Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

The Times of London last week put together a package about literary one-hit wonders, with “Gone With the Wind” occupying a place on the list. The novel routinely sells half-a-million copies a year in paperback alone, has spawned two “authorized” sequels and countless of the other variety. When Time Magazine picked “GWTW” as one of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, it said that the novel’s success owes to it’s “definitive telling of one of the basic American mythologies: the passing away, in blood and ashes, of the grand old South.” But the novel in some ways has been overshadowed by its wildly successful movie adaptation, and not everyone feels affection for the Old South. How one views Margaret Mitchell’s vision tends to determine their enjoyment of the novel.

The novelist Stephen L. Carter, an African American, when reviewing one of the novel’s authorized sequels, “Rhett Butler’s People” in The New York Times, felt compelled to hail Mitchell for her “literary genius” and her novel for it’s power, beauty and depth.

Nevertheless, he also called it an apologia for the Old South of “gallant white plantation owners and darkies too foolish for anything but slavery, a civilization ruined by a vengeful North that subsequently flooded that idyllic world with rapacious Union soldiers, greedy carpetbaggers and the despotic … Freedman’s Bureau.”

Indeed, modern readers are easily offended by the novel’s black characters -slaves who speak in a thick, comic dialect worthy of Joel Chandler Harris. The book’s iconic status inspired Alice Randall’s parody, “The Wind Done Gone,” which in turn inspired a lawsuit from Mitchell’s estate.

In many ways, the novel is a story of possession, of wanting things that cannot be had, or trying to tame the untamable. The first time Scarlett sees Ashley Wilkes, upon his return from a European tour, Mitchell tells us that she “wanted him,” though she wasn’t quite sure why. Indeed, she never figures out why, even in the end when she no longer wants him. Rhett, bewitched by Scarlett, spends the entire novel trying to win her, to make her forget Ashley, only to abandon her at the end when he might finally have her.

Slavery would be the most obvious possession metaphor in the book, but Mitchell gives it an interesting twist - slaves feel possessive toward their owners, which is one reason the novel is so offensive to many now. One of the Tarleton twins early on tells a slave that the slaves know everything that goes on among the whites, giving them a spooky sense of wisdom. Mammy, for instance, is described as bullying the O’Hara girls, feeling she “owned them body and soul.”

Though Scarlett spends most of the novel, consciously and unconsciously obsessed with the soil of Tara, there is a feeling at times she is owned by it, rather than the other way around. Even in the background, Sherman’s March and the Reconstruction can be seen as the long, painful process of the North dragging the South back into the Union, owning it, trying to tame it.
There is also, from very early on, a steady drumbeat within the book about the nature of fate.

This is the motif that gives the book its very Southern flavor, because the fate is usually one of doom. When Mitchell spends several pages explaining how Scarlett’s parents came together, fate is the word commonly used, as when Gerald O’Hara wins Tara in a poker game, or when Scarlett’s mother Ellen leaves Charleston because her true love is gone and she decides to settle on Gerald in order to escape. When Scarlett plans, on the eve of the war, how she will somehow convince Ashley to propose to her, she muses that “a pretty dress and a clear complexion are weapons to vanquish fate.” Melanie Wilkes, from the first moment, is pitifully doomed, as is the Old South, because she is not a prissy fool hiding behind manners. No, as Scarlett comes to find out, she really is the perfect hostess, wife, mother, friend, and it is her perfection that is in some ways her undoing. She is as doomed as her husband Ashley, who one character says is like all the Wilkes’ - they’ve had the stamina bred out of them. This is fate in the Calvinist sense - as though one is a spectator in his own undoing.

It should be clear to any reader what the book is not - and for that, you have to refer to the movie. In the first minute following the credits, the audience views these words -

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South... Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave... Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…”

This is the South, at least the way the South would like to be remembered. But the reader who comes to the book expecting this picture, of a moonlight and magnolia paradise of gallant men and swooning ladies, need only read these words describing Scarlett’s mother:

“Ellen’s life was not easy, nor was it happy, but she did not expect life to be easy, and , if it was not happy, that was woman’s lot. It was a man’s world, and she accepted it as such. The man owned the property, and the woman managed it. The man took the credit for the management, and the woman praised his cleverness. The man roared like a bull when a splinter was in his finger, but the woman muffled the moans of childbirth, lest she disturb him. Men were rough of speech and often drunk. Women ignored the lapses of speech and put the drunkards to bed without bitter words. Men were rude and outspoken, women were always kind, gracious and forgiving.”

The words belong to the book’s narrator, but could just as easily belong to Scarlett. There are no gentlemen here, but weak, vain men barely sober. The ladies who inhabit the parlors live behind their fans and hoop skirts and keep the world functioning, while, Scarlett fumes, they are expected to be tender fools. What draws Rhett to Scarlett is precisely the fact that she is not an empty-headed belle, a fact she is secretly proud of. And she remains fascinated by him because he is no gentleman, but a scoundrel.

The distance between the two quotations is monumental. The movie, anxious for a Southern as well as national audience, adopted the unwritten rule of Civil War discourse in the first 100 years after the conflict - that the South must be portrayed in a way that acknowledges the courage of its fighting men and pays homage to the Lost Cause. If the truth is slanted, then box office receipts may compensate.

But the novel was written by a Southerner, and a woman, under no real obligation to buy into that myth, which is why one of its characters refers to the South’s self-image as imitation gentry, shoddy manners and cheap emotions. The one obvious fate of everyone in the novel - from beginning to end - is that they were caught in the defeat of the South, first in war, then in peace. It is a defeat that will upend all of their lives, and they are blind to it at the beginning and powerless to reverse its losses in the end, living the rest of their lives in a state of denial that anything has essentially changed. The defeat is symbolized in Ashley, the war hero, who loses his beloved wife and is left, as Rhett declares, “a gentlemen caught in a world he doesn’t belong in, trying to make the poor best of it by the rules of a world that’s gone.” Because Mitchell is a Southerner, she can get away with saying these things. More than a century later, when Drew Gilpin Faust wrote "Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War," she drew ire from Lost Causers for saying that women in the South were culturally unprepared for the war and one of the reasons for its defeat.

This vision of the South - as a place of disappearing illusions dying by inches- distinguishes “Gone With the Wind” from much of the Southern literature that came before it, or has followed since. The South, viewed through the eyes of Margaret Mitchell, was a heresy to the world she grew up in, which celebrated the war and the brave men who fought in it against the Yankee invaders. Yet the tone she adopts is at times sarcastic, bitter, ironic, and merciless, much like her heroine.

I don’t mean to say that Mitchell didn’t believe in the myth of the South, or that she consciously set out to debunk it. The picture that the movie celebrates is there in the novel’s pages to be easily picked up. But when we hear Scarlett’s sometimes hysterically funny observations about being a lady - like how she wishes Ashley would violate her and therefore be honor bound to marry her - we can see a little of the wit and grit of the author.

But what of the book’s troubling racial consciousness, or lack of one? The O’Hara house, infuriatingly, could not function where it not for Mammy, who seems untroubled by her role, only concerned with seeing yet another generation raised properly. When we learn the slaves look down on white trash, “proud to belong to people of quality,” it turns our stomachs at another generation’s views of “quality.” The O’Hara house, indeed, runs in large part because of the slaves in spite of the white people. Just as it takes women to preserve the social image of men, the slaves’ acquiescence is needed to continue the institution of slavery.

The book has an equally unforgiving picture of war, not the usual glory of the Rebellion. When Scarlett and Melanie flee Atlanta, Melanie listlessly asks for a daguerreotype of her brother Charles, who just happens to be Scarlett’s first husband and father of her child. When Scarlett gets a glance at the portrait, she realizes that she barely remembers the man. Later, Scarlett overhears Rhett ridiculing the armies of the Confederacy, and she feels a strange pang of patriotism for “all of the gay and gallant young men rotting in shallow graves.” Encapsulated in those two vignettes are harsh realities of war worthy of Hemingway - the cheapness of human life and the cheapness of the emotions that sometimes send men to die for ideas they barely understand. Again, Faust's "This Republic of Suffering" easily confirms the novel's assessment of brutality that the Southern woman endured because of the arrogance and short-sightedness of its ruling class.

The final chapter of “Gone With the Wind,” of course, is Rhett leaving Scarlett after the twin catastrophes of their daughter Bonnie’s death and the death of Melanie. Rhett is 48 and he is defeated, resigned, his face like that of a man “watching the last act of a none-too-amusing comedy.” He is giving up on Scarlett, content to leave her and perhaps renew his connections to his old family life. As with every moment in the book, Rhett is the true barometer of the reality of things - he saw Scarlett for what she was, as he did Melanie and Ashley. Scarlett realizes too late that “he always understood,” and at 28 has both gained the whole world and lost her soul, perhaps many times over, Rhett declares.

It is he who passes judgment, that he and Scarlett have been working at cross purposes - he in love with her, she in love with Ashley. Yet at the moment she no longer loves Ashley, Rhett gives up on her, realizing that she takes the love of those who love her and holds it over their heads “like a whip.” It should be noted that the metaphor he uses is that of the slave master.

Though the movie usually swells with triumphant music as Scarlett, unbowed, resolves she will find some way to get back the only man who ever really loved her, I found this inevitable note of hope missing somehow reading it for myself. So much of this book is tragedy - almost Greek tragedy, like other writings of the Civil War.

In Greek tragedy, the hero or heroine is caught in their own hubris toward a fate which will consume them no matter what they do. The hero realizes too late his fatal flaw and cannot alter the past nor save the future. One gets the sense that Scarlett hasn’t really changed all that much. She has traded one illusion - the dream of a life with Ashley in abundance - with another - that she can tease Rhett into forgetting his misgivings and giving their life together a second chance. The image again is Calvinist - sinners in the hands of an angry God, powerless to break free of the Almighty's designated fate.

Then again, we may not worry too much about Scarlett. She has survived the loss of her family and her reputation, neither of which she really valued, and the loss of her dreams, which she never really understood. If she thinks about fate, it's the one she intends to forge for herself. She still has Tara, and she clings to it in the hope that she may yet convince Rhett to take her back. If she is able to, we wouldn’t be too surprised, since she’s already endured so much. Yet Mitchell wisely decides to draw back the curtain at just this moment, concluding that by not answering the question, the reader is left wanting more.

Always more.

(Portions of this posting previously appeared in Solander)

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
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Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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