THE BOOK of the MONTH
THE decade between 1861 and 1871 had for the South every quality of classic tragedy — the passion, superhuman effort, and exaltation, followed by disillusionment, defeat, and a final chaos that seemed the irretrievable destruction of a civilization. This period forms the background of Gone with the Wind, the very title of which, taken from Clarence Mangan’s dirge, expresses what many Southerners thought and many still think was the passing of something beautiful and good. By limiting her story to that decade and to a small territory in northern Georgia, Miss Mitchell is able to make use of the excitements, suspense, and horror of the war, culminating in Sherman’s march, as it affected a group of families of Atlanta and the surrounding country, and of the ensuing oppression and degradation of the same people during the Reconstruction. In a novel of such length, — for it runs to over a thousand pages, — she has room to contrast ante-bellum with post-bellum life and at the same time to trace the fortunes of several people, and especially of her heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, with an almost day-by-day fullness.
Of course, if there is any period of our history about which the North and South cannot see eye to eye it is this. It would need many pages to discuss the fairness or lack of it in this presentation; and how one will feel depends so much upon where one was born that the attempt might not be very profitable. Miss Mitchell is quite rigid in showing that to her characters every Northerner was a ‘damn Yankee,’ that Yankees were all moneygrubbers, and that the North had no traditions of beauty and polite living. I have met Southerners who still think that. But more important is the implied assumption that the civilization of the old South, because it was in some ways beautiful and good, was really any better or basically any different from the best civilization elsewhere. As a Southern lady once said to me, the real danger of slavery was not any more the effect upon the slaves than upon the people who owned them. To suggest, then, that the virtues of Scarlett’s mother and of her cousin Melanie were the virtues of the old South and not the virtues of noble women anywhere and at any time seems like a fallacy in thinking.
But perhaps Miss Mitchell does not intend this. She makes quite clear that her sympathies are with those Southerners who, whatever the horrors of the Yankee methods of Reconstruction may have been, were still able to reconstruct themselves. She illustrates this theme by means of two men and two women.
Scarlett O’Hara, red-haired and green-eyed, the daughter of a lovable but untamed Irish parvenu and a woman of an old Southern family, stubborn, selfish, a ‘realist’ among people who seem to her hopelessly romantic, decides that what the war has taken away she will regain by hook or crook. Believing, as she says, that ‘one can’t be a lady without money,’ she gets money, even at the expense of marrying three men whom she does not love, offering herself as mistress to one, trying to steal the husband of her best friend, and stealing the sweetheart of her own sister. Of the men who really affect her life, Ashley Wilkes represents everything she despises. He is a defeated product of the old order. The other, Rhett Butler, is a complete opportunist and cynic, whose philosophy is that, just as the pioneers made money out of a new civilization, he will make money out of a dying one. And finally Melanie Wilkes, without ambition or wealth, gains friendship, love, and reverence by remaining true, instinctively, to the finest ideals of the old South. It is Melanie who shows, though Scarlett seems never to learn the lesson, that being a lady is an inward condition.
Scarlett, it will be seen, is a disagreeable heroine, and yet she is tremendously alive. The basis of her error is a certain spiritual density; but her physical courage is admirable and so is her practical competency. And one can always sympathize in her intense love for Tara, the estate on which she spent her girlhood. Her long, tempestuous, and sordid affair with Rhett Butler, blockade-runner, scallawag, profiteer, a theatrical figure of romance and fustian, like a schoolgirl’s dream of a dangerous love, deepens and solidifies in the end into an impressive contest of wills, centring in their attitudes toward their little girl, Bonnie. The account of Bonnie’s death and its effects (beginning at page 987) seems to me, by the way, the finest thing in the novel.
When one takes into account the sustention and singleness of aim in so long a narrative, one must conclude that, despite occasional lapses and some major faults, Gone with the Wind is a remarkable performance The opening scenes, with their rich humor, picturing the happy-go-lucky life of the pre-war times; the strenuous excitements of Atlanta under siege and of Scarlett’s dolorous journey to Tara; the suspense of the days when she is fighting to preserve Tara from destruction; the vulgar triumph and ignominy of her financial success; her battle of wit and will with Rhett; and, throughout, the numberless vignettes of life among the house and the field Negroes, the poor whites and crackers, the boom town of Atlanta, the improvident, exasperating, but likable aristocrats, the Tarletons, Calverts, Fontaines — all make up an imaginative creation of quite unusual fascination. As for the general attitudes and fundamental assumptions of the book — well, I look forward to discussing them with Southern friends,
R. M. GAY