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Against the Wind

September 29, 1980. I’m reading Gone with the Wind again. 20th time. I use that book as a stress reliever. When in doubt, read GWTW.

I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten years old. It was my first experience of transcendence through reading: with its melodramatic characters and grand historical sweep, it carried me away.

It became my favorite book, and also my comfort book: leafing through my old diaries, I am reminded how often I turned to it when I needed support or distraction—and as I was a plain, introspective, bookish girl, there were many such occasions. Frustrated at my own inhibitions, I found in Scarlett O’Hara an inspiring model of defiant independence. Convinced by Dorothy Parker that I was unfit for the role of romantic heroine (“men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses”), I thrilled vicariously to Scarlett’s unruly passions. The novel was a portal to a time and place full of all the drama and intensity missing from my own life, with its predictable oscillation between home and school. I reread it regularly two or three times a year until I was about eighteen, when it got crowded out by the nineteenth-century novels it self-consciously evokes. But as the magic of the book itself wore off, it retained the charm of familiarity, and as I moved from my childhood home into my first apartment and then across the country for graduate school, it sat on all my various bookshelves like a talisman, a promise of continuity between my old life and my new.

As my transformation from bookworm to Ph.D. candidate progressed, my critical apparatus became more self-conscious and sophisticated and my reading practices became correspondingly more rigorous and less personal—at least, for the reading I did for work. I always made allowances, however, for the other kind of reading: the kind where you just let the book be itself, where you don’t scrutinize or question either its form or its presuppositions, where you don’t expect too much of it anyway.

Even in that zone, however, my standards went up as I spent more and more time with writers from whom I demanded a great deal, and who demanded just as much from me. You get spoiled, a bit, as a literary academic: you learn the satisfactions of reading with total commitment, of bringing everything you know to bear and seeing how the words on the page hold up under the weight—of bringing, also, the list of everything you want, from beauty to justice to illumination, to your reading, and learning what books meet your challenges, or teach you to rethink them. During this time I became impatient with the shoddiness of many books that had satisfied me before. I knew better; I couldn’t read with my old eyes any more.

Against the encroachment of these new critical habits and tastes, I still put up some bulwarks, particularly around books I’d loved since childhood. I didn’t want to complicate my relationship with them or to undo the ties they made to my past, which felt increasingly precious as I shaped a new life far from the people and places that had always meant ‘home’ to me. I read them to reconnect: I didn’t want to risk puncturing them with my freshly sharpened scrutiny. Gone with the Wind in particular I treated with indulgence, my nostalgia softening my new critical vision like tinted glasses.

When I took Gone with the Wind off the shelf this summer, I hadn’t read it at all since 1994. That was my thirty-first reading; I know this for certain because I used to note each reading on the inside cover. I’ve been reading my current battered paperback, which starts up at reading twenty-four, since around 1982. It’s in pretty good shape, considering. The edges are worn and the cover has been reinforced with packing tape. Towards the back there are some pages that weren’t bound properly to begin with – one more reading might pull them out altogether. Most of the pages near the end are wrinkled from the tears I shed over them in fits of self-conscious pathos. This is the kind of metadata an e-book can never accumulate—but then, an e-book would also not leave me with quite the dilemma I now face, whether to keep the book on my shelf or to hide it away, to own or disown it.

My reading of Gone with the Wind this summer, my thirty-second, was my first really honest one, the first one during which I unequivocally named what I had always seen. Even at ten, after all, I didn’t imagine that slavery was OK, and as a teenager I certainly knew better than to wish the Confederacy had won the Civil War. Back then, however, the novel’s own politics seemed as remote as its setting—weren’t the 1930s also ancient history, after all?—and thus it was easy to read past them and focus on the elements that still make Gone with the Wind compelling: the brazen, unflagging momentum of Margaret Mitchell’s storytelling, the richness of her descriptive details, the historical context and characterization, and above all, Scarlett. From the first sentence to the last, Scarlett owns her novel, and her reader too, or at least this reader. Her will to power drives the novel forward, and, even on this reading, carried me along as well.

Yes: on this reading I still found Gone with the Wind compelling. I’d be more comfortable if I could say it has lost its impact, that its narrative power means nothing in the face of its glaring moral defects. But books, like people, have many often contradictory aspects; it’s not easy to categorize them simply as good or bad, friend or foe, especially when, as in this case, our knowledge of them is bound up in our own memories. It’s not just nostalgia, either—or self-protection—that makes me reluctant to dismiss the book too fast: my education as a reader, while it made me more self-conscious about the moral and political implications of literature, also taught me that it’s risky to assume that a specific litmus test will tell me everything I need to know about a work of art, to think that artistic value can be measured by my other values alone.

And in literature as in life, love is a wayward emotion, not readily reined in by principle. My feelings for Bleak House are no less intense because I have learned skepticism about Dickens’s paternalism, and though I now resist George Eliot’s veneration of female self-sacrifice, I love Middlemarch with an ardor undimmed since I first discovered its beautiful complexities as a naïve nineteen-year-old backpacking across Europe, asking, like Dorothea Brooke, “what could I do, what ought I to do” with the rest of my life.

But reading engages our minds as well as our hearts, so it is no longer as easy or comfortable to love these books as it was. However I feel about them, I have to think about them differently, just as readers who find the central images and ideas of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness repugnant in their racism, or who conclude that the humor of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel is misogynistic, can no longer unselfconsciously enjoy the other pleasures these classics offer. As the moral and textual complexities reveal themselves, we are left, not with the deceptively straightforward task of total acceptance or rejection, but with the much more significant and difficult work of weighing all the many factors that matter to our ethical as well as aesthetic judgments. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Oscar Wilde pronounced; “books are well written or badly written—that is all.” Easily said, but unless novels mean no more than humming does, I defy even Wilde to identify “well written or badly written” books without somehow considering what they use their form to communicate.

How, then, do I read Gone with the Wind today?

First of all, though I still find it a great read, I can’t consider it a great novel. Formally, it’s entirely conventional: it starts at the beginning and proceeds straight through to the end, with a few looks back to establish context or character. It relies on seemingly transparent third-person narration—though the omniscient voice proves anything but distanced or objective. The prose itself is literate, richly detailed, evocative and sometimes eloquent, if just barely (and not always) on the right side of melodrama. Here’s a characteristic bit from the first chapter:

It was a savagely red land, blood-colored after rain, brick dust in droughts, the best cotton land in the world. It was a pleasant land of white houses, peaceful plowed fields and sluggish yellow rivers, but a land of contrasts, of brightest sun glare and densest shade. The plantation clearings and miles of cotton fields smiled up to a warm sun, placid, complacent. At their edges rose the virgin forests, dark and cool even in the hottest noons, mysterious, a little sinister, the soughing pines seeming to wait with an age-old patience, to threaten with soft sighs: “Be careful! Be careful! We had you once. We can take you back again.”

As far as style alone takes us, I would hazard the opinion that Gone with the Wind is well written. But, pace Wilde, writing isn’t everything. So beyond that, what does the novel offer? It has plenty of history, but no philosophy at all; what ideas it has are mostly bad ones, including the idea that its history will be a revisionist one in favor of the antebellum South. It has story, though, and character, and its best idea is the convergence between its major historical plot line—the fall of the old South and the rise of a new world from its literal ashes—and the individual exploits of its heroine.

Margaret Mitchell

Gone with the Wind opens on the very brink of the Civil War, but its focus is not the national or political landscape but Tara, a Georgia plantation house owned by Gerald O’Hara, an Irish refugee from English justice, and his elegantly remote wife Ellen, from aristocratic Savannah. Our heroine Scarlett is their oldest daughter; from the beginning her hybrid parentage creates both the charm and the tension of her personality: her decorous surface barely conceals the temper and tenacity of her Irish ancestors. She wants the one man impervious to her charms: Ashley Wilkes, handsome, reserved, intellectual, and engaged to his like-minded cousin, gentle Melanie. Scarlett’s pursuit of Ashley is perverse and single-minded. It lasts through three marriages of her own, including the only one that really matters, to Rhett Butler. Rhett sees through Scarlett’s façade of gentility; he admires her feisty spirit and fierce determination to get her way. Though he never admits his love for her, knowing she would despise it as weakness, Rhett stands by Scarlett, lending both moral and financial support as she struggles to survive first the war and then the chaos of Reconstruction. Eventually, however, Scarlett’s indifference wears out Rhett’s patience. By the time she realizes her feelings for Ashley were foolish fantasies and that Rhett is the man she ought to have loved all along, he no longer gives a damn.

I now recognize Scarlett as the cousin of numerous other rebellious literary women who will not take their assigned marriage plot and go quietly into the happily-ever-after. Her most obvious predecessor is Becky Sharp, the ruthlessly materialistic social-climbing heroine of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, though on this reading I was also struck by her kinship with Gwendolen Harleth in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Like Becky and Gwendolen, Scarlett seeks dominance and assumes, because that’s what she’s been taught, that she can win it through her sexual magnetism. Where Gwendolen is ultimately disappointed, however, learning the painful lesson of her own impotence against both patriarchy and history, Scarlett rides the tide of historical change into a future that rewards her courage, intelligence, and ruthlessness—the very qualities that make her a misfit as a Southern “lady”— with that holy grail of Victorian heroines: economic independence. Though the South is defeated, Scarlett never is.

Right from the novel’s opening sequence on the porch of Tara, it’s clear that Scarlett performs, rather than inhabits, the role of Southern belle:

The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor. Her manners had been imposed upon her by her mother’s gentle admonitions and the sterner discipline of her mammy; her eyes were her own.

Her proficiency in the part gives her power, as do those eyes and her famous seventeen-inch waist, “the smallest in three counties.” Scarlett’s egotism—fed by her success in the highly competitive sport of beaux-catching—makes her impatient with anything outside her immediate personal concerns. “I’ve never gotten so tired of any one word in my life as ‘war,’ unless it’s ‘secession,’ she declares to her smitten suitors on the porch that day; “If you say ‘war’ again, I’ll go in the house.” When she hears the rebel yell for the first time, at the Wilkes’s barbecue, her only response is annoyance at yet another intrusion of politics into her private drama, the battle she’s been fighting for Ashley’s heart. “Mr Lincoln again! Didn’t men ever think about anything that really mattered?”

Scarlett’s priorities reflect not only her self-absorption, but also her years of training, according to which “the first duty of a girl was to get married.” The war changes everything, of course, and leaves Scarlett reflecting bitterly that “nothing her mother had taught her was of any value whatsoever.” Far from leading an elegantly ordered life under masculine protection, Scarlett must now fight for her survival using the same unladylike qualities Ellen and Scarlett’s Mammy had tried so hard to obliterate. Her famous vow (“As God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again”) measures how far she has travelled since the day when Ashley’s rejection seemed like the worst that could ever happen. “And all this was happening to her, Scarlett O’Hara,” she marvels, “who had never raised her hand even to pick up her discarded stockings from the floor or to tie the laces of her slippers—Scarlett, whose little headaches and tempers had been coddled and catered to all her life.”

The infantilizing model of femininity against which she has always chafed is finally exposed as dangerously inadequate, and she leaves it behind, along with her literal girlhood, in the ruins of the civilization that is “gone with the wind which had swept through Georgia”:

In the dull twilight of the winter afternoon she came to the end of the long road which had begun the night Atlanta fell. She had set her feet upon that road a spoiled, selfish and untried girl, full of youth, warm of emotion, easily bewildered by life. Now, at the end of the road, there was nothing left of that girl.

Scarlett’s rejection of her mother’s ideals, her determination “never to look back” but always to press forward, pits her against her family, friends and neighbors, and thus by implication against the whole of the old South. In my earlier readings, I always considered Scarlett not just a heroine but truly heroic, because her conflict is with a society based on iniquity and inequality. I applauded her fight to replace that old world with something at once more energetic and more modern.

From early on, for instance, Scarlett identifies strongly with the brash young city of Atlanta: “Like herself, the town was a mixture of the old and new in Georgia, in which the old often came off second-best in its conflicts with the self-willed and vigorous new.” Both are devastated by the war but fight back. “They burned you,” Scarlett reflects when she returns to Atlanta during Reconstruction, “and they laid you flat. But they didn’t lick you. They couldn’t lick you. You’ll grow back just as big and sassy as you used to be!” Her prosperous lumber business not only literalizes that connection but also epitomizes her total break from the ideal of the helpless little lady. “Reared in the tradition that men were omniscient and women none too bright,” Scarlett realizes with pride that she has already “done a man’s work and done it well”:

With the idea that she was as capable as a man came a sudden rush of pride and a violent longing to prove it, to make money for herself as men made money. Money which would be her own, which she would neither have to ask for nor account for to any man.

Her unladylike success shocks everyone, especially her feeble second husband, who never expected her to “bother her sweet pretty little head about business matters.” “It was bad enough that she had intruded herself among strange rough workmen,” he reflects unhappily, “but it was still worse for a woman to show publicly that she could do mathematics . . . no man could feel right about a wife who succeeded in so unwomanly an activity.” Rhett Butler, her only sympathizer, predicts that her accomplishments will eventually be celebrated: “your grandchildren will sigh enviously and say: ‘What an old rip Grandma must have been!’ and they’ll try to be like you.” Generations later, I certainly found Scarlett’s quest for autonomy and economic independence inspiring. In her own time, however, she endures only isolation and disapproval.

Scarlett’s affiliation with the future is reinforced by the association of Ashley and Melanie with a fast-fading past. Melanie in particular is clearly a foil character for Scarlett, which is probably why, following Scarlett’s lead, I found her limp and tedious, even as I grudgingly acknowledged (as Scarlett finally does) the beauty of her quiet virtues. After the war, Melanie “refused to change, refused even to admit that there was any reason to change in a changing world.” She becomes a beacon of loyalty to the old ways; “people rallied around her as round a worn and loved standard”—and it takes no great mental effort to recognize that the standard in question is the Confederate flag.

While Scarlett flourishes after the Confederacy’s defeat, Melanie’s decline begins with her notoriously painful and protracted labor, which coincides with the fall of Atlanta, symbolically the beginning of the end of the war. Like the South, Melanie never regains her strength. While her wishful attempt to have another baby is the literal cause of her death, it’s obvious by then that she isn’t suited to survive in the world that has replaced the one in which she and Ashley imagined living out their marriage. “There was a glamor to it,” Ashley recalls sadly, “a perfection and a completeness and a symmetry to it like Grecian art. Maybe it wasn’t so to everyone. I know that now. But to me, living at Twelve Oaks, there was a real beauty to living.” Melanie’s death completes the passing of that remembered era, in the person of “a legend—the gentle, self-effacing but steel-spined women on whom the South had builded its house in war and to whose proud and loving arms it had returned in defeat.”

Scarlett’s belated realization that “Melanie had been her sword and her shield, her comfort and her strength” exposes the fatal flaw in my youthful enthusiasm for Scarlett as a proto-feminist heroine for a new era. Though Scarlett does pit herself against the values of the old South, I now see that in doing so she also pitted herself against the underlying ethos of Gone with the Wind. By this point in the novel, we’ve known for some time what Scarlett is only now acknowledging: that her choices were, on the novel’s terms, the wrong ones, that she has “cast her lot in with the enemy” and become “a traitor, a Republican—and a Scallawag.” It’s Melanie, with her “inflexible loyalty to the old days,” who is idealized as a “great lady.” It’s not just Ashley who’s nostalgic: the novel itself is a lament for the fall of the civilization he loved. By the end of the novel, Scarlett’s long rebellion against Southern society has been thoroughly undermined, shown up as a terrible mistake that ultimately costs her everyone she loves. As Rhett bluntly remarks, Scarlett has flourished at the cost of “pride and honor and truth and virtue and kindliness.” The price Scarlett finally pays is regret:

Oh, to be with her own kind of people again, those people who had been through the same things and knew how they hurt—and yet how great a part of you they were! But, somehow, these people had slipped away. She realized that it was her own fault.

Why is her long overdue remorse so regrettable? Not for the reasons Scarlett thinks it is, but because the “kind of people” with whom Scarlett identifies so strongly here are, at best, apologists for slavery, and at worst members or supporters of the Ku Klux Klan.

Racism, in fact, is the one Southern value Scarlett never abandoned. In post-war Atlanta, Scarlett is horrified by the freed slaves who mock her mud-spattered progress through the streets: “How dared they laugh, the black apes! How dared they grin at her, Scarlett O’Hara of Tara! She’d like to have them all whipped until the blood ran down their backs. What devils the Yankees were to set them free, free to jeer at white people!” Her attempts at advocacy are just as offensive: when ignorant Yankees insult Uncle Peter, one of the family’s faithful retainers, she reflects on “what damnably queer people Yankees are! . . . They did not know that negroes had to be handled gently, as though they were children, directed, praised, petted, scolded.” She thinks proudly and lovingly of “the faithful few who remained at Tara in the face of the Yankee invasion,” “the servants of her neighbors who had stood loyally beside their white owners, protecting their mistresses while the men were at the front . . . even now, with the Freedman’s Bureau promising all manner of wonders, they still stuck with their white folks.”

In my thirty-one previous readings, had I never recoiled from these views? Of course I had: you don’t need a Ph.D. to see how deeply offensive they are. But I had too easily set Scarlett’s racism aside as an accident of timing, granting her a historical exemption for her bigotry as if being white and Southern in the 1860s was excuse enough. I had also not thought hard enough about the extent to which Gone with the Wind as a whole takes Scarlett’s side on this issue. After all, acknowledging that Scarlett, like all “her own kind of people,” is a white supremacist does not settle the question of whether Gone with the Wind is itself a racist novel. To fight racism, it is also necessary to represent it; it may be embodied in particular characters so that the novel can expose and condemn them.

How can we tell if a novel is about racism rather than just racist? As the long history of critical debate over Huckleberry Finn demonstrates, it’s inadequate to point to an individual character, or the use of any particular vocabulary, as evidence one way or the other. At issue is something at once deeper and potentially more elusive or contentious: our interpretation of what literary critic Wayne Booth, in his work on the ethics of fiction, aptly explains as “the total pattern of desires and rewards that the author commits us to … the total pattern of desire and fulfillment that we enjoy” while reading the novel. Judging a novel at this level requires focusing not on its plot, or on specific characters, as my earlier readings of Gone with the Wind had done, but on the overall ethos of the novel, especially as communicated through the narrator.

As soon as I examine Gone with the Wind from that angle, my faint nostalgic hope that it portrays but does not partake of its characters’ hateful views collapses. Yes, the novel’s plot is extensively historicized, but the revisionist history it offers is not just sympathetic to but aggressively advocates for a particular point of view. Putatively objective sections of narrative exposition present what it seems wholly appropriate to call white-washed versions of history, such as this account of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan:

It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Klan to spring up overnight. And it was against this nocturnal organization that the newspapers of the North cried out most loudly, never realizing the tragic necessity that brought it into being. The North wanted every member of the Ku Klux hunted down and hanged, because they had dared take the punishment of crime into their own hands at a time when ordinary processes of law and order had been overthrown by the invaders.

You’d think that lynchings were no more than citizen’s arrests, and that race had nothing to do with anything. Here is the narrator again, in a passage that cannot be blamed on any particular individual but is simply a small part of a lengthy analysis of the South during Reconstruction:

Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedmen’s Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild–either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.

This and the many other such passages are neither direct nor indirect representations of any point of view but the narrator’s—and, unforgivably, the resemblance to Scarlett’s attitudes and epithets clearly identifies the narrator as one of Scarlett’s “own kind of people.”

Also like Scarlett, the novel gives no credibility to Abolitionism, which is represented only through the satirical treatment of foolish Yankee women who take Uncle Tom’s Cabin “as revelation second only to the Bible” and show what Scarlett considers “a very nasty and ill-bred interest in slave concubinage.” No sympathetic character endorses emancipation; the only hint of second thoughts by any slave owner is Ashley’s remark that he would have freed all of his family’s slaves “when Father died if the war hadn’t already freed them”—but he doesn’t give his reasons, and he also argues that owning them was preferable to Scarlett’s use of convict labor because “they weren’t miserable.” Thus is the central moral issue of the Civil War set aside as a trifling concern rather than an evil—a cruel wrong committed on a historic scale—that degrades everyone it touches.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett in the 1939 production. When adjusted for inflation, it is the highest-grossing movie of all time

Reading Gone with the Wind today, then, I realize that it rejects precisely the qualities I had always celebrated in its heroine, while embracing her most loathsome values. Punishing Scarlett for rebelling against her identity as a “lady,” it endorses racism and romanticizes slavery. For all its undeniable narrative power, its passion, drama, and pathos, it is, morally, an appalling book.

This conclusion may not strike anyone as particularly surprising. Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. Like Walter Scott’s Waverley or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it is a novel of the recent, rather than the remote, past; its events were still, then, within living memory. Mitchell herself was a white Southerner, born and raised in Atlanta; in writing the novel, she drew on stories she had heard in person from Confederate veterans. For years, I too shrugged off the novel’s embarrassing idealization of plantation life and its hostility to abolition as byproducts of these contexts, as indeed they are. But explaining is not excusing—it was perfectly possible in 1936 (as it was, in fact, in 1836) to recognize the iniquity of slavery.

And even if we extend more leniency than I think we should to Gone with the Wind as a historical artifact—allowing that it is a predictable, though not an inevitable, product of a particular time and place—we have to remember that a book is not an inert object: as soon as someone reads it, it becomes a living experience. Gone with the Wind was and is a hugely successful novel, a popular classic. It has sold over 30 million copies and remains in print in numerous editions, including a recent one featuring a preface by Southern novelist Pat Conroy:

To Southerners like my mother, Gone With the Wind was not just a book, it was an answer, a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance. If you could not defeat the Yankees on the battlefield, then by God, one of your women could rise from the ashes of humiliation to write more powerfully than the enemy and all the historians and novelists who sang the praises of the Union. The novel was published in 1936, and it still stands as the last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy.

Conroy’s shift into the present tense here neatly illustrates why the “ancient history” defense cannot stand: I am reading Gone with the Wind not in 1936 but in 2010. While I read it, in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world. It does so even in the way it imagines “me,” its reader: to read Gone with the Wind sympathetically, at a minimum you have to be white. The resulting segregation is not a historical phenomenon but something I consent to in the present if I keep reading.

Does this conclusion mean that I should not read Gone with the Wind again? Even if it stays on my literal shelf (where, to be honest, I could use the extra space), has it lost its place in my reader’s heart? Surely thirty-two times is enough: surely, in fact, thirty-two times is far too many. At some point even tolerance becomes intolerable if it means repeatedly suppressing my best self. I would never give so many second chances to a friend in my real life who crossed a line of such consequence so brazenly and without apology.

Or would I? Although, again, a simpler answer would be more comfortable, I think the only possible answer is ‘it depends’—on the depth and quality of our relationship overall, on all the contexts and complications of history and personality. Don’t we all have an elderly relative who holds fast to some absurd belief, some intractable prejudice? While hating their sins against our own cherished principles, we still manage, most of the time, to love the sinner, ideological warts and all. Of course, while we don’t choose our families, we do choose our books. Still, I think the situation is analogous. Rather than shunning, or censoring, we can be aware and critical, allowing for the good while not excusing the bad. We are capable, after all, of complexity, and often both life and reading demand it. There’s no doubt that intimacy and trust are undermined by such moral compromises, but other factors may compensate, or at least make the relationship worth preserving in its diminished form.

Having said that, I’m not sure that my relationship with Gone with the Wind is worth preserving. For now, though, despite everything, I’ll keep it on my shelf. There are a lot of my own memories bound up in that tattered volume, after all. It’s good to be reminded, too, of who I have been, even if that’s no longer who I am, and my library is a crucial reflection of my history and identity. And there are significant continuities between my past and my present: I’m still more or less plain, bookish, and introspective; I still sometimes seek comfort or distraction in books that complement my own experience of being a woman in the world with stories of courage, power, and passion. I now know books that meet this need while requiring far fewer compromises: books that are better written, that tell their stories with more wisdom and self-criticism, that have a richer philosophical sense, that offer less fantasy and more realism, above all that do not espouse such odious ideas.

Why, then, would I go back to Gone with the Wind? Seeing it as I now do, without the protective haze of nostalgia, I know I could never surrender myself to it emotionally: I would have to approach it as a resisting reader. But just because I can’t and shouldn’t read Gone with the Wind indulgently any more doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t read it at all. I probably won’t…but I’ll have to wait and see. After all, tomorrow is another day.

____
Rohan Maitzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs about literature and criticism at Novel Readings.

38 Comments »

  • Bill Benzon says:

    I enjoyend this a lot, Rohan, for it shows how one actually uses a book in one’s life. And that’s very important, in particular because I don’t think that we, as a profession, understand that very well. I can’t say that there are any books I’ve so often — though there are some films I’ve watched over a dozen times — but there are some that I’ve read in all phases of my life, from late childhood into middle age, e.g. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, King Soloman’s Mines. FWIW I note that the two books I’ve listed share a major thematic concern with GWTW: race.

    I’ve never read GWTW, though I saw the film when it was re-released in the early 1970s. I remember walking out of the theater and over-hearing two women talk about it. One remarked how very true-to-life the film was, a remark I found a bit astounding. As I remember it, the movie came awefully close to treating the Civil War as a device for bringing Scarlett to the realization that Rhett was her True Love.

  • Chris Gudmann says:

    Beautifully composed and deeply intelligent in its many layers of analysis. I have not read GWTW (shocking for an educated man!), but were I to do so now it would be with this critical understanding in mind. Thank you for the time and feeling required to produce such masterful writing.

  • Thanks, Bill and Chris, for your generous responses, and to everyone else for the links.

  • Really enjoyed this review — especially the way you combine a book review (content, style, character development, overarching metaphor: check, check, check, check!) and this marvelously personal review of your own reading and our cultural reception/perception of it. The weaving of your personal story into the general discussion points is so effective, as it lets the reader experience the book too and consider the issues facing us in 2010 with you. I especially like that reference to the Conroy blurb: that really sums it up. I admire Conroy’s writing a great deal, but you’ve hit the nail on the head with this one. Reading this book in the 21st century (or any books that verge on nostalgia for days gone by in the Deep South), one must consider what meaning still resonates here, and if Conroy can call GWTW the “last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy” — well, then… it’s a good thing you are there to write a review like this.

    So thanks for taking us along this reading tour and reminding us of the complexities to consider here. Reading any book that’s fully engaging — that really draws you in — is equal parts emotional and intellectual journey. Thanks for sharing yours.

  • Mike Hudson says:

    Ethical and moral judgments about art are patently absurd, since ethics and morals can change even more quickly than literary taste itself. Those who would impose the values of 2010 on a novel written in 1936 that describes events that took place in 1865 are, in my view, of the same ilk as former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who famously put a drapery over the exposed breasts of the art deco “Spirit of Liberty” statue that stands in the Justice Department.

  • Mary says:

    Just a correction to the author of the article—Ellen Robillard O’Hara was from Savannah, Georgia not Charleston, South Carolina.

  • Mary: thanks very much for the correction of that detail (now fixed), which of course I should have got right in the first place.

  • Mark Kohut says:

    Very rich, intelligent, honest essay, it seems. have you ever read Leslie Fiedler on the same subject: why he can’t throw over GWTH.

  • Mary says:

    Rohan–I neglected to mention in my first post that I very much enjoyed your article. It thoroughly reflected so many of my own feelings related to the many, many times I re-read “Gone With the Wind”. Like you, I have so many positive memories associated with the novel/story–the first time I saw the motion picture, my father took me to see it when I was a freshman in high school-AND on a weeknight. He felt the film was worth bending “school night rules”; and my tattered copy of the novel was personalized on the inner cover by my mother as a birthday gift for me. As you so aptly described, my collection of books reflects the journey in life that I have made thus far. I am not the same person I was when I first read GWTW–any more than I still play with a rag doll my grandmother gave me when I was six months old–but I still (and always will) treasure both.

  • Maria Bustillos says:

    This was a lot of fun to read but I have to disagree regarding the main point:

    Reading Gone with the Wind today, then, I realize that it rejects precisely the qualities I had always celebrated in its heroine, while embracing her most loathsome values.

    I don’t believe that Mitchell intends the reader to admire Scarlett very much. Ashley Wilkes is the book’s moral center, despite the fact that his “weakness” dooms him. He knows he’s in the right but is so discouraged by the viciousness and depravity all around him that he kind of withdraws into a civilized shell; kind of like a modern-day Democrat (haha.)

    The book is more complex than you give it credit for, maybe?

    If we were intended to admire Scarlett, she would have held on to her man at the end of the book, like a real heroine of that period always did. Even today, really, the coupling at the end of the story is a signal of the rightness of a character’s actions; his just reward.

  • bob white says:

    Oh Lord, sometimes a novel is just a novel.

  • JD says:

    Excellent article.

    I’m not sure that you fully explain how “it was perfectly possible in 1936 (as it was, in fact, in 1836) to recognize the iniquity of slavery.”

    Are you implying that our current understanding of morality should be equally accessible to writers from any culture? While Mitchell may not have been that distant from us chronologically, culturally she lived in a strikingly different world. While much of the rest of the world in 1936 had no connections to the oligarchy of the Old South, her subculture was immersed in these essentially foreign values.

    It is true that certain authors within her subculture and time period (such as Faulkner) were rebelling against deeply ingrained cultural traditions, but it is a bit much that you demand that every writer who doesn’t denounce all the evils of their own culture or be ethically suspect.

    I heartily agree that slavery is an abomination, but when approaching the art of another culture shouldn’t we judge it on it’s own terms? GWTW is not a morally reprehensible, well-written book. It is just a well written book from a different culture. We see the wrongs that the author may not have seen. But a novel is a work of art not an ethical treatise.

    Your approach to literature leaves little room for reading works of the past (should we despise all Roman writings that don’t denounce imperialism?) or different cultures (should we dismiss all Islamic literature that doesn’t repudiate terrorism?).

    If an Atlanta author wrote a novel today romanticizing slavery then it would be morally reprehensible–she knows better. But it strikes me as much more difficult to denounce Margaret Mitchell for not knowing better. I wish she knew better, but I don’t think she did. We can’t educate her in the grave, but we have no right to condemn her either.

    I hope that my great-grandchildren live in a much more ethical society that I do now, but I hope that if they read my work they don’t condemn me for failings I can’t even see due to my cultural preconceptions.

    *By the way, perhaps it is because I live in the city of Atlanta, but I know several African Americans who have read and enjoyed GWTW.

  • Ford says:

    I enjoyed reading this personal appreciation of GWTW, but I can’t agree with its premises. The reasons the writer “can’t consider it a great novel” are spurious, and I suspect would be ignored by her if the book did not morally and politically offend her. The novel’s offense of being formally conventional is particularly weird: are all Great novels necessarily “experimental” in form? Surely it’s more important that the form fit the story.

    Regarding the question of moral judgements, I think Wilde was right. Or else perhaps we should also admonish Mitchell that her characters eat meat, and don’t wear burkas.

  • sarla says:

    A very enjoyable article that has brought back memories of 1948- the year I learnt and enjoyed reading novels in English.In fact GWTW was the first big novel where as a young girl of 17 both Scarlet’s infatuation for Ashley ,her glamourous but manipulating self made me see the good/bad in her. But it was Rhett for whom I had all the sympathy!Movie which I watched soon after that year in India has left images in my long term memory which are easily retrieved by this article!
    This was also the first time I came to understand,but not fully, north/South divide in USA about which I came to learn gradually much more by reading about the Civil War and politics of white vs blacks. I am quite familiar with the devotion and loyalty of servants(not quite like slaves, but alsmost)so at that time it never even occured to me how unfair that was.
    But Rohan, this article of yours makes me want to read the book again and I am sure I will have a new way of looking at this book which still brings back memory of reading this book with utter absorbtion at the cost of total temporary neglect of my other textbooks!
    THANKS

  • charles s says:

    When I was a young child, I lived in the Atlanta of the segregated South. I remember being loaded on a bus with other school children and taken to down town Atlanta to a grand movie theater. We went to watch Gone with the Wind. It was a very long movie and it even had an intermission in the middle of the show. Now why would school children be taken to see such a movie? At the time, it seemed like a great adventure and it was. It was a stunning piece of propaganda meant to inoculate us with the virtues of the Confederate South. The fact that I remember it all after all of these years, shows the power of the movie. I am sure that the book was just as powerful. The realization of the underlying message from the book and the movie was so vile did not come until many years later. Even now, the book cast its spell upon Rohan. I understand how evil can be made to look and good be made to look as evil. Joseph Goebbels would be proud and laugh at the foolish of those Americans.

  • Jeanne says:

    Wow. I read and reread GWTW as a kid (partly because it was a long book and would last a long time) and felt much as you did about it. I haven’t reread it, though, and now am pretty sure I don’t want to. I think I’ll have to do what I did when one of my grandmothers made a racist remark–hum, and wait for it to pass.

  • Joyf says:

    What a lovely article. It combines a sort of reader-response approach with a nuanced analysis of what defines the novel, not neglecting character, plot, narrative outlook, and other tools of fiction. Rarely does one read a review that is so whole, that manages to delve into a book for what it is without slighting critical scrutiny as well. If more book writing similarly managed to straddle the line between review and criticism, perhaps the genre would retain some of the influence it once had.

    I’m also grateful because, as all of us must, I experienced the same conflicts upon reading the book, and it’s nice to see them all sifted and weighed like this. It’s interesting that despite the author’s attempt to chasten Scarlett, her defiance and verve are the things one takes away from the novel – she transcends the work. It makes me wonder whether Mitchell was battling one of her own possible selves, but decided, as so many of us do, to follow the dictates of custom and familiarity ingrained on us from childhood. One thinks, if so, she must have been trying to repress the most powerful part of herself.

  • Michael says:

    Thank you for such an interesting article. I suspect that all of us who have continued to read into adulthood had favorite books in our youth and for whatever reason, most of them have not withstood the test of time. But still, they are important to us for the simple reason that they caused us to love to read.

    And just like Gone with the Wind, many of the adults we loved in our youth were deeply flawed, particularly when it came to race. Absolutely unforgivable, but we find ways to forgive them still.

  • LieslM says:

    The author of this essay might be interested to know that Dr. Hervey Cleckley wrote a ground-breaking examination of the sociopathic personality (“The mask of sanity”) way back in the early 1940s. One of the chapters is about sociopaths in literature. Cleckley diagnosed Scarlett O’Hara as a sociopath, mentioning things like: her utter self-absorption; her determination to get anything she wanted regardless of who it might hurt (going after her own sister’s long-time beau; going after Ashley Wilkes despite his marriage to Melanie, Scarlett’s own sister in law); her lack of empathy; her lack of any real moral code, etc. etc. I’ve never forgotten that.

    There are lots of things about GWTW to admire (Mitchel’s descriptive powers particularly), but the racism of that book is really hard to stomach, and the idea that it is a great romance is laughable to me. As a work of popular fiction, though, it is hard to top. Mitchell had a narrative drive that was practically unstoppable, together with a fascinating and deeply flawed protagonist.

  • Emily says:

    I have read this book about 50 times, also have a PhD in English literature, and also feel kind of “embarrassed” to be seen reading and rereading it. However, the author makes an obvious (and youthful) error in suggesting that we should not love this book because it is not high literature, because it is morally bankrupt, etc. Let go of the personal-agenda reading and just enjoy. Many great and even good books feature morally reprehensible characters and situations–they are part of the apparatus of the text and should no be co-opted as personal reactions.

    There is something about this book–if it gets you early, as it did me–that just keeps grabbing you. I think, ultimately, it is Scarlett. She doesn’t let you go, and we should all just be grateful for old favorites like these without overanalyzing or judging them based on too many snooty self-conscious “literary theories.”

  • Fred says:

    I continue to marvel at the way writers, especially “scholarly” writers continue to overlay 21st century standards and ideas on literature much older as a way of writing a “thoughtful criticism.”
    GONE WITH THE WIND is, first and foremost, a romance. As much as I do not admire Alexandra Ripley’s “sequel,” at least she got that part right. As for revisionist history, I don’t think so. Margaret Mitchell was writing a NOVEL from the point of view of a writer steeped in the traditions of the old South, and much much closer to the actual events than we are in 2010. Remember that next year marks the sesquicentenniel of the beginning of the “late unpleasantness.”

    Mitchell may have had some concept of what the women’s rights movement might eventually encompass, especially given the fact that she was certainly old enough to remember the relevance of the women’s suffrage movement. Thus perhaps Scarlett was written through that prism, as well. Still, Mitchell also acknowledges that, right or wrong, the Old South and its accompanying gentility is “gone with the wind,” swept away by politics and macho machinations between testosterone driven men who, through the ages, have not known how to control that particular hormone.

    And being honest, if we can, slavery had very little to do with the war at the outset. Abolitionists, other than the usual “christian” activists, was motivated more by economic fears in the northern states, regarding cheap labor for not only raw materials, but also for manufacturing those materials where they were produced. In addition, one cannot ignore Mr. Lincoln’s own speech in Charleston, in which he said if there were a way to preserve slavery AND to preserve the Union, he would follow that course.

    At any rate, don’t think for a moment that Miss Mitchell was trying to rewrite history. It makes no sense to think so. This is the same mentality that, in 2010, labels Mr. Twain a bigot and a racist because one of his characters calls Jim a “nigger.” At the time, that word was not used to disparage in the way it became such during the civil rights movement, when “discrimination” was also lost to the genteel vocabulary. Once more, we are attempting to overlay modern standards onto a different time, in which Mr. Twain was much ahead of his peers in undeerstanding that black people were as “human” as any other human being. For bringing this concept to the fore, he is much to be admired in the same way that Miss Mitchell can be for speaking of a different time without whining about having lost it.

  • Thanks to everyone who has read and commented so far; it’s invigorating to read so many engaged responses. I can’t hope to reply in detail to everyone, but here are a few responses of my own.

    @Maria: That’s an interesting suggestion about Ashley as the moral center of the novel. I don’t think I argue that we are intended to admire Scarlett–at least not altogether. I agree that if we were, the book would end by rewarding her.

    @JD: The short answer about how it was possible to see slavery as wrong in 1936 is that there was a loud public discussion of this dating back to well before the abolition of slavery in the British empire in the early 19th century, that abolition was one of the central issues of the war she was writing about, and that the ‘subculture’ Mitchell lived in was not a closed or homogeneous world (not every white southerner held the views on race endorsed by the novel). As I acknowledge in the essay, I too used to give the novel’s racism a pass on historical grounds, but as I say, I no longer find that an adequate response. The main issue for me becomes how I respond to the novel, reading it today.

    @Ford: It’s a fair point that experimental form is not a prerequisite for greatness; I like your suggestion that the form should fit the story. But formal interest is certainly one thing I consider when evaluating a novel, along with the other qualities I discuss about Gone with the Wind (plot, characterization, setting, descriptive prose, and ideas, for instance). I give Gone with the Wind high marks in some of these categories! I just ended up feeling that its strengths did not outweigh its problems the way that (to use an example from this essay) the strengths of Middlemarch, on my reading, do outweigh the reservations I have in that case.

    @Joyf: Thank you for your thoughtful praise. That balance between personal response and careful analysis was just what I was trying to achieve, so I’m glad that you found my attempt successful.

    @Jeanne: Yes, exactly!

    @Michael: You are absolutely right that instilling a love of reading is the great gift of the books we love in our youth, even if we outgrow them in one way or another later on.

    @LieslM: I hadn’t heard of that; what an interesting analysis!

    @Emily: I admit, I sort of appreciate being accused of making a “youthful” error, which is probably a sign of my age! I agree that many novels “feature morally reprehensible characters”; as I try to argue here, that is certainly not sufficient grounds for moral judgments of the novels themselves. Rather, if we believe (as I do) that ethical criticism is a legitimate approach, we have to be particularly careful to consider how those characters are functioning in the “apparatus of the text” (whether they are portrayed as ideal or heroic, for instance, or questioned or criticized), and to try to understand the overall ethical direction of the novel. I’m not satisfied with “just enjoy” as a guiding principle for reading. I think books are important, and affect us, on many levels: emotional, aesthetic, intellectual, and, yes, moral. The minute we start discussing what books are about, what they mean to us, whether they are ‘great’ or whether we love them, I think we’re bound to get self-conscious, and I guess I just don’t see that as a bad thing. I didn’t say I didn’t still enjoy Gone with the Wind, after all–and I certainly didn’t say other people shouldn’t either.

    I found the Wayne Booth book I allude to in the essay, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, really helpful for its exploration of how we can take moral issues into account in our thinking about literature without becoming what he calls “hanging judges.” His book is not at all “snooty” and it isn’t particularly theoretical, either (it would have been extremely unfashionable in the graduate program I attended, that’s for sure). I certainly recommend it to anyone interested in thinking about these questions. My essay is quite indebted to him and to his examples, including his analysis of Huckleberry Finn, which leads me to…

    @Fred: Your Twain example is spot on, but it’s just that kind of simplistic judgment that I’m trying to avoid here (how successfully, of course, my readers will have to decide). As I say above, “As the long history of critical debate over Huckleberry Finn demonstrates, it’s inadequate to point to an individual character, or the use of any particular vocabulary, as evidence one way or the other” about the racism of the book–but unfortunately that’s still the kind of evidence pointed to by most people who favor banning books, rather than thoughtful consideration of whether a book as a whole really is espousing hateful ideas. (Even if the conclusion is that a book is hateful, further questions remain about the appropriate response, of course: it doesn’t follow from that conclusion that a book should be banned or censored.) I think a thoughtful reading of Huckleberry Finn would conclude, just as you do, that the book is morally admirable (as well as artistically ingenious).

  • garymar says:

    Very satisfying read! I’m male but read GWTW in middle school. Loved it but didn’t analyze it at all. My wife tried to read it as an adult (she bought a translation in her native language) and found it utterly puerile and shallow. There’s a lesson here: always read GWTW before you’ve tackled Dostoyevsky or Stendhal!

    I experienced a similar life-long encounter with the Lord of the Rings trilogy: regularly read it up until early middle age. By that time, I had the same problems with the ethical focus of the LOTR as you had with GWTW: starting with a belief in blood purity, ‘noble’ and ‘inferior’ races, this led directly to: black-and-white moral universe — enemies who are literally demons; nostalgia for absurdly unjust systems of government — there has to be a king!; and icky women safely quarantined in traditional roles — even the warrior princess of Rohan finds true love and lays down her sword, etc. A juvenile moral universe.

    On the other hand, the pathos of the passing of the elves, including Arwen’s sacrifie, deeply affected me time and again. However their struggle ended, their world was doomed. This experience only deepened with the years. The elegaic tone of these passages was my first heartfelt literary experience of mortality and loss.

  • Jeff says:

    Very interesting article, however I would like to take issue with one of the main points: that the novel is somehow “morally repugnant” due to it’s supposed support for slavery. Well let me be the first to say, so what? The very value of a novel is it’s ability to portray the deeper truths of human life, and the truth is, slavery has been a huge part of human civilizations from at least the agrarian revolution. Slavery has existed for at least 5,000 years and it has been practiced on every continent inhabited by humans. As Jared Diamond has pointed out, before the agrarian hunter-gatherer tribes simply killed their opponents because it was impossible to do anything else with them. From an evolutionary standpoint, it was better to be taken as a slave and allowed to have descendants than to be simply slaughtered. As time goes by and the economic and material circumstances of life change, the major forms of social organization change. In fact, it was capitalism and the industrial revolution, and their requirement of a free labor market, that ended slavery, not some phantom of “morality” that played upon men’s hearts. After all, if the moral imperative against slavery had been so strong, why did it take at least 5,000 years to finally assert itself? Nowhere in the Bible do we see a denunciation of slavery (in fact quite the opposite). And while I am an atheist, the Bible provides valuable insight into how people thought thousands of years ago.

    So I believe the greater value of the novel is precisely it’s defense of the sensibilities of the plantation system, not because we want to replicate it today, but because it explains how a people could go to war to protect it in the most bloody war in American history. Reading empty platitudes about “man’s inhumanity to man” would not edify us. If I read a novel written by someone alive at the time of ancient Egypt, it would be more valuable to understand what the actual thoughts and feelings of people who loved such a system were, a system that among other things, practiced slavery and a bizarre treatment of children that we would now consider child abuse, than to read a whitewashed version that tsked tsked such institutions. In fact, Maitzen says it is the whitewashing of the plantation system that bothers her, but wouldn’t a whitewashing of the actual attitudes of Southerners be more of a problem? How are we to truly understand the rise of KKK if we don’t hear the voices of those that supported it? I think taking the view of an anthropologist, rather than a conventional moralist, gives us more insight into human behavior. Let us fully understand what breathed life into a particular culture. Let us have authenticity.

  • lt says:

    Jeff, the novel might be an interesting historical artifact for the reasons you state (although only in what it tells us about how later generations whitewashed history in defense of Jim Crow racism, as a document about what the Civil War south was actually like, it’s rubbish). But how does that mean it’s not ‘morally repugnant’? Rohan’s not talking about reading the novel to see how racists thought (and do we really have a shortage of knowledge about that?), she’s talking about enjoying the story and coming to realize the hateful system it was written in support of.

    And why do you assume that an anti-racist novel would just be platitudes about “man’s inhumanity to man”? Are racists inhernetly more interesting than the ones who oppose them?

  • lt says:

    @JD – Check out the Grimke sisters. They were born to a slaveholding family in the early nineteenth century and managed to become dedicated anti-slavery activists. Understanding people in the context of their own time doesn’t mean only priviledging those voices who were trapped by it, and ignore the ones who broke through.

  • Jeff says:

    Well like I said slavery was common worldwide for thousands of years and most likely did not end because of some “moral enlightenment” but because of a change in the economic structures around the world in the last 200 years. There wasn’t anything unique about the form slavery took in the US. It was practiced here just like it had been for thousands of years all over the globe. Nor is “racism” or ethnocentrism anything unique. From a sociobiological viewpoint, populations compete with each other and exploit each other for advantages, ultimately reproductive advantage (whether consciously aware of it our not). Again, it was better to be enslaved and have children that had more children, than to simply be killed.

    Now I would not say the experiences of “racists” (which probably refers to most human beings in the loose sense it is defined today) are more interesting than “non-racists” at all. But again, the authentic voice of a people during a certain period is very interesting. It would be fascinating to read a novel by a person who lived in or just after the time of the Mayan culture, even if (or especially if) they explained how people could justify letting their children to be sacrificed. Now if they condemn it and can explain it fully, that would be interesting too. But getting hung up on whether someone conforms to the sensibilities of our age (which will change) seems like a waste of time. And yes I’ll have to admit, I found Uncle Tom’s cabin a bit preachy and contrived. Bot both are very valuable.

  • Laura Tanenbaum says:

    There are lots of other anti-slavery narratives besides Uncle Tom’s cabin. Like oh, say Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs? But I guess they didn’t have anything worth saying, what with how they went against the dictates of Darwin and dared to ask that their bodies not be used for some one else’s survival, right?

    If you don’t think there’s any point to morally objecting to racism, that the best response to American slavery is ‘ho hum, lots of people did it’ and that ‘sociobiology’ explains everything, and that being against slavery is no better than being for it, that it just happens to be ‘the sensibilities of our age’ I really don’t see much point in the disucsion.

  • Jeff says:

    Well, if you take a look at most works of art throughout history you will find themes that would be considered “uncomfortable” today. And some of them are morally questionable in the times they were written. Now you’ve created a straw man because I didn’t say there was no point to morally objecting to racism, but that the role of morality probably didn’t play as big a role as other factors, such as the economy and technology. Unless we have a reason to think people suddenly became more moral in the 1800s and there isn’t any evidence of that. If you look at the mass slaughters that took place in the 20th century, humans are as capable of enslaving and killing other humans as ever. I get the sense that a lot of people gain a certain moral prestige by imagining that they are part of an ethical elite that would never practice slavery. And I suppose their is a social advantage in presenting oneself that way. However, I just don’t think the facts bear it out. As far as Darwin is concerned, I can’t really claim an imprimatur like that. But I think a Darwinian view of things does add something relevant to our view of human history.

  • Laura Tanenbaum says:

    But the questions raised about this book have nothing to do with whether, overall, we are better people, it has to do with the nature of this book’s particular project. We may or may not be making moral progress overall as a species – I like to believe, as Martin Luther King said, that “the arc of history is long but it points towards justice.” Now, that may be a false hope on my part, but saying that changes in morality had nothing to do with the erasure of slavery and segregation erases the movements and struggles that went into ending them. And Gone with the Wind was written in 1936. Taking a pro-slavery position at that time is not reflective of the moment, it’s a reactionary position rooted in nostalgia for a horrific period. It’s not self-congratulations to point that out, it’s just a recognition of reality.

  • Laura Tanenbaum says:

    And just to add: is there a text that portrays a group to which you belong as less than human to which you would apply the same logical standard?

  • PhD in US History says:

    The writer is a professor of English. Not history. Obviously. Some rather sweeping statements about the Civil War and post-Civil War eras here.

  • harvinder singh says:

    great work – great movie

  • Emily says:

    Yes, the novel is racist and in that way, morally reprehensible, but what about other moral points in the book? For example, feminism? Scarlett is quite ahead of her time, running her own business and taking on traditionally “masculine” roles throughout the book. I see quite a parallel between the characters’ responses to a change in way of life and the change that is taking place in our culture now as we try to transition to digital culture. The book is a commentary on sentimentality and nostalgia for an old way of life. We can either wish for the old days like Ashley or pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and change gender roles for the better, like Scarlett.

    Maybe Mitchell wasn’t trying to use her book to preach a sermon about everything that needs preaching about. Although the racism in the book is repugnant, that was part of the time she was writing about. But despite that glaring prejudice, I think there is moral value in other aspects of the novel.

  • Rohan Maitzen says:

    Thanks for your comment, Emily. You raise a number of points that I also raise in the essay. I agree, for instance, that the book is about more than race, and I discuss “Scarlett’s quest for autonomy and economic independence” as part of what attracted me to her and sets her apart from the gender norms of her time: “Scarlett rides the tide of historical change into a future that rewards her courage, intelligence, and ruthlessness—the very qualities that make her a misfit as a Southern ‘lady’— with that holy grail of Victorian heroines: economic independence.” I found on this most recent rereading, though, that for me, taking the whole novel into account, it was hard to sustain my original view of Scarlett “as a proto-feminist heroine for a new era.”

  • Angelica says:

    Rohan, lots of great things in your article here. I’ve been rereading GWTW for the 3rd time (a relative virgin on this post, I realize), and spent much of this afternoon googling about the realism of the novel as it relates to antebellum society and the Civil War. Based on what – ahem – historians have said, and simple statistics, I find the comments to your article by “Ph.D in History” to be rather silly.

    At any rate, I unearthed some information that has deflated my enthusiasm for the novel even as I am reading it. Chiefly that Mitchell actually intended Melanie to be the heroine of the novel, and Scarlett a “bad example” (yet another case where the character outgrows the author’s vision). I think you could make a good argument that Mitchell was ambivalent in this at best, and it somewhat conflicts with what I’m going to say next, but on a certain level, it makes sense.

    The book “Realism for the Masses” (link at the end of my post) makes a compelling argument that Mitchell, as an avowed political conservative, who was “happy” to see her novel used in the fight against communism, was in fact not only intentionally writing revisionist pro-South literature, but that she was putting forth a conservative challenge to the progressivism that was sweeping the nation at the time. Her characters win through “gumption,” and it’s the planter class that holds most of the gumption. So she is also an apologist for the “rightful” dominance of the upper classes.

    Unfortunately, I do find some merit in this analysis. Mitchell was drawing not only on the plantation novel genre of the mid-1800s but plausibly also on Birth of a Nation, the notoriously racist film. She was also writing (toward the end) during the Great Depression, and her 20th century perspective informs the attitudes of both Rhett and Scarlett.

    It’s at this point that I say sometimes it’s better not to know too much about the historical context or political leanings of a novel and its author. Because I find the book to be multilayered, and its virtues (and vices) spread across all of its main characters. And Mitchell quite often critiques even the worldview she is presenting. As to that I can just say that her nostalgia is tempered with other, less charitable feelings toward the antebellum South… such as the way she portrays the South as foolishly naive about the war and stifling in its social mores. I would say she portrays these things with ambivalence, much as you described the ambivalence one feels toward that elderly relative with those few, awful viewpoints.

    I agree that it’s not great literature; it doesn’t uplift us in a spiritual sense, doesn’t make us reflect deeply on human existence, doesn’t challenge deeply held cultural beliefs; but it is a great story, with great and complex characters and scenes that leave an indelible mark on our memory… Scarlett being bid on at the dance by Rhett, for example.

    The racism is a difficult issue, made the more difficult by the fact that we must ask ourselves (if we are white), how comfortable we would be mooning over this novel in front of a black friend. While some may say (and have on this very post) that we shouldn’t judge literature from a previous era by today’s standards, that only applies, I think, in an analytical sense. In other words, despite the offensive nature of a work of literature, can we find redeeming merit in it that still gives it the right to be called great? In a moral and personal sense, of course we bring all of ourselves to things we read, and we should not cut off our sense as moral beings. Consider how we find deeply uncomfortable literature, even great literature, from the Renaissance, or before, how offensive some classic folk tales are. As a woman, for example, I found the insipid and stereotypically female portrayal of Eve in Paradise Lost to be offensive, despite the fact that it is a member of the canon of great English literature. On an analytical level, I could appreciate it; on an enjoyment level, I had to grit my teeth through it (and, in fact, wrote snide comments in the margins of my book – ha!).

    I don’t know how I will feel about this book when I get to the end of it. So far in my rereading, I have not reached the most racist and revisionist parts of the book. Perhaps I will decide that, despite its appeal as a great story, that is is just too distasteful to feel good about. On the other hand, perhaps I will conclude that the bad parts just need to be begrudgingly accepted, like a hated vegetable at dinner. We shall see.

    So, didja keep the book?

    Link: http://books.google.com/books?id=oNKyvL7ccB4C&pg=PA81&lpg=PA81&dq=realism+of+south+in+gone+with+the+wind+book&source=bl&ots=_UyK8bxWoG&sig=t7L6Tt6pazDqEuQdIRSieRN39Gk&hl=en&sa=X&ei=iiLeULn9GJCy0AGvi4GIDg&ved=0CGsQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=realism%20of%20south%20in%20gone%20with%20the%20wind%20book&f=false

  • Angelica says:

    I do have to say, though, that I hated Middlemarch. :-)

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