Those who think Gone With The Wind is a love letter to the Old South are wrong; it is, instead, a savage indictment of a deeply corrupt society.
I first read Gone With The Wind when I was 12. I remember vividly what a brilliant emotional ride it was. Of course, I didn’t share Scarlett’s passion for the weak Ashley Wilkes. Instead, I fell madly in love with Rhett Butler, a love I promptly transferred to Clark Gable when I saw him play that same iconic role a few months after I read the book.
I didn’t particularly like Melanie Wilkes, who was too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, but I know that I wept buckets when she died at the book’s end. Her death upset me more than the fact that Scarlett and Rhett parted at the end. As for Scarlett herself, I was ambivalent. I admired her beauty and her passion, but hoped never to meet someone like that — a woman who had a disruptive effect, almost invariably negative, on every life she touched.
More than anything, though, what I remember is that, Gone With The Wind left me thinking that the Confederates got a rough deal when they lost the war because they were so brave and so passionate. Looking back, I think it was the 1939 movie, more than the book, that created that impression. David O. Selznick did everything he could to romanticize the Confederacy, going far above and beyond what Margaret Mitchell wrote — which is really what I want to talk about in this post.
Before I get to the Confederacy as a whole, though, I need to address up front the race issue. As an ignorant 12-year-old, I remember thinking vaguely (to the extent I thought about the subject at all), that slavery couldn’t be that bad because so many of the fictional black people in Scarlett’s life were surprisingly powerful figures. Again, the movie exacerbated that sense, especially because Selznick gave the brilliant Hattie McDaniel a prominent role. Her Mammy, like Melanie Wilkes, is such a powerful moral figure that it’s hard to remember the endless indignities under which McDaniel and all the real “Mammys” of the South labored.
Thankfully, one of the things the Civil Rights movement did was to help late-20th century Americans understand what their 19th century Northern ancestors already knew about an institution that played out in real time before their eyes: Slavery has no redeeming features. It is an act of indescribable immorality and cruelty to deprive another human being of liberty without due process (as is the case with convicted criminals), merely because that person had the misfortune to fall into the power of a slave-owning society.
As far as I know, there have been only two instances in history in which people were enslaved, not in the ordinary ways (as battle captives, members of conquered nations, criminals, or debtors), but because of race: The first time was in Egypt when the Jews were designated as a slave race. The second time was in the late 17th century, when white Europeans designated blacks as a slave race. Both of these situations were worse than the ordinary slavery rampant throughout the world because they necessarily involved dehumanizing whole races of people. It really is a short step from that type of thinking to Auschwitz, where the Jewish race was so dehumanized that Germans thought nothing of eradicating it.
When mid-20th century Americans fell in love with the ostensible romance of Gone With The Wind, they allowed themselves to forget that slavery is inherently evil and that race slavery is even more evil than that. As I said, it is a blessing that the Civil Rights movement and its legacy helped us remember those core ethical facts.
Everyone reading this post should understand that I have no truck with Margaret Mitchell’s casual racism or her utter failure to address the immorality of either slavery in general or race-based slavery specifically. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk about the way she portrays her black characters. It just means that I don’t want anyone to go off half-cocked and think that anything I write is meant, implicitly or explicitly, to support slavery or racism. (Sadly, this caveat is necessary because I know that people of ill will are inclined to impute false beliefs to me.)
I first read Gone With The Wind in 1973. I liked it so much that I read it annually for the next five or six years. I also saw the movie several times, in large part because I adored the women’s costumes. In a pre-internet age, if you wanted to see those costumes, you had to see the movie whenever it was re-released, which I did. Every time I read the book or saw the movie, I reaffirmed a few things: I loved Rhett Butler/Clark Gable, I loved hoop skirts, the Civil War was a bloodbath, Scarlett was a fool and a stalker, Ashley was a weakling, Melanie was irritatingly good, and Southerners were courageous.
And then I neither read the book nor saw the movie for decades.
The whole thing popped up on my radar recently when my Little Bookworm read the book over vacation and loved it (while recognizing the racial problems). Shortly after, the movie came out on TCM, so I saved it to watch with my Little Bookworm when we had the time. We finally had the time last week and, after watching the movie, I got the yen to read the book again, something I hadn’t done in almost 40 years. Reading it after that long interlude was eye-opening.
Superficially, Margaret Mitchell’s book is a love letter to the Old South, and it’s at that superficial level that generations of readers and viewers have approached both the book and movie versions of Gone With The Wind. In fact, as I noted above, Selznick took the book entirely at that superficial level and his movie is indeed a love letter to the Old South.
Read more carefully, though, and you’ll see something different: Mitchell didn’t write a love letter; she penned a savage attack against the Old South. Its men are drunken animals who live to hunt, fight, and womanize; its women are prisoners living in gilded cages; and its blacks people do everything within their limited power to exert control over their own lives, whether as Uncle Peter does, by becoming the mainstay for a half-witted woman; as Mammy does, simply by being a moral powerhouse; or as Prissy does, by being willfully stupid, not just to avoid work, but actively to harm the white people who deprive her of freedom.
Apropos the black characters, Selznick, in the movie version of Gone With The Wind, delighted in painting Prissy as a drooling idiot. Mitchell makes clear, though, when Prissy is first introduced in the book, that she’s very sharp. This means that her subsequent behavior is a deliberate effort to deprive her owners of any access to her real self. It’s offensive to read Mitchell referring to blacks by all the epithets that dominated talk of race in the South (and, indeed, much of America), but after cutting through the language one sees that, intentionally or not, Mitchell portrays blacks as strong characters, often deeply moral, coping as best they can with an immoral institution.
What struck me most forcibly this time around is that the most dynamic character in the book isn’t Scarlett, although the book is ostensibly about her. Instead, it’s Rhett — Rhett who casts off the ridiculous shibboleths that control a society that’s built on gussied-up immorality; Rhett whose emotions are always honest; Rhett who recognizes the hypocrisy, self-deceit, and pomposity behind the lies told to the civilian population to justify the war and inspire their blind and foolish patriotism; and, most importantly, Rhett who has an utterly clear-eyed view of the insanely stupid hubris that led the agricultural South, with its limited population, to think it could win a war against the industrial North, which controlled the waterways and had unlimited population potential. Without Rhett, the book is nothing more than a long story about a pretty, stalkerish sociopath and a dying society made possible only because it exerted soft control over its women and hard control over its slaves.
When writing the above, I’m not trying to say that Gone With The Wind isn’t a great novel. Indeed, I still think it may be the greatest American novel. Margaret Mitchell is a delightful writer, who manages to weave together a sprawling tale with dozens of well-delineated characters that is at once a historic novel, a romance, a comedy of manners, and a scathing polemic about a society that ought to have been long dead-and-gone, with Mitchell’s book its only eulogy. What’s ironic is that, thanks to Mitchell’s powerful writing, the Old South’s rotting, racist corpse had a splendid resurrection in the mid-20th century.
If anything, rather than being ignored as an un-PC book (which is true for my children’s generation), Gone With The Wind should be on every American history reading list — provided that it’s understood not as a romantic elegy, but as a savage indictment of a superficially pretty, but deeply corrupt society.