On January 1, 1945, Ayn Rand opened her journal and began writing notes for her fourth novel. She called the new novel,The Strike, a working title that neatly reflected the theme she chose to depict: “What happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike.”
Notice the punctuation. When she wrote down the theme, Rand wasn’t posing a question. She wasn’t brainstorming either. Clearly, she knew exactly what she wanted to say. The prime movers, Rand declared, created wealth that benefited the world, and everyone hated them for it:
Now to state the theme consecutively: the world lives by the prime movers, hates them for it, exploits them and always feels that it has not exploited them enough. They have to fight a terrible battle and suffer every possible torture that society can impose–in order to create the things from which society benefits immeasurably and by which alone society can exist. In effect, they must suffer and pay for the privilege of giving gifts to society. They must pay for being society’s benefactors.
Rand had in fact been thinking about The Strike for over a year. What started as a one-liner– a joke shared with her then-friend Isabel Paterson during a phone conversation–instantly captured Rand’s imagination. In a letter to Paterson dated October 10, 1943, Rand admitted that she couldn’t stop thinking about it:
I know that I will now have to write The Strike–you’ll push me into it. . . . I am really beginning to think that the idea is not fantastic at all, but probably more tragically real than I imagine. . . . I find myself dropping everything and thinking about that story–which I shouldn’t do right now. But by all the signs, I know I’m hooked . . . .
Rand would eventually change the title of the novel to Atlas Shrugged, but that New Year’s Day in 1945, it was The Strike that Ayn Rand set out to realize. It was a New Year’s resolution for the ages. Rand and her husband Frank O’Connor were living in California at 10,000 Tampa Avenue in Chatsworth, having left New York so that she could write the screenplay for The Fountainhead movie, which premiered in 1949. During the four years it took to complete the movie, she worked on Atlas Shrugged in fits and starts. Once she fulfilled the terms of the film contract, however, she worked on the novel exclusively. It would take her 12 years in all to finish it.
A lot would happen during those years–including decisions that would irreversibly change the course of her life. Much has been written about the fallout thereof, but I like to think that on New Year’s Day, 1945, Ayn Rand had her priorities straight, that she knew her struggle would be worth it, and that once finished, The Strike would change the world.
Because it did. For myself and so many others Atlas Shrugged tells the story that we were waiting to hear: that the love of life is good and proper, that the things we love and value are worth fighting for, that the self is never to be sacrificed, that man is not a victim of circumstances but “a being of volitional consciousness,” that a code of values is not automatic but an individual choice, and that existence exists. Rand exposed for what they were the bromides we were hearing and showed us how to banish them from our thoughts. Life became livable. Dagny Taggart, Francisco d’Anconia, Hank Rearden, and John Galt became part of our consciousness, and a world without them would be tragically diminished.
Nearly nine million copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold since Ayn Rand published it in 1957. The novel continues to change the world, just as she knew it would, one reader at a time.