Rehabilitating Rhett Butler?

The New York Times Sunday Book Review includes this review by Stephen L. Carter of Rhett Butler’s People, a recent novel by Donald McCaig. I’m not sure the review inspires me to read McCaig’s novel, but it does increase my desire to re-read Gone with the Wind, a book I read more than two dozen times in my youth but have not returned to since I turned professional. Even in my earliest readings, I think I knew enough, as an avid reader and history buff (and daughter of a civil rights activist) to recognize that idealizing the Old South was unacceptable, but my recollection is that I always felt it was the movie that played the nostalgia card, not the book. The opening text of the movie, for instance, none of which (except the phrase ‘gone with the wind’ itself, of course) is taken from the novel, reads,

There was a land of Cavaliers and cotton fields called the Old South…Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry took its last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…

I copied out that text from the movie once so that I could use it when I teach Scott’s Waverley; part of what I argue (drawing, of course, on a number of critics including the wise man who taught me to appreciate Scott, Harry E. Shaw) is that Scott avoids such idealization of the past, attaching that kind of naivete to Waverley himself before “the romance of his life has ended and its real history [has] begun.” My memory of the novel has always been that it is not sentimental in this way, and that while it is about people fighting for “the Cause,” it does not, itself, embrace that Cause as obviously worth their blood and tears. For one thing, the most loyal characters (Melanie, for instance) are the weakest and least able to survive; the momentum towards the future is powerful, with Scarlett’s selfish pragmatism outpacing any other ideological commitments (though she operates unthinkingly with the racist assumptions of her upbringing, slavery is primarily a means to an end for her, readily replaced with white convict labour as times change–her readiness to use people of all kinds to achieve her goals is her moral trademark, as is true of her closest Victorian counterpart, Becky Sharp). But here is Carter’s summary of the novel’s attitude:

“Gone With the Wind” was published in 1936, and despite heroic efforts over the last seven decades to transform it into something else, the novel stands as an apologia for the Old South — the South of gallant white plantation owners and darkies too foolish for anything but slavery, a civilization ruined by a vengeful North that subsequently flooded that idyllic world with rapacious Union soldiers, greedy carpetbaggers and the despotic power of the Freedmen’s Bureau. That Mitchell was able to defend this vision in a novel of such power, beauty and depth is a tribute to her literary genius. But the vision is no less terrifying for having been brilliantly presented.

These generalizations seem (again, in my recollection of the novel) open to a number of counter-examples (there actually aren’t many “gallant plantation owners,” for instance, except the Wilkeses, with the other county families of varying degrees of wealth and pretty mixed manners [and the whole community carefully historicized], and Mitchell apparently found quite comic the way Tara was transformed from her idea of a prosperous farmer’s home into a pillared mansion–and while I remember black characters who conform to the negative stereotype Carter invokes, I also remember characters like Dilcey, and I wonder if Mammy’s role is so simply degraded and degrading).

I think part of what we might return to is a question I raised earlier in thinking about the film Far from Heaven, which was also, as I look back, a point at which I thought about Gone with the Wind as it might look to me today. The main character in “Far from Heaven” suffers socially for her liberal views on both race and, as it turns out, homosexuality, which are shown as highly atypical in her community and social circle;

I found myself wondering if it would be impossible to do a sympathetic story in which a character who is not tolerant of such divergence from the norms was the protagonist: Kathleen’s best friend, for instance, who feels sorry for her having a gay husband (but has no liberal views on homosexuality), and whose sympathy seems to dry up when Kathleen admits her feelings for a black man. Of course we do not accept or want to sympathize with those attitudes, but does her (historically typical) mindset put her outside the pale? Is this why Gone with the Wind is not an entirely respectable novel today–because, among other things, its main characters are almost all quite satisfied with racial discrimination and slavery? But isn’t that realistic, in terms of majority opinion in the antebellum south? Can you depict that society as it was historically, depict its Weltanschauung without a layer of overt critique, and not appear to be (or really be) endorsing past values which we have learned to reject as immoral?

(It occurs to me that the best example I know of a novel that knowingly makes us intimate with a wrong-headed protagonist is Ishiguro’s brilliant The Remains of the Day, though even there, it’s not Lord Darlington we are brought to sympathize with.) At any rate, Carter’s view that “the filmmakers were in fact trying to sanitize Mitchell’s novel” does not seem obviously true to me in terms of its overall attitude–though he is right to point to the indirection introduced about “the Klan” as an example of easing our relationship to one of the novel’s most dramatic but also problematic incidents. It’s interesting that Carter acknowledges “power, beauty, and depth” in the novel while also rejecting it ethically and politically; this seems like a good case for the kind of analysis Wayne Booth experiments with in The Company We Keep, in terms of how far we can separate ethical and aesthetic judgments.

A further question Carter’s review raised for me–or, really, the whole project of the novel he’s reviewing raised–is what does it mean to “rehabilitate” someone who never actually existed?

The Klan question, the woman he dishonored, the rumors of a bastard in New Orleans, the money supposedly pilfered from the Confederate treasury — all of this McCaig explains away while keeping the story moving at a nice clip, faster even than the original….

McCaig pierces the mystery in which Mitchell shrouded Rhett Butler. He gives Rhett a life. We begin to understand where he came from, and why he was the way he was and did the things he did. McCaig discards Ripley’s cumbersome tale and invents fresh lives even for the characters necessarily common to both sequels. The new story has its own integrity. It makes sense.

It’s not as if what he has provided is the real backstory of the character (any more than Jean Rhys provided the true story of Mr Rochester’s first marriage when she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea–an oddly common perception among students, which suggests that they are getting it from their teachers…). To what extent does, or should, this new story infiltrate our interpretation of the original? Carter concludes his review by suggesting that “after finishing Rhett Butler’s People, it may be impossible to read Gone With the Wind in quite the same way.” I can’t test that theory unless I read McCaig’s novel, but once the pressure of the term lets up, maybe I can at least read Gone with the Wind again for myself.

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