Honestly, I’ve always been considerably conflicted about Gone With the Wind – both the book and the movie. Yes, best-seller, and loved extravagantly by more readers and movie-goers than partisans of the antebellum South, a gripping tale of a time, a place and a people, in a war that stripped away every shred of that noble and deluded gentility and Southern cavalier-worshipping delusion… shades of Vanity Fair, with a spineless, guileless and gentle supposed-heroine whom we are supposed to sympathize with in the main, contrasted with a conniving, spiteful and yet … entrancing stubborn, gutsy and conniving anti-heroine. I was reminded of all this once again, on reading this recent essay – by another woman and writer, similarly conflicted.

On initial reading of GWTW I thought that Scarlett was an amoral, heartless, and manipulative bitch, (I based a supporting character in my own series on Scarlett – as experienced by people who didn’t like her at all. Yes, she annoyed me that much.) Melanie was a deluded simpleton, Ashley ought to have been knocked on the head and put out of his conflicted sexual misery, and Rhett Butler given a good round of treatment by a competent therapist and sent off on a long ocean voyage to someplace else … anywhere else. Maybe British India. China. Anyplace.

I also wanted to wall the book every time Margaret Mitchell made some spiteful comment about abolitionists, Yankees, and Union soldiers. Look, my Smedley great-great-maybe another-great grandfather was a fire-eating and diehard abolitionist. Family legend has that the Smedley family farm was an alternate safe house on a branch of the Underground Railway which ran through Lionville, Pennsylvania. GGG-Grandfather Smedley was also unceremoniously (or perhaps ceremoniously although Quakers normally didn’t seem to go for ceremonies as a rule) read out of his local Quaker meeting for his unseemly enthusiasm for Mr. Lincoln’s war. In response, he took his religious custom to the Lutheran congregation, where we remained ever since, although I confess to flirting with Episcopal tradition, based mostly on a literary fondness for the language in the Common Book of Prayer.

But I kept on reading – because it was that kind of book, the kind that a reader just can’t put down. Early on, I thought that it must have been because some particularly vivid episodes and scenes must have been drawn from the memories of survivors and veterans of the South’s civil war. They had the ring of authentic experience, at one remove. Margaret Mitchell was of an age and era where she would have known and talked to people who vividly recalled such wrenching sequences as the gathering at the newspaper office, as the lists of the Gettysburg casualties were posted … and Scarlett realizes that just about every man she has flirted with, danced with, grown up knowing, the sons of her families’ neighbors … is dead in a battle in Pennsylvania.

On rereading GWTW a couple of years ago, I realized something else – that practically every character outside of the central quartet of Scarlett, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes and Melanie – had particularly vivid stories of their own. Some were hinted at in the narrative. Other backstories like the tragedy and courtship of Scarlett’s parents, Gerald and Ellen were gone into a little …but they all were there. The elderly neighbor who hustled Scarlett away from hearing clods of dirt hitting a coffin, and told of how she was the sole survivor of a massacre of her family, the crippled soldier, Will Benteen, who took refuge at Tara after the war and married one of her sisters (About the only male around who sussed out Scarlett’s character almost immediately.) The slaves – Mammy, Pork, Dilcey – they all had stories too, just barely hinted at. The other survivors of the war who pick themselves up, carry on, make a new kind of life for themselves, after the wind has blown away their previous existences. It’s those vividly-drawn secondary characters who engaged my interest and sympathy when I read FWTW all again. If it hadn’t been the fashion of the time to jumble it all into a single book Margaret Mitchell could very well have drawn out a whole rambling, loosely connected series of novels with a cast of hundreds, dealing with their lives, loves, extravaganzas, war, hardship, fighting up from poverty again and again.

Mention of poverty, though – brings to mind Danusha Goska’s observation regarding how nastily judgmental Margaret Mitchell and her planter upper-class and upper-class adjacent characters were, when it came to the O’Hara’s relatively impoverished poor white neighbors. She and they sneered at the non-gentry as shiftless, disease-raddled, deplorable poor white trash. It appears that nothing much changed since the time that she wrote or the time she wrote about, when it came to the elite Democrat party view of Southern working-class or poor whites. They’re only wanted and useful in elections, or to fill out the ranks of enlisted soldiers, when there’s a war to be fought. Comment as you wish.


  1. David A Smith

    I’ve respected the movie since I saw it 50 years ago, certainly flawed by New Cinema standards but a real epic. I haven’t ever been interested in actually reading the massive book until just this minute…off to Abe Books to find an old-but-good-condition hardback and wait impatiently for its delivery. Thanks!

  2. Sgt. Mom

    I think you might enjoy it, David – some of the other characters would have been amazing and interesting novels all on their own, if Margaret Mitchell had been so inclined. I know that there was a much-ballyhooed continuation of GWTW a while ago, which was pretty awful.
    There was also a kind of companion novel by another writer, called “Rhett Butler’s People” which did fill in some of his background – which was much better received … probably better researched and written, too.