Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Driver - Part XIII; Ayn Rand; Calumet K; Secret of the League

Click here for Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 of my review of The Driver.

The Driver is many things. A casual observer will blast through its pages and conclude that it is simply a story about railroads - or a fictionalized account of the Panic of 1893 - or an Ayn Rand relic. In fact, The Driver is all of these things and more.

(1) I know of very few sources of information about the Panic of 1893 (aside from the standard high school history book obligatory anti-capitalist boilerplate). I know of no fictionalized account of this Panic (aside from modern speculation about the origins of The Wizard of OZ). By remembering and fictionalizing this event despite the passage of 30 years, Garrett gave to us and future generations something to relate to as we endure the events of 2009 (and beyond). Millions of Americans have no experience or other information to place today's events in context. Government schools have completely misinformed their students about all things economic and political. Americans find themselves adrift amidst current circumstances with no context and no framework to understand what is happening.

Most fictionalized accounts of the Depression of the 1930's focus only on poverty and misery as some sort of indictment of capitalism. The Driver differs from these standard stories by focusing on capitalism itself as a solution. The Driver differs simply by presenting a solution at all.

(2) In recent years, the Ayn Rand connection to The Driver has overshadowed the real importance of this book and other Garrett writings. Commenters miss the real importance of Garrett's books and articles while seeking some basis to attack Ayn Rand. The Wikipedia (!?) entry about Garet Garrett refers to The Driver as Garrett's "most influential work." This assertion is false, as that distinction belongs to The People's Pottage. Regardless of the relative merits of these books, People's Pottage is Garrett's most often quoted work. I have noted many references to People's Pottage over many decades among other writers. The Driver was unheard of in modern times until Bruce Ramsey published Salvos Against the New Deal in 2002. The anonymous writers at Wikipedia attribute undue influence to The Driver probably as part of a backdoor attack on Ayn Rand. The Randian angle is the context in which The Driver is usually quoted.

But these attacks are unfair. Even though one character has a similar name as in Rand's most popular novel and Garrett's plot involves similar business themes, the stories are not similar enough to cry "plagiarism," and there is no language that matches in both books (except for one famous line with completely different meanings and contexts). The similarities are more complex than I am explaining here, but not in a way that constitutes plagiarism.

Ayn Rand appears to have built upon Garrett's work and improved upon it with her own elements. Numerous fictional works contributed to Ayn Rand's writings, including Calumet K (Merwin-Webster, 1901) and probably Secret of the League (Ernest Bramah, 1907). Ayn Rand even wrote an introduction in 1967 to a republication of Calumet K. The tragedy of this situation is that Secret of the League and The Driver were never republished during Ayn Rand's lifetime. Had they been republished as was Calumet K, Rand might very well have endorsed those books as well and deprived the Rand-haters of ammunition.

Rand's words in 1967 regarding Calumet K could apply equally to The Driver:

But it has one element that I have never found in any other novel: the portrait of an efficacious man.
Calumet K, p i. (1993 edition) (emphasis in original)

Whether Rand did not consider The Driver's hero to be "efficacious" or whether Rand simply forgot having read The Driver some 45 years earlier is a matter for another article. The fact remains that Rand saw in Charlie Bannon (from Calumet K) the same features that exist in The Driver's hero and in the heroes of Rand's novels.

Those who attack Rand ignore Calumet K and Secret of the League because it becomes absurd to accuse a writer of plagiarizing the same story from three different books by three different authors. The proposition almost denies itself. Yet that is what Rand's detractors must do if they are to account for the contributions of all three books while maintaining their attacks on Rand.

Rand's plots also trace themselves to Rand's early works, including Red Pawn. One who reads Red Pawn, We the Living and The Fountainhead in succession (all Randian works) will learn the origin of the plots that Rand used in her later fiction. Such a reader would lose much of his appetite for finding mischief in the pages of The Driver.

While I disagree with those who use The Driver as a weapon against Rand, The Driver does have its place as an influence upon Rand's writings. Far from serving as some sort of smoking gun, The Driver is part of a larger picture. The Driver, Secret of the League and Calumet K deserve equal billing as early influences upon Ayn Rand, even though these books take a back seat to the plot development in Rand's own early works.

The attacks upon Rand do a disservice not only to Rand, but to The Driver and other works. The Driver deserves to be known as more than a weapon to use against Ayn Rand. Those who think of The Driver in this way marginalize the book and miss the novel's role as one of our few connections to the Panic of 1893. The Driver's Panic of 1893 backdrop is more topical in 2009 than at any point in recent memory.

The Panic of 1893 demands recognition, especially since the American government now uses today's crisis to advance its own political agenda. That Panic ranks behind only The Great Depression in historical importance when evaluating today's crisis. The Driver is our window into that Panic and the solutions that would serve us today in 2009 and beyond.

The proper role of The Driver today would not merely be historical, but inspirational. Rand was correct (in her Calumet K introduction) to point out the barren wasteland that constitutes modern fiction. Today's economic and political crises cry out for a fictionalized version that captures the essence of the moment. While there is no doubt that modern writers will write such stories using the old anti-capitalist boilerplate, such propaganda misses the point. We need new Garretts to fictionalize today's events so that the true context of the headlines will not be lost upon modern observers. Renewed interest in The Driver and Garrett's other works may help spark just such an effort.

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At June 23, 2009 at 1:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Garrett is one of the best fiction authors I've read in some time, and one can see Ayn Rand's work as combining various themes present in Garrett, pulp fiction, science fiction and various utopian/distopian novels.


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