I can’t possibly rate this book in terms of five stars. My feelings on it and its qualities will be pretty apparent by what I say. This book holds you captive. It’s easy to begin, easy to keep reading, and when the hammer falls (at least when it fell for me) its hold on you is so strong and appalling you have to go on. I think at that point you break in a few ways. You either go on, stewing resentment and annoyance, or go on, looking for explanation and redemption. Or worse, you agree with what it says. The title of this post comes from a line in the novel. The narrator is labeling the rise of the Klu Klux Klan as a “tragic necessity.” And that provides one of the two most cynical and hateful through-lines of this book. Both through-lines involve how to categorize and understand race, slavery, the rise of Jim Crow, and the Klan. The Klan plays a relatively small role in the novel, for its 1000 pages at least, but the way the novel presents it is deeply offensive, arrogant, and anti-humanistic. Essentially, through long passages describing Reconstruction-era politics, the novel basically argues that the South was mistreated ala Germany via the Treaty of Versailles. When we talk about the rise of Nazism, we tend to suggest the draconian measures of the Treaty led to rise of German Nationalism. This novel poses the same kind argument, with an added sympathy for the cause, for a “can you blame them attitude?” and a complete debasement of Black people in America.
And so, the novel poses itself as a lamentation on this loss. For long periods of time it seems that this is not the case because of how Scarlett thrives in the post-war economy, but as she cozens to “White trash” and “scallawags” and as Rhett begins his changes, it’s clear that the novel doesn’t actually believe that you should see the loss of the former culture as an opportunity but as a severe loss. The rise of the Klan and our dramatic irony as readers (knowing about how Jim Crow would come next–at its height during the writing of the novel) show that the slow burn waiting game is what is important. The way the novel treats Black people is utterly shameless and deplorable. They fall into a few categories, each as cartoonishly simple and debased as the next. They are shiftless “Free Issue Ni****s” to quote just about everyone, and as the War ends, they are tied to all the stereotypes of field slaves. There are the House slaves turned free; these include Mammy, who is the embodiment of her name. There are the loyal drivers and valets etc, all of whom are completely without personality save for sass and loyalty (and a constant hatred for poor White Trash, “Free Issue,” and Crackers/Carpetbaggers/Scallawags). There is obviously historical support for the idea that some freed slaves stayed loyal to their former masters, or through a lack of real opportunity they stayed close (Devil you Know kind of way), but to believe this novel, there’s only two types: loyal and disloyal. Oh, and no one ever whipped or beat or had dogs chase slaves: that’s a myth dreamed up by opportunistic Northerners, according to this book. And did you know that all Northerners are secretly MORE racist than Southerners? There’s a scene where that line (which again, does have actual truth to it but is presented so laughably here that it becomes nonsense) is coupled with the directly stated feeling that Southerners care more for their Black folks because Black folks are essentially children who are loving but need a clear a guiding hand, they need someone to tell them what to do, and they someone to exact punishment when needed. So when freed Blacks get the vote, they are not acting on their own accord, but being manipulated into voting by Northerners. This is because they are weak, they are child-like, and they are ultimately dumb. The novel even suggests that a misreading of the Bible convinces freed Black people to vote “‘Publican.” There’s never the barest suggestion that slavery was wrong and maybe there’s some resentment (I can’t find a strong enough word to describe resentment of this type). No, there’s only disloyalty and ignorance.
Maybe I am being harsh. Nope. This novel was written in the 1930s, not the 1870s. The most generous reading I could possibly come up with for trying to not have this novel be essentially a 1000 page justification for Jim Crow (which is most definitely is, by the way) is that what Mitchell is trying to do is present the South, warts and all, in as clear light as possible. I promise you this is an incredibly generous reading. And one that doesn’t really hold up because she has 20th century means as her disposal to try to render that. To look through almost a hundred years of history, progress, reading, writing, and to not be able to find anything, anything critical to say about plantation life, to not be able to find any way to complicate and humanize the lives of slaves and show you have an understanding of their complexity, to allow anyone to see them as suffering or to allow their righteous anger to ever make any sense to your novel or any of your characters. I don’t buy that there’s a historiography in novel form going on here. Mitchell’s narrator also belies this by making reference through an early conversation between Melly and Ashley about 19th century British novels. Melly says she doesn’t like Thackery because he’s “too cynical” (Vanity Fair presumably) but she does like Dickens. Melly is not the voice of the narrator, but she is the voice of decency throughout the novel (both in my estimation, Rhett’s, and the novel’s). In addition, there’s multiple references to Queen Victoria and a few other odds and ends. The novel then takes on the self-appointed quality of a 19th century British novel, with its God-like narrator at the heart of it. There are no intrusions of that voice into the narrations directly but the disembodied narration of the “State of Reconstruction” come not as character’s thoughts or close perspective, but as the voice of the narrator “telling it like it is.” This suggests to me that this analysis (bad as it is) is the Truth of the novel. This is a heartlessly cynical novel that thinks it’s telling cold truths about the world.
So why do I even care? No one has to read this novel. But this novel is a cornerstone of American myth-making, especially in the late 20th century. This novel serves as a would-be justification for Jim Crow; it shows that the rise of this new system of oppression was not only inevitable, but justified. And through the turning of Rhett to its cause, it shows that even his headstrong roguishness couldn’t win out against its charms and import. Late in the novel he tells Scarlett that when you’re 45 you start to think about the things you lost in youth and yearn for them. His late turn to respectability shows that even he understands this lesson about his homeland. His fighting in the artillery, which he curses himself for at the time, becomes his avenue into society. He could be lying to the society ladies, but he also tells this same story to Wade (Scarlett’s son) as a way to connect with the boy who seems desperate for some kind of cultural stability. He also comes around a little to Ashley, still hating him for his appeal to Scarlett, but respectful of his brokenness. But this novel has sold something insane like 30 million copies. If you know people from the South, so many people list this as their favorite book. I am cynical because I think people often just list the longest book they’ve ever read, but this seems to be a constant one.
I grew up in the South, loving to read about the Civil War, and I now live in Richmond. And when I look around the city, especially given the recent uptick in talk about getting rid of Civil War monuments, what I see is the work of novels like this at play. The use of the Civil War, which is super complicated as an idea, used to justify Jim Crow, which is a pretty simple idea. The deep scars of both still live on in this city. I was walking home the other day while listening to this novel when I walked by Hollywood cemetery. This cemetery has the burial plots of James Monroe and John Tyler, but also something like 20, 000 Confederate graves that still get flowers and flags (there’s a whole contingent of North Carolinian flags on those graves here). There are Confederate generals buried here. Jefferson Davis is buried here. As I kept walking, I passed by an old iron works that’s now a museum. If you walk to Church Hill, famous for Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, you can find the largest public housing complex in the country, not that far from the Memorial to the Confederate Soldier and Chimborazo Park, where a huge hospital complex once stood. Less than a mile from all this is also the largest slave prison and auction space in the US. This same city helped to start “Massive Resistance” which refused to comply with federal order to integrate schools. They awarded statues to the figures who did this and put them in the same government complex as the people who stood up and fought them. So it’s a bizarre mix of those who committed horribly moral sins being lauded alongside those who fought them. So in a weird way the celebration of the Civil War side of things, actually feels kind of tame in comparison.
So this book, this effing book, stands not only as an emblem of this duality, but as a major contributing cause this fake cultural hand-wringing and naivete about “what else could we do” and it preys upon the decency and humanity of the formerly enslaved to do so. This is a book that uses the specter of rape of white women as justification; it uses fragile white masculinity as a justification for any amount of crime and violence. So why do people read it? I think they think it’s brave and honest. It tells you what you want to hear. It shows Scarlett who takes complete advantage of people, who is venal, who loves money, who lies and cheats and steals, and basically says: if you have ever done these things in light of horrible circumstances, we forgive you. It will cost you everything, maybe even your soul, but you might be able to recognize that and make a late change. She loses everything at the end (well, she still has two kids and lots of money), but she sees it as an opportunity to move on. There’s a large middle chunk of this novel where it’s almost like a post-apocalyptic novel, where a society has crumbled and a new iniquity has taken hold. And Scarlett’s coldness and indecency keep her alive. There’s a sense that her fallenness is the true loss of the South, but really she just becomes more herself through these times. I like Scarlett as a character because she’s so small and peevish. Her love for Ashley is frustrating not because it keeps her from loving herself and Rhett because he’s such an obvious turd and she should be smarter. By the end though, because of how much the novel pissed me off, I guess I just didn’t care anymore.
So this novel cannot be ignored because of the amoral ideology it helps to support in this country. Because it’s still held up as a touchstone of American culture. But it’s dumb and blunt because it refuses to engage in tough questions. And it plays dumb in an infuriating way because it’s so good at analyzing relationships between people, especially Rhett and Scarlett, and it creates three fully realized and dynamic characters (Rhett, Scarlett, and Melly). And then it does nothing. Worse, it tricks you into reading 300 pages of a war epic only to turn into a lazy racist analysis of Reconstruction. Oh and if it feels like I am being too harsh or misreading or being too “readerly” about it, hold on. Late late late in the novel, Mammy is mourning deeply for a significant loss and the novel describes her:
“Mammy waddled slowly up the kitchen steps of Melanie’s house. She was dressed in black from her huge men’s shoes, slashed to permit freedom for her toes, to her black head rag. Her blurred old eyes were bloodshot and red rimmed, and misery cried out in every line of her mountainous figure. Her face was puckered in the sad bewilderment of an old ape but there was determination in her jaw.”