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I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged.   —Paul Ryan

 

Barack has pushed Malia to read some classics, The Grapes of Wrath, Tender Is the Night—she’s reading those, so I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading.   —Michelle Obama


 

Date of publication

Grapes: 1939

Atlas: 1957

 

Pages

Grapes: 502

Atlas: 1088

 

Motive for composition

John Steinbeck: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression].”

Ayn Rand: “What we have today is not a capitalist society, but a mixed economy—that is, a mixture of freedom and controls, which, by the presently dominant trend, is moving toward dictatorship.”

 

Plot

Grapes: Poor migrant workers leave the dust bowl to seek work in California.

Atlas: Wealthy industrial leaders seek a better life in a hidden valley.

 

Guiding Philosophy

Grapes: The only enduring antidote to the modern poison of greed is the milk of human kindness.

Atlas: The only enduring antidote to regulatory bondage and taxation is the fanatical pursuit of self-interest.

 

Heroes

Grapes: Ma Joad, steadfast matriarch of the impoverished Joad clan; Jim Casy fallen preacher murdered attempting to organize migrant workers.

Atlas: Industrialists John Galt, Dagny Taggart, and Hank Rearden. Galt organizes a strike by the world’s “creative leaders” to destroy collectivist society.

 

Villains

Grapes: Bankers, wealthy landowners, sadistic deputies.

Atlas: Moochers, bureaucrats, academics, disloyal wives, the poor.

 

Money

Grapes: “If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ‘cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich…”

Atlas: “Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil … Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction.”

 

Gender Roles

Grapes: “[Ma Joad] seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials … She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”

Atlas: “A man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions…. He will always be attracted to the woman who reflects his deepest vision of himself, the woman whose surrender permits him to experience a sense of self-esteem. The man who is proudly certain of his own value, will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires, the strongest, the hardest to conquer–because only the possession of a heroine will give him the sense of an achievement.”

 

Portrayals of Intimacy

Grapes: “For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. ‘There!’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

Atlas: “She felt him trembling and she thought that this was the kind of cry she had wanted to tear from him — this surrender through the shreds of his tortured resistance. Yet she knew, at the same time, that the triumph was his, that her laughter was her tribute to him, that her defiance was submission, that the purpose of all of her violent strength was only to make his victory the greater—he was holding her body against his, as if stressing his wish to let her know that she was now only a tool for the satisfaction of his desire-and his victory, she knew, was her wish to let him reduce her to that.”

 

Pull quote from final Soliloquy

Grapes: “Wherever they’s a right so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there … I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”

Atlas: “Learn to value yourself by rejecting humility as a virtue and seeking pride.… Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow man? None—except the obligation I owe to myself … America cannot survive on an altruist moral basis.”

 

Celebrity Endorsements

Grapes: “His sympathies always go out to the oppressed, to the misfits and the distressed; he likes to contrast the simple joy of life with the brutal and cynical craving for money. But in him we find the American temperament also in his great feeling for nature, for the tilled soil, the wasteland, the mountains, and the ocean coasts…” – Nobel Prize Committee Citation

Atlas: “I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.” – Christopher Hitchens

 

 

Tuesday’s election is about who you want in charge of our country—Steinbeck or Rand. Don’t just vote. Reach out to your friends, students, colleagues, and relatives. And make sure they vote.

 

Editor’s Note:  For a more detailed examination of the intersection of literature, morality, and the 2012 election, please click here.

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Steve Almond STEVE ALMOND (www.stevenalmond.com.) is the author of three short story collections, most recently God Bless America.

10 Responses to “2012 Election Literary Smackdown: Atlas Shrugged vs. The Grapes of Wrath

  1. Yeah, I think that comparison just about sums it up. Although I don’t get into political arguments today like I did, say, when I was 16, in the event I see one coming, I now have a short three sentence exit strategy: Look, we just have a fundamental disagreement about the nature of politics and what America is and should be. I believe in Grapes of Wrath. You believe in Atlas Shrugged.

  2. Karen Tolchin says:

    Totally. Freaking. Brilliant. Thanks for giving us a literary illustration of the very clear differences between our choices.

  3. Angela says:

    AWESOME! I loved it. Fantastic juxtapositioning, Mr. Almond!!!

  4. KB says:

    Steve, I’m a huge fan, especially of your entertaining interviews. But, I don’t think Dagney Taggart would have a problem with Ma Joad. The Joads were poor, job-seeking people, not self-pitying and entitled types decried by Ayn Rand. These books aren’t about the rich vs. the poor. Any reader of Atlas Shrugged would not be able to put Wall St. thieves is the same category as Dagney & Hank. Nor could you stamp the Joads with the same label as those looking for a hand out.

    From what I’ve read and heard from you, I would have expected more than an over-simplified, 99 v. 1% characterization of what is happening in America. You do know it is much more complicated than that, right?

    All of that aside, your article only serves the idea that Obama is a champion of the 99%. He isn’t any more than he is an enemy of the 1%. Neither candidate has a plan to right this ship. We actually need more people with a will to survive like the Joads and a will to thrive like Dagney & Hank. They are a good combination.

    Today’s Left doesn’t have the soul of the Joads. John Galt wouldn’t sit down at the table with today’s Right.

    • Kathy says:

      Whoa there junior — you’re projecting like a fiend. If you got back and look at the article, you’ll notice that the author didn’t “say” anything — he simply juxtaposed characteristic quotes from the reading material that the opposing campaigns chose as their mascots. Ryan claimed Atlas Shrugged as his literary mascot; the Obamas chose Grapes for values-educating their kids.

      Anything else you’re reading in yourself, through that big fat cranky conservative chip on your shoulder.

      Me? I found the juxtaposition humorous. And I say that, coming from dirt-poor immigrants who literally struggled not to starve during their first 10 years in the ‘new world’ (fortunately, they had one hell of a lot of help from others in their immigrant communities, and extended a helping hand in their turn).

      • KB says:

        And what chip on your shoulder does your condescending tone come from? Feeling the need to get personal usually points to a lack of knowledge of the subject matter (although you’ll probably say you’ve read each book a dozen times!)

        In fact, the author did “say” something. The plot summary and guiding philosophies are his own interpretations which I disagree with. The fact they come at the beginning of the article sets the tone for the rest. Lastly, he had other choices to illustrate gender roles, intimacy, etc. These comparisons are out of context and misleading. So, maybe you should accuse the author of “projecting.”

        The fact that you came from poor, immigrant stock doesn’t give you any authority or credibility. Such are reserved for the actual dirt-poor immigrants that made something of themselves.

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  6. Marilyn Block says:

    Absolutely terrific piece. The difference between the two is striking. Have been a Steinbeck fan all my life. No wonder.

  7. Shelley says:

    “A tag of shame on the greedy bastards”!

    Now, that’s a writer. Steinbeck and I write about some of the same people; but I never came up with a phrase half so concise.

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