Growing up in Virginia, you could say that the memory of the Civil War is ubiquitous. I’ve been intrigued by the conflict since I first learned of it in elementary school. That interest was reignited last year, not only due to the controversy that arose surrounding the Confederate battle flag, but also because I took an English course whose curriculum partly centered around Civil War-era literature.
Authors like Ambrose Bierce, Louisa May Alcott and a host of others involved in the war provided me with perspectives of the war I hadn’t previously considered. One key lesson I took away from that class was the Confederates were not all villains. And their reasons for taking up arms were as varied as their own names.
In part to gain a better understanding of the Civil War (but also, because between my minimum wage job at the movie theater and my boring burrow of a hometown, I needed an escape.) I decided to read the most popular book set in that chapter of American history: Margaret Mitchell’s "Gone with the Wind." I’ll tell you what I think about it.
Published in 1936, Mitchell’s tale of civilian life in Georgia amid the war and during Reconstruction was immediately met with critical acclaim and booming commercial success. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1937, the novel was once again thrust into the limelight two years later, when an equally beloved film adaptation starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable erupted in theaters across the country. It has remained wildly popular since then. According to a 2014 poll, it is the American people’s second-favorite book to read and the movie version still ranks as the highest-grossing film of all time when ticket prices are adjusted for inflation.
I don’t think I’m far-fetched when I say that most Americans are at least vaguely familiar with "Gone with the Wind." Before reading, I knew that the story would involve a Southern Belle’s luckless love life, that some of the action took place during Sherman’s siege of Atlanta. And that toward the end, a mustachioed man who looked like a pirate would utter something frank about not giving a damn. (Rhett Butler does, in fact, turn out to be a kind of swashbuckler. But smuggling goods across the Union blockade proves to be the most benign of his crimes, as we’ll see.)
Oh, and I also figured there’d be a bit of awkward racism here and there — most of the black characters would be dimwitted and content to be slaves. But that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, right? It is a period piece set during a time when slavery was legal, and in a location where it was often perceived as a moral good.
That last bit still didn’t discourage me from reading, though. So in June, I purchased the novel on my E-reader. It took me around three weeks to read all 1,080 pages. Having not only read the novel but having had considerable time to mull over it, do you know what I think?
As a reader, I would say that the novel's popularity is completely understandable. As a black man, and someone opposed to racial injustice, I find it to be a bit disturbing.
The novel does, in fact, paint a rosy picture of slavery as a perfectly benevolent system that kept unruly blacks in line who might otherwise run rampant and cause havoc. The institution is treated as a paternalistic one in which whites watch over their slaves as if they were children and provide all of their needs, only asking for service and subservience in return. The reader is expected to think that freeing slaves is the equivalent of turning week-old puppies loose into the woods. “Slaves were neither miserable nor unfortunate,” Mitchell’s narrator says. “The negroes were far better off under slavery than they were now under freedom.”
The important black characters are perfectly happy in their condition as livestock, and often seem little more than props. Mammy, Pork, Prissy, Dilcey, Uncle Peter and Big Sam have few, if any, aspirations, goals, or motivations apart from serving their supposed superiors. Even after emancipation, when they are free to come and go as they please, they all unhesitatingly stay by the O’Haras’ side because, as Mitchell would have had readers believe, that’s what moral blacks would’ve done.
Big Sam, one of the field hands on the O’Hara’s plantation of Tara and a “good one,” is perhaps the most ridiculous example of this. After he’s freed by Union troops, he travels all the way to Boston but decides freedom isn’t for him. He comes running back to Georgia just so he can be of service to his erstwhile owners. When he learns that his master, Gerald O’Hara has died, he weeps as if he hasn’t anything else to live for.
Further, any ex-slave who fully embraces freedom, who tries to survive independently of the charity of white people, is treated as a villain. Nearly every character, even the black ones, refer to them derisively as “free-issue niggers.” They’re lazy, unscrupulous, and (as the narrator often takes care to remind us) “insolent.” Mitchell even makes the Freedmen’s Bureau into antagonists, treating it as an inherently corrupt agency whose sole aim was to take down the planter class and promote miscegenation among blacks and whites. According to Mitchell, the point of the Freedmen’s Bureau was not to set up former slaves for success, but to keep them fed “while they loafed and poisoned their minds against their former owners.”
In "Gone with the Wind," the loss of black life is as inconsequential as the deaths of non-human animals. In early Reconstruction, Scarlett O’Hara’s principal love interest and nineteenth-century heartthrob, Rhett Butler, is imprisoned in a makeshift jail run by Union soldiers. Why? Because he killed a so-called "nigger" for being rude to a white woman, and as he puts it, “What else could a Southern gentleman do?”
Yet, Mitchell does not appear to have intended for the reader to detest Rhett Butler and he is presented in a mostly positive light. Later in the story, Scarlett’s husband and other men of Atlanta out themselves as members of the fledgling Ku Klux Klan and track down and murder a black man and his white accomplice for attempting (and failing) to rob Scarlett, thereby restoring her honor.
Yep. The KKK are the good guys in America’s second-favorite book. That isn’t even the end of it. There’s much more content in "Gone with the Wind" deserving of mention, but I haven’t the space to touch on every last bit of it here.
In the end, I find the white supremacist elements of "Gone with the Wind" to be especially tragic because I think the novel is a veritable masterpiece otherwise. If you cut out its overindulgent use of racial slurs, overlook its comparisons of Africans to apes and monkeys, and forget that its author appears to consider it a tragedy that black bodies can no longer be bought and sold, what you have is likely one of the greatest novels ever written in English.
Margaret Mitchell did not only have a gift for storytelling but also a knack for poetic prose; the diction and prose in "Gone with the Wind" paint beautifully vivid pictures in the mind’s eye of the reader. Its wide cast of (white) characters is incredibly fleshed out and well-developed, such that an attentive reader may feel real emotion when something good or bad happens to them. Mitchell manages to take the reader on a journey to a different time, a different place, and introduce them to more authentic personalities than those of many of the people they've probably met in real life. I cannot deny that the book is a monument of language.
Much like the United States itself, "Gone with the Wind" simultaneously offers things to detest and to love about it. Is the book deserving of all of its accolades, or should it be treated as something more on par with a racist manifesto? One could make valid cases for either argument. Personally, I would recommend that anyone who is interested read it for themselves, if they can spare the time. All art is subjective, and at the end of the day your own point of view is no more or less valid than that of anyone else on the planet.As for myself, though, I’m giving "Gone with the Wind" 2.5 out 5 stars, literally because it would have been twice as good if it didn’t seem to personally insult me for being born brown. If you're able to enjoy the novel fully, despite all the prejudice it unabashedly promotes, I'm jealous.