Reading Gone With the Wind in 2019

Hello, everyone! I want to start off this post by declaring that I hate Margaret Mitchell. In Gone With the Wind, she wrote a novel so heartbreaking, so compelling, so gorgeous, and so vilely racist that I am in a state after finishing it. After a solid week of devoting hours and hours to this book, I just don’t know how to feel. Should I feel cheated at the ending, even though I should have seen it coming? Should I feel grateful that a novel exists with such masterful plotting that I sacrificed my sleep and emotional happiness to complete it? Or should I feel repulsed that I spent 1034 pages in the head of a woman whose racism and utter ignorance of the humanity of African Americans contributed to some of the most disgusting pieces of prose I’ve ever read? I can’t choose one, so I’ll choose all three. Gone With the Wind is a stunning novel, an infuriating novel, and a thoroughly racist novel. People will try to sweep away the latter in protection of the former, but to dismiss the racism at the heart of the novel as incidental and unimportant is to dismiss the complexity of the work itself. Yes, GWtW is horribly racist, but it’s also a monumental work of American fiction. The two can exist side-by-side. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ““the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

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It might just be the hardest struggle of your life!

Here is the problem with the rhetoric surrounding GWtW: it’s a lot of either/or nonsense. Either the novel is entirely irredeemable because of its racism, or it’s purely an anti-war novel that is representing the thoughts of the narrator, who like many rich woman in the ante-bellum south, just happened to be racist. The problem with this rhetoric is that it’s untrue. GWtW isn’t racist just because it portrays slavery and KKK lynching. It’s a racist novel because it portrays the overall treatment of African Americans in the south in a nostalgic, white-washing, and patently false manner, and it gives this idealization with the veneer of truth. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, from the first review on Goodreads.com:

I enjoyed the picture of plantations that did not abuse slaves to the extent that you read about in many memoirs. There was still a disrespect in that they viewed “darkies” as ignorant and childish and worthy of being owned, but there were those who cared for those in their trust. And the North who came down riling up the lowest of the slaves to flip the oppression did not want any contact with a race they feared. Prejudice takes many faces. Slavery is such an important part of American history, but I don’t know that I agree with the format in which it is taught (at least the way it was taught to me). We take young, tolerant children and feed them stories of racism and abuse and then tell them the world is naturally prejudice (that they are prejudice) so don’t be. White children start feeling awkward and aware and black children start feeling mistreated and aware. We manage to teach children about Indian and Holocaust history without the same enthusiasm to end racism by breeding racism. There has to be a better way. But I digress.

I also enjoyed Mitchell showing the volatile formula in which the KKK was aroused, that it wasn’t just a disdain for free darkies but a need to protect their women and children from the rash anger now imposed on them through this new regime. Not that there are any redeeming qualities in the KKK, or even the Southern rash justice by pistol shot to curb wounded pride, but it was interesting to learn the wider circumstances in which it arose. The entire picture of the Southern perspective from the hierarchy of slaves to the disdain of the reconstruction was enlightening. The post-war difficulties, that sometimes it’s harder to survive than die, were some of my favorite epiphanies of the story. What everyone in the South went through, both white and black, after everything was deconstructed and they didn’t know how to rebuild. It wasn’t just about freeing slaves but about rebuilding an entire way of life and sometimes change, even good change, can be this scary and destructive.

-Annalisa, Goodreads.com

Gone With the Wind is a work of complete fiction, but this reader, and other reviews I’ve read, seem to regard Mitchell’s portrayal of the antebellum and post Civil War South as a factual recounting of events. But this can’t be true. Even though GWtW is well-researched and many times makes you feel as if you’re right there in post-war Atlanta, it’s not a memoir, nor a non-fiction biography. It’s a novel written 70 years after the war, inspired by the romanticized tales of Mitchell’s grandmother and Confederate veterans. And it’s impossible to read this novel without seeing much of it for what it is: a rosy retelling of the Grand Ole South that borders on propaganda.

But it’s very easy to be swept into Mitchell’s mythos. There were many times when reading this book that even I could feel my brain slipping into temptation to believe what Scarlett is saying is true. To believe that the “darkies” (as she calls them) do enjoy being enslaved, that Mammy loves Scarlett like her own child, and the “free issue” blacks are responsible for the destruction of post-war Atlanta society and the Republicans gave them unfair deference over white Southerners during the Reconstruction.

However, there was always something that pulled me back from being lulled into this sweet, false dream. Perhaps it was the pages and pages of racist insults and characterizations of African Americans that made me see Mitchell inserting her own hate into what is supposed to be Scarlett’s perspective. And to that you might be saying, “but Mitchell is just writing from the viewpoint of a racist white woman!” And to that I say, yes, but there’s certainly a point when the writing crosses over from Scarlett’s ideas to a tirade against “darkies” who are, in Mitchell’s own words, too “stupid,” “sly,” “uppity,” “child-like,” “ape-like,” “mean,” and “impudent” to deserve freedom and be treated equally in Southern society. Even when she’s writing kindly about people like Mammy, Dilcey, Uncle Peter, or Pork, all former slaves who Scarlett considers her family, she still dehumanizes them to the point where they’re mere puppets. Of course it could be true that there were many former house slaves who wished to stay with their masters after the war ended, but the very fact that Mitchell writes these characters in a positive light reveals her prejudices. To her, the only role for a black person is to be a willing slave to a white person, and the fact that any black people might wish for freedom is an idea she cannot support.

There’s also the fact of the Klan. As the reviewer noted above, Mitchell does portray the origin of the Klan in a much kinder light than we read about in the history books. Instead of violent men skulking about in frightening white robes and lynching black men, they are just good white men trying to protect their women. They are people like Ashley Wilkes, Frank Kennedy, and Rhett Butler, characters we have come to know and love. By attaching the the Klan to the novel’s central male characters, Mitchell gives the Klan a mantle of respectability. For how could a man like Ashley Wilkes, the most honorable man in the novel, be a racist murderer?

The fact of the matter is that Mitchell’s picture of the Klan is romanticization at its finest. Scarlett herself despises the Klan, but only because association with them might cause her to lose her store and mills. She, and by extension Mitchell, never pauses to consider that  the Klan is predicated on the false notion that white women need to be “protected” from “uppity” black men, most often through violence or lynching. Mitchell gives her own justification for this false-hood by painting a picture of Atlanta this is plagued by “impudent” and “uppity” freed slaves who have been given so much power by the Freedman’s Bureau that they can get a white person killed just for looking at them the wrong way. But that’s simply not the case. History, far more unbiased than Mitchell’s own take, has shown freed African Americans did not have an easy time of it after the war. Just by attempting to gain equality, which Mitchell codes in the phrase ” being uppity,” they were harassed and lynched. And even though a black man and a white man do attempt to assault Scarlett in one scene, that itself is not enough justification for Ashley, Frank, and the rest of the Klan to commit murder and mayhem in Shantytown. Why, even Rhett Butler, one of the more open-minded characters in the novel, admits to murdering a black man for the crime of speaking to a white woman. That’s the exact same thing that happened to Emmett Till, except Mitchell tries to paint it as justified. And that is just one of the many reasons why it’s impossible to dismiss the inherent racism in Gone With the Wind. When a book is littered with irrelevant and pointless tirades against black people, when the two main men in the book have both lynched black men for “uppityness,” and when the protagonist’s main quibble with the Klan is that she might lose her money-making ventures, then that book is racist, and it’s completely untrue to characterize the novel, as Wikipedia does, as a book that is “essentially about other things” than slavery and racism.  GWtW is certainly more focused on romance and war and the death of the Old South, but racism is just as embedded in its core as any other thing.

You may think from the last thousand words or so of this post that I’ve done exactly what I said I wouldn’t do: I made GWtW into an either/or novel. But like I said above, acknowledging the novel’s racism does not discount its other virtues. Perhaps there’s no cause for me to add more accolades to a cup which already runneth over. The book jacket says it best: there was never such a book as Gone With the Wind. I’m very happy I read it. I was spellbound from page one, drawn in by Scarlett’s selfishness, cruelty, and determination. I was also captivated by her relationship with Rhett Butler, and now I see why they’re considered one of the most romantic fictional couples in history. Of course, the ending tore me to shreds and I don’t know if I will ever forgive Mitchell for what she wrote, even if it’s exactly how it should have ended. Like all great novels, it doesn’t end happily, but it does end with a note of hope. I respect the novel, I admire it, and I’ll definitely read it again, but I also see it for its faults.

Essentially, GWtW is like its infamous protagonist: beautiful, intelligent, and complex on the outside, and dark and ugly on the inside. We as readers can’t ignore that. It is our job to do the hard work when reading this novel. We can’t sink like Scarlett into daydreams and tell ourselves that we’ll think about the hard parts tomorrow. If anything, GWtW is as relevant a novel as it’s ever been. To understand our complex history, we have to understand both the good parts and the bad. We have to be able to yearn for the quiet contentment of the Old South while also recognizing the brutality and inhumane treatment of African Americans at the hand of white slave-owners. We have to reconcile the fact that nice, honorable men like Ashley Wilkes can be violent and racist, and that sweet, innocent women like Melly Wilkes can be, too. In this way, Gone With the Wind is like a textbook. It may not be its purpose to lay bare the beauty and horror of old Southern society, but it makes that point more clearly than any history book could. Our only struggle is to be able to recognize it and contextualize it. So, I say read Gone With the Wind and enjoy it for its wonders, but keep your wits about you. As in any dream, it becomes all too easy to get lost.

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