Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949)
If forced to name “the greatest novel in American literature,” I would have to chose this masterpiece. To critique genius is as hopeless task, and Gone with the Wind (1936) is a work of patent genius – a definitive unmasking of a decadent and doomed culture and its demise through the loving eyes of a woman who grew up in its wake, on the laps of its battered survivors. All that this reader can do is applaud until his hands ache and beseech, no beg, all adventurous readers to seize this masterpiece and devour it in slow cadence, savoring the nuances of every syllable like the piquancy of the most elegant wine, as it lingers on the palette for those precious fleeting seconds, or like the resonance of the last chord of a heart-wrenching musical piece. This book (the best selling novel in the world’s history to that time and for several decades thereafter, when the world’s population was only some 30% of what it is today) enables us to understand the South, the Civil War, the “why” of it, the pains of it, the emotional aftermath, and, at the same time, to visualize the pre-War South, in all of its splendor and negativity with microscopic and unforgettable verbal images, and it teaches more about the Civil War than 100 history books; it places us squarely within that epoch and makes us live it.
The South, in 1860, was only one generation removed from the crudest American pioneers, rough-mannered, brusque, course, workaholic, independent hunters and farmers who conquered the wilderness and a tiny few made fortunes and built great plantations — and less than one percent owned slaves. This Civil War South was a world where girls only 13 set their caps for men and married at 15 and 16 and were considered “old maids” at 20; women were supposed to be frail, have ludicrously tiny waists, eat like birds, feel dizzy after a dance, offer no opinions, praise the brilliance of men with less brains than themselves, pretending to be helpless, clinging doe-eyed creatures; no society ever placed such a low premium on the vitality, intelligence and strength of women, nor simultaneously treated them more chivalrously. Yet, beneath this facade existed women like Scarlett and her mother, who were cut from much different cloth: practical, intelligent, exuberant, ebullient, hard working leaders of their men folk.
Gone with the Wind (“Gone”) first lets us visit the pre-Civil War elegance of plantation life and, then, casts us into the eye of the Civil War’s horrid tornado; as above noted, it teaches us more about the Civil War than 100 history books. It freezes Southern culture for all time and presents it through the eyes, words and deeds of characters that leap from the pages, jamming their hot, anxious breath in our faces, forcing their clothes on our backs and their words into our ears and their desultory pulse-beats into our hearts, forever burning their images into our psyches. No careful reader will ever forget this classic work of historical fiction. Yes, if you haven’t, you must read this literary triumph, and read it slowly, ever so slowly, lest you miss its many faceted, multilayered syntheses, pellucid nuances and moving meanings. It is a better lesson about war than we can find in Shakespeare’s tragedies or in War and Peace, Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Zhivago and all the litany of WWI and WWII books. It was written by someone who understood and loved human nature and the South (and the nature of whites and blacks in 1860 America) so much better than can most historians or novelists can ever dream of doing. So, I can’t and won’t “critique” it, but I’ll offer some observations, some samples of what “stuck” with me, teasers if you will, snippets of what will remain within me forever, but, whatever you do, don’t judge this book by my hasty, inadequate approbation. Better to forget these notes and pick up the book, treat yourself and make it your own.
As Napoleon said, “History is what the man with the pen writes.” There can be no better way to learn to grasp America’s Civil War than is offered by Margaret (“Peggy”) Mitchell’s masterpiece, Gone with the Wind (Gone). It covers only ten years, 1861-1871, from a few months before the Civil War commencement through the bloody debacle and forward to its tragic and little-known post-war denouement. American history books explain the Civil War (1861-1864) through Yankee eyes, with moralistic disapproval and a selective memory of only what was “bad” about the South. However deserved history’s cruel appraisal of the South may be, it offers only one side of the story. Margaret Mitchell’s thousand-page magnum opus gives us the opportunity to see it through Southern (Confederate or Rebel) eyes, and a very different picture is revealed. She grinds no axe; she does not defend (or even debate) slavery or the South; she only explains what and why they were as they were as they were; how they loved, hated, laughed, cried and died. Mitchell’s prose is on a par with the finest ever penned in the English language. Her beautiful descriptions make every scene, character, dialogue, and event ring with clarion truth and chilling emotions; from the first line, we are sucked into her Civil War tapestry so deeply that we can never forget this egregious disaster nor can we remember any of its vanquished participants, North and South, with less than kind compassion.
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the South was intoxicated with enthusiasm, excitement, and an anticipation of swift victory. These expectations soon vaporized, as its soldiers met armies several times their size and much better equipped. The brutal statistics of the Civil War (1861-1864) are chilling: It was America’s most damaging war, ending 600,000 American lives (more than WWI or WWII combined) and destroying huge chunks of the South’s cities, its economy, and its culture, erasing 100 years of prosperity, and casting the South into a half-century of economic malaise. The North’s much larger militia was augmented by thousands of mercenary troops hired from Europe, but it still took the North four long years to subdue the proud South, whose outstanding generals, gymnastic cavalry and dead-eye-sharpshooters claimed two Northern lives for every Southerner. In the end, the Confederate Army was defeated by lack of ammunition, guns, troops and, above all, by chronic starvation. “God is on the side of the strongest battalion,” opined Napoleon. Most Southerners fought to defend their homeland; they had zero interest in slavery; others fought to defend their homes, economy and culture; Scarlett didn’t see the Civil War as a fight for justice or as a defense of homeland; she saw it as “a man’s game” and as “stupid” – the very word that Einstein used to characterize all wars. To Rhett Butler, “Wars seem ‘sacred’ to those who fight them, or they wouldn’t fight, but there is only one reason for war – money.” The views of Einstein and Butler are difficult to refute.
There is an ethos to the Civil War, an ethos that has yet to die. Margaret Mitchell lays it bare. Families often fought on opposite sides; the entire war seemed more like a family feud, and nothing is more acrimonious or leaves a more bitter, painful and permanent aftermath. Life in the Civil War took on the quality of a dream, a dream too terrible to be real. “It was grotesquely unreal; the morning skies which dawned so tenderly were profaned with canon smoke that hung over the town like thunder clouds…warm noontides were filled with the piercing sweetness of massed honeysuckle and climbing roses…while shells screamed into the streets bursting like the crack of doom, throwing iron splinters hundreds of yards, blowing people and animals to bits…When they weren’t engaged in mortal combat, their thoughts returned to the past and to their dead…” Many blacks fled to freedom; others joined Yankee forces; still others voluntarily remained with “their masters” due to “a feeling of oneness with their “white folks”, a loyalty and love that money couldn’t buy”, which made them risk their lives to keep food on disheveled plantation tables or march side-by-side into battle and almost certain death with their masters.
The post-Civil War era was, in many ways, more tragic than the War itself. When the South surrendered, the real “raping” began: the Yanks stole what they wanted, raped whom they wanted and dug up whole graveyards to strip corpses of their jewelry and memorabilia, tossing the bodies helter-skelter, strewn over a pitiful and grotesque landscape, leaving surviving loved ones awash in tears. Then came “Reconstruction”, which was the North’s euphemism for “rebuilding” the South — by imposing taxes that couldn’t possibly be paid on land and buildings, and then “buying” the assets at auction for pennies on the dollar, evicting once proud owners onto the streets in abject poverty. Thus, what the North hadn’t destroyed, was effectively stolen by the carpetbaggers (the Northern opportunists who bought-up the South’s distressed assets). The North’s “Amnesty Laws” prevented Confederate officers or plantation owners from voting, and blacks took over the cities’ elected offices, abandoned housing and formed sprawling ghettos of crime. Gangs of marauding blacks (many of whom were only one generation distant from cannibalistic African jungles, who wouldn’t work, lived by stealth and force, praying on each other and on whites) attacked and gang-raped countless white women and were rarely prosecuted; no streets were safe, and the Yank soldiers that remained (“to keep order”) rarely intervened. In Northerners’ eyes, all Southerners were guilty and “bad” and deserved the thefts, rape and murders that Reconstruction imposed – although, again, literally 99% of the Southerners had owned NO slaves. Reconstruction was worse than war, worse than prison, worse than death. When whites (vigilantes) avenged the victims, the Yankees hung the avengers, often without trial by judge or jury or even evidence; mere accusations were sufficient – like “the people’s court” post French Revolution or the Bolsheviks’ mass murders of eight million (now believed to be more like 20 million) kulaks (property owners) in the post-Communist era. The Yankee militia remained to enforce Martial Law, and Yankee troops, when searching for “nigger haters”, ransacked Confederate homes, stealing anything they desired and trashing the property. The Yankee troops muzzled or closed the press as well, and the “Freedmen’s Bureau” (which was designed to protect blacks) spent much of its time finding and inspiring blacks to testify against anti-black Rebs. It wasn’t until 1868, four years after the War had ended, that whites secretly formed the Ku Klux Klan (from the Greek words for “circle” and “clan”), a vigilante force to punish black thieves, rapists and murderers whom the then Yank and black-dominated government and courts would not punish. The Klan was ultimately quashed by the Yank Army; but it reappeared in 1915 and again in the 1950’s, as the memories of the tragedies remained. Just as many blacks have not forgotten slavery, many Southerners have not forgotten the Yankees’ and lawless gangs of blacks’ post-War, inhuman devastation of the South. (Ironically, Despite the miniscule percentage of slave owners, 100% of the South was punished for it.) The Civil War has proved to be, “The War That Never Ended.” The subject still conjures deep remorse.
As to the author’s descriptive passages, the page is her canvass and the words her oils, with which she creates a vision that Michelangelo would have proudly claimed. She sees entire landscapes, rooms, their appointments, their moods and auras in one sweep, in magical metaphors and sublime similes; she describes in vibrant colors, in three dimensions; she makes us see and feel the ambience, élan and karma of things and people (making us recall Plato’s view that inanimate objects have souls and Dickens’ observation, “Old things have memories.”). Examples do her an injustice; so I offer only this: “The stillness of the country twilight came down about them as calming as a prayer…the fresh smell of country air, the plowed earth, and the sweetness of the summer nights…the honeysuckle draped the gullied roadsides in tangled greenery, emitting its piercing fragrance as always after rain, the sweetest perfume in the world…the soft gray mist in the swampy bottoms, the sloping fields…the black pines rising behind everything like sable walls…” and an endless stream of such verbal pearls, so you must: conquer this priceless tome yourself, and rich will be your reward.
What was the moral or message of this masterpiece? What was “gone with the wind”? So many things: Scarlett’s plantation, Tara, Atlanta, all of Georgia and the rest of the 11 seceding Confederate States, along with the South’s economy, gone, all gone, gone with the wind. Predictably, the themes or morals of Gone are as numerous and complex as her text. Consider a few: Moving On: It urges everyone to move on: As Will said at Gerald’s funeral. “The sad sweetness of remembering was a bitter as gall…” We must bend in the storm and bow to the inevitable, and accept it and move on. One can’t make progress with a mind full of aching memories. Don’t look back. Our Need of the Weak: Scarlett couldn’t face life without the weak, the gentle, the tender hearted, like Melanie, and Melanie knew that she could not have survived without Scarlett. All of us need each other. Ambition: Ashley never wanted to get anywhere or be anything but himself; Scarlett wanted everything, regardless of its cost. There is balance here and room for divergent views, but it takes the Scarlett’s of the planet to keep the globe turning. Friends: Those who share our memories and our youth, who knew our beginnings, our present, our failures and successes, can best understand us. As William James said, “It is our friends who make our world.” Forgiveness: Forgiveness is for yourself; it enables you to move forward. Love: Love is the ubiquitous theme of all great literature, and Gone is no exception. Rhett’s unrequited love of Scarlett is relentless, tender, amorous, humorous, forgiving and passionate, and remains among the best remembered in all literature. Melanie’s love of everyone, and, in the end, Scarlett realized that Rhett (not the effete, anachronistic, enervated Ashley) was the man of her dreams, but it was too late – or was it? Life: For better or worse, life never turns out as expected, and life owes us no obligations. We must forge what we can and accept the rest. Hope: There is always hope; what can’t be solved today can, perhaps, tomorrow: Scarlett’s oft repeated sentiment, “Tomorrow is another day…I’ll think about it tomorrow.” And so we often must. The important thing is to persevere.
Who was Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949)? A Southern Belle and a beauty in her own right, she was born, the daughter of a lawyer, in Atlanta, where she was raised on the laps of Civil War veterans. Although 36 years after the Civil War ended, she, too, lived in “a man’s world”. This suffragist defied conventions by having a career and becoming a columnist and literary critic for The Atlanta Journal, and by doing interviews of celebrities (including Rudolf Valentino). Her first husband was a handsome bootlegger, rogue, renegade and semi-abuse alcoholic (on whose character some say she modeled Rhett Butler) whose last words to her were, “Frankly, I don’t give a damn,” Rhett’s famous last words to Scarlett. No camera could ever give us what Margaret Mitchell has enabled us to visualize. Her genius will live, like Chaucer’s, Cervantes’, Milton’s, Shakespeare’s, Dickens’, Zhivago’s, et al, as long as human minds seek the best in literature. Although her then contemporary critics largely panned Gone as “only entertainment”, their characteristic, consumptive jealousy was exposed as tripe, when Gone broke all of history’s sales records for novels and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, while the motion picture of the same name (in 1939) won a record-setting ten Academy Awards and set records as the highest grossing film in history, and continues among the best selling books (and films) some 80 years since it was first published. Ms. Mitchell took no interest in the movie, and she never met Clark Gable or Vivian Lee until the movie was previewed, nor did she recommend them or anyone for any part in the film. She only released one book in her lifetime, although a lesser known novelette was published many years after her death. She eschewed fame and lived a reclusive and, sadly, short life, but she left a literary and historical legacy to educate and enthrall readers and historians for all time.