That’s how Pat Conroy put it last year on the 75thanniversary of the
publication of the famous novel.
Conroy, surely one of our greatest living American (and Southern) writers, a South Carolinian, had a point. GWTW, both the novel and the movie, was a triumph. All these years later, people are still watching the movie and reading the thousand page book. It has never gone out of print. A few years back I did some work at the home of a Chinese-American couple. They were watching the movie and hearing the dialogue in (over-dubbed) Chinese. I couldn’t help but wonder if: “Frankly my dear…damn,” would lose something in translation! GWTW was a worldwide phenomenon. And it did, to a large degree, cast Southerners of 1861-1871 in a positive, sympathetic light-a Southern victory of sorts, not on the battlefield, but years later, accomplished in the hearts and minds of people across the world.
Most of us know the what the book/movie is about. It is essentially the tale, and a long one by the way, of Scarlett O’Hara, a young Southern woman struggling with her own desires and aspirations within the turmoil and upheaval of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Before the war, Mitchell tells us, the Old South was a land of romantic cavaliers of old, a land of well-meaning kind masters and grateful, happy servants, the land of cotton where the “darkies” gaily sang at the end of the workday and ate watermelon and strummed the banjo in their carefree leisure hours. In GWTW the old Southern “myth” achieves it finest and most famous expression. The Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, a Confederate veteran who composed in the late nineteenth century, was surely envious. Mitchell, a woman, achieved in a work of fiction what he had never been able to do in his poetry-to successfully present this version of the Old South to the world. And with the movie, a stunning cinematic achievement, Hollywood stayed pretty true to her vision. Though lengthy to an extreme, it’s still quite watchable.
Then came the “Yankees” and Mitchell’s peaceful ordered world came apart. The Yankees (along with a few “Scalawags-Southern Yankee sympathizers) are the bad guys throughout the tale, the source of most of the misery and suffering. Southerners are victims of Northern aggression and cruelty during but especially after the war, when Scarlett, the heroine, struggles to keep the Old Home Place, “Tara” from destruction and neglect. Those devils from the North, Mitchell reminds us, came South and pulled the lid off Pandora’s Box leaving Southern white folks to deal with the chaotic result, a disordered world ruled by greedy carpetbaggers, corrupt “scalawags” and footloose-confused “free-issue” negroes-not the kind of tale that would find a cooperative Hollywood film industry these days.
Maybe I’m selling Ms. Mitchell a bit short. Yes, she does present a romanticized view of the “Old South”, one that modern folk have a hard time digesting, but this view is presented alongside another view: that of the Old South as a culture doomed to extinction, a world peopled by rash, foolish hotheads, oblivious to the wider world, rushing to their doom. Ashley Wilkes is the amiable but doomed romantic, a symbol of the Old South, unable to cope with the modern world. But even Ashley thinks the sabre-rattling of his fellow planters is foolish. Then there is Rhett Butler, a man quite at home in the modern world, who agrees with Ashley and actually tells his fellow Southerners what he thinks. In a famous scene near the beginning of the tale, he informs his fellow guests at the big party that they cannot win a war against the North, that all they have is “cotton, slaves, and arrogance.” As for Scarlett, she has nothing but loathing for any talk of war and hates it even more when it visits Tara and Atlanta. Therefore the South, in Mitchell’s view, blew it. If they had just kept their wits about them and worked with Mr. Lincoln things would have gone a great deal easier. And in this she was surely correct. Her view of the Old South was romanticized but not completely unrealistic. After the war, Southerners lay in a bed largely of their own making. Mitchell was quite willing to admit this.
Most problematic is Ms. Mitchell’s portrayal of African-Americans. It is not a flattering portrait. The “darkies” of GWTW are, for the most part, simple, lovable, childlike, and well, pretty happy with their assigned lot in this world. This book ain’t “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” No slave is unhappy and eager to escape. After the war they all stick around and, for the most part, pick up where they left off. Any trouble with the “darkies”, and the trouble all occurs AFTER the war, is the fault of the Yankees, the outside agitators who have caused the social upheaval and put “uppity” notions into the heads of the simple-minded freedmen.
But, before we conclude this matter, there is Mammy. Her character, both in the book and movie, is important, complicating an otherwise stereotyped African-American cast. Mammy is strong, smart and sees through every pretense and charade Scarlett brings on. For this Rhett clearly loves and respects Mammy. Indeed, one can make a case that Mammy is the only character in the entire story, white or black, that has any sense! Nevertheless, her destiny is bound up in service to white people, and this is presented as the natural order of things. Despite their shortcomings and faults, white folks are Mammy’s superiors. She gets no life of her own. Her dreams are bound up in their dreams. She is noble because she is a loyal servant bound to flawed but well meaning white people. Her nobility would vanish if she tired of and rejected her social superiors. Rhett can walk out on Scarlett. Mammy can’t-not in this story.
Despite its’ shortcomings, the racial picture featured in GWTW was stark contrast to that which had appeared in DW Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION twenty years earlier in 1914. Yes, GWTW gave us tiresome, troubling stereotypes of African Americans, but Griffith gave us something worse- vicious, disturbing stereotypes with a fully robed Ku Klux Klan to deal with them, heroes riding on horseback to rescue a town from black savages in the climactic scene of his two and a half hour silent film. In another scene he depicts lazy-simple minded negro politicians eating watermelon in the statehouse chambers. This film, admittedly an important one representing a milestone in cinematic history for its many innovations and techniques, was based on a book titled “The Klansman.” Both book and movie helped resurrect this disturbing organization so that by the nineteen twenties, hundreds of thousands across the nation were members. There was a huge Klan rally in Washington DC in 1925, something hard to imagine in our day. Nothing like that can be blamed on GWTW. Surely the simple-minded but good-hearted African-Americans in GWTW, though flawed, was a vast improvement over the even more one-dimensional, predatory, dangerous rascals we find in Griffith’s film. If GWTW makes us roll our eyes nearly every time an African-American speaks, watching BIRTH OF A NATION, a silent film, will literally make us sick.
Perhaps Mr. Conroy felt that the South, for a time, rose again, in GWTW. The many fans of this book and movie were willing to give the South a final victory-of sorts. Maybe the timing was right. The Civil War had been over for quite some time in 1936. Sectional passions had cooled. Only a handful of the old veterans were yet alive. Their final joint reunion had been at Gettysburg in 1933 on the anniversary of the battle. I saw a film years ago of a very old man sitting on the rail fence on Cemetery Ridge wiping the perspiration off his forehead with his left hand, his right arm gone, the sleeve pinned up.
Nothing stays the same. The times they were a changin’ in the US. In the late nineteen-thirties the civil rights movement was just around the corner. In GWTW, the old South, or at least a certain sentimental image of the old South, had its’ last hurrah. It’s hard to imagine GWTW being so widely received after World War Two. From the mid-fifties on, a major Hollywood production of this kind would have been out of the question.The “Old South” became quite unfashionable during the civil rights era and has remained so to this day.
There’s another angle to this tale, a undeniable feminist angle. It is the tale of a strong female taking matters into her own hands. Except for Rhett, most of the men around her are either foolish or nasty or weak. All in all, the depiction of white men is little better than that of African-Americans! Yes, Scarlett is stymied by her attachment to Ashley and the old ways, but in the end she embraces Rhett, who represents the future. No, she’s not totally liberated in the modern sense, she still has to have a husband. This book was, after all, written in the first half of the twentieth century, a time when women had only recently secured the right to vote. Still this story centered around a strong female must have rubbed some masculine, chauvinistic nerves at it’s appearance. Clark Gable, so we’re told, did not, at first, want to do the part of Rhett Butler. Why? It was a “dame’s movie” he said.
Gable wasn’t too far off base in this assessment. In large part it was a “Dame’s movie.” The book upon which the movie was based was written by a woman. Hattie McDaniel, who portrayed Mammy, was awarded the first Oscar ever presented to an African American. Vivien Leigh, a British actress, received the Oscar for best actress. As for Clark Gable himself, he was unforgettable and mighty good. But no Oscar for him. And none for Leslie Howard (Ashley). But, this was no great disappointment to him. He was no nonchalant and uncaring about GWTW that he not only failed to show up for the Atlanta premiere, he never even bothered (so we’re told) to visit a cinema and see the movie after returning to England! He died in World War Two in the service of his country.
And there’s the usual historical consideration. Is GWTW good history? Does Ms. Mitchell give her readers a reliable dose of US history? Does she get her facts straight? Well, yes and no. In short I find her presentation of the war pretty good, but her view of reconstruction problematic. Slavery? She is an good source for how most white Southerners FELT about slavery and the “Old South” in the post-war years, but not, as before stated, a good source for real historical inquiry on the subject. Take GWTW with several “grains of salt.”
In spite of all it’s shortcomings, Gone with the Wind demands respect. As the old saying goes, you can’t knock success. It is probably the most successful historical novel ever! I still find it utterly charming and compelling, a rousing good yarn, highly readable. The movie? Great entertainment packed with unforgettable performances. I have the deluxe edition on DVD with lots of special features. Don’t challenge me in a GWTW trivia contest, you’re not likely to survive! Indeed, there’s only one person who can.
Years ago I met a girl in college and took her to see the movie. Afterward I discovered that she had read the book not once, but twice. I was mighty impressed, so impressed by this, and for, admittedly, a few other reasons, that I asked her to marry me and, like Scarlett’s first foolish husband Charles, was surprised when she said “Yes.”
We discussed the book again a few weeks ago. “What was the name of the fellow who stopped for a visit at Tara after the war and wound up staying to look after the place and marrying Sue Ellen, Scarlett’s sister?” she wondered. I was stumped. He was a major character in the book totally left out of the movie, one of the few truly positive, sensible, intelligent white males in the whole story. This got her going. So what did she do? She read the book again. Lordy, I’m still impressed with this wonderful woman. And who was that guy? She reminded me: Will Benteen. Ah, yes, now I remember.