1037 pages, Macmillan Publishing Company, ISBN-13: 978-0025854000
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s one-and-only novel, may or may not be a good book, depending upon whom you ask, but it has always been a popular book. First published in the summer of 1936 at the startling Depression price of $3 (that’s $50 today, folks!), it sold a million copies by Christmas and now ranks among the best-selling books ever published in the English language. For all that it is difficult to encapsulate this book in a few sentences: a tale of war and peace, of love and loss, of despair and hope. It is also an historical epic that looks at one of the most wretched and uncertain times in American history – the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras – while also depicting the moral and psychological growth of its characters as they undergo the destruction of their very way of life. Whew!
Gone With the Wind quickly became one of those cultural products that transcend criticism, like Star Wars or Madonna, while never losing its relevance. The story centers around the infamous protagonist, Katie Scarlett O’Hara (Hamilton Kennedy Butler, in the fullness of time), chronicling her journey from a spoiled 16-year-old Southern belle in 1861 to a weathered yet determined grown woman in 1873. Of course, the significance of these years goes far beyond Scarlett’s life, as much of the book is devoted to intricate details of the South during the Civil War, from mere talk amongst townspeople to the brutality of battle when the fight reaches their own backyards. There is bloodshed and lives lost for the Cause – a way of life that Southerners (particularly in Georgia, where the story is set) held onto with a determination they were ready and willing to die for. Margaret Mitchell does a thorough job of showcasing what life was like on the plantations before the war broke out, from barbecues and balls to the dynamic between the families and their slaves (though mostly of the household variety).
After the war, there is Reconstruction, and as may come as a surprise to those who haven’t read Gone With the Wind, hunger is a constant theme, with Southerners’ humiliation at having lost the war compounded by the sickening knowledge that they never had a chance of winning in the first place. While reading the novel I thought back to what I had learned about the South during this period from movies and books and compared it to what Margaret Mitchell writes here: how the Yankees were viewed, the deceptive practices of Carpetbaggers, and the hatred of Scalawags. These terms didn’t really present their full impact until I was reading them from Scarlett’s point of view, as well from the perspective of other Georgians. Furthermore, the reckoning that came after for so many families is on brutal display here, as more than a quarter-million men were dead, many cities and villages lay in near-total ruin, and the region was denuded of nearly a third of its usable horses. Most people see Gone With the Wind as a romance novel, but the force that drives Scarlett O’Hara the hardest – what pushes her to steal her sister’s businessman fiancé, rob a Yankee soldier she shoots in the face, and run a mill that sells wood at punishing prices to former friends – is the very mundane need to pay the property taxes on Tara, taxes that were required to rebuild, and as everything else was gone, the only thing left to tax was the land itself (the Slavocracy no longer had slaves or pigs or cotton or pretty French dresses, but it still had land).
The success of Gone With the Wind has always defied the understanding of the powers-that-be: in a typical review from the time, Malcolm Cowley in in The New Republic found the novel to be not bad, really, but puzzling; he wrote that Mitchell “blundered into big scenes that a more experienced novelist would hesitate to handle for fear of being compared unfavorably with Dickens or Dostoyevsky”. I mean…so? If Mitchell had the cajones to attempt “big scenes” more power to her, for, somehow, she pulls it off. Cowley continued, saying “I would never say that she has written a great novel, but in the midst of triteness and sentimentality her book has a simpleminded courage that suggests the great novelists of the past”. Well, thank you, Cowley, but perhaps what appeals to people, then and now, is the undeniable pulse of romance. The opening line of the novel may be, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful,” but as Mitchell explains, men seldom realized it for she possesses an undeniable charm that leaves them as putty in her hands. But charming though she may be, she is not always willing to conform to the standards of a “great lady” in her day. She can be coarse, brutally honest and, as you’ll see when the plot unfolds, far too smart for her own good (tongue firmly in cheek). Of course, when Scarlett meets Rhett Butler, things really start to get interesting.
Scarlett may turn out to be a venal grasper, but she (and Rhett Butler) has little patience for war talk, even as the plantation boys around them become intoxicated by the idea of war in 1861. Ashley is also wary; at the Twelve Oaks barbecue he tries to quiet the wild enthusiasm before Bull Run, saying “Let's don’t have any war”, he tells the roomful of hotheads. “Most of the misery of the world has been caused by wars”…yet he goes off to fight, and so does Rhett (eventually). The conflation of honor with the duty to fight defeats all other impulses, for like most feudal societies, the South had to defend its honor, and so the hotheads prevailed. Some would argue that Gone With the Wind is retrograde and unforgivably racist, but I would argue instead that Mitchell simply accurately captures the thoughts and spirit of the Southern Slavocracy, which were, after all, retrograde and unforgivably racist. For all that a kind of modernity emerges; the book is not really a tale of North vs. South, but rather of Old South vs. New South, with Ashley representing the Old – he “was born of a line of men who used their leisure for thinking, not doing, for spinning brightly colored dreams” – and Scarlett representing the New – she finds out that “that money is the most important thing in the world”. With its loving descriptions of organdy and horsemanship, Gone With the Wind seems genteel, but it is actually an unrelenting tale of how honor gives in to necessity; Mitchell knew that loss was as tragic and inevitable as the South’s self-imposed despoiling.
What I perhaps admired most about Gone With the Wind was the way in which Margaret Mitchell developed her characters; each one is so full of life and personality that you come to appreciate them regardless of whether you would think and act the same way they do. They share commonalities but can also be irreconcilably different. Are you a Scarlett or a Melanie? An Ashley or a Rhett? These are questions you may find yourself smiling about as you work your way through those 63 chapters and 1000+ pages. And they are worth it. Read this book first and foremost because it is a classic deserving of its awards and praise, but also read it if you enjoy immersing yourself in other periods of history. Margaret Mitchell paints a vivid picture of life in the South, from belles and beaux, to Yankees and Confederates, and everything in between.