So begins Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell‘s sweeping epic of the dying South, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1937. This is a book I’ve both looked forward to and dreaded for months now, and at last it’s here.
In part that mixture of anticipation and dread comes from its familiarity—I grew up on the famous 1939 film adaptation of the story. As a kid with an interest in American history, and the son of a woman who loved old Hollywood films, in an era when the sudden growth of cable meant that Gone With the Wind was in heavy rotation on movie channels that knew it would fill a big time slot and draw viewers, I could hardly have avoided it. As it was, I think I must have seen the whole film from beginning to end at least four or five times, and probably saw portions of it much more often. I could run down all the moments and images for you—Scarlett’s drape-dress, “I’ll never go hungry again”, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, even that opening image of Scarlett in a party-dress flanked by the Tarleton twins. It’s the first Pulitzer winner with which I’m familiar, and in my experience it’s hard to read a novel when the movie’s too comfortable in your memory already. But of course, it’s also a story I grew up enjoying, and there are iconic moments that I am at least somewhat curious to see on the page—will it be the same?
The anticipation and dread also comes, of course, from the fact that this is simultaneously a wonderful and horrible book. Wonderful because it has reached so many people—lavishly reviewed hundreds of times over the years, Mitchell’s novel, since its publication, has sold more copies in the United States than any book of any kind other than The Bible. If you didn’t know that already, let it sink in a bit. If you’re in a house with bookshelves in it somewhere, chances are excellent that a battered old copy of GWtWis on the premises. There must be something appealing about the book, even if it’s only appealing in a really cheap, pandering, saccharine Michael-Bay-meets-the-Hallmark-Channel way.
But it is also a terrible book, because its message, combined with its popularity, has more or less established and maintained the myth of the “Lost Cause“, the noble and tragic tale of America’s greatest and most beautiful society that was ruined by a bunch of meddling Yankees in the “War of Northern Aggression”. Mitchell’s book has been swallowed wholesale by the American imagination, so that what we think we know about the South, and slavery, and Reconstruction, is all skewed by the lens of her angry and defiant belief that had the North let the South alone, things would have been better for everybody (including black folks). (The brilliant and bluntly honest historian of the American South, James W. Loewen, calls Gone With the Wind “a profoundly racist novel“.)
So, with all that in mind, how on earth can I give this book a fair reading? I come to it already predisposed to mistrust and fear its undertones, and already familiar with some of its gloriously appealing characters and moments (enough that I may get impatient with any side plots). Furthermore, the beast is almost a thousand pages long (depending on the edition—the copy I have is a smidge over 950), so any thought of trying to “just get through it” is impossible—it would be like trying to sprint a marathon. I’m going to have to pace myself, and write as I go, and give Mitchell the fairest chance I can.
With all of the above in mind, the start of the novel is pretty successful in some respects. Mitchell’s got a sharp eye—not as sharp as Wharton’s, but very similar in some respects. She and we know a lot more about the characters’ shortcomings than they do: the proud, ignorant Tarleton twins, and the deceitful, self-deceived Scarlett. Mitchell is not very kind to any of them, jabbing at their vanity at one point, remarking dryly at their near-total illiteracy at another, and generally making it clear that they’re (respectively) a couple of puffed-up buffoons and a egotistical princess. It’s hard, because I know this is Scarlett’s story. Will she be another Georgie Amberson Minafer—an unbearable character who the author ends up indulging too often—or can the novel work as a criticism of her, despite her central place in it? Or is it plausible that I can really be invested in her as a human who grows up? So far her most distinctive features are her seventeen-inch waist (smallest in three counties, or so the narrator informs us) and the fact that she really likes screwing with young men’s affections, bestowing them on boys she cares nothing for and withholding them from the ones that matter. Mitchell gets some nice shots in, perhaps best of all: “she could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject.” It’s not ground-breaking prose, but it’s the sort of thing you might get about a character in an Austen novel (though generally not the heroine)—anyway, given some of the novels I’ve survived, it offers a bit of hope that the writing will be fun to read.
Really the main characters in the first chapter are the Tarletons, since Scarlett gets sidelined by the unpleasant news about Ashley’s engagement pretty early on. The Tarletons are absolute numbskulls: in fact, I think Mitchell lays it on too thickly here. The boys would have to be awfully idiotic to be as baffled as they are by events, or as childish as they are about their troubles. There are nice moments where the narrator cuts them pretty sharply—she calls them at one point “healthy, thoughtless young animals, sleek, graceful, high-spirited”—but not quite often enough to make their fairly simple-minded chitchat fun. I expect that the novel, which is investing me in the Tarletons more than the movie does, will show me at least some of how the war shatters these young bucks, and that Mitchell expects me to be at least a bit sad about it. I guess I would be, if I knew them in real life, but as characters in a novel, it’s hard to imagine two boys more in need of a little deflation (had Eustace Clarence Scrubb been twins, I suppose he might have competed, although obviously he’s as like the Tarleton boys in personality and charisma as an oyster’s like a dolphin).
One last observation, about race: this book is going to bring out some anger from me on the issue of race and racism. I see no way of avoiding that, unless the novel is far more progressive than everyone gives it credit for being. But I will say something kind about Mitchell’s opening chapter: the slave character of “Jeems”, who belongs to the Tarleton boys, is surprisingly complex. Not actually complex—nothing like Stribling’s really thoughtful portrayals of black Southerners in The Store, for example—but much better than I expected, given my memories of the film. Jeems speaks in wretched dialect, of course, but he’s more thoughtful than the Tarletons—while they have no idea why Scarlett is upset, he notices right away that it has something to do with Ashley Wilkes. He’s also stronger than I’d have guessed—when the Tarletons are talking about an officer in their “troop” (the Civil War is, of course, about to erupt), Jeems calls him “poor white trash”. And after the Tarletons scold him for talking badly about a decent man, Jeems refuses to be cowed, and makes another disparaging remark about “swamp trash”. Now, Jeems is still being used for sinister purposes—why does he look down on this “trash”? It’s because the man doesn’t own as many slaves as the Tarletons do, and Jeems is allegedly proud of coming from such a wealthy plantation. In other words, Mitchell’s co-opting him into defense of the system that de-humanizes him: I’m not forgiving her for that. But I’m at least glad that, unlike the horrific comic caricatures employed by Booth Tarkington, Mitchell is going to allow her black characters a little backbone and personality….maybe even more (on both counts) than her white characters, or at least more than the Tarleton twits (er, twins, yes, I meant to say “twins”).
On a side note, given the book’s popularity, I’m willing to bet some of you have read it (and maybe others have it on the shelf and have thought of reading it)—I’d love a little company in the comments section on the posts about the book, since otherwise this will be a long and lonely trip. I know, I just got done selling you on how this is a horribly racist book and now I’m saying “read it too!” Obviously, you know what you can and can’t take in a book, and will make judgments for yourself. As for me, it’s onward to the barbecue at the Wilkes’s plantation.