February 21, 2018

The novel Gone with the Wind

The novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

The novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

No book has been so absorbed into American culture, especially Southern, than the novel Gone with the Wind. In fact, with over 30 million copies printed, a 2014 Harris Poll found it to be the second favorite book of American readers, behind The Bible. A year ago I made a blog post about a few of my favorite books (TroysArt – A few favorite reads) in which I included Margaret Mitchell’s classic 1936 masterpiece. The story chronicles the struggles of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy Georgian cotton plantation owner, who uses all means at her disposal to claw her way out of poverty following the Civil War. While I included the novel in my list, I had not read the book since 1987. So I decided to read it again, and this is a few notes about the novel Gone with the Wind.

Margaret Mitchell.

Margaret Mitchell by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer Al Aumuller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

If Gone with the Wind has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption.’ So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t. — Margaret Mitchell, 1936

Mitchell received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937 and the novel was made into one of the greatest movies of all time in 1939, winner of 10 Academy Awards. I am often surprised when I hear people tell me that they have never seen the movie—it floors me. That said, I am not as surprised to hear that people have never read the book—it is extremely long. My leather bound edition is over 1,100 pages. I picked it up at the first of the year and it has taken me a bit over three months to finish.

I can say with all honesty that it is one of the most beautiful books I ever read. And reading the book again at this more mature station in life gave it more gravity; I picked up so many important details, had so much more empathy with the characters, and knew more about the history of events. While Mitchell’s character development and historical content is better than 99% of books, it is her buttery descriptions and masterful word craft that makes a 1,100 page book almost too short. I truly enjoyed the words and have included passages in red in hopes of demonstrating that artistry.

It was unreal, grotesquely unreal, that morning skies which dawned so tenderly blue could be profaned with cannon smoke that hung over the town like low thunder clouds, that warm noontides filled with the piercing sweetness of massed honeysuckle and climbing roses could be so fearful, as shells screamed into the streets, bursting like the crack of doom, throwing iron splinters hundreds of yards, blowing people and animals to bits.

I am no book critic so my analysis of the novel Gone with the Wind is not worth a spit.  However, as the movie is so iconic, I would like to illume a few differences between the book and the motion picture. And for those who would rebuff my post as a spoiler I say, “Get real, the book is 80 years old. The secret is out.” I will also say that while reading the book it is extremely difficult to form your own interpretations of the characters and settings outside of the imagery created by the movie—Scarlett O’Hara looks in the mind like Vivien Leigh, Rhett Butler looks like Clark Gable, Mammy looks like Hattie McDaniel, and so on.

The most glaring difference is the number of children that Scarlett O’Hara has. Scarlett has little Wade Hampton Hamilton for Charles Hamilton, Ella Kennedy for Frank Kennedy, and of course Bonnie Blue Butler with Rhett.  She drags them around from Atlanta to Tara and back, and is not very nice to any of them.  The children are only extra mouths to feed, clinging to her skirts, and getting in the way of her happiness.

The story is masterful at chronicling the battles of the war as they occur in the timeline along with locations, Generals, and casualty numbers. Mitchell uses historical reference to also record the hardships of Scarlett through them—the depths of her fear, the pain of her hunger, and roots of her desperation.

She was less frightened also because life had taken on the quality of a dream, a dream too terrible to be real. It wasn’t possible that she, Scarlett O’Hara, should be in such a predicament, with the danger of death about her every hour, every minute. It wasn’t possible that the quiet tenor of life could have changed so completely in so short a time.

And without Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, the center of genteel old-guard society in Atlanta and Scarlett’s sister-in-law, Scarlett would have been run out of Georgia long before her marriage to Rhett. A wafer thin wisp of a woman with long dark ringlets of hair and a child’s small body, Miss Melly is sweet, kind, and the city’s moral compass who never forgets Scarlett’s heroic actions saving her and her family time and time again; she sticks by Scarlett through hell and high water.

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes by studio publicity still (London Evening Standard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes by studio publicity still (London Evening Standard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, Melanie had been there that day with a sword in her small hand, ready to do battle for her. And now, as Scarlett looked sadly back, she realized that Melanie had always been there beside her with a sword in her hand, unobtrusive as her own shadow, loving her, fighting for her with blind passionate loyalty, fighting Yankees, fire, hunger, poverty, public opinion and even her beloved blood kin. Scarlett felt her courage and self-confidence ooze from her as she realized that the sword which had flashed between her and the world was sheathed forever.

Melanie Wilkes is one of the best characters that I have ever read–truly honorable, protective, and loving.  I knew that she would die in the end, but once she had that miscarriage and Scarlett rushed to her bedside… my glasses were so blurred with tears I could not go on.  I still have not gotten over it.

A surprising amount of Reconstruction focuses on hatred for Carpetbaggers, Scallawags, and Republicans, a hatred redirected at Scarlett for not only as a woman doing man’s business but doing business with the aforementioned. Her relationship with the Republicans makes her a social pariah long before she marries Rhett. By the same token, the formation of the Ku Klux Klan is explored with great detail paid to the reasons behind the organization as well as the dangers and stigma of participation.  In fact, Ol’ Whisker Face Kennedy was killed in a KKK raid against the shantytown where Scarlett was attacked.

Oh, and be warned, this novel uses the N-word more than a rap song.

But one of the most surprising aspects to the character of Scarlett O’Hara is that in the novel Gone with the Wind she is a survivor, yes, but she is not as smart as the Leigh portrayal in the movie. She is cunning but just not that intelligent. In the absence of a shrewd reply she will resort to her charms or her temper to deflect from her shortcomings; only her mother, Mammy, and Rhett are able to see through her tactics for what she really is.  And in the end we discover that Melanie really knew her all along as well.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara Butler in Gone with the Wind, trailer screenshot derivative work: The Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara Butler in Gone with the Wind, trailer screenshot derivative work: The Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

In the dull twilight of the winter afternoon she came to the end of a long road which had begun the night Atlanta fell. She had set her feet upon that road a spoiled, selfish and untried girl, full of youth, warm of emotion, easily bewildered by life. Now, at the end of the road, there was nothing left of that girl. Hunger and hard labor, fear and constant strain, the terrors of war and the terrors of Reconstruction had taken away all warmth and youth and softness. About the core of her being, a shell of hardness had formed and, little by little, layer by layer, the shell had thickened during the endless months.

Nothing was ever good enough for Scarlett, including the people who loved her.  She wanted everything that she could not have; but once she had the world at her feet she still could not be happy.

Last year I read the sequel Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley (TroysArt – A few good reads), and while it is not as stunning as Mitchell’s masterpiece, I credit it in part for reigniting my interest to again pick up the novel Gone with the Wind.

As coincidence has it, this post coincides with Confederate History Month in six states:  Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and Texas.  As since I did a few posts for recent Black History Month, this is quite a nod to Confederate history!

This story is the definition of the Great American Novel, and if you can read one great classic, and even if it takes a year, do it.  And if not, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”