March 26th, 2012
Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel
Outtakes: Is Gone With The Wind Literature?

Scholars and devoted readers of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic novel have been arguing the book’s literary merits for decades. Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel premieres nationally on Monday, April 2 from 9-10 p.m (check local listings).

  • BMW

    While I certainly understand the points critics have about romanticizing the institution of slavery, it’s easy to be a critic from a 21st century vantage point. Margaret Mitchell was a product of her times, the Jim Crow South, when their society glorified the “lost cause.” If we read the novel from an anthropological point of view; an absolute understanding that it represented another time, another culture, then it’s more digestible. Americans today do not condone slavery, be it the former American system or the Roman system of 2,000 years ago. Maybe it’s a kind of snobbery against popular culture that keeps critics wanting to pin the book down as a piece of entertainment. The novels of Dickens and Twain are considered literature, but considering that Dickens work was successfully serialized to drive sales, those works were also a part of the popular culture scene of the 19th century. Southerners of the early 20th century idealized and romanticized antebellum life, just as Germans romanticized their mythic past leading to Wagner’s ouvre. The popular myth today is of the rugged individualist of the American frontier; it’s certainly the driving idea behind some of the populist political movements of our own time. Mitchell’s novel doesn’t just expose the racism of the 19th century Reconstruction South; it also exposes the prejudice that wealthy white Southerners had against the lower classes of poor whites, as exemplified by Will Benteen and Emmy Slattery. Mrs. O’Hara’s care of the Slattery family in times of need is the same rule of Noblesse Oblige seen in the European upper classes tending to their tenants. The novel is much darker than the film; witness the change of Ashley Wilkes and Frank Butler’s membership in the Klan to a nameless “political meeting.” It’s clear how conflicted Ashley Wilkes is about the institution of slavery and the treatment of blacks and convicts. His character seems to be the go-along-to-get-along man of the South; Mitchell paints him as a benevolent, enlightened type who would have done the right thing if change hadn’t been forced upon Georgia. It just seems to me that the filter of race casts a pall over what is essentially a good read that people have enjoyed for several generations. We can read the book, and perhaps feel smug about the fact that our times are more enlightened than the 19th century, yet we still have incidents like the Martin case that remind us that perhaps Southern attitudes haven’t changed all that much. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I were black; as a Hispanic woman, I see plenty of racism in California. And the Spanish did essentially enslave the natives to promote their agenda during colonization. However, there doesn’t seem to be a great American novel about the overthrow of the mixed Spanish/Native culture in the American Southwest so I don’t have anything that hits close to home to raise my hackles over the white settlement of California.

  • Lary Nine

    GWTW is a laudable achievement in any writer’s bibliography, I tend to think that two things inveigh against the contemporary elevation of GWTW: a) the influence of present day political rectitude b) the standards of academic gatekeepers.
    Personally, I admire her iconic, epic tale anyway and find her covert emancipated alter-ego every bit a superhero of the evolving south. She appeared to be quite a babe too! That I didn’t know.

  • Melanie

    Good comments, BMW. Context and era are all important when assessing a novel. It’s too easy to be smug about other people’s upbringing and think, “Oh, I would have been so much more aware than that!” Well–maybe. GWTW is a well-constructed, absorbing story, despite its racial attitudes, but I consider “Beloved” among the great American novels, and I like to imagine that the Hispanic equivalent is being written even as we post our comments.

    Re. various sorts of prejudice: As you point out, class is a (fascinating) subtheme in GWTW. Scarlett’s own father, an uneducated Irish immigrant, is at first regarded suspiciously by his highly bred Georgian neighbors. That combination of peasant and aristocrat in her background makes Scarlett all the more intriguing. As Obama said about himself, she’s a mutt, and she’s conflicted by it. Americans tend to forget that class bias is also part of our heritage.

    (And, yes, I was indeed named for Melanie Hamilton Wilkes. My older siblings were difficult kids, and our father hoped the name would somehow nudge my temperament in the direction of sweet and understanding.)

  • Apa

    BMW, Melanie, you forget that the book received criticism over its portrayal of race and the Antebellum South when it was PUBLISHED. It’s not just “a 21st century vantage point”. The documentary even discusses Mitchell’s reaction to the criticism, and how she didn’t get it. To dismiss the romantic portrayal of slavery is to do everyone a disservice. A book must be discussed, “warts and all”.

  • C.Chapman-Wright

    BMW, I appreciate yyour serious-mindedness and your comparison/contrasts with international and regional literature. Melanie, Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, just ached with the pain/passion of a mother’s hope and hopelessness. You do know that Morrison based that story on a true account of a slave mother killing her children rather than have them be returned to slavery under the Fugutive Slave Act, so that they wouldn’t suffer being killed in another way, right?

    I wanted to address the issue of “Is GWTW actually literature?” My answer is not only yes, but, for Heaven’s sake, of course it is. Every character was an archetype, and every character had a voice representing the viewpoint of that archetype. Aunt Pittypat was an archteype of a particular type of Southern woman, as was the woman who ran her barn and horses with a whip, who said, “We Southerners like someone different.” Emmy Slatterly was an archtype, as MM surely intended us to see by her very naming of that character, and certainly we cannot forget Belle Watling, as the Biblical equivalent of the prostitute who hung the red string out as a signal to outsiders of the inner status of things. Just as War and Peace had over 500 characters between its covers and took Tolstoy five years to research, so MM had her mutifaceted characters to create a prismatic view of Southern life and culture that she had spent a lifetime living. It is the very rounded nature of the characters, speaking in their own true voices that creates the authenticity of the work. Who can not see that?

    And that whole contrast between the letter and spirit of Emaniciaption can clearly be seen in the differing reaction of the slaves to their emancipation, according to how they were treated when they were slaves. Rhett honored the practical maternal authority of Mammy, round and black and common, by buying her a red slip, but he told his own wife, physically desirable with creamy skin and rare green eyes, that a cat was a better mother than she was. A man’s honoring of maternal attitudes, despite the physical form it comes in, speaks to the humanity with which Mammy was treated, whereas the overseer’s inhumane treatment of his charges, and everyone else, for that matter, speaks to the motive for why the slaves left their hoes in the field and ran off, once they were emancipated. Sam, who had been treated kindly and thought well of, said, “Feet don’t fail me now!!” when he ran into the melee to help Miss Scarlett. That kind of differing portrayal of relationship and its consequences transcends the sort of chap book story that someone seems intent on squishing GWTW into. GWTW is a classic, and the definition of a classic is something that was done right the first time. It is why it received the Pulitzer Prize. GWTW is, at its’ essence about family and community, and the destruction of it all; everyone has family, community and problems, which is why GWTW has lasted. The book speaks to the value of character in a crisis, as both Ashley portrays in his duel where he got shot and Melanie portrays when she shot the Yankee and dragged him off and let Scarlett clean up the blood with her clothes, while she stood there naked. It was Scarlett who said, “What a cool little liar she is!” Scarlett, who, heretofore, had been only impatient and dismissive of the Melanie Archtype. It was not only changing environments, but changing viewpoints that makes the book literature. Scarlett showed character when she squared her shoulder and walked away from Ashley, who had been her hiding place, into the field, where it was nothing but more work.

    By the way, I am not from the South. I am a fourth generation New Yorker, from a Catskill Mountain village, not from Washington Irving’s stomping grounds, and read GWTW six times, literally, in high school. Rip Van Winkle’s Palenville is at the bottom of the mountain that I live on top of, and a waterfall marks the point where I know I’m almost home. So my defense of GWTW is not based on a passion for regional identity, it is based on a passion for literature and a knowledge of what constitutes its true form. If someone says “To Kill A Mockingbird” is not literature, I would defend it as literature using similar arguments.

  • Lauralou Rummans

    Good character analysis, and speaking of what a great little liar Melanie was, i shan’t forget Prissy’s scream that”i don’t know nuthin’ ‘ bout birthin’ no babies” when the rubber hit yhe road…

Salinger

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