1937: Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Literary Style:

Mitchell is a genius at investing a reader in what’s happening on the page—a 950 page novel went past much more quickly than I’d have guessed.  This is not to say that I think she couldn’t have used a good editor or better pacing at times (about which a little more is said below), but she clearly had a talent for writing, and it’s appreciated.  Most of her central characters are really compelling—the enigmatic but undeniably charismatic Rhett, the saintly (yet appealing) Melanie, the brooding lost “knight” Ashley, etc.  Even her relatively minor white characters, like the Fontaines and Tarletons, like Miss Pittypat and Archie, have a liveliness to them.  There’s no question that, as you read, you become personally involved in the storylines, rooting for certain outcomes.  The death of a major character is genuinely moving, and its aftermath hushes the rest of the story.  Had Mitchell not died well before her time, I think she might have risen to more prominence as an American author—perhaps not its most “literary”, since I don’t think her use of language and theme is especially deep or insightful (though it might have grown with time), but among its most popular, and for many good reasons.  There is a reason this book stands at the front of sales figures in the United States—of the books produced by American authors, none have outsold it, and I can see why.  And yet, if you’ve been following my progress through the novel, you know my feelings don’t stop there.

Scarlett is a major obstacle for me, and I think there’s little that can be done about her—she is the novel, and your take on her will inevitably dominate your feelings about the book itself.  Every other character distances themselves from the reader at times, sometimes hundreds of pages at a time, but Scarlett never gives us breathing room.  Mitchell wants us to encounter her very closely….but why?  There is a tragic arc to Scarlett’s life—she matches the classical definition of the tragic hero whose flaw is her downfall—but to me that arc doesn’t pay off.  In part this is because I think the novel is too unwieldy in length to give resonance to her story: by the time Scarlett is ready to face her flaw and acknowledge her tragedy, it has been too long for me.  Like Rhett, I had been willing to wait for her, but not that long—her revelations at the end are no more appealing to me than they are to Rhett, and like him, I no longer give a damn about her.  I think there were opportunities to avoid this in the novel, but Mitchell would have had to write a very different book, and almost certainly a much shorter one, in order to make it work for me.  And frankly, I’m not sure Mitchell wants the character to work—a tragic hero, in the end, at least gets the benefit of realizing what they’ve become.  Scarlett undoes this personal growth, though—her last lines in the novel more or less mirror the last lines in the film, if that’s your only tie to the story.  It’s as though the aging Lear, holding the dying Cordelia in his arms, is bending over her and with the last lines of the play says “Dear, tell me how much you love me.”  It feels a bit profane—as though the character and the work are punching the reader who has let down any guard.  I had at least tried to invest myself in Scarlett’s growth, in her ability to recognize the emptiness of her “old charm”, etc., only to find at the end that she is not moved.  Even Macbeth, the tyrant and slayer of children, earns something true and good in his final cry of “Lay on, Macduff”, his willingness to face Fate and not to run from it.  But Scarlett is denied this, and to me it reads, as it has for much of the book, as though Mitchell has nothing but contempt for Scarlett—as though she wants to punish Scarlett for being herself as much as Booth Tarkington punished Alice Adams.  I know not everyone reads the character, and her relationship to the author, in this way, but the feeling is too overwhelmingly present for me to understand how else to see her.

A cartoon threatening that the KKK would lynch...

An image from 1868, depicting the work of the Klan in whose success all the characters invest themselves to some degree. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lastly, what can I say about this novel’s attitude towards race?  I’ll give one example to explain how complicated this is for me—at one point, midway through the novel, I am fully invested in a very tense chapter.  All of the characters we know and care about are working against a very difficult circumstance, in which the wrong word or action may mean death for several beloved people.  I know I personally was almost on the edge of my seat as I read, hoping they would beat the odds, hoping that no one would be caught, cheering them on: Mitchell’s writing was working very well.  And then I stopped and realized what I was doing.  All of these characters were in trouble because they, as members of the Ku Klux Klan, had killed a free African-American man in an act of vigilante justice, and I was cheering their ability to escape without being caught by the soldiers stationed in Georgia for the prevention of this kind of violence.  And the disgust I felt for myself and the characters and the author and the whole weird mess of the situation was really awful.

Now, I know the novel can be read in all sorts of ways: all I can tell you is how I read it.  I don’t like being caught up like that, any more than I like a novel to get me rooting for a rapist to assault a woman and get away with it, any more than I could read a novel about the Holocaust and be rooting for the Gestapo to find the Jews hidden in the attic.  I’m not saying that a novel can’t help me explore what it must be like to be a man who commits sexually violent acts, or what it was like to be a German citizen in 1942 and to see the world through those eyes.  I’ve read novels that helped me explore those viewpoints in ways that unsettled me and challenged me, but didn’t make me feel as though I was being co-opted, being asked to stand on the sidelines and cheer.  GWTW is the latter kind of experience, for me as a reader, and for that reason I found many moments of my reading experience deeply unpleasant, to the point that I didn’t see at times how I could continue (in spite of my investment in the characters and in the resolution of the plot).  This is a big complicated novel, and I know there are a lot of places to grab hold of it—I could even feel that complexity as I read, but for some reason I couldn’t grab a hold of it in any way but the way I did.  I can’t explain why.

Historical Insight:

There are two different grades to be given here. As an insight into the South in the 1930s, and as it must have been for Mitchell to grow up in throughout the early 20th Century, it is astonishingly important: a novel that expresses all the complex relationships Southerners had to the idea of the “Lost Cause” and the antebellum South and the imposition of Northerners and their values, etc.  I think there are echoes here also of the hunger and fear that gripped many families during the Great Depression, since Scarlett goes through real deprivation at Tara at the end of the war, and I think there’s something powerful to explore there also.  This is a vitally important book for understanding how the world and the country’s past look through the lens of that society, and Mitchell is very good at providing a wide range of characters and experiences to help illuminate her vision of the war and its aftermath.

But this book has also imprinted on the minds of many Americans a vision of the South and of Reconstruction that is appallingly misinformed—it depicts slavery in the kindest, gentlest possible way, without anyone to challenge or offer context for shockingly bold claims about how nice life was for slaves and how much they appreciated it (and really preferred it to freedom in a number of respects).  It depicts Reconstruction about as accurately as the Nazis depicted German Jews in the Weimar Republic—it regularly plays up stereotypical racist images of freed black men as lazy, peanut-eating, barefoot, illiterate idiots who divided their day between voting illegally to tax ex-Confederates and give the money to carpetbaggers, taking wages and then doing no work for their employers, and sexually assaulting any white woman they could get their hands on (knowing that the Yankee courts would always protect them, no matter how many white women they raped).  I really can’t pull any punches here—the descriptions of Reconstruction are almost criminally irresponsible, and I can’t forgive them under any flag labeled “fiction”.  It was, as far as I can tell, what many Southerners truly believed in the 1930s—that, had it not been for the noble members of the Klan, the South would have lost every cent it had to Northern thieves, and every white woman would have been raped or murdered with impunity.  But it is almost unendurable for me to read.  These little snippets about the Reconstruction era only occur every so often—in total terms, maybe only 1% of the book is given over to the kind of content I’m describing.  But it doesn’t take much to really turn my stomach, and much of this certainly did.

Rating:

Given all of that, how can I encapsulate my response in a phrase?  I’ll say it this way: under my unscientific rating scale, I’ll give Gone With the Wind a “let the reader beware”.  I think it is one of the most important books in the nation’s history.  I think anyone wanting to understand the nation’s history with race, anyone wanting to understand the North-South dynamic, and anyone wanting a window into how this nation changed and grew over the course of the 20th Century almost has to read this.  It would be required reading in any class I tried to teach on those subjects.  And I think it has many moments where, away from the elements that disturb me so much, it is powerful storytelling by one of the nation’s better yarn-spinners—Mitchell might have been our Dickens (if not our Shakespeare), given time to grow.  But I do not think I will ever be able to read it again.  I know many people who, given their preferences as readers, would get no joy, and much pain, from trying to read it even once.  For those who can read it, I think there is something important about approaching the book thoughtfully—ready to interrogate your own feelings, informed about the real history of the period, willing to let the story work on you as it goes.  This is probably the most troubling and problematic book I will read in my Pulitzer journey, as well as one of the most important to the nation.  It is almost certain to be the most memorable of the Pulitzer winners, for me personally.  And I think I’ll have to leave it there.

The Last Word:

It’s one of my testaments to Mitchell’s talents as a writer that, unlike most of the novels I’ve read for this blog, I wasn’t keeping an eye out for a good “last word” passage as I finished—I was too engrossed in the events, to attentive to the conversations, to pick out the right bit for sharing.  As always, I hope to show you some of her most characteristic writing and a glimpse of the novel at its peak—moreover I give her the last word, and not myself, in a chance to win you over if she will.  As it is, I’ve come back to the novel and am a bit uncertain what to select: in the end, I’ve decided to share a bit of Rhett Butler being blunt with Scarlett, which to me is almost always the high point of the book.  This isn’t their very last conversation, but it comes late in the story, when Rhett is ready to let Scarlett have a bit more truth than even he usually loads upon her.  The topic, as usual, is her feelings for him, her feelings for Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett’s rising level of frustration:

“Oh, yes, you’ve been faithful to me because Ashley wouldn’t have you.  But, hell, I wouldn’t have grudged him your body.  I know how little bodies mean—especially women’s bodies.  But I do grudge him your heart and your dear, hard, unscrupulous, stubborn mind.  He doesn’t want your mind, the fool, and I don’t want your body.  I can buy women cheap.  But I do want your mind and your heart, and I’ll never have them, any more than you’ll ever have Ashley’s mind.  And that’s why I’m sorry for you.”

“Sorry—for me?”

“Yes, sorry because you’re such a child, Scarlett.  A child crying for the moon.  What would a child do with the moon if it got it?  And what would you do with Ashley?  Yes, I’m sorry for you—sorry to see you throwing away happiness with both hands and reaching out for something that would never make you happy.  I’m sorry because you are such a fool you don’t know there can’t ever be happiness except when like mates like.  If I were dead, if Miss Melly were dead and you had your precious honorable lover, do you think you’d be happy with him?  Hell, no!  You would never know him, never know what he was thinking about, never understand him any more than you understand music and poetry and books or anything that isn’t dollars and cents.  Whereas we, dear wife of my bosom, could have been perfectly happy if you had ever given us half a chance, for we are so much alike.  We are both scoundrels, Scarlett, and nothing is beyond us when we want something.  We could have been happy, for I loved you and I know you, Scarlett, down to your bones, in a way that Ashley could never know you.  And he would despise you if he did know. . . . But no, you must go mooning all your life after a man you cannot understand.  And I, my darling, will continue to moon after whores.  And, I dare say we’ll do better than most couples.”