Close Reading — June 16, 2014, 8:00 am

Ayn Rand’s Rapture of the Rails

The train deaths of Atlas Shrugged

Still from Atlas Shrugged: Part I © The Strike Productions

Still from Atlas Shrugged: Part I © The Strike Productions

Few people in this world have ever loved trains as much as Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, a.k.a., Ayn Rand, the proudly adulterous, cult-leading, atheist, Russian–Jewish immigrant who has somehow become the idol of today’s sexually immured, Christian fundamentalist, xenophobic Republican Party, as exemplified by the primary victory last week of Professor David Brat. Being aboard a western train for my July Harper’s Magazine folio story, as we navigated around washed out rails and dealt with a malfunctioning electrical system while in Washington Republicans were preparing to shut down the federal government, my thoughts naturally turned to Rand.

In her major opus, Atlas Shrugged, railroad management exemplifies the sort of endeavor her great heroes of capitalism, the prime movers, love to take on. She claimed to have taken rides in the locomotives of the New York Central while researching the book, and to have driven the 20th Century Limited, boasting that while she was at the controls of that extraordinary train, “nobody touched a lever except me.” Trains are such an indispensable motif in Atlas Shrugged, that, when some of Rand’s acolytes produced a slavishly faithful film adaptation of her book set in the present day, they had to invent a convoluted rationale involving resource shortages and industrial disasters to explain how railroads had once again become the dominant form of long-distance transportation.

Trains were more than just a magnificent obsession for Rand. They also served as a sort of avenging angel. By Atlas Shrugged’s seventh chapter, “The Moratorium on Brains” (no stickler for subtlety, was our Ms. Rand), so many of the great men have opted out of society that a working diesel engine cannot be found to run a revolutionary express train, the Comet, through an eight-mile tunnel in the Rockies. Nevertheless, one of the “looter” politicians ruining the world insists that the Comet — clearly modeled on the 20th Century, and probably one of the gorgeous new Zephyr trains of the time — make the trip anyway, so that he can make a campaign appearance in California. The spineless, government-appointed bureaucrats now running the railroad attach a coal-burning engine instead, even though they know it might asphyxiate everyone on board.

“It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them,” writes Rand, who then begs to differ, spending the next two pages ranting about sixteen unnamed individuals who will die aboard the Comet — and a good thing, too, as they embody all the sorts she most despises.

The doomed include everyone from a lawyer who feels he can “get along under any political system,” to “an elderly schoolteacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards” because they believed in the will of the majority; to “a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays” that insulted businessmen, and finally a doting mother of two who would not denounce her husband because of his weaselly government job.

“These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas,” she concludes with relish, presumably including in her condemnation the young tots the doting mother had just tucked into their bunks with visions of collectivism inculcated deep in their heads. To them, Rand adds a group of soldiers aboard a munitions train that runs into the Comet after it stalls in the tunnel, killing everyone in a spectacular explosion.

Rand later writes a scene in which, as the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling during what she terms a “strike” by the prime movers, a rail bridge falls apart and a Taggart Transcontinental train tumbles into the Mississippi River — one more vehicle crowded with thinkers of philosophically impure thoughts. And in yet another scene, Eddie Willers, the loyal aide to the book’s heroine, is aboard a train when it breaks down out in the Arizona desert. The other passengers and crew manage to be rescued by a passing wagon train(!), but Eddie refuses and pleads, “Don’t let it go!” while looking up helplessly at the locomotive. The others abandon the train and Eddie, almost certainly to his death.

It was such passages that led Whittaker Chambers, in his 1957 National Review takedown of Rand and her just-released book, to famously write, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding, ‘To the gas chambers — go!’ ” By then Rand had lingered so long on her screed that trains, the cutting edge of American technology and design when she began, were about to be all but eliminated by the prime movers.

But reading of her love for trains’ capacity to kill at least allows one to understand her appeal to the modern Republican right. Her extended descriptions of those who will die and why they deserve to die resemble nothing so much as the climactic passages of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind series, in which, after another set of righteous people have been raptured out of harm’s way, the authors dwell in loving detail on the torments to be inflicted by the returning deity of the Apocalypse — in this case, not Jesus Christ, but John Galt. Different god, same gas chamber.

Share
Single Page

More from Kevin Baker:

Context November 25, 2016, 11:26 am

A Fate Worse Than Bush

Rudolph Giuliani and the politics of personality

From the July 2014 issue

21st Century Limited

The lost glory of America’s railroads

Appreciation June 26, 2014, 8:00 am

The Twenty-Three Best Train Songs Ever Written—Maybe

From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2018

Nobody Knows

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Other Whisper Network

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Infinity of the Small

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Empty Suits

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Divide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Other Whisper Network·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

No one would talk to me for this piece. Or rather, more than twenty women talked to me, sometimes for hours at a time, but only after I promised to leave out their names, and give them what I began to call deep anonymity. This was strange, because what they were saying did not always seem that extreme. Yet here in my living room, at coffee shops, in my inbox and on my voicemail, were otherwise outspoken female novelists, editors, writers, real estate agents, professors, and journalists of various ages so afraid of appearing politically insensitive that they wouldn’t put their names to their thoughts, and I couldn’t blame them. 

Of course, the prepublication frenzy of Twitter fantasy and fury about this essay, which exploded in early January, is Exhibit A for why nobody wants to speak openly. Before the piece was even finished, let alone published, people were calling me “pro-rape,” “human scum,” a “harridan,” a “monster out of Stephen King’s ‘IT,’?” a “ghoul,” a “bitch,” and a “garbage person”—all because of a rumor that I was planning to name the creator of the so-called Shitty Media Men list. The Twitter feminist Jessica Valenti called this prospect “profoundly shitty” and “incredibly dangerous” without having read a single word of my piece. Other tweets were more direct: “man if katie roiphe actually publishes that article she can consider her career over.” “Katie Roiphe can suck my dick.” With this level of thought policing, who in their right mind would try to say anything even mildly provocative or original? 

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Estimated size of heaven, in cubic miles, according to the Reverend Billy Graham:

1,500

Photographing your food makes eating it less enjoyable.

The shooter discarded his AR-15 semiautomatic weapon, the model used in six of America’s ten deadliest mass shootings and referred to by the NRA as “America’s rifle,” and then fled to a nearby Walmart, where customers can buy rifles but cannot purchase music with lyrics that contain the word “fuck.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today