It marked a turning point in her life—the end of her career as a novelist and the beginning of her role as a popular philosopher. Due to the success of Rand's novel The Fountainhead , she had no trouble attracting a publisher for Atlas Shrugged. This was a contrast to her previous novels, which she had struggled to place.
Even before she began writing it, she had been approached by publishers interested in her next novel. However, her contract for The Fountainhead gave the first option to its publisher, Bobbs-Merrill Company. After reviewing a partial manuscript, they asked her to discuss cuts and other changes. She refused, and Bobbs-Merrill rejected the book. Hiram Hayden, an editor she liked who had left Bobbs-Merrill, asked her to consider his new employer, Random House.
In an early discussion about the difficulties of publishing a controversial novel, Random House president Bennett Cerf proposed that Rand should submit the manuscript to multiple publishers simultaneously and ask how they would respond to its ideas, so she could evaluate who might best promote her work. Rand was impressed by the bold suggestion and by her overall conversations with them.
After speaking with a few other publishers from about a dozen who were interested, Rand decided multiple submissions were not needed; she offered the manuscript to Random House. Upon reading the portion Rand submitted, Cerf declared it a "great book" and offered Rand a contract. It was the first time Rand had worked with a publisher whose executives seemed enthusiastic about one of her books.
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Random House published the novel on October 10, The initial print run was , copies. The first paperback edition was published by New American Library in July , with an initial run of , Dutton in , with an introduction by Rand's heir, Leonard Peikoff. The novel has been translated into more than 25 languages. The working title throughout its writing was The Strike , but thinking this title would have revealed the mystery element of the novel prematurely,  Rand was pleased when her husband suggested Atlas Shrugged , previously the title of a single chapter, for the book.
The significance of this reference appears in a conversation between the characters Francisco d'Anconia and Hank Rearden , in which d'Anconia asks Rearden what advice he would give Atlas upon seeing "the greater [the titan's] effort, the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders". With Rearden unable to answer, d'Anconia gives his own advice: "To shrug". The novel is divided into three parts consisting of ten chapters each. Robert James Bidinotto said, "the titles of the parts and chapters suggest multiple layers of meaning.
The three parts, for example, are named in honor of Aristotle's laws of logic Part One is titled 'Non-Contradiction' Part Two, titled 'Either-Or' Atlas Shrugged is set in a dystopian United States at an unspecified time, in which the country has a "National Legislature" instead of Congress and a "Head of State" instead of a President. The government has increasingly extended its control over businesses with increasingly stringent regulations.
The United States also appears to be approaching an economic collapse , with widespread shortages , constant business failures , and severely decreased productivity. Writer Edward Younkins said, "The story may be simultaneously described as anachronistic and timeless. The pattern of industrial organization appears to be that of the late s—the mood seems to be close to that of the depression-era s. Both the social customs and the level of technology remind one of the s".
Clearly the Cold War is not going on any more, though there is no reference to how it ended and who emerged as the victor; there is in fact no reference of any kind to the Soviet Union or Russia , nor to World War II. Other countries are mentioned in passing.
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Most countries of the world are implied to be organized along vaguely Marxist lines, with references to "People's States" in Europe, South America and India, which are economically supported and sustained by the United States. There is a reference to a People's State of Germany, which implies that Germany had been united and possibly that the Communist East Germany swallowed the Western one, and a reference to the People's State of Britain offering its Crown Jewels for sale which might imply that the British Monarchy had been abolished. Characters also refer to nationalization of businesses in these "People's States" - for example, the proclamation of Chile as a People's State is accompanied by the nationalization of the D'Anconia copper mines.
On the other hand, the United States itself does not call itself "A People's State" and remains at least verbally committed to free enterprise - though making life increasingly difficult for entrepreneurs. The visiting British Socialist who makes a brief appearance in the book  calls the United States "The only country on Earth backward enough to permit private ownership of railroads".
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All along the book there is the ongoing distinction between the "true" entrepreneurs, who seek to make profits purely by their own innovative efforts, and the false ones who benefit from government patronage and are counted among the "looters" - for example, the difference between Hank Rearden and his rival steel producer Orren Boyle.
The economy of the book's present is contrasted with the capitalism of 19th century America, recalled as a lost Golden Age. Dagny Taggart , the Operating Vice President of railroad company Taggart Transcontinental, attempts to keep the company alive against collectivism and statism amid a sustained economic depression. While economic conditions worsen and government agencies enforce their control on successful businesses, people are often heard repeating the cryptic phrase "Who is John Galt? It sarcastically means: "Don't ask important questions, because we don't have answers"; or more broadly, "What's the point?
Her brother James , the railroad's president, seems to make irrational decisions, such as preferring to buy steel from Orren Boyle's unreliable Associated Steel, rather than Hank Rearden 's Rearden Steel. Dagny attempts to ignore her brother and pursue her own policies. She soon realizes that d'Anconia is actually taking advantage of the investors by building worthless mines. Despite the risk, Jim and his allies at Associated Steel invest a large amount of capital into building a railway in the region while ignoring the more crucial Rio Norte Line in Colorado , where the rival Phoenix-Durango Railroad competes by transporting supplies for Ellis Wyatt, who has revitalized the region after discovering large oil reserves.
Dagny minimizes losses on the San Sebastian Line by placing obsolete trains on the line, which Jim is forced to take credit for after the line is nationalized as Dagny predicted. Meanwhile, in response to the success of Phoenix-Durango, the National Alliance of Railroads, a group containing the railroad companies of the United States, passes a rule prohibiting competition in economically-prosperous areas while forcing other railroads to extend rail service to "blighted" areas of the country, with seniority going to more established railroads.
The ruling effectively ruins Phoenix-Durango, upsetting Dagny. Wyatt subsequently arrives in Dagny's office and presents her with a nine-month ultimatum: if she does not supply adequate rail service to his wells by the time the ruling takes effect, he will not use her service, effectively ensuring financial failure for Taggart Transcontinental. In Philadelphia , Hank Rearden, a self-made steel magnate, has developed an alloy called Rearden Metal, which is simultaneously lighter and stronger than conventional steel.
Rearden keeps its composition secret, sparking jealousy among competitors.
Dagny opts to use Rearden Metal in the Rio Norte Line, becoming the first major customer to purchase the product. As a result, pressure is put on Dagny to use conventional steel, but she refuses. Hank's career is hindered by his feelings of obligation to his wife, mother, and younger brother. After Hank refuses to sell the metal to the State Science Institute, a government research foundation run by Dr. Robert Stadler, the Institute publishes a report condemning the metal without actually identifying problems with it. As a result, many significant organizations boycott the line.
Although Stadler agrees with Dagny's complaints over the unscientific tone of the report, he refuses to override it. Dagny also becomes acquainted with Wesley Mouch , a Washington lobbyist initially working for Rearden, whom he betrays, and later notices the nation's most capable business leaders abruptly disappearing, leaving their industries to failure.
The most recent of these is Ellis Wyatt, who leaves his most successful oil well spewing petroleum and fire into the air later named "Wyatt's Torch". Each of these men remains absent despite a thorough search by politicians. Having demonstrated the reliability of Rearden Metal in a railroad line named after John Galt, Hank and Dagny become lovers, and later discover, among the ruins of an abandoned factory, an incomplete motor that transforms atmospheric static electricity into kinetic energy , of which they seek the inventor.
Eventually, this search reveals the reason for business leaders' disappearances: the inventor of the motor is John Galt, who is leading an organized strike of business leaders against a society that demands that they be sacrificed. Dagny's private plane crashes in their hiding place, an isolated valley known as Galt's Gulch.
While she recovers from her injuries, she hears the strikers' explanations for the strike, and learns that Francisco is one of the strikers. Galt asks her to join the strike. Reluctant to abandon her railroad, Dagny leaves Galt's Gulch. But Galt follows her to New York City , where he hacks into a national radio broadcast to deliver a long speech 70 pages in the first edition to explain the novel's theme and Rand's Objectivism. The novel closes as Galt announces that they will later reorganize the world.
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In David Harriman published a massive volume called "Journals of Ayn Rand", based on hitherto unpublished Rand manuscripts, giving much information on the writing process of Atlas Shrugged as of other Rand books, and relating earlier story lines which were discarded and planned characters dropped from the final version .
Among other things, Harriman noted that Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden were not originally meant to be lovers. Rather, in the earlier version she was having an affair with a fellow railway executive, a rather flawed character, while he had a mistress who was as nasty as his wife - making his misery complete.
In the original version Rearden also had a sister named Stacy, as bad as the rest of his family. Rand originally planned to include a Catholic Priest, Father Amadeus, who would have had an important role as Jim Taggart's confessor. He was depicted as a sympathetic and well-meaning character, who finally meets John Galt and joins the Strike.
Rand wrote quite extensive and detailed sections involving this character but ultimately dropped him. The Strikers are eventually to build a new and better world, and having a priest among them implied that the Catholic Church would have a role in this new world - which Rand did not want.
The above had the result that in the original version, James Taggart was a practicing Catholic and found religious excuses for his misdeeds, while in the final version he is not overtly religious and is not a member of any Church. James Taggart's collapse - in the final version brought about through his direct confrontation with Galt - was originally intended to be caused by Father Amadeus telling him: "Sorry, Jim, I can't help you - I am on strike". Harriman noted that Rand relished writing that scene and regretted having to drop it from the final version.
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There was originally included among the staff of Taggart Transcontinental a British exile, who had been a shipping magnate and who became a hunted fugitive for sinking his ships rather than letting them be nationalized. After the character was dropped, his defiant act was attributed to Francisco D'Anconia.
In one of them she abandons the railway and goes to live in Galt's New York apartment, refusing to come back when her brother Jim comes seeking her. In a diametrically opposite plot outline, she is furious with Galt for destroying the world's economy, betrays him to the police and bursts out crying after he was taken away. The story of Atlas Shrugged dramatically expresses Rand's ethical egoism , her advocacy of " rational selfishness ", whereby all of the principal virtues and vices are applications of the role of reason as man's basic tool of survival or a failure to apply it : rationality, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride.