Should Gone with the Wind Go Away?

In the wake of increased PC attacks on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With the Wind, I decided to undertake an ornery, contrarian, and politically incorrect action and plow through the novel’s 1,037 pages just for the heck of it, reacquainting myself with an acknowledged classic (which earned a Pulitzer Prize for the author) and hence be able to reflect on a cultural phenomenon with my own refreshed insights.

It is impossible to reflect on the novel without making some comparisons with its 1939 film adaptation. The film, of necessity, tightens the storyline and deletes certain characters (most notably Scarlett’s multiple children). The movie Mammy is a more dominating presence than in the novel but a similar towering moral force. Also missing from the film is the overt presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction period and the participation of Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett’s second husband, Frank Kennedy, in some of its activities. As far as the movie version is concerned, it defies any attempts that might be made to remake it, however uncomfortable some scenes might strike us today (Could anyone play Rhett Butler after Clark Gable? It’s difficult to imagine).      

The novel itself is long, but not tiresome. Mitchell moves her story along with lively dialogue and well-placed turning points. Whereas there is nothing poetic about Margaret Mitchell’s writing style, she was gifted in the area of dialogue. The conversations that take place between characters are vivid and energize the narrative, although today’s readers might take issue with, or be distressed by the “black-ese” accent with which the slave characters speak. Also, and most notably, objection will be made to the frequent use of the word “nigger,” employed by both white and black characters. Mitchell, as narrator of the story, does not use the word, although it is placed in the mouths of characters themselves (a given, inasmuch as it represents the usage as it would have occurred at the time of the story). As universal narrator, Mitchell uses the term “Negroes,” which in 1937 was not a derogatory concept, but represented a more-or-less neutral or even courteous reference to black people.

Is the novel racist? Certainly, it has elements that could reasonably be interpreted as such. However, it also presents a wider commentary on class-consciousness that is easily overlooked if we make race the one and only lens through which we read it. The ugly term “white trash” shows up frequently, and is put into the mouths of characters like Mammy, who despise poor whites like the Tara overseer Jonas Wilkerson. Is it too far out of the realm of possibility to understand that there might have been class pecking orders among the various nonaristocratic elements of Southern society of the 19th century? Indeed, GWTW plays heavily on the notions of “well-born” and “common” people in the social consciousness of people. I also observe that Margaret Mitchell does not seem to always present this aspect of society positively. Characters that represent the aristocratic plantation class or “proper” society take on aspects of triviality, incompetence beyond their pampered existence, or just plain silliness (e.g. Aunt Pitty). The false nature of the southern aristocratic culture is expressed powerfully in a dialogue between Ashley and Scarlett as they try to survive at Scarlett’s home, Tara, following the devastation of the Civil War. Wilkes knows that his pampered upbringing has left him prepared for little more than fox hunts and elegant barbeque get-togethers.

Rhett Butler’s cynical outlook offers up more overt indictments of the foolishness of southern life and the stupidity and futility of the “Glorious Cause.” Mitchell is often criticized for offering up propaganda for the antebellum southern culture. Reading the book, however, I found myself questioning this. There is just too much negative assessment of that culture, through some of the characterizations, dialogue, and Scarlett O’Hara’s own perspectives, to believe that Mitchell held onto a totally uncritical point of view. Yes, she hammers home the abuses of Reconstruction, and some of the characters yearn, pathetically, for the “old days” that have now gone. But I am not convinced that Margaret Mitchell is an uncritical propagandist for them on the basis of the text of this novel, however the book may have been used as such by southern admirers.

The two primary characters, Scarlett and Rhett, share a psychologically twisted relationship and are both reprehensible in interesting ways. Mitchell, of course, breaks them up at the novel’s conclusion with Butler’s iconic statement upon departing from her, “I don’t give a damn.” At that point, many readers might share the sentiment. Mitchell suggests a virtuous element in Butler lying beneath his flamboyant and rakish exterior, and this is brought out in his relationship to Scarlett’s children, Melanie Wilkes, and his own daughter Bonnie, who dies tragically and brings Rhett to grief bordering on insanity.

I found myself most intrigued by the novel’s characterization of Melanie Wilkes, the cousin and wife of Ashley Wilkes. In the movie, I find this character, as portrayed by Olivia de Haviland, quite annoying, just too good to be true, flawless and syrupy. The character of the novel, however, has more of an edge to her. She actually gets indignant, even angry, with people and also separates herself from family members (e.g. Ashley’s sister India) for spreading false allegations against Scarlett.

Mammy’s climactic scene, in both the novel and the movie, is in her appeal to Melanie to come talk with Rhett Butler, in the throes of his grief at the loss of his daughter. This scene, in the movie, is very moving and I am convinced it was the scene that put Hattie McDaniel over the top for the Oscar she received for her performance. Interestingly, I found the scene as presented in the novel highly moving as well, with Mitchell’s gift for dialogue ascending to great effect. Here, what some might find “racist” in the book -- the presentation of the “black-ese” accents among the “darkies” -- actually enhances the power of the scene. Mammy is a “simple” character. She’s a slave, now a loyal and free servant. She is not educated, and it is quite within reason to suppose that she did not speak “the King’s English.” But she is, here, a wisdom figure, almost an angel of salvation, as she explains to Melanie the cloud of insult and abuse that passes between Rhett and Scarlett, and how he is shattered to the core at Bonnie’s death. The distinctive dialect represented by Margaret Mitchell here goes beyond simple characterization or cartoonishness. It strengthens Mammy’s sense of character and humanity, fueling the pathos of this great scene.

In today’s culture, this novel would not gain any honors. Even its admirers will readily admit to its “flaws.” Yet it remains a compelling read, and it would be a loss should the censorious voices of sensitivity-advocacy succeed in deleting it from cultural memory. How ironic it would be, though, should contemporary controversy over it arouse a new visibility, born of curiosity, however guilty it may seem.           

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