Back to the classics: ‘Gone With the Wind’ as a civics lesson

gone.jpgThe duly elected president of our country the other day asked, about the U.S. Civil War, “If you think about it, why? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

I think I speak for all Americans with brains and for thinking people everywhere when I ask: What the complete fuck?

Assuming he can read, he might find an answer (do himself no harm, either) by doing what I just did: I read “Gone With the Wind,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell about not just the Civil War, but its aftermath. I chose this book to satisfy the Classic by a Woman Writer category in this year’s Classics Challenge.

The story behind the book is almost as fascinating as (much of) the book. Born in 1900, Mitchell grew up in the South. She would sit on her porch and listen to relatives tell stories of the Civil War. To let you know the tenor of what she was hearing from these aging vets: Mitchell said she didn’t realize until she was 10 that the South lost the war!

A society girl, she got a reporting job at the Atlanta Journal, but didn’t really consider writing a book until she was 26 and already on her second husband. She had an ankle injury and insisted her husband bring more and more books home for her to while away her recovery. One day, he reportedly suggested she write her own damn book so he didn’t have to keep going to the library. She did. For the next 10 years or so, she wrote “Gone With the Wind,” which won her the 1936 National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and was a monumental best-seller that has never since been out of print.

Enough about Mitchell and onto the book. This book—my version was 900 and some-odd pages—and was heavy as hell. Not only content-wise, but weight-wise. I could never get comfortable reading it, so I had a friend find me a free (bootlegged) copy of it for my Kindle. That seems like something the wimpy Ashley Wilkes would have done, but fiddle-dee-dee to you.

For those who, like me, know the movie fairly well but had never read the book, it’s worth it. In a book of that size there’s characters and subplots that couldn’t be shoehorned into a film, even a three-hour one, so there is enough new to keep you interested.

Instead of a straight-up “review” of the book, I thought I’d simply list the things, in no particular order, that struck me while reading the book.

  • Books about young girls are not generally my cup of tea, and Scarlett O’Hara, the conniving but surviving “heroine” of “Gone With the Wind” is 16 years old at the beginning of the book. By the end of it, she’s 26 and has had three children from three different men, lost and gained a fortune, destroyed lives, saved lives and had the kind of passions that are only found in romance novels. Rhett Butler, the love of Scarlett’s life, though she doesn’t know it, is in his 30s as the novel begins (and, frankly, not much interesting happens until Rhett is introduced about 100 pages in) and says he knew the first time he saw her (when she was 16) he had to have her. There are laws about that today.
  • There are also laws about interbreeding, as Ashley Wilkes (whom Scarlett chases all through the book only to discover what a nothing he is) and his first cousin Melanie do. It’s a family tradition that leads to their demise. A minor character who breeds horses (and, tellingly, lands more or less on her feet after the war) knows this is a bad idea, but isn’t one to buck the old ways.
  • Southerners have a really troubled relationship—as does this country—with black people. The O’Hara family treats their slaves well, at least that’s what Mitchell wants readers to think. But Scarlett goes on and on about how shiftless, lazy, unscrupulous and wanton black in general are, though, she concedes that sometimes they can surprise you by coming through. When the slaves are freed, Scarlett can’t stand seeing the “leering niggers” on the street, not moving out of the way for her, a lady of substance.  The depth of the white hatred for blacks can be found on nearly every page and it’s disturbing. And yet, there’s Mammy, who spends her life raising three generations of women in Scarlett’s family, and to whom everyone looks to as a moral compass.
  • The word “nigger” is used constantly in this book by people of both colors, sometimes affectionately, though mostly not. There are other variations, too, for instance Scarlett describes a cabin as smelling “faintly niggery.” It’s an ugly word, no matter what form it takes.
  • Because the book is essentially a romance, I think readers can be too focused on when Scarlett and Rhett will get it on, and miss the important social insights Mitchell puts down on the page. She examines the Civil War, the run up to it and its aftermath from every angle, using her fully drawn characters to make points and counterpoints, fleshing out a larger variety of feelings about the war than history books offer.
  • Mitchell’s characters don’t have dialogues so much as they get on soapboxes and speak, uninterrupted, for paragraph after paragraph. When there’s no audience, Scarlett talks to herself for pages on end, giving readers everything they need to know and more about why she does what she does.  It’s irritating.
  • I didn’t really feel sorry for many of the characters in the book. They were traitors to this country and, frankly, unrepentant traitors. Even today I have to roll my eyes at the South’s euphemism for the Civil War: “The War of Northern Aggression.” You lost, guys. Sorry (not sorry). And if the North was a little too rough to you, hey, it was war.

And about Scarlett’s love for Ashley, who is completely undone by the war. “He’s such a wimp,” everyone says. Perhaps. But about halfway through, I decided that Scarlett is not in love with Ashley per se, but with what he represents. To her, Ashley is the epitome of  the traditions of the South, their attention to beauty, honor and reverence for breeding and chivalry. That’s why she can’t let him go: If she gives that up for Rhett, who has no allegiance to anyone or anything, what has her life or the life of her parents meant?

Just look to the book’s title for the answer.

Still with me on the challenge? Next category is a work by someone who is new to you, meaning you’ve not read his or her work before. Not sure what I’m choosing, but I can say it will be something shorter than GWTW.

 

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