In 1905, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan was published to massive sales and widespread scorn. The book was supportive of segregation, and glorified not only the Confederacy, but the Klan it was purporting to tell the story of. One year later, mobs of white Atlantans massacred African Americans following lurid and unfounded accusations made in local newspapers about the alleged rape of four white women at the hands of black men. At least 25 black people were murdered in the city, and at least 90 were injured. In 1915, Birth of a Nation was released to theaters. It revolutionized cinema and was insanely popular. It was the first film to be screened in the White House, and spurred racism around the country. That same year, the Second KKK was born in Stone Mountain, Georgia, partially because of the film and it’s impact around the country.
This was the world, the Atlanta, that Margaret Mitchell was born into. She was the daughter of a lawyer, who was himself the son of a lumber industrialist descended from plantation owners who built a sprawling fortune supplying material for the rebuilding of Atlanta. Her world was one of aggrieved white southerners glorifying their self-described victimization in the wake of the Civil War, regaling themselves with stories of grand plantations full of happy slaves toiling away in contended simple-mindedness, Confederate heroism, and the loss of a great and honorable caste system and aristocratic social class.
She was raised on the knee of Confederate memory and dread of roving bands of dangerous black men raping white women. Her family, in very real terms, inspired the O’Hara family, and her depictions of antebellum Atlanta, the Civil War, and Reconstruction likely have a direct correlation to family stories she heard growing up. It’s no surprise, then, how she depicts the deeply mythologized South.
I don’t know how much this novel created “The South”, but it certainly helped codify and mythologize the South as a time and place conceptualized by lost glory turned to the ash by an inferno of Northern aggression. Gone with the Wind is a novel watered by the tears of the Lost Cause. It is a deeply, deeply racist novel.
It is also, perhaps, the most American novel I’ve ever read. It doesn’t see itself as racist. Scarlett O’Hara loves her slaves, and they love her, as well. But she doesn’t see them as equals. She doesn’t really even see them as human beings. They are beneath her. She knows it. They know it. It is the way of things, and it is good that it is that way. Mammy isn’t free, and doesn’t want to be, but she’s allowed to correct and scold Scarlett. She’s even allowed to criticize poor whites for being uncivilized – despite all agreeing that they have a higher place in the social hierarchy than she, herself, does. But she also must always know her place. She is a servant. And as a black servant, she is inferior to poor whites.
I live in the South. I’m surrounded by conservative white Southerners who would scoff at the idea that they are racist while holding deeply racist views. Of Richard Nixon, H.R. Haldeman said, “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to”. This idea is the guiding principle for both this novel and modern conservatives. Race underscores everything, but the trick is in talking about it in a way that people in the know understand what’s being said without you having to be explicit.
If there is a core tenet to race in this book, it’s that black people aren’t capable of being free, and were better off during slavery. The freedom forced upon them by the North not only made their life worse, but it made life worse for everyone because it upended a proud, noble heritage of the white supremacy of Southern gentility. And if that isn’t some bullshit, “South is going to rise again” mythologizing, I don’t know what is.
All of that said, this is a wonderful book in the sense that the story is engaging, the writing is impressive, and I was legitimately surprised at some of the choices Margaret Mitchell made. Her heroine, for instance, is a truly shitty person. Not in a, “times have changed” kind of way, either. Scarlett O’Hara would be seen as a terrible person in 1860, 1870, 1930, or today. She’s unbearably selfish, amoral, and possibly has some form of sociopathy – it’s not that she knows what the rules are and doesn’t care, she simply doesn’t understand what the rules are or why they should apply to her. She’s a truly, remarkably, terrible person – and she is so often shown to be doing laudable things, giving her an aura of being likable in spite of herself.
Following the end of the Civil War, after her field hands have abandoned the plantation, Scarlett is forced to take to the fields herself or starve. Her sisters offer her no help, and often absolutely refuse to get their hands dirty. But Scarlett has no such compunctions. She also runs a lumber mill and proves to be quite skilled at managing her businesses. Her reputation suffers, but she is almost pathologically indifferent to how people perceive her. The society around her is aghast that she – a woman – has the audacity to run a business. She should be happily relegated to the home, where she wouldn’t have to think about numbers, or money, or production. She has a husband, after all.
Mitchell was the daughter of a suffragist and activist, and it seems clear that she passed these views on to her daughter. They proudly shine in Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is nothing if not a strong and independent woman fully capable of realizing her own desires. Though this is a romance, Scarlett isn’t define by any of the men in her life.
Throughout the novel, Scarlett O’Hara is in love with Ashley Wilkes, a man she doesn’t understand. He’s contemplative, loves books, is married to the noble delicate Melanie Hamilton, and ends up being a kind of man out of time following the Civil War – he’s built to drift through life as an aristocrat sheltered from actual work, which he can no longer do with the loss of his family’s great privilege. This is enshrouded with feelings of great loss and terrible sorrow. It’s tragic that Ashley Wilkes is forced to live in a world that he isn’t built for. We are supposed to wish those days could return.
But they don’t return. They will never return. The new world is one in which Scarlett O’Hara shines brightly – and Rhett Butler, the other man revolving around her, is even more luminous. Like Scarlett, Rhett is both outside of the culture of the South, and very much central to it. The society of Atlanta is very much trying to hold on to their antebellum way of life, but carpetbaggers (Northerners who’ve moved to the South for political gain) and scallawags (white southerners who profited off Yankee reforms) are pulling the South inexorably away from the life they want to live. Rhett was the disgraced son of wealthy plantation family in Charleston turned blockade runner during the Civil War who becomes a socialite following the Civil War. He loves Scarlett throughout the novel, but isn’t a supplicant to her affection. They have a rich, complex relationship that always has a tension that brings them together while also keeping them apart. They revolve around each other, falling perpetually towards one another, missing, and then turning inevitably, continuously, towards a common destination.
I believed in the romance in this book. I believed Scarlett loved Ashley Wilkes – the idea of him, at least. And I believed Rhett Butler loved Scarlett. I even believed that Scarlett loved Rhett, in her way. And what ends up happening to all three felt absolutely earned and legitimate. It was masterfully done by Margaret Mitchell. The ride was full of surprises and always engaging.
But this book is so racist. Like, in all the worst ways. I’d be reading this book, enjoying it. Reveling in it. And then she’d drop something in the middle of the page about how black characters were just so happy and stupid and not really worthy of personhood. What the actual fuck, Margaret.
We can read slave narratives. They are freely available. In the mid-1930s – during the height of Gone with the Wind‘s success, WPA writers were interviewing surviving ex-slaves thoughout the American South. Those interviews, too, are freely available on-line.
I have a lot of conflicted emotions and thoughts about this book. On the one hand, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read with engaging characters. It is progressive in some ways, questioning the male-centered culture of the South, and unfairness of a system that demands women take on a subservient role of pious docility. On the other hand, it’s deeply, unapologetically racist. Not just “problematic” – racist. It is a bigoted depiction of the South.
As a book, I give this five stars every day of the week. I thoroughly enjoyed it and understand why it’s such a cultural touchstone. But the problems with the worldview presented here are insurmountable, much like America itself. I love this country, and am thankful that I was born here. But I’ll be damned if there aren’t massive problems with the US. I don’t know how to reconcile the two – with the country, or with this book.