lives. But people really seem to buy (literally) into it. And the people telling us to pay money and give up stuff are the ones riding around in private jets.
LOL - I'm not sure what my point is. That's just what came to mind when I read that question.
Ah, James Taggart. One of my favorite villains in all of literature and, I tentatively suggest, Rand's greatest character creation. I'd place Reardon second, actually. He's an exception to my general rule that Rand's villains are more finely-drawn than her heroes and heroines. In Reardon she captures the conflict that will certainly occur in real people if Atlas really does shrug. More on him later.
But James Taggart - stem to stern, first chapter to last, you always know exactly what motivates him and you always want to choke the b@stard. The fellow who plays him on screen will have the meatiest role in the thing, IMHO. Infuriating, despicable, and delicious. Full marks to Rand on this one.
On the general topic of indifference - this is a different emotion from fear of involvement, actually, or fear of taking responsibility. Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporation has probably noticed that risk is regarded as something to be managed, to be evaluated on a more or less cost/benefit basis by persons paid to do so. That's why initiative tends to be discouraged. It has a cost. The challenge in managing a large organization is to allow for the toleration of a certain level of risk by absorbing the cost on its failure without penalizing the risk-taker. As organizations grow this tends to be more difficult to accomplish, one reason why a really good CEO is worth his or her weight in gold.
In the case of Taggart Transcontinental, one has to empathize a little with the listless employees. They'll be paid anyway, so why take the risk? Out of pride? That's the key to this one (and to any organization into which a really committed member commits more than time). Dagny certainly had her pride in it, as was only right inasmuch as her name was on it. But why should the employees? Lousy management has sucked it out of them.
Back to James Taggart and my comment about CEO's. And Dagny's astonishment at the whole thing does not reflect well on her own management abilities - if that's news to her, why? If her employees are risk-averse and intimidated, what has she done about it? The answer, that it's somebody else's job, is precisely the difficulty she notices in her people.
Could it be that Rand's fierce commitment to individualism gave her a bit of a blind spot on the issue? In Reardon especially (sorry to get a bit ahead of the chapter) we see an individual struggling to balance his own pride against the exigencies of family and a deck that is stacked firmly against him. But the object of his pride is, after all, his own creation. And so we return to the question of why Taggart's employees should have acted other than they did? Out of (shudder) altruism?
One of the complaints against Rand is that to her, only the people capable of the personal act of grand creation fully qualify as human beings deserving of respect. We see this in characters such as Eddie Willers - more of him in later chapters as I think he's a critical character in this narrative. Who will really be welcome in Galt's Gulch? How much of a god does one have to be to merit a place at the table in Valhalla?
I'd love to hear your comments on the above. May not be able to check back for awhile but it doesn't mean indifference. ;-)
Please add me to the ping list. Thx!
Every 4-5 years I buy a new copy of this book and read it again. I always find something new that I somehow missed before. It was the first book that I deliberately did not speed read through and still don’t when I buy my copy to read again. There is something about it that inspires me and gives me hope that maybe there are people who understand what makes a man (or a woman) that person who can accomplish something important and not be ashamed by being “better” than others.
Not everyone is a sheep to be lead around; though that is somewhat hard to believe after the last election. People want to be lead and be free of responsibility. This book show shows what will happen when the vast majority of Americans are sheep.
It's been over two decades since I read this book and I was too young and silly at the time to really get it. Reading it now I realize I don't even remember much about it other than some character names and the general idea - it's like reading it for the first time. Except I do remember how it ends, but this time I can savor getting there. This is fun!
Which brings us to the parable of the frog and the pot of boiling water.
I am going to be back later to post my thoughts
That is the key (as you obviously well know) to good service and doing a good job at something...to take responsibility and ownership for it.
I feel the same way you do, simply because it doesn't have to be that way.
A chapter a week also leaves room for late comers to jump in and catch up.
Thanks for doing this!
Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporation has probably noticed that risk is regarded as something to be managed, to be evaluated on a more or less cost/benefit basis by persons paid to do so. That's why initiative tends to be discouraged. It has a cost. The challenge in managing a large organization is to allow for the toleration of a certain level of risk by absorbing the cost on its failure without penalizing the risk-taker. As organizations grow this tends to be more difficult to accomplish, one reason why a really good CEO is worth his or her weight in gold.
I've seen this first hand, as have you. I worked in a company where the fear of risk was so pervasive that it was impossible for people to do their jobs. One-line code changes in programs had to be cleared in meetings involving some of the highest players in the shop, and I'm not talking about simple change control meetings. Managers were not managing but doing the job of the person one step above them in the food chain. When we were merged out of existence and the shop closed down, it was more in the line of euthanasia than murder one.
And Dagny's astonishment at the whole thing does not reflect well on her own management abilities - if that's news to her, why? If her employees are risk-averse and intimidated, what has she done about it? The answer, that it's somebody else's job, is precisely the difficulty she notices in her people.
Good point, and you're the first to bring it up. Example comes from the top and flows down. Dagny puts the time and effort into doing it right, but the people under her, other than Eddie and Owen Kellogg, haven't gotten the message. It's as though Jim Taggart's malaise and inability to get things done have bypassed Dagny and contaminated the entire railroad.
Could it be that Rand's fierce commitment to individualism gave her a bit of a blind spot on the issue?...And so we return to the question of why Taggart's employees should have acted other than they did? Out of (shudder) altruism?
I look at Eddie Willers and Owen Kellogg, and I don't see altruism so much, but a certain pride in doing the job right. They aren't timeservers, and they aren't doing it for charity. It's an exchange for labor and quality in return for money.
We see this in characters such as Eddie Willers - more of him in later chapters as I think he's a critical character in this narrative. Who will really be welcome in Galt's Gulch? How much of a god does one have to be to merit a place at the table in Valhalla?
The kissoff of Eddie at the end is one of the most heartrending scenes in literature, next to the hanging of Esmerelda at the end of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame. He isn't even good enough to be one of Dagny's lovers. Francisco, Hank and John get the honors, but not poor Eddie. Dagny comes across as the top alpha female, and beta males like Eddie don't make the grade. The thought of who gets into Galt's Gulch has always bothered me. The prime creators get in, but those who make the work of the prime creators achieve reality don't.
There needs to be more than one Galt's Gulch.