“Atlanta was of her own generation, crude with the crudities of youth and as headstrong and impatient as herself.”

Mitchell’s above comparison of the young Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton and the young Atlanta is clever, and would be more clever if it also had the merit of being true.  But in fact, as we and Scarlett discover, the “anything goes” attitude she seeks and seems to find in Atlanta isn’t necessarily there—it’s still a Southern town full of gossiping old biddies and restrictions on the conduct of a young widow and church bazaars and the like.  I’ll grant that Scarlett finds a degree of freedom in Atlanta that she’d missed back home, but that is almost entirely due to the weak will of her chaperone aunt-in-law, Miss Pittypat Hamilton, in comparison with the stern authority of her mother, Ellen O’Hara, who remains back home at Tara.  If Ellen lived in Atlanta, and Pitty at Tara, Atlanta would be no walk in the park for Scarlett, and a visit to Tara would have been her chance to live it up a bit.  Still, there is something interesting at work here: I’m curious to see if Mitchell really does want to dig into the tension of countryside vs. town (as is usual for Pulitzers of this era—One of Ours, Arrowsmith, and So Big all come to mind, off-hand), and what she can do with it.  So far, I don’t really see it being developed very much, but I think Scarlett’s return to Tara towards the end of the war may create more opportunities for this.

I have to admit, the characters are all very appealing—not as people I want to befriend, I should note, but rather as people I’m enjoying observing.  Rhett Butler’s got a nice caddishness about him, and he certainly knows how to maneuver within (and yet somehow unconstrained by) the conventions of Southern society.  Scarlett’s got more to her than I’d at first guessed, though she’s still not really a sympathetic character, or rather I am sympathetic to her plight but not always to her way of resolving problems.  I think Mitchell’s having fun with that aspect of the Scarlett character, and I don’t blame her—it’s a nice distance for an author to have from her main character.  Melanie Hamilton Wilkes has a bit more edge to her than I’d expected from my memories of the movie, and I no longer feel, as I did in an earlier post, that she’s just some wish-fulfillment character expressing Mitchell’s idea of herself.  Watching these characters interact with each other and the rest of an enormous cast is definitely fun, especially because Mitchell is good at those conversations where one thing is said and another meant.  Most of Rhett and Scarlett’s dialogue effectively operates this way, and it has a sparkle to it.  Most of the chapters I hit are fun to read—lively, eventful, sometimes a bit humorous, and certainly easy to get caught up in.

But the long struggle continues with GWTW as a) a book that defends the Confederacy as an idea and b) a book that defends racism.  It’s fair at this point to say that I haven’t resolved whether a) or b) are true statements to make, although I’m pretty skeptical about acquitting the novel entirely on either charge.  Jillian from A Room of One’s Own has been a welcome and vocal addition to the comments section here in the last few days, and I think if anybody can convince me that I’m being too hard on the novel, she can.  But, having said that, I’m not sure anyone can.  The reason is this: Mitchell presents a case about the Confederacy that, at first blush, seems pretty critical.  Scarlett, with whom we are closely concerned (whether or not we always agree with her), is not a fan of “the Cause”, and Rhett’s even harsher than she is.  It might seem, then, that the novel is in fact an argument against the South’s attempts to stave off change—a novel that sees the war as wasteful, boastful arrogance, an act of an ignorant and petulant child.  But Mitchell presents other views as well—Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, who is undeniably presented to us as admirable (even the caustic Rhett Butler has nothing but praise for her), has shown anger on only one occasion so far…when she realizes that some of the South’s men are unwilling to go and die nobly for the sake of the glorious cause.  And Ashley Wilkes, who I’d also argue is undeniably presented as a thoughtful and admirable man, laments the war but for the wrong reasons.  He claims in a letter to Melanie that the war is not about “the darkies”, as he calls them—no, he is fighting for something other than the preservation of slavery.  What?  The “old ways” that are certain now to disappear.  What characterizes the old ways?  Oh, he lavishes detail on them, but it boils down to missing the peaceful, quiet, steady life he could have lived on a plantation, and the sweet sound of tired “darkie” voices singing as they trudge home from the fields after a long day’s work, etc.  No, Ashley’s not fighting for “the darkies”….he’s fighting to defend the privileged and pleasant life that owning slaves allowed him to live.  The fact that he sentimentalizes slavery by seeing it as this sweet, decorous, stained-glass window image of the happy slave headed home, proud of a good day’s cotton-picking, is really no excuse for making it his reason for fighting.  I certainly don’t hate Ashley Wilkes, or his wife Melanie, for that matter, but there’s no denying that the characters most praised and built up by the narrative in this book are also the characters most eloquent in defense of the South’s war to preserve the comfortable lives of white slaveowners.

Cropped screenshot of Leslie Howard from the t...

“Why, no, I’m not fighting to protect slavery….just to protect the entire civilization built on slavery (and so slavery too, but implicitly, as polite people should always do).” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this point, I can read the above work in one of two ways—I can say that Mitchell actually thinks Ashley and Melanie are wrong, obviously wrong (as they are, in fact), and that therefore the novel’s presenting a case against the South, largely through the mouths of Scarlett and Rhett, who for their faults are more vivid than the Wilkes are.  Or I can say that Mitchell agrees with the Wilkes and thinks the Civil War is a tragedy, not because so many people had to die in order to set a race free, but because so many people had to die in noble defense of the beautiful world made possible by slavery.  The question of the author’s intentions is not important to every reader, but it’s important to me—I went a few rounds with Paul on this subject in the comments section of a post on The Magnificent Ambersons, and I suspect I may go a round or two with Jillian in this post’s comments section.  This is not a bad thing—I like being pushed to make sense of a novel like this.  And it’s fair to point out that there’s no reason I can’t praise or enjoy a novel where the author’s intentions run opposite to mine.  I’m certainly liking a lot of the reading experience I’m getting out of GWTW, which is a much more skillful and engrossing novel than many of the Pulitzer winners I’ve read thus far—it’s just that the novel still makes me uneasy every time we turn back to race and the war.  I tense up every time it looks like the narration is running back to those subjects.  I don’t know that I’ll ever get over that, and more to the point, I’m not sure I should try to “get over it”, since it may be that this is a perfectly good reaction to a book whose agenda ought to be opposed.  I will be mulling this one over long after I finish reading it, though, that’s certain, and I’m glad of that.

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10 comments on ““Atlanta was of her own generation, crude with the crudities of youth and as headstrong and impatient as herself.”

  1. graham says:

    It seems like there’s a certain sort of nostalgia afflicting Mitchell, the same sort that romanicizes the life of Marie Antoinette because of all the pretty dresses.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Graham, I won’t entirely disagree, but I’m worried I’m not giving Mitchell a full/fair enough representation. I think she is keen enough to see through a lot of this—she certainly gives Scarlett and Rhett some piercingly perceptive dialogue about the silliness of the Southern aristocrats, etc. The nostalgia seems weirdly localized around the question of slavery and why the South went to war. My options are either to discover a different reading that shows Mitchell seeing through that also, or to accept that a woman clearly smart and precise enough to be able to get the right perspective chose not to for diverse reasons. I think fans of GWTW would push me to find the former, and I may be able to do so in the long run. But right now, like you, I think the latter feels like the more compelling argument.

  2. Jillian ♣ says:

    Prepare for my longest comment yet! :)

    (I didn’t go back and look up your comments and my responses in the past few days before posting here, so I hope all this makes sense and I haven’t misquoted you or myself. I’m commenting on the fly.)

    I saw your post a couple days ago on the photo of Margaret Mitchell – about the way she was “cackling as she smashes a generation’s historical understanding of slavery and the antebellum South.” (Okay, I looked that part up just now to quote you directly.) I confess I winced. In that photo, she is chuckling because the bottle she’s holding wouldn’t break (if I remember right – it’s been a while since I read the biography I’m thinking of). She finally got it after several tries, and it struck her funny. If it’s the photo I believe it to be, she is christening the USS Atlanta for the second time. The first one was sunk in the war. They asked Mitchell to christen the second ship again because her name carried weight, so she smiled, and she made merry for the men – when in her personal life, her mother was gone (to Spanish influenza in 1919 – she never got to say goodbye), her father was either gravely ill or gone, her husband was bedridden from a massive heart attack, and she’d been made into a side show for American fans (she couldn’t even change in a dressing room without being intruded upon.) She never meant to rewrite history for America. She wrote her novel for her husband because she was bored, and even when they published it, she figured only the South would see it, and feared their anger about the way she’d portrayed Southerners. That it went national, and then worldwide, was astonishing to her.

    It makes me sad to think that this novel is again and again critiqued as a statement on slavery when what it is is a statement about what it is to be a flawed human and have life crash around you and have to decide – “This is how I will survive.” The Catholicism? It isn’t a black and white passage within the text that I can point out to you as evidence. It’s in the subtext, and you either see it or you don’t. You get into the skin of the speaker (Confederate, slave, plantation owner’s daughter, plantation owner’s wife, plantation owner, poetic sleepy-eyed militia captain, Atlanta lady, Catholic, Baptist, abolitionist, atheist) — and you see the world through their eyes, in all their flawed, crushed, hopeful spirit, and then you blink, and you come back to your own world, and for a second you see your life more clearly because you lived that other place.

    Well, that’s how I read. I see Gone With the Wind (and most things) at an intuitive level. Intuition is unfortunately my strength and one that cannot be communicated and thus leaves me appearing clumsy and inept where in my mind I experience clarity.

    I confess I’m a bit intimidated to keep going on this conversation now that I know you have a degree in American history (and taught it). I certainly don’t have that. I’ve got a bit of personal reading under my belt, and my family history, and my college classes – a few, nothing to call me an expert at all. And I guess, the fact that I live here. :-) I’m excited to read through your eyes and don’t want to tamper with your reading or point out evidence for my interpretation of the novel, or debate. Only to share my perspective – and that is that you cannot see America as it really is and was, if you don’t see it through the uncomfortable perspectives. The Confederates are weaved into the tapestry of America. To see them through the eyes of a 2012 American history teacher is one perspective. Another is to see them through their eyes. That one’s less cozy.

    You say in a recent post that “Mitchell just wasn’t up to using Catholicism as a representative of Scarlett’s status as a minority” (paraphrased, because I don’t feel like hunting up your quote) :-) , but this assumes that your version of her novel is the novel she wasn’t up to writing. With respect, that’s reading with an agenda – reading your version of her book, and judging it inferior because it isn’t what you would have written. If you do that, you will miss the view through Scarlett’s eyes, and Rhett’s eyes and Ashley’s eyes, and Melanie’s eyes – and Mitchell’s eyes, though many would debate that she is and should be nonexistent in a reading of her text. (I disagree.)

    Books are flawed by nature, caught in their time, trapped in the web of their author’s perceptions. To critique that flawed perception seems futile to me. Of course you will see a bleak world, terrible people, ugly history – racism, arrogant views on slavery, a Confederate perspective that isn’t cozy in 2012, a smearing of the stuff the author doesn’t want to confront or frankly can’t see. That’s why literature is beautiful – it gives us that glimpse into history from all its brutal perspectives. A book is a lens where you can choose to have a look and say, “Oh, see! I would have focused to the left, but this author has chosen to go right, and that’s how I know she simply didn’t have it in her to go left.” Or you can choose to say, “How astonishing. It’s terrible to look at this, yet I never would have seen it looking through my own eyes.”

    I (believe) that you are reading for a look at what Mitchell has to say about slavery (with a view to hang her for it – because her book was popular?) I’m looking from a completely different direction (what it looked like to be a Confederate – meaning what they did see and what they chose not to see – as well as through the eyes of a 1936 woman) and fear that my attempts to explain my perspective translate as me “excusing” her perspective, when the truth is I’m puzzled about (or perhaps just uneducated in reference to) why you would place the onus of American perspective on Mitchell’s shoulders. (ie: the photo where you say she is “cackling as she smashes a generation’s historical understanding of slavery and the antebellum South.”)

    In my eyes, she wrote a book, and thank goodness she was flawed – it gives us a chance to see the American South’s Republican (I think she was Republican) perspective on The American Civil War seventy some-odd years after the fact. In all honesty, the mechanics of her writing process intrigue me, the romanticism doesn’t offend me any more than did Hugo’s in his version of France (I’ve only started Hugo) because romanticism is a bi-product of war and literature is its potential canvas. That’s all I meant by “The North has romanticism too.” Every side has its heroes and its monsters, its flaws, its perspective, its view of history. Mitchell gave us hers, as one voice on a history that enflamed voices all over America. I want to read Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and Thomas Jefferson and Lincoln and Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and (so many others that I can’t recall right now.)

    It frustrates me that I don’t have the education or the “intellectual” perspective (or the patience/time) to back up my statements as you’ve asked. I haven’t read the book since last year and while I own it, I lack the time to pour through it hunting up evidence and passages to back up comments. I remember my impression of the novel on my third read, and my experience appreciating it in the two previous reads, but certainly not a scene-by-scene manuscript untarnished by my own bias. If I was reading along with you, I might be better prepared.

    In all honesty, I feel keen to listen in on your read but suddenly out of my league, when it comes to this conversation. Responses like “we learned that in elementary school” make me feel embarrassed, because I really didn’t learn what you say is common knowledge (until college). So what is naturally a handicap (my lack of education as I remember it, and my inability to speak what’s in my head because I think in emotions and passion) makes me feel unprepared to engage as you’ve invited. That, and the fact that you are speaking in-progress on a novel, while I am speaking thrice-finished, makes for a conversation that feels very much like trying to zip a zipper by attaching one end of a jacket to a picture hanger and zipping the other end into the keyhole. ;-)

    Cheers and thanks for the conversation!! I do intend to continue following and may comment/ask questions now and then. While I confess your perspective puzzles me, I very much look forward to your take on the book and its place in American history. That you are so educated thrills me! (I love history.)

    (I say your perspective puzzles me, but I’m not convinced it isn’t the superior way to view literature. I’ve only taken four lit classes so may have entirely no idea what I’m talking about — and may want to use my eraser on this post in a year or so. ) :)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Jillian, I’ll say at the outset that I appreciate your willingness to be very honest and critical, and your commitment to remain respectful while you do so. I’m going to strive for the same virtues in my response. :-)

      I can see why my image caption bothered you…all I can say is that it was my combination of a somewhat whimsical sense of humor (obviously I’m mis-captioning the image) and my desire to provoke a bit of a reaction. I wasn’t thinking about Mitchell’s actual thoughts in the photo, as you clearly were—on a personal level, I suppose it wasn’t fair to her. But to be honest, my blog is often not very considerate of authors (if the estates of Julia Peterkin and Margaret Wilson ever find me, I’m hosed): I am pretty blunt and probably a bit callous with them and their lives in ways I wouldn’t be if they were people I knew personally. Your comments are making me ponder whether I should rein myself in a bit more, and maybe I will in the future. I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t mean for my glib remark to be offensive, and I sense it was, so I apologize, even though I think my underlying concern (that Mitchell’s novel has perhaps been destructive to some part of the American fabric) is legitimate. I need to separate my concerns about the novel from the things I say about its author a bit more clearly, out of fairness to her.

      I think you and I are talking past one another a bit. I agree with you about the fact that at least one goal of fiction being to see through other characters’ eyes—my frustration with Mitchell is not that I am forced to see a Confederate perspective, but that I worry she is white-washing that perspective (e.g., the setting aside of slavery in relating the men’s conversation about the cause of the war) in a way that sanitizes it. Your criticism of my take on Mitchell and Catholicism …when I wrote that post, I felt that Mitchell’s writing lacked the psychological depth to explore an issue like being a religious minority. I would say I no longer feel that way—she’s more talented than I had then seen. One of the perils of blogging as I go is that I make miscalculations constantly. I think it’s also one of the reasons I do it—that is, I think it’s interesting for me to see how my ideas developed. I still see her choice not to explore life as a religious minority as a flaw—this is probably a personal reaction, fueled perhaps in part by the fact that one of my better papers in grad school was on Catholic identity in early 20th Century English novels, so I have a particular interest in seeing novelists explore the issue.

      I guess I’m not terribly apologetic about reading with an agenda because I think we all have one. Reading is a selfish act. We read to get something out of a book—at times we’re more open about what that will be, but I don’t think any reader refuses to consider the idea that they might set down a book because “it’s not working” for them. I don’t care for Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I know a lot of smart people who love it. I don’t think I’m “right” and they’re “wrong”—it’s a matter of taste, and I’m willing to guess that it’s my loss to be unmoved as I am. But if I was to blog about Dickinson’s poetry, the only authentic things I could say about it would be critical—to say what I think people who enjoy it enjoy about it would be terribly difficult to get right, and would (in my opinion) miss the point of stating my opinion. Roger Ebert talks about this a lot with movie reviews—people blast him for giving a bad review to a dumb action flick, telling him lots of people love those. And he tells them that he has no problem with people watching the films they love, but as a reviewer, his charge is to be honest about what he felt and thought. So, to return to GWTW, I’m a reader who wants some depth in my characters. If Mitchell isn’t going to give me depth with the African-American characters, I’d at least like her to seize the opportunities she has to bring complexity to characters like Scarlett, whose family’s Catholicism would not have been a non-issue in 1860. If she doesn’t, I feel I have to say I think it’s a failing. I don’t fault anybody for liking the novel and saying that omission doesn’t bother them.

      That said, I think it’s fair to remind me to not get so caught up in what the book isn’t doing that I miss out on what it is doing. I haven’t felt that I’ve fallen victim to that—I think I’ve been good at every step thus far of acknowledging the things Mitchell does well, and at being open to the fact that her novel and her style are working better for me the more I read. But given how much concern you’re expressing about it, perhaps I’m missing ways in which I am being insufficiently open to the novel, and I’ll certainly try harder to be vigilant about any closed-mindedness.

      You say at one point that “I (believe) that you are reading for a look at what Mitchell has to say about slavery (with a view to hang her for it – because her book was popular?)”. I need to reframe that, because I want to make sure I’ve communicated well about this. I am reading this book, first and foremost, because it was awarded a prize that indicates it’s one of the best American novels of the 1930s, and I want to use my experience to illuminate my understanding of America then. I also want to enjoy a good reading experience. That’s my primary reason for reading a book I had otherwise ignored for 32+ years. But the slavery angle is real for me, and this is why: a number of historians are very direct about their belief that one of the primary reasons for American misunderstanding and ignorance about the true conditions in the antebellum South, the true causes of the Civil War, and the true events of the Reconstruction period in the South is simply that the second best-selling book in the nation is GWTW, and the novel presents an inaccurate view of all three of these things. Unlike most other novels, Mitchell’s book has made an immense impact on America’s sense of itself. It would be impossible for me to read it without paying attention to those elements, and asking myself how I react to them—it would be like reading the Bible without thinking at all about how its words helped frame the doctrines of Christianity. Sure, I can read a Gospel as being simply a fascinating story, a piece of ancient literature unconnected to my world today….but I feel like never spending time thinking about its connections to modern Christianity would be a disservice both to me and to the book. The same goes for GWTW. I know that Mitchell didn’t really ask for this kind of scrutiny (nor, I suppose, did the author of the Gospel of Matthew, for that matter), but I can’t ignore it out of deference to her privacy. I have no particular agenda for hanging Mitchell or the book—if I find as I read that the book has been misrepresented, I’ll say so. I’m perfectly willing to be an iconoclast. :-) But if I find that the novel is what I’ve heard it is, then I have to be honest about my misgivings—my sadness at how a nation already alienated from its past by plenty of other distorted sources was driven a little further off the mark by this book. I’m not looking to blame Margaret Mitchell for all American racism or injustice or anything like it. But I also can’t absolve her of all criticism simply because she didn’t intend to write a book about slavery.

      I definitely didn’t mean to drive you off by mentioning my (not very impressive) credentials—there is plenty that I have to learn, both about fiction and about history. I’m a better reader today than when I was an English major, and a better historian today than when I was a History major. I intend to get better at both yet, and part of that growth will come from being pushed by folks like you. My comment about when a factual account of the Civil War was taught was only me referring to the one high school I have any experience with, and not intended to be a remark about anybody’s educational experience—I really hope you didn’t think I was taking a shot at you, since I definitely wasn’t! I don’t, in all honesty, think that an accurate understanding of the Civil War is common knowledge. I was just defending against the charge I understood you to make—that “Northern history” teaches the Civil War as the valiant struggle of gold-steeded knights charging for freedom—by noting that the “Northern history teachers” I know would all have approached the subject very differently in 11th grade high school history. How many of those students were really listening is anyone’s guess. :-)

      So I hope you will comment and question, since I’m impressed by your passion for the novel, and your curiosity (and wide-ranging reading ambitions) regarding America’s great writers and thinkers. I promise to try to keep my mind open. And if you have room on your incredibly long list of “to-reads”, I hope you’ll add another 1930s Pulitzer winner—The Store, by T. S. Stribling. It’s a novel set in Reconstruction, authored by a Southerner about a small Alabama town. I think if you read it, you’ll see the kind of novel I am hoping Mitchell will write, where I do get an honest (and sometimes ugly) but beautifully illuminating look into the mind of former slaveowners, but I get beside them an honest (and sometimes ugly) view into the minds of former slaves. I think Stribling was pretty fearless in taking on slavery and race in the 1930s, and because of that I really was hoping to get the same kind of depth out of Mitchell. So far I’m not seeing as much depth—though I’ll grant she’s a more skilled writer in terms of style and dialogue—and that’s part of why I’m offering a bit of the grumbling I am.

      Thanks again for your thoughts! I hope my (excessively long) reply is as courteous and considerate as yours was.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Oh, a couple more notes appended to what is already too long: I loved your image of the zipper—creative and right on target. And if you want an eraser in a year, you’ll be in plentiful company: the more I look back on the posts I’ve made here over the years, the more I want to go back and revise and tinker. But I don’t regret even my most egregious mis-steps, not really, and even if you come to different ideas about reading and history and GWTW than you currently have, I still think what you’ve said here is valuable and will remain valuable.

      • Jillian ♣ says:

        I’ll certainly add that book to my list – and thanks! I want you to know that I’m not trying to “convince” you to see things my way – and I very much respect that this blog is a journal of your developing thoughts. That’s sort of why I wanted to back off; I’m approaching you on your thoughts part way through the book. Thoughts that aren’t finalized shouldn’t be critiqued, and the reading journey is a personal one – certainly not a group activity open for debate. I know that well because my own blog is about my reading progress and often involves thoughts in progress. My honest purpose here was to offer a gentle suggestion to read for the author’s purpose rather than your own. I offered that as an English major and sometimes tutor, which makes me blush now that I know you were also an English major?

        Anyway, thank you for your note. :) I’m super busy offline at the moment so can only pop on the computer briefly, but I didn’t want to leave your note unanswered.

        I appreciate your words and candor. I’m wondering (having thought about it a lot today) if our zipper-rich conversation is as simple as a clash of differing schools of criticism? I know very little about lit theory at this point (I’ve not yet encountered it in college), but I lean toward biographical criticism (understanding of the author through her book) and reader-response (as I understand it, a tracking of my own thoughts paired against those of the author and how I infiltrate the text with my own life experience.) You are (perhaps?) reading with a new historicism agenda? (I know little about that one either, but will say that I find it fascinating so far.) Being very new to literature, it escapes me sometimes that books can be seen from many, many different angles. I still tend to see from the most obvious one (the story). I think I lean toward biographical criticism the most. I definitely place the author in the center of the story and use the text to ask “why?” questions about the author herself. Which is exactly how I read Mitchell these days — in a search for her psychological perspective. (If you read my review on Gone With the Wind, written very new early into my reading journey, it was still focused on the story, writing and characters and written without any idea how many windows there are through which to read a book.

        Here’s where my lit window likely clashed with yours: I have been trying to caution you not to miss Mitchell’s viewpoint (as a real Confederate, kind, honest, of good intention, living just 70-something years after the war), while perhaps (and rightfully so) you are more interested in the book’s impact on American society and its view of history.

        I apologize for blundering in and talking through my own viewpoint and perspective. My wish was to caution you not to miss the soul of the book (Mitchell) in your quest to prove Mitchell “wrong” as a writer. A sympathetic look at what Mitchell leaves out, what she glosses over, what she romanticizes — affords the reader an opportunity to speculate about SHE the writer, and why she chose the window she chose, in the telling of her tale. I found your approach confusing because you appeared so hostile toward Mitchell before you’d even begun the book. How could you have an enriched experience when you (appeared) to be so shut off to the very heart of the work (Margaret Mitchell) right from the start?

        My point in all this is not that Mitchell was providing an accurate window on slavery in America. This seems to be where we keep colliding. My point is that she didn’t, and there is value in seeing what she left out, what she romanticized, and why. Not as a tool to hang her, but as a representation of the mind of a Confederate, which she was in her heart and soul, I think. I believe she was kind, intelligent, and meant well in her work – that she’d be mortified to know the legacy she left, that she matured in her life and began to view America differently than she did when she wrote GWTW, and that she is representative of much of Confederate America.

        I agree that we all read with an agenda. I poorly stated my point, which was that – if reading is a conversation between author and reader (as it should be), then you appear to be arriving at the conversation armed with a clipboard and megaphone, and are interrogating Mitchell rather than listening to her perspective. Of course she’s going to offer a distorted view on the war. She was never there and is fictionalizing. So the opportunity to find out why is fascinating.

        You cite a book that offers, in your view, a more accurate look at the Confederacy. My point is that Mitchell offers their romanticism, their Confederate nationalism, their inability to see what’s wrong is their society, their belief that the slaves just didn’t mind and wanted to stay with the family – in the form of herself. When I say things like, “But they wouldn’t have talked about fighting to get back the slaves in front of the ladies” and “But they would have seen the slaves as family,” I’m saying that this is how the Confederates would have viewed the Confederacy in Mitchell’s view – because she’s heard about the war from her own relatives who would have built it up as a matter of pride and nationalism and offered her their view of the war that destroyed their South and the Reconstruction that, in their mind, was a cruel invasion. I’m not saying she is accurate; I am saying she believed she was accurate, and there is value in contemplating that. But if you read with an agenda to prove she screwed up America (which I now see is a perfectly worthy way to read a book — though different from mine!)), you will see only where she doesn’t live up to your standards and will miss her own voice and honest perspective.

        Mitchell was a stickler for presenting history accurately. She was a reporter, trained to offer an accurate report, and daughter to the president of the Atlanta Historical Society (who was also a lawyer.) She had been raised to be honest and straightforward, and her father (the lawyer and expert on Atlanta history, who was very tough on her) read her book and deemed the story fluff and the history impeccable. She went so far as to interview surviving slaves from all over Georgia so that she captured their exact accent and dialect by region and life experience. She visited the battlefields and scoured books so that even the weather is accurately reported. She went temporarily blind scouring old newspapers so that she wouldn’t repeat a real person’s name in her fictional characters.

        If the history is flawed, it isn’t purposeful. It is a misaligned view of what happened. So why? Why didn’t she see history as we see it in 2012? THAT is where reading her novel becomes extra interesting (in my humble view.)

        I’ll also say that I (believe) America’s current view of GWTW and the history it propigates is largely based upon the movie rather than the novel. You yourself originally viewed Melanie as Olivia De Havilland in your read, and I am guilty of judging my view of Ashley on Leslie Howard’s performance, the first two times I read the book! Mitchell refused to offer any assistance on the film because she didn’t want her name attached to work that was not her own. Selznich hassled her endlessly for help, and she consistently refused. She found much of it laughable and inaccurate, though I think she was pleased overall. She loved Butterfly McQueen, Clark Gable (who she originally disliked as a potential Rhett), Vivien Leigh (because a British woman as Scarlett is at least better than a Yankee, she said!), and Hattie McQueen.

        I will be back, certainly. You strike me as very kind, approachable and open-minded, and I’m excited to revisit GWTW one of these days, with exposure to your journey through the text to enrich my own read. One thing I want to make sure I DO NOT do when I visit here is to miss your perspective in defense of my own.

        Cheers, and I apologize if I haven’t addressed one of your points. I have to jump off here now. Have a good night. :-)

        • Jillian ♣ says:

          Eek! I hate typos, which I naturally sprinkled above in my haste! ;P

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Some thoughts, though I’ll try to keep it brief [Note: I failed. Sorry!] since I don’t want you to feel obligated to spend too much online time responding to comments! Since I’ve been unintentionally cagy about my academic background, I’ll flat out say I have a double-major Bachelor’s degree in English and History from the University of Washington (along with a couple of Master’s degrees—teaching and librarianship—and am 80% complete on a third Master’s in History). I don’t list these to give me any authority, since I’ve known plenty of degree-holding people who had no clue what they were talking about, but rather so you know I won’t keep coming up with more degrees every time you mention something (“well, when I was a linguistics major….etc.”). :-)

          As an “accidental English major” (a story too long to relate here), I never felt as solid in my critical perspective as I think you are. I’d say my work here is heavily reader-response, but that maybe your reader-response approach is more experimental or uniform, while mine is more individualist? Anybody who got an English degree in the 1990s, as I did, pretty much had to slog through New Historicism, and I think you’re right that some of those influences are present here, but I think it’s probably also a dash of me reading the text as a historian — that is, rather than always reading it from a literary perspective, I think at times I’m treating it as a primary source document about attitudes in the South in the 1930s. Anyway, I think that’s the best thumbnail sketch I can give of the p.o.v. I bring to this endeavor.

          I think part of my struggle with Mitchell’s perspective is that I don’t think she’s offering the “Confederate perspective”, I think she’s offering the “child/grandchild of a Confederate perspective”. As far as I can tell, she was a very smart woman who is scrupulously accurate about everything in the South at the time (good and bad) except for slavery and the things affected by it. This is because it would be too hard for us to sympathize with these people if we knew what they were really like—if we saw Ashley giving an order to have a slave beaten, or knew how Gerald had sold a woman’s child down the river. It’s part of a large narrative that was rewritten by Southern thinkers and authors in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where slavery disappeared as an element in the war, replaced by nebulous concepts like “states’ rights” and “economic injustice”. A woman who had researched deeply enough to know the weather at the Battle of Chancellorsville would have undoubtedly encountered sources that told her that this narrative was false—that the primary justification offered for the Confederacy at the time was slavery, that the leaders of the secession made absolutely no bones about it, and that the abstraction of “states’ rights” was then offered in defense of slavery, and not as a justification in its own right. A woman who interviewed countless ex-slaves to get their accents and dialect right would almost have to have picked up the truth from them about how slaves were treated and how they felt about slavery, if she were listening. Whether she knowingly set these facts aside, or did so unconsciously, I can’t say. I recognize that she was a creature of her age and place, as are we all. I just think it’s a shame. And I think it’s a shame that her reputation as a “stickler for presenting history accurately” means that many folks really do think that the South was the way she saw it. (I do think you’re right about the movie being the really influential thing, since I’m liking the nuance I find in the novel—see some of my most recent post—and Mitchell can’t be blamed for the movie’s departures at all, as you note.)

          Much of that above paragraph may be me with a megaphone, I’ll admit. But I don’t know how else to speak back to a sweeping (and utterly charming and engrossing) epic that is so consistent in silencing the characters who were most silenced by their society, and making them invisible. I want to speak my peace because I think the country abandoned them—not just in the early 1800s when slavery was legal, but also in the 1930s when the nation turned a blind eye to lynchings and de jure segregation and all the rest. I feel like to be silent about that aspect of the novel, and merely to praise it for being a really successful reading experience is to be in some way complicit in all of that silence and turning away. I don’t know how to have a conversation with Mitchell when she is content to hide all of the evidence for my side of the conversation. It would be one thing if she showed me the injustices that happened to the slaves—injustices that would have been very familiar to all of these people in her novel—and showed me the mindset that allowed them to make sense of it. But instead she sweeps them under the rug (and in so doing, raises my ire).

          I guess what I’m saying is that my beef is more with her society than it is with Mitchell. She’s one of several white Southern authors to have won a Pulitzer by this point, writing books that are either explicitly or implicitly racist (note: a couple of racist Northerners, too—I want to make sure I acknowledge that racism is a national problem, and not a regional one!). I’m getting awfully familiar with the viewpoint of the white Southerner in the 1920s and 1930s. I have yet to read a black author’s Pulitzer-winning novel because there hasn’t been one yet. I think that’s a major cause of my impatience. If three of the 1930s award-winners had been black authors writing honestly about the slave experience, I think it would be easier to say “you know, I’m glad to have GWTW because it’s good to see through the eyes of these Confederates, even though I disagree with them….if I didn’t, I wouldn’t really see the whole picture”. But instead it’s “oh, another novel in which the position of white racists is taken as the default, and in which minorities are either marginalized, silenced, misrepresented, or invisible”….I just don’t feel like I need one more example (however eloquent) right now while the country goes on ignoring the great black authors of the 20th Century. I can’t lay that at Mitchell’s feet, and maybe if I’d read as much about her as you have, I’d be even more sympathetic to her. I promise to try to take it easier on her personally. But I can’t promise not to be vocal about the stuff that drives me crazy. :-)

          I’m glad we’re both getting something out of this conversation. I keep reading more bits of your blog (do read some Tolkien, by the way—even though he may be exactly what you’re expecting), and will comment there if I think I can be remotely helpful. I’m not as critically minded as you (as noted above), but I hope I’ll have something to offer now and then. And I’m glad you’ll be back here again. Cheers and have a great Memorial Day weekend!

        • Jillian ♣ says:

          All of this is appreciated and duly noted, with thanks for your candor! I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I have read very little from the 1920s and 1930s yet, so I haven’t faced the books you have read from that era. I’ll keep a watch out for the way authors present America from now on, I think — something it really hadn’t occurred to me to do before now.

          Cheers and happy weekend to you! (A brief comment tonight.) :)

  3. [...] I’ve been following an academic librarian’s journey through Gone With the Wind recently, and he’s suggested I read The Store by T.S. Stribling: If you have room on your incredibly long list of “to-reads”, I hope you’ll add another 1930s Pulitzer winner—The Store, by T. S. Stribling. It’s a novel set in Reconstruction, authored by a Southerner about a small Alabama town. I think if you read it, you’ll see the kind of novel I am hoping Mitchell will write, where I do get an honest (and sometimes ugly) but beautifully illuminating look into the mind of former slaveowners, but I get beside them an honest (and sometimes ugly) view into the minds of former slaves. I think Stribling was pretty fearless in taking on slavery and race in the 1930s, and because of that I really was hoping to get the same kind of depth out of Mitchell. So far I’m not seeing as much depth—though I’ll grant she’s a more skilled writer in terms of style and dialogue—and that’s part of why I’m offering a bit of the grumbling I am. – May 23, 2012 at 10:23 pm [...]

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