Ayn Rand’s Favorite Book: “Calumet K”
Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, the first Ayn Rand adaptation since Gary Cooper took on her chewy dialogue, just opened to shrugs from critics. Roger Ebert writes that "the dialogue seems to have been ripped throbbing with passion from the pages of Investors’ Business Daily. Much of the excitement centers on the tensile strength of steel." Not that it matters too much: her books have never been critical successes, and Ebert stands less chance of stopping Rand than Vincent Gallo.
Rand's work continues to outlast her detractors; for everyone who thinks that "for a novelist, she's a tenth-rate philosopher; for a philosopher, she's a tenth-rate novelist," there's a powerful fan like former Fed director Alan Greenspan, a personal friend of Rand. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin representative currently considered the nation's most important conservative economic guru, says that Rand is "the reason I got involved in public service," and the traces of her philosophy can be found in Ryan's controversial budget plan. Rick Santelli, the CNBC newsman and Abbie Hoffman of the Tea Party, calls himself an "Ayn Rander." Practically speaking, there might not be a more important novelist right now, even though she's been dead for almost two decades.
The Russian immigrant spent six months in Chicago becoming an American, learning the vernacular from the movies she watched and graded (Phantom of the Opera: "not even zero"). Biographer Anne C. Heller, in Ayn Rand and the World She Made, quotes her in a letter written just before she departed for California, expressing a sentiment familiar to anyone who's lived in a big city:
I am so Americanized that I can walk in the streets without raising my head to look at the skyscrapers. I sit in a restaurant on very high chairs like in futuristic movie sets and use a straw to sip 'fruit cocktails.' The only thing left for me is to rise, which I am doing with my characteristic straight-line decisiveness.
In Los Angeles she met Cecil B. DeMille, who put her to work reading books for possible film adaptations. Among the novels he gave her was a then-famous, now-obscure work about the outskirts of the city she'd just left: Calumet "K". It was a defining moment for her, and the Objectivist philosophy she created. In a 1945 letter, she described it as "the very best I've ever read, my favorite thing in all world literature (and that includes all the heavy classics) is a novelette called Calumet "K" by Merwin-Webster."
Readers familiar with Rand's endless philosophical monologues and bodice-ripping, unchaste sex scenes may be expecting something just as theatrical. But it couldn't be more different: Calumet "K" is an quaint, endearingly Midwestern novel about the building of a grain elevator, its authors so engaged by the construction techniques and chain of production that they're more or less oblivious to character development. Or character. It's a procedural about large-scale agricultural production, and it may have the most boring first line in all literature:
The contract for the two million bushel grain elevator, Calumet K, had been let to MacBride & Company, of Minneapolis, in January, but the superstructure was not begun until late in May, and at the end of October it was still far from completion.
Its main character, and hero, is a rare bird in Western literature (and arguably in real life): the heroic middle manager. It's Bartleby the Scrivener in reverse; Charlie Bannon prefers to. Dispatched by MacBride & Company to get the elevator ship shape, doing managerial battle with a railroad superintendent who's under the thumb of wheat speculators trying to corner the market--a topical drama in turn of the century Chicago--and a corrupt union representative, whom he maneuvers around to avoid a strike.
And he falls in love, with a woman on the job of course, who's no Dagny Taggart: "She was perhaps not a very pretty girl, but there was something in her manner, as she stood in the dim light, her hair straying out from beneath her white 'sombrero' hat, that for the moment took Bannon far away from this environment of railroad tracks and lumber piles."
She doesn't take him too far away, though. When it comes a-time for courting, he romances her with industry, in one of the most charmingly awkward and earnest come-ons I've ever read:
"I'm glad you came up," he said. "A good many people think there's nothing in this kind of work but just sawing wood and making money for somebody up in Minneapolis. But it isn't that way. It's pretty, and sometimes it's exciting: and things happen every little while that are interesting enough to tell to anybody, if people only knew it. I'll have you come up a little later, when we get the house built and the machinery coming in. That's when we'll have things really moving. There'll be some fun putting up the belt gallery too. That'll be over here on the other side."
"Here's where the belt gallery will go," he said, pointing downward: "right over the tracks to the spouting house. They carry the grain on endless belts, you know."
Spouting house. It's about as close as the authors get to Rand's phallic skyscrapers or tunnel-penetrating trains.
Rand, who learned to be an American from the glamour of movies and "fruit cocktails"--in the movie version of Atlas Shrugged, the characters are constantly drinking, perhaps to tolerate each others' company--added sex, wealth, power, and blowsy, theatrical philosophizing to Merwin-Webster's achingly modest men of moderate action. And she excised their Midwestern niceties, criticizing the authors, in her introduction to the 1967 reprint, for making their hero send tobacco to a hospitalized colleague: "Today we can see what that little cloud of altruism, hovering on the on the edge of a sunlit sky, has grown into--and what that cultural split has accomplished."
Throw away that get-well-soon card: it just leads to rioting and Woodstock.
As someone raised to be resolutely undemonstrative, considerate of others, and somewhat Puritanical, Rand's horny, self-important heroes have always seemed deeply repulsive: the sort of people who tip badly, take up two seats on the bus, and trash national economies. But reading Calumet "K", and being the child of a middle manager, I at least understood the undying appeal of her books, and their difficult achievement: they're sweeping dramas of industrial management, Gone With the Wind for Taylorism--an almost otherwise untapped market in a country as it evolved from broad shoulders to white collars to pinstriped suits.
Illustration: Calumet K/Google Books