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.
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.