“Scarlett did not realize that all the rules of the game had been changed and that honest labor could no longer earn its just reward.”

I have to be completely honest.  I’ve reached the point where I resent and am angered by Gone With the Wind.  I am not happy about this—truth be told, I wish I loved it—but I cannot accurately describe my emotions in any other way.  Reading it puts me in such a foul mood that my wife leaves the room if she sees it in my hands: I’m trying not to let my difficulties with the book spill over into my attitude about life in general, but I don’t think I’m entirely successful.  I’m going to try and make some kind of record of where I’m at here in a way that doesn’t become a full-blown rant, but fans of the novel or the movie should be aware that I’ve got some things to say I feel strongly, and I think I need to say them as clearly as I can.  I really want to emphasize that none of this should be taken as me criticizing the tastes or opinions of people who enjoy the novel—there are a lot of ways to take on a book, and I know there must be many ways to take this one on and get some joy from it.  I just have no access to those particular doorways.

I’ll start with the point where the above quotation is inserted.  I have done my best to give the novel every piece of lee-way I can, acknowledging that Mitchell is just trying to represent a Confederate viewpoint in the statements made by her characters.  At first I took some umbrage at the narrator’s comments, which distort a true picture of the South before the war, but I saw some indications that perhaps the narrator is meant to be merely an extension of Scarlett’s perspective, and I chose to read the narrator in that light.  But the passage that follows the quotation I’ve posted is clearly not Scarlett, since she “did not realize” any of this.  And what Mitchell provides is full of exaggerations and half-truths that depicts the Reconstruction Era in the South as being factually what the Confederates of that era only pretended that it was.  It is devastatingly unfair to the freed slaves, and far too severe an apologetic for Southern white attitudes about blacks.  I cannot figure out why the novel is taking this turn, more and more—presenting as fact (and not just as the opinions of characters) a South that never was, and a Reconstruction policy that is distorted almost beyond recognition.  I am sure there are ways of reading the novel and setting this aside, but as a historian (and as someone who worked very hard as a teacher to push back against the false narratives about Reconstruction that GWTW is presenting, and which still dominate not just people’s vague ideas about Reconstruction but also the textbooks read by schoolchildren), it’s too much for me.  I don’t know how many pages a person can read of a misogynist talking about women before a reader gets to decide that they’ve heard enough.  I don’t know how many pages a person can read of an anti-Semite talking about Jews before a reader gets to decide that they’ve heard enough.  I only know that I’ve heard enough Confederate apologetics about the lazy, shiftless blacks who preferred life as slaves to know that I’m about done.  And I still have 450 pages to read.

I want to be clear—I’m not labeling Mitchell with some blanket term like “Confederate apologist” as though it sums up her being.  I honestly don’t know what Mitchell set out to do—Jillian, who has read extensively about Mitchell’s life, assures me of her personal virtues, and noted some kindnesses she extended to the black community in Atlanta.  I can’t argue with any of that, and I don’t want to—I’m very willing to believe it about her.  I just don’t know why she felt moved to write such an enormous novel that advocates such a poisonous view of the freeing of the slaves, and it seems to me that she is casting at least some of that viewpoint as though it is coming from her directly (if I misread her, apologies to Mitchell, but I’m a smart fellow and I can’t work out how else to take this).  I recognize that in part she is trying to capture the attitudes of her forebears, and that she believes those people were possessed of great virtue—I sympathize with her desire to “tell their story” and to show what was good about them.  With respect to her, I feel the same way about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and yet I can praise their wisdom and their contributions to the nation (and the world) while not excusing their participation in a vicious and cruel system that gave them luxury on the backs of people they owned.  I cannot work out why the novel reads as it does.  It would be good for me if the novel turns away from the track it is now on.  I confess that I have few hopes in that regard now—I’m ready for a very long trek, and I’ll do my best to read Mitchell’s work generously.  But I feel as though she has taken advantage of my generosity—or perhaps I should say that the text of the novel has done so (and I’ll leave aside what Mitchell and I would say personally to one another, were we to meet: perhaps we would find more common ground than I now can discover).

I think part of my problem is that I really can’t stand to be in the room with Scarlett.  I’ve tried to read her in as many ways as I can, and no matter what tack I take, I end up feeling that I’m imposing on Scarlett the character I want to read about, rather than letting her be who she is.  I don’t demand likable characters—honestly, I don’t!  I’d say I don’t like any of the characters in The Great Gatsby, for example, and yet I praise it as a brilliant and enjoyable novel.  I take interest in the vitality of those characters—in the ways their actions and thoughts are revealing about their society and about America.  I just can’t get there with Scarlett—I think in part this is due to my feeling that Mitchell’s pacing of the lean years at Tara is much too slow.  An editor ought to have tightened it up, if you ask me—the same cycle of events and emotions is repeated too often.  I imagine it’s for effect—getting me into the desperate mindset of Scarlett and her extended family—but it just seemed to sap all my energy.  I was trying to read Scarlett as a survivor in a way that inspired something—hope, respect, etc.—but in the end she comes across to me as being mostly a survivor like the Thénardiers of Les Miserables fame, a sort of “clear away the barricades, and we’re still ‘ere” figure.  I find the Thénardiers fascinating, and can take them in small doses, but if Hugo had written the novel about them as the principal characters, putting us in their heads and lives for hundreds of pages at a stretch, I don’t think I could have enjoyed it, or gotten enough out of the experience to warrant the effort.  I know Scarlett can be read in other ways, and goodness I wish I could.  It does me no good to dislike a book I cannot help but read, or its main character.  I’ll keep trying.  But I don’t find Scarlett revealing or complicated—I just resent being stuck with her.

And I want to emphasize that I’m not taking a shot at Mitchell’s abilities as a novelist here—she writes really fascinating characters.  But she sets them aside for hundreds of pages (like Rhett) or treats them as minor contrivances (like Old Miss Fontaine, who frankly I wanted the book to adopt as its new focus).  Rhett’s return may help me out a bit, and I’m sure I’ll find more side characters to enjoy.  I just think the decision to put Scarlett front and center is a colossal mistake—at the least, I can say that this decision proves alienating to me as a reader.  It may well be that Mitchell didn’t want someone like me—or wouldn’t, if asked about it today.  I can respect that.  I just don’t fully understand it—understand what she’s doing with Scarlett in the spotlight, and why—and I wish I did.

A Bureau agent stands between armed groups of ...

A Freedmen’s Bureau agent stands between armed groups of Southern whites and Freedmen in this 1868 picture from Harper’s Weekly. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And as far as Reconstruction goes, sure, there are points to be raised about a Republican Congress’s desire for vengeance against the South, and the misdeeds of some profiteering “carpetbaggers”.  But these ethical mis-steps pale in comparison to the Black Codes (about which Mitchell says nothing, other than to ridicule the notion that such a thing could ever have been on the minds of Southerners) and the resistance to the Freedmen’s Bureau (an overmatched organization whose best efforts to protect the freed slaves from discrimination and rebuild the economy of the South were ultimately fruitless in the face of implacable Southern resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Bureau’s own existence).  I don’t demand total fairness from a novel, but I do expect a historical novel to try to hew a line close to reality.  And I am especially demanding of this when the errors made by the novelist perpetuate a damaging racist view of the time period in question.  I’m not calling Mitchell a racist because I don’t know how to distinguish between novel and novelist, or how to be fair to 1930s mindsets, etc.  But I can’t fairly acquit her novel of the charge.

This is hard to write, because I know how much this novel is loved by many Americans (including one blogger who has been relentlessly fair and friendly in our discussions of the novel), and I take no delight in the position I have reached vis-a-vis Gone With the Wind.  Maybe someday I’ll find a different angle on the work, and one that rehabilitates it in such a way that I see its great power for those who treasure it.  For now, all I can do is throw up my hands helplessly and admit that I resent the book, and I cannot fathom where I will get the energy to read another 450 pages of it.  The posts may jump more pages at a time, in future, since I have no interest in dragging the novel through the mud—if I can’t say anything new or revealing, I won’t revisit the negative feelings I’ve expressed above.  Onward I press, towards a review and The Late George Apley.

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“Henceforth letter-writing had to take the place of all the affection that could not be lived.”

I didn’t give Thornton Wilder much credit at the outset—I see that my initial post on The Bridge of San Luis Rey is honestly a bit disdainful of his talents (while praising the setting and theme, conceptually at least).  But I have to revise my assessment, because he really is drawing me in.

This “second part” of the novel (it’s in five parts, the first being a very brief introduction already covered in my first post) focuses on the Marquesa de Montemayor.  The conceit of this section is that we (the narrator and I, the reader) live in a world where the Marquesa is a famous historical figure—the letters she exchanged from Peru with her daughter in Spain are, if not as well-known as Shakespeare’s sonnets, at least on the level of Boswell’s Life of Johnson or the correspondence of John and Abigail Adams.  So the book explores her relationship with her daughter through casual references to letters we “already know well” but adding details and insights to flesh out the Marquesa as a real person.

And she’s fascinating.  The Marquesa is a physically unattractive (and fairly unpopular) mother of a beautiful and well-regarded girl, but of course the truth is that her daughter is a cruel and unfeeling person while the Marquesa’s affection for her daughter is seemingly unlimited.  When her daughter moves to Spain with her husband, their extended correspondence is a burden to the daughter, but a labor of love for the mother—the Marquesa devotes essentially all her conscious hours to finding delightful little stories to share, or phrasing wicked remarks about bloated political somebodies.  She’s whimsical, philosophical, and witty (though sometimes a bit acid with that wit).  There’s a strange distance from her, of course, because of Wilder’s convention about her as a historical character: it’s less like getting to know Elizabeth Bennett than it is like reading a good biography of George Washington.  No matter how vivid it is, somehow I’m always reminded that this happened a long time ago…that I’m not really there.

So, early on, I’m taken with the Marquesa as a figure but I don’t feel “alive” in her world.  As it happens, I’ve been reading on a ways, so I have more to say about her, but I think it’s best to leave that for a post later today.  Thornton Wilder, though, is starting to impress me….I don’t know why he’s chosen to focus so narrowly on this one woman at the outset, but I’m curious how all the lives of those lost on the bridge will ultimately weave together.