Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In defense of Gone With the Wind

My friend Bookworm has a typically thoughtful post up at her blog, speculating about the literary and cultural influence of two famous novels with Southern themes: Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone With the Wind.

What makes the post a special pleasure is that she wrote it only days removed from a first-ever vacation to the American South, and between episodes of the Civil War documentary that put filmmaker Ken Burns on the cultural map 25 years ago.

I haven't read Uncle Tom's Cabin. But I do remember liking Ken Burns' documentary (he's done nothing as stirring since), and I did read Gone With the Wind.

Now that you know my background with respect to the items about which Bookworm was musing, the reason I just compared campaign ribbons, if you will, is that I wanted a sturdy platform from which to disagree with her. One does not cross blades with Bookworm lightly, or smile midway through  a duel knowing that you did not begin by drawing your sword with your dominant hand.

Gone With the Wind -- more specifically, what Bookworm rightly calls Margaret Mitchell's "powerful, romantic, tragic, gilded view of the South before, during, and after the Civil War" was and is problematic, she says, because "it allowed Jim Crow and other depredations against blacks to continue long after they should have died a natural death."

That, I think, is too strong an indictment, even for an influential 1936 novel and the iconic movie that it famously spawned four years later (the movie was filmed in 1939 but released in 1940). When would Jim Crow and other such depredations have died a natural death? Human nature being what it is, that's hard to say. Bookworm implies that Margaret Mitchell being on the wrong side matters at least as much as Harriet Beecher Stowe being on the right side did, but I don't think the two authors are necessarily on opposite sides of the same teeter-totter.

Let's stipulate that art can have influence, especially when it's not kitsch. "Jim Crow," Google tells me, was derisive slang that came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for black people and white people. The brief history of Jim Crow that I scanned while writing this says almost nothing about the cultural currents that encouraged those misbegotten laws. That article does, however, finger the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision known as Plessy v. Ferguson for creating the fiction of "separate but equal" as being somehow synonymous with "Constitutional" or "A-O.K."

Bookworm has a legal background, so it's safe to assume that her contention about Margaret Mitchell's novel simply adds Gone With the Wind to that bilious mix of Democrat-sanctioned racism and wrongheaded jurisprudence epitomized by Plessy, without discounting the other parts of that trifecta. Jim Crow, we know, was not officially scuttled in some places until the Civil Rights movement of the early Sixties, although World War Two (and the honorable service record of black Americans in that conflict) did a lot to underscore the stupidity of "separate but equal" thinking.

Back to GWTW, then: Was the novel's romanticism as dangerous as Bookworm suggests it was? You could with equal justice ask whether Ken Burns' brilliant use of Ashokan Farewell as a violin theme in his Civil War documentary stirred more sympathy for "Billy Yank" or "Johnny Reb."

One reason to be sanguine about the influence of GWTW is that Jim Crow laws were applauded by people unused to reading for pleasure. I'm painting with a broad brush, I realize, but it seems to me that Southerners who wore out their library cards were not also going to KKK meetings.

That said, the main reason I am willing to absolve Margaret Mitchell of the charge of aiding and abetting the Law of Unintended Consequences is because GWTW was not published in a vacuum: Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn still loomed large over American letters while Scarlett and Rhett watched Sherman's troops burn Tara to the ground.

Twain's great novel is many things, but it's anti-slavery message was a stirring repudiation of the "Jim Crow" ethos in real time (1885). Ignorant school administrators who wish now that they could bowdlerize some of the language in "Huck Finn" forget its moral peak, which is when Huck decides to help free his friend Jim, the slave, even at the cost of what he (Huck) thinks is eternal damnation.

Greater love hath no man than to give up his life for his friend -- that was Twain's theme, against which Jim Crow and every racist jot and tittle associated with it looks tawdry. That Huck was wrong about the price of his moral behavior actually makes his stance (and the novel) even more powerful.

Margaret Mitchell could be nostalgic for the antebellum South without providing significant comfort to segregationists because the ghost of Samuel Langhorne Clemens barred the door to the dungeon of inhumanity in his wry but immovable way, with the help of a semi-literate teenager who had more heart than he realized while rafting along the Mississippi River.


  1. I tend to agree with you. I have no way of knowing what people thought at the time GWTW was fresh. I will say, however, that Bookworm and I differ in our thoughts about the quality of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe was classically trained and definitely knew she had to write to a common level, rather than using high flung writing (in this, think Twain's style). However, when one looks at the book's structure, the North-South moral architecture, the doubling and contrasting of characters, the many layers of argument used that covered every possible attack, and, above all, the deep understanding of her characters' psychology (Cassie and St. Clare come to mind here), it is no wonder that she was celebrated by many of the authors of her day, including Dickens and Tolstoy, just to name a few.

    Of course, that is also something which people argue about and which changes no one's mind. :-)

    1. Oh, how nice to find a kindred spirit! Augustine St. Clare is one of my favorite characters in all of literature.

      And Harriet Beecher Stowe was a WONDERFUL writer. Have you read any of her short stories or poetry?

      If you've read "Uncle Tom's Cabin", you might also want to read her next novel, "Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp", which was also an anti-slavery novel, and was, like UTC, a best-seller in the U.S. "Dred" came out in 1856, four years after UTC. Since Stowe was deeply attuned to the social and political atmosphere around her, "Dred" is a very different novel from its predecessor -- darker, grimmer, less hopeful. A lot had changed in America between '52 and '56; politically, the country was more divided than ever, and you could almost FEEL the nation heading for the brink....