When I was a junior in high school I took an elective called "The Novel". Among the novels we read were For Whom the Bells Toll, All Quiet on the Western Front, Siddhartha, Catcher in the Rye and Gone With the Wind. Of all those novels, the one the teacher seemed the most embarrassed, the most apologetic, about teaching was Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Why? The rural-like Cleveland suburb where I went to high school was a tad conservative, so you might think she'd have qualms about teaching Catcher in the Rye, with its cuss words, or Siddhartha, with its emphases on non-Christian religions, or For Whom the Bells Toll, with its communist guerrillas. No, the teacher wasn't worried about community values so much as academic ones. Gone with the Wind was no classic, she warned us, and had an "old-fashioned narrative." At the time, I didn't know what she was talking about. Both Siddhartha and All Quiet on the Western Front were written before Wind, so why weren't they old-fashioned? Many years and how-to-write-fiction books later, I finally realized that the teacher meant that Wind lacked such modernist literary techniques as stream-of-consciousness:
ashley put his arms around me to comfort me oh no the busybodies see us spread gossip we're having an affair I come home rhett is drunk and all pissed off picks me up walks up stairs into bedroom maybe rapes me no because i'm not resisting maybe this will smooth things over between us no it doesn't he takes the kids somewhere i don't see him for months he's back asks me why i'm pale i tell him i'm pregnant he tells me to cheer up maybe i'll have a miscarriage i'm pissed off he said that i start hitting him oh no i lost my balance i'm tumbling down the stairs i have a miscarriage after all i hope rhett is satisfied i recuperate little bonnie blue tries to jump horse over fence breaks her neck oh how tragic melanie wilkes dies me and ashley can finally marry oh he loved melanie after all guess that means i really love rhett too bad he's leaving me i ask him what will become of me he says i don't give a damn oh what will i do now i can't think about it now i'll go back to tara mammy pack my bags tomorrow is another day
Whatever its literary merit, I was more eager to read Gone With the Wind than any other book on the list. I know, I was a teenager, a neurotic teenager at that, and should have been more eager to read Catcher in the Rye, about a neurotic teenager, but I had never heard of book before taking the class (good thing I didn't drop out of school before reaching the 11th grade, as I had often fantasized; I would have gone through life believing cuss words hadn't been invented until the late 1960s.) I was anxious to read Wind because a few years earlier the movie version, starring Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, and (still alive as of this writing) Olivia de Havilland, had premiered on TV with much fanfare, and, for a change, something lived up to the fanfare. I enjoyed the film. It wasn't just me with my peculiar tastes (though, God knows, I had enough back then), my classmates liked it as well. If it seems odd that teenagers in the 1970s should like a movie from the 1930s, remember that, while there was certainly such a thing as teen culture back then, it didn't extend to television too much. There was no such thing as MTV to cater to our every liking, so, other than something like Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, we watched the same shows our parents watched, and generally liked them. I suspect the movie's popularity is one reason my school added Wind to the list. The thinking may have been, as long as they're reading something. I also enjoyed the book the movie was based on. In fact, I found Margaret Mitchell's tome such a rich reading experience that it made the movie seem a bit superficial by comparison (though I would still recommend it.) Of all the books we had to read in that class, only Wind and Catcher in the Rye has stayed with me over the years. Unfortunately, when I cast an objective eye on Gone with the Wind, I have to conclude the teacher was right: it is old-fashioned, though for reasons having nothing to do with prose style or narrative structure. Too bad, as so much of the book is new-fashioned.
A brief summary, assuming a 423,575-word book can be summarized briefly. At the outset of the Civil War, 16-year old Scarlett O'Hara lives with her family and her slave Mammy on the cotton plantation Tara, not far from Atlanta. A flirtatious "southern belle", Scarlett is popular with the boys, but has her heart set on Ashley Wilkes. At a barbecue at Twelve Oaks, Ashley's father's plantation, Scarlett learns he going to marry his cousin, Melanie Hamilton. Upset at the news, Scarlett lashes out at Ashely. Another guest at the barbecue, Rhett Butler, a man with a roguish reputation, overhears this not-quite-lovers quarrel, and later tells Scarlett he admires her spirit. Too upset to take a compliment, and probably too socialized in ways of bellehood to even recognize it as a compliment, she spurns Rhett. Meanwhile, she decides to get back at Ashley, who has admitted he does have feelings for her, by marrying Melanie's brother Charles. This union produces a son, Wade. Charles is shipped off to war, and soon dies from the measles. Now a widow and single mother, Scarlett moves to Atlanta, where she lives with Melanie (now her sister-in-law) and her aunt. She keeps busy with hospital work, and renews her acquaintance with Rhett, who's getting rich by running supplies through the naval blockade the North has on the South. A friendship gradually develops between Scarlett and Rhett (something that's not always clear in the movie). Ashley returns home on leave, and asks Scarlett to watch over Melanie, who's now pregnant. Ashley returns to the war, which has turned decidedly bad for the South. General Sherman siege of Atlanta comes to a head, and the fleeing Confederates set the city on fire. Melanie has the bad timing to give birth that very night. Rhett helps Scarlett, Melanie, her newborn son, and a slave, Prissy, escape from Atlanta. Later, Rhett abandons them on the road to Tara, and joins the Confederate army. Scarlett returns home to find her mother dead, her father crazy, her sisters ill, the field slaves all gone, and the plantation burned. The war ends, and the victorious Yankees levy a particularly harsh tax on Tara. To keep from losing Tara, Scarlett first attempts to ask Rhett for the money, only to find he's now in jail. She then runs into Frank Kennedy, who's always been sweet on her sister Suellen. Frank tells her he's now a prosperous grocer. Hearing that, Scarlet seduces Frank into marrying her and paying off the taxes on Tara. Afterwards, she finds out he may not have ready cash on hand as a lot of people owe him money. Scarlett takes over the store herself, and then, with a loan from a friend, buys a sawmill, and proves herself a good businesswoman. She also finds time to give birth to a daughter, Ellie. Scarlett is soon back on the job. While riding home from the mill one night, she's accosted by a couple of thieves. A former Tara slave comes to her rescue. Afterwards, her husband Frank, Ashley, and several others of a vigilante bent, attack the shantytown the thieves hailed from. Frank is killed in the ensuing melee. A widow and single mother once again, Scarlet agrees to marry the now extremely wealthy Rhett Butler, who builds a fantastic mansion for them to live. Neither spouse particularly trusts the other, hardly a good foundation for a successful marriage. Still, the union produces a daughter, Bonnie Blue. By now, Ashley is running the mill for Scarlett. Still carrying a torch for him, she visits him in the office, and they reminisce about the good times before the war. The memories move Scarlett to tears, and Ashley takes her in his arms to comfort her. His sister walks in at that point and gets the wrong idea. Scandal ensues, though Melanie refuses to believe it. Rhett does believe it, and drunkenly confronts Scarlett. They argue and, arguably, have sex. The next morning Rhett takes Bonnie Blue and leaves town for a couple months. The child misses her mother, so Rhett returns. When she finds out he wants to leave again without his daughter, Scarlett informs Rhett she's pregnant. Rhett jokes that maybe she'll have a miscarriage. Angry, Scarlett lunges at Rhett, but loses her balance and falls down a flight of stairs. She does have a miscarriage, as well as breaking a couple of ribs. Scarlett goes to Tara to recover. Later, she returns to Atlanta, and an uneasy truce with Rhett. Meanwhile Rhett buys Bonnie Blue a Shetland pony. He should have got her a hamster instead. Bonnie tries to jump the horse over a hedge, and is killed. Both Scarlett and Rhett are heartbroken, though Scarlett, in the long run, handles it better. Melanie soon dies. Scarlett realizes that Melanie, not she, was the love of Ashley's life. She also realizes that Rhett, not Ashley, is the love of her life. But too late. Rhett leaves her. Finis.
OK, so what did I find so new-fashioned about this novel? Even today, a southern belle might strike at least some young women as a rather pleasant thing to be. Margaret Mitchell, the daughter of a suffragette, knew better. Amid all the fan fluttering and flirting with dashing, young beaus and sipping iced sweet tea daintily on a hot Georgian day, bellehood was just another way for a patriarchal Southern hierarchy to keep its women in their place. In fact, the novel occasionally reads like a feminist tract. As changing times reveals just how unprepared women with such an upbringing were to a sudden reversal of fortune, Scarlett rebels against the role plantation society (which, through the course of the novel, seems to survive the plantations themselves) stubbornly insists she play:
"I'm tired of everlastingly being unnatural and never doing anything I want to do. I'm tired of acting like I don't eat more than a bird, and walking when I want to run and saying I feel faint after a waltz, when I could dance for two days and never get tired. I'm tired of saying, 'How wonderful you are!' to fool men who haven't got one-half the sense I've got, and I'm tired of pretending I don't know anything, so men can tell me things and feel important while they're doing it."
--Gone with the Wind, chapter five
Scarlett's first husband dies, and then, as now, she's expected to wear black. Then, as not now, she's expected to wear black for the rest of her life. She's also forbidden to smile, or show any indication that she's nothing less than miserable. Suppressing the indication does indeed make her nothing less than miserable. Who knows? Maybe that was the whole idea behind the rule. Scarlett finally ends her period of mourning by accepting a dance at a wartime charity ball, scandalizing all of Atlanta as a result. The scandalizing doesn't stop there.
Scarlett is pregnant three times in the novel, something that she's not expected to acknowledge, to the point of staying indoors with the windows drawn at the first hint that she no longer has the thinnest waist in three counties. Nevertheless, by the time she's expecting her second child, she's a successful businesswoman, and has to go out in public, thus shattering any belief that same public might have had in the stork. Of course, that Scarlett is a successful businesswoman, that Scarlett's any type of businesswoman, is most scandalous of all. Businesswomen were exceedingly rare back then. The only other successful businesswoman in the whole novel is Belle Watling, and she keeps a red lantern out in front of her establishment.
Yet, for all of her scandalizing, Scarlett's not even the most modern thinker in the novel. That would be Rhett Butler. While hardly a sensitive male (especially not after a few drinks), it is he who dances with the widowed Scarlet at the charity ball. "Until you lose your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is," he tells her. At another point in the story, Rhett acknowledges Scarlett's pregnancy: "You are a child if you thought I didn't know, for all your smothering yourself under that hot lap robe." And it's Rhett who lends her the money to buy the sawmill. All throughout the novel, Rhett encourages Scarlett to defy convention, and applauds her when she succeeds: "Now you are beginning to think for yourself instead of letting others think for you. That’s the beginning of wisdom."
So why, if Scarlett and Rhett were so likeminded, did their marriage go south (if you'll pardon the pun)? Well, neither one was ever sure the other one loved them. Rhett only tells Scarlett when he's drunk and about to commit what a century later might be considered spousal rape. Scarlett only tells Rhett when he's ready to leave her. It doesn't help matters any that Ashley tells Scarlett at several points in the book that he loves her. It should occur to the reader long before it occurs to Scarlett that he's talking about familial, rather than romantic, love (after all, they are in-laws.) Why can't Scarlett figure that out? I suspect Ashley represents a little bit of the past, as restrictive as it was, that Scarlett wants to hold on to. When she finally lets it go, she doesn't even mind. By that time, of course, Rhett has had enough. I imagine most people regard Gone with the Wind as having an unhappy ending, but Scarlett's situation is far from hopeless. At the novel's conclusion, she's only 28, and can now go forth in life with a better understanding of herself and the world around her.
OK, that's the new-fashioned part of the novel. What's old-fashioned? Margaret Mitchell's seemed to have blinders on when it came to blacks, or, as Scarlett O'Hara affectionately refers to them, "darkies". As restrictive as the Old South must have been for white women, their rights were downright unalienable compared to the 3/4th of a people that were picking their cotton. Scarlett muses: "Negroes were provoking sometimes and stupid and lazy, but there was loyalty in them that money couldn't buy, a feeling of oneness with their white folks..." No, you couldn't buy their loyalty, just their bodies. The idea that the Civil War is being fought over slavery is scoffed at by Rhett Butler. Upon Emancipation, the former slaves act "as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild--either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance." More ignorant than smothering oneself in a hot lap robe to hide a pregnancy? Why was Mitchell so attuned to the problems of women but not blacks in such a backward society? Well, she was a woman. Females were relatively more emancipated by 1937, when Gone with the Wind was published (of course, there was more emancipation to come.) In doing research for the novel, Mitchell must have taken a good, hard look at the etiquette of 1861, and decided it wasn't her glass of mint julep. Unfortunately, the daughter of a suffragette also, in the 1920s, lived down the street from the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. Speaking of the Klan, that was the vigilante group that Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett's doomed second husband both belonged to. You can argue that Mitchell was the product of her times, but other Southern writers such as William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and Mark Twain were able to look at black-white relations with a critical eye. Speaking of Twain, who died when Margaret Mitchell was ten and actually lived through the Civil War, he comes periodically under fire for the number of times the word "nigger" appears in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 216 times in Finn, compared to 104 times in Gone with the Wind, a much longer book. Mitchell is selective about her wording, often using "darkie" to describe good blacks like Mammy, and the n-word to describe bad blacks like the one that tries to rob Scarlett. Twain, having grown up in a slave state, and whose father occasionally owned slaves, uses the n-word no matter if the black in question is good, bad, or in-between. But don't condemn Twain for his accurate use of the era's vernacular. After all, his book is about a boy's moral growth as he helps a slave escape to freedom. Scarlett grows, too, but her racial attitudes stay the same. Some will argue that Gone with the Wind isn't even about slavery. It's about the Civil War. So what was it fought over, hoop skirts?
I suppose Mitchell isn't unique in identifying with her own group. When California passed Proposition 8 banning gay marriages, it was said to have been overwhelmingly supported by black voters. Every minority for himself. Meanwhile, political strategists for years have been trying to form a coalition among poor whites and poor blacks, to no avail. Too many poor whites blame poor blacks for all their troubles, as if welfare caused the collapse of manufacturing in this country (incidentally, there are more whites than blacks on welfare.) There's been a rift in recent years among blacks and Jews, but the still-extant Klan refuses to take sides. Women complain about being kept out of private clubs that cater to wealthy businessmen. We demand equal-opportunity elitism!
So who's to blame? The whites? Some of them are women. The males? Some of them are poor. The rich? Some of them are gay. The evangelicals? Some of them are black. The reactionaries? Some of them are Jewish. The Gentiles? Some of them are secular humanists.
I sound like a conservative decrying identity politics. No, I'm a liberal asking for a more expansive view of identity. I want everybody to identify with homo sapien.
There's a subplot in Gone with the Wind that I left out. Will Benteen is a one-legged Confederate soldier retuning from war who wanders onto Tara. He's made a foreman, and eventually marries Suellen, Scarlett's sister. Such a thing would have been unthinkable before the war. You see, Will is a cracker, a poor white. But post-war, Scarlett happily, and the rest of the local aristocracy begrudgingly, give their blessings to the union. The Yankee carpetbaggers are at the top of the socialeconomic pyramid now, and southerners of all stripes have to stick together. Really, any group at any time can find themselves at the top of such a pyramid. But it's always temporary. Met any Yankee carpetbaggers lately?
As out economy burns down faster than Atlanta, we all soon may find ourselves at the bottom. Climbing back up might be easier if we all recognize our common humanity. Do so, and tomorrow might be a better day.