Anniversary Chapters: Shoshana Milgram Discusses “Who Was John Galt: The Creation of Ayn Rand’s Ultimate Ideal Man”
“The creation of John Galt was Ayn Rand’s life story,” said Shoshana Milgram, “and telling about it allowed me to spend time not only with the character she brought to life but with the process of dramatization.”
To celebrate the 60th publication anniversary of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, we’re talking to the authors of chapters in Robert Mayhew’s book Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” Next up is Shoshana Milgram, whose chapter “Who Was John Galt? The Creation of Ayn Rand’s Ultimate Ideal Man” examines what the early notes and drafts of Atlas Shrugged tell us about the key character in Rand’s magnum opus, which was published in 1957.
Spoiler alert: Atlas Shrugged begins with the question “Who is John Galt?” — and anyone who does not already know the concrete, factual response to that question should learn the answer from Atlas Shrugged, not from this interview.
“Why did I choose to write about John Galt?” Milgram said. “Well, let’s look at the three main heroic men in Atlas Shrugged. Francisco d’Anconia is the wittiest, the most dramatically colorful. Hank Rearden is the reader’s closest companion, the one whose thoughts are rendered in most detail and at greatest length. But most of John Galt’s words are contained in speeches. We don’t witness any of his struggles or development. And he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the book!
“Yet he was the first character Ayn Rand invented as she conceived the novel. He became her ultimate ideal man. Yes, he was the voice of her philosophy, but he wasn’t merely a disembodied voice. I wanted to spend time exploring John Galt in order to give full conscious value to the writer’s choices and to her achievement. I wanted to look at her own life-long development as she undertook three related tasks: planning a story in which the men of ability vanish from the world, crafting a literary hero who represented the ideal in both soul and action, and defining philosophically the heroic in the human spirit.”
Milgram recalled her pleasure in contrasting the drafts of the novel, including passages from the narrative and Galt’s long speech, with the final published work. “I like slowing down and paying attention to details,” she said. “But I also care about the big picture. I wanted to do justice not only to Galt’s role as a leader — the intellectual and practical leader of the strike — but also to his role as a lover. We see him through the eyes of Dagny Taggart, the woman who recognizes, as soon as their eyes meet, that she has always loved him. We also see how his mind works when she appears, late in the novel, at his New York apartment. With full knowledge that she has been followed and that his capture is imminent, he smiles, because — all things considered — her arrival is good news.”
Here are portions of the passage from Milgram’s chapter that discusses this scene:
Dagny has arrived uninvited, against his express command. Moreover, she is not ready to strike, and he knows it. This is important knowledge about the past. Everything she has seen in the outside world, has not convinced her. Everything she saw in the valley, has not convinced her. The Speech, with its special message to her — “Do you hear me, my love?” — has not convinced her. All of those episodes are in the past, and there remains a powerful question: what is it going to take to get through to Dagny? Galt refuses, wholemindedly, to rescue her against her will. It is her acceptance of the valley, and of him, that he wants. She loves him without reservations — but love is not enough. . . .
And Galt considers the future. One way or another, he expects the outcome to make clear to Dagny what she does not yet grasp plainly enough to be ready to quit. As he tells her: “You haven’t seen the nature of our enemies. You’ll see it now. If I have to be the pawn in the demonstration that will convince you, I’m willing to be — and to win you from them, once and for all.” . . .
Ayn Rand’s characterization of Galt places him in a situation that shows how his mind takes everything relevant into account, gets to the sum, and evaluates that sum as good news.
“The key here is to realize what it means for Galt to be capable of considering all relevant things,” Milgram said. “What does he consider, and why? Ayn Rand’s novel, as written, is a stunt. Until we learn the secret of the strike, we’re missing the meaning of the events we’ve seen. Exploring John Galt is one way to attend to the facts that Ayn Rand has temporarily hidden from our view.”
Shoshana Milgram is associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, specializing in narrative fiction and film. She has lectured on Rand at Objectivist and academic conferences, and has published on Rand, Hugo and Dostoevsky. She is editing the draft of her book-length study of Rand’s life to 1957.
If you find these perspectives intriguing, Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is available here, and more on Atlas Shrugged is available here.
And stay tuned for Milgram’s discussion of the other chapter she contributed to the Mayhew collection, “The Spirit of Francisco d’Anconia: The Development of His Characterization.”