Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind

The classic novel shows that individual lives cannot be reduced to competing sets of political convictions.

Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara ride through a group of retreating Confederate troops in the 1939 film adaptation of Gone With The Wind. (AP)

When Americans think about the Confederacy, they often think about Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic, Gone With the Wind. Inspired by recent debates over the Confederate flag, I decided to give the book a try. I confess that I did not have high hopes. I expected to be appalled by its politics and racism, and to be bored by the melodrama. (Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes? Really?) About twenty pages, I thought, would be enough. I could not have been more wrong. The book is enthralling, and it casts a spell.

Does it make a plausible argument for continuing to display the Confederate flag? Not even close. But it does raise a host of questions—about winners’ narratives, about honor and humiliation, about memory, about innocence and guilt, about men and women, about what’s taken for granted, about the particularity of human lives, and about parallel worlds. Teeming with life, it offers surprising insights into the Confederacy and the Old South. To be sure, its presentation of slavery is appalling. But at its core, it’s much less about politics than it is about the human heart. On that count, it has a lot to say, not least about how to come to terms with history.

Mitchell was born in 1900, thirty-five years after the end of the Civil War. For perspective, it’s as if someone born in 2015 were to write about the transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. In that case, as in Mitchell’s, we would not exactly be talking about ancient history. Grandparents, and possibly even parents, would have been around at the time; for millions of people, memories would be fresh. And so it was for Mitchell, whose family had been in Atlanta for several generations. Russell Mitchell, her paternal grandfather, fought in the Civil War, suffering two bullet wounds to the head during the Battle of Antietam. Annie Fitzgerald, her maternal grandmother, married in 1863, and she had keen recollections of the war and Reconstruction. Mitchell remembered hearing, as a child, numerous stories about the heroic battles, about Southern bravery and Yankee treachery, and about Southern life before, during, and immediately after the war. It was not until she was ten, she joked, that she realized that the South actually lost.

Selznick International Pictures, which produced the film adaptation of Gone With the Wind, set studios ablaze to depict 81 boxcars loaded with ammunition burning during the Civil War. (AP)

It was boredom, more or less, that got Mitchell started on Gone With The Wind. Just twenty-five years old, and a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, she suffered from a recurring ankle injury and took leave. As a young reporter, she had greatly enjoyed the magazine’s Oldest Inhabitants Beat, for she “was interested in how people felt during the siege of Atlanta, where casualty lists were posted, what they ate during the blockade, did boys kiss girls before they married them, and did nice ladies nurse in hospitals.” Almost as a lark, she began a novel, accompanied by exhaustive and somewhat-obsessive historical research. Not long after publication, she wrote that she had spent “ten years of reading thousands of books, documents, letters, diaries, old newspapers, and interviewing people who had lived through those terrible times.” In the words of one of her biographers, Darden Asbury Pyron, “She spent a vast amount of time verifying historical facts. The fear of missing something or getting something wrong drove her to distraction.” Nonetheless, she hid the project from both family and friends, and she was ambivalent about publication.

When it appeared in 1936, the book was an immediate sensation. Within several months, it had sold more than a million copies, even though it came out right after the Depression, with an unprecedentedly high price of three dollars (about fifty today). Over a thousand pages, it was the year’s bestseller in fiction—and it obtained that honor again in 1937, when it won the Pulitzer Prize.

But the reviews were mixed. In The New Republic, Malcolm Cowley wrote condescendingly (and with a whiff of sexism), “I would never say that she has written a great novel, but in the midst of triteness and sentimentality her book has a simpleminded courage that suggests the great novelists of the past.” The New York Times noted blandly that “for the research that was involved, and for the writing itself, the author of Gone With the Wind deserves due recognition.” Its stark conclusion: “Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject matter.” But very few readers agreed. On the contrary, they were rapturous.

They continue to be. Gone With the Wind sells over 250,000 copies every year, and it has now exceeded the 30 million mark. It is part of American culture. As recently as 2014, readers in the United States named it their second-favorite book, right behind the Bible. Undoubtedly, David O. Selznick’s immensely popular movie version is part of the reason. While the movie remains dazzling, though, the book is in another league.

But what about its politics? What about race? In his admiring preface to the 75th anniversary edition, the novelist Pat Conroy wrote that Mitchell “was a partisan of the first rank and there never has been a defense of the plantation South so implacable in its cold righteousness or its resolute belief that the wrong side had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.” For Conroy, “The moral weight of the narrative is solidly and iconoclastically in line with the gospel according to the Confederate States.” This year, Max Boot dismissed the book as “pro-Confederate propaganda.” But in 1936, The New York Times thought that Mitchell  “writes from no particular point of view, although now and then there glitters a dull rage at the upset that ended such a beautiful civilization.”

Gone With the Wind can be counted as pro-Confederate, and also as propaganda, but it is not in line with any gospel. With respect to race, parts of it are excruciating, almost beyond belief; but its thrust is not didactic. It is a romance, not a treatise. It paints a picture. It is much less interested in politics and apologetics than in innocence, loss, foolishness, resilience, and the mysteries of friendship and love (and also sex).

Mitchell’s tale begins with Scarlett’s suitors, Stuart and Brent Tarleton, twins “with sunburned faces and deep auburn hair, their eyes merry and arrogant, their bodies clothed in identical blue coasts and mustard-colored breeches,” and “as much alike as two bolls of cotton.” They have hounds and horses, of course, who are, like the twins, “healthy, thoughtless young animals, sleek, graceful, high-spirited,” and potentially dangerous, but “sweet-tempered to those who know how to handle them” (as Scarlett certainly does).

They’re excited about the coming war: “I’d heap rather go to war than go to Europe.” They’re eager to fight, even if they have no idea what they’re fighting for, and even if their main interest appears to be getting Scarlett to dance with them. Scarlett has no interest in either, of course, but they are confident that “she’s crazy about” them both. They’re also confident about the outcome of the war. “Why, we could lick them in a month!”

Ashley Wilkes (left), a prominent member of a wealthy Southern family with Rhett Butler (right) in “Gone With the Wind” (AP)

We don’t see the Tarleton twins again for about two-hundred pages, until Scarlett encounters the casualty lists. “There they were. ‘Tarleton-Brenton, Lieutenant.’ ‘Tarleton-Stuart, Corporal.’” Stricken, she is unable to keep reading: “She could not know if any other of those boys with whom she had grown up, flirted, kissed were on that list.” Rhett Butler tells her that there will be “be a longer list tomorrow.” And as the deaths and the injuries mount, the “wounded flooded Atlanta in trainloads and the town was appalled,” for every “hotel, boarding house and private residence was crowded with sufferers,” to the point where “the choked town could take care of no more.”

But Gone With the Wind is even more about the women than it is about the men; they wait, they work, they mourn, they nurse. As the soldiers first line up for battle, the women look on, “sweetheart to lover, mother to son, wife to husband. They were all beautiful with the blinding beauty that transfigures even the plainest woman when she is utterly protected and utterly loved and giving back that love a thousandfold.” But Scarlett has no patience with their politics, finding the women “simply silly and hysterical with their talk of patriotism and the Cause,” and the men “almost as bad with their talk of vital issues and States’ Rights.” Rhett Butler, her soulmate, agrees. He doesn’t care about the Confederacy and he thinks the South is going to “get licked.”

Gone With the Wind is a sexy book (Fifty Shades of Gray, ‘30s style?), which undoubtedly helps to account for its appeal. Describing the Tarleton twins as “long of bone and hard of muscle” (!), Mitchell has them lounging “lazily in their chairs,” laughing with “their long legs, booted to the knee and thick with saddle muscles, crossed negligently.” Of Scarlett, she writes: “Her breasts, pushed high by her stays, were very nice breasts.” Of Rhett: “Something vital, electric, leaped from him to her at the touch of his warm mouth, something that caressed her whole body thrillingly.” There’s a lot more. Much of it involves the torrid struggle for dominance (not merely power) between Scarlett and Rhett; the real war in Gone With the Wind is the battle of the sexes.

The book has strong feminist themes. It can even be taken as an early argument for sex equality. Scarlett is much smarter than her men, and she deplores traditional sex roles, which are depicted as confining and foolish. Wildly successful in business, Scarlett breaks out of them. Drew Gilpin Faust’s important book, Mothers of Invention, offers a detailed account of the challenges faced by Southern women during the Civil War, as they had to improvise and assume new roles and responsibilities. Faust shows that the war helped to produce a transformation of gender roles. Mitchell’s account of that transformation—in the person of Scarlett, incredulous about social expectations—is not incompatible with Faust’s, and it has real fire.

Mitchell also offers diverse voices, and slaves and former slaves are prominent among them. In some ways, the wise Mammy, who helped raise Scarlett and is her only constant, provides the book’s moral center. But here’s a strong point for those who see the book as Confederate propaganda, and of the very ugliest kind: Not one of Mitchell’s slaves complains of slavery or welcomes freedom. Mitchell doesn’t exactly celebrate slavery, but she doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with it. In her account, there is nothing particularly good about emancipation. And with a trope that has defined Southern thinking for many decades, Mitchell describes the Northerners as the real bigots.

Mitchell gives the phonetic spelling for words spoken by African Americans—but rarely for words spoken by Southern whites. She characterizes freed slaves as “childlike in mentality, easily led and from long habit accustomed to taking orders.” She describes them as running wild, “like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension.” There’s much more, and it’s worse. (If you want a more accurate portrait of slavery and emancipation, try Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave, which is no fiction.)


Nonetheless, Gone With the Wind should not be mistaken for a defense of slavery or even the Confederacy. Mitchell is interested in individuals rather than ideologies or apologetics. She parodies the idea of “the Cause,” and she has no interest in “States’ Rights.” She is elegiac not about politics, but about innocence, youth, memory, love (of all kinds), death, and loss (which helps make the book transcend the era it depicts). Irrevocably stuck in the past, and a bit of a ghost, Ashley Wilkes reminds Scarlett of “the sad magic of old half-forgotten songs,” and “the far-off yelping of possum dogs in the dark swamp under cool autumn moons and the smell of eggnog bowls, wreathed with holly at Christmas time,” and “Stuart and Brent with their long legs and their red hair and their practical jokes,” and “a whisper and a fragrance that was Ellen,” Scarlett’s mother, who died during the war. Mitchell draws a sharp distinction between those pathetic souls who keep hearing that sad magic, like Ashley, and those who want to move forward, like Scarlett and Rhett. Her own heart ultimately sides with the latter. But she also cherishes, and tries to capture, the magic, the yelping, the practical jokes, and a mother’s whisper.

At this point, skeptics might respond that subsuming the actual politics of the war, and the pro-slavery convictions of the Confederacy, beneath the gauzy romance of the plantation is precisely what the Lost Cause has been about—that in the end, Gone With the Wind is inescapably a set of political claims, designed to promote political ends. That’s a fair objection to some depictions of the world of the plantation, but it’s grossly unfair to Mitchell’s book, which is much more interested in memory, love, and resilience than it is in causes, won or lost. Of course, Gone With the Wind is a novel, not a work of history, and what it offers is only a slice of what actually happened. But as Americans remember the war and their own history, they have an acute need for novels, which refuse to reduce individual lives to competing sets of political convictions. That is an important virtue, even if one set of convictions is clearly right and another clearly wrong. In fact that very refusal can be seen as a political act, and it ranks among the least dispensable ones.

Official efforts to display the Confederate flag did not become prominent until the 1960s, as a response to the civil-rights movement. That flag should be taken down. But even so, it would be a mistake to disparage the sad magic of half-forgotten songs. Americans have good reason to remember the sweetness, and the deaths, of the countless real-world Tartletons—and never to dishonor those who grieve for them.