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1930s Reception to GWTW

Evoking Nostalgia and Resilience: How Gone with the Wind (1936) Reflected the Spirit of the Jim Crow Era and the Great Depression

By Sophie Smith (2024)


In 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s debut novel, Gone with the Wind, swept readers into the turbulent world of Scarlett O’Hara, as the Civil War devastated her home, family, and romance. Despite the economic challenges of the Great Depression, Gone with the Wind (1936) became an instant success, selling over a million copies in just six months. [1] Moreover, the novel emerged against the backdrop of the Jim Crow era, characterized by the expansion of white supremacist policies and the erection of Confederate statues in the South. [2] Regardless of this economic turmoil and racial tension, I will argue that Gone with the Wind achieved remarkable sales because it played a significant role in recreating and preserving a romanticized image of the Antebellum South, particularly resonating with the “Lost Cause” narrative. Furthermore, I will contend that the novel instilled readers with a sense of hope and relatability amid the adversity of the Great Depression. As such, this report will analyze primary sources from the 1930s, focusing on those released adjacent to the publication of Gone with the Wind in 1936. These sources, including interviews with Margaret Mitchell, letter exchanges with her fans, and book reviews from The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal, will demonstrate that the novel’s success stemmed from its ability to evoke nostalgia for the Antebellum South and simultaneously provide hope and relatability during the Great Depression.

Historical Context

Set in Atlanta, Gone with the Wind unfolds against the historical backdrop of the Antebellum South, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction era — periods characterized by significant social, economic, and cultural upheaval in the United States. The novel portrays the Antebellum South with a sense of nostalgia, highlighting its agrarian economy, reliance on slavery, and aristocratic social structures. [3] This portrayal aligns with the “Lost Cause” narrative, which romanticized the Antebellum South, casting the Confederacy and its leaders in a heroic light. [4] This narrative, which sought to mitigate and reconcile the Southern devastation of defeat, gained popularity after the Civil War and became increasingly relevant during the 1930s. [4] Published in 1936, Gone with the Wind coincided with the reinforcement of Jim Crow laws and the erection of white supremacist statutes, particularly throughout the South. [5] This context of racial segregation added another layer to the novel’s reception and its reflection of Antebellum Southern values. Moreover, the economic despair of the 1930s, triggered by the 1929 Stock Market Crash, led to widespread poverty and unemployment amid the Great Depression. [6] This mirrored the post-war realities of the South, as it struggled with economic decline and societal upheaval after the Civil War, further shaping the novel’s reception. [4] Set against this historical backdrop, Gone with the Wind bridged the portrayal of the Antebellum South and the “Lost Cause” narrative with the contemporary challenges of the Great Depression, linking the trials of the past with those present at the time of its publication.

Evocation of Nostalgia for the Antebellum South

In her novel, Margaret Mitchell masterfully evokes nostalgia for the Antebellum South. This nostalgia not only mourns a loss of wealth or status but also a complete way of life irrevocably destroyed by the Civil War. This is a sentiment deeply connected to the “Lost Cause” narrative, which Mitchell embodies through her characters, particularly Scarlett O’Hara. Raised on the prosperous Tara plantation, Scarlett epitomizes the Antebellum South through her participation in social events and indulgence in elaborate clothing and food. Despite the devastation of the Civil War, Scarlett clings to these customs of the Antebellum South. Scarlett demonstrates this attachment in her famous vow: “I’m going to live through this, and when it’s over, I’m never going to be hungry again. No, nor any of my folks. If I have to steal or kill, as God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again…and soon we’ll all wear fine clothes and have fried chicken every day.” [7] This vow highlights the nostalgia for her pre-war life but also her desperation to reclaim it. Her yearning for pre-war life continues as she dreams of “danc[ing] and flirt[ing] and be[ing] admired… hear[ing] music and laugh[ing], wear[ing] fine clothes and rid[ing] fast horses, be[ing] petted and courted,” which further mirrors her desire to regain the customs of the Antebellum South. [8] Even in defeat, she channels the resilient spirit of the “Lost Cause” narrative, resolved to restore her pre-war life with “the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face.” [9] Through Scarlett, Mitchell portrays a character nostalgic for the Antebellum South, showcasing an unyielding resolve, regardless of the Civil War’s outcome.

However, Mitchell’s nostalgia of the Antebellum South goes beyond individual characters. Her descriptive writing vividly paints scenes of grand estates, opulent balls, and elegant Southern belles, tapping into a collective memory and idealizing a time that was not as perfect as often remembered. For instance, using evocative imagery, Mitchell describes Tara as “a savagely red land, blood-colored after rains, brick dust after droughts, the best cotton land in the world, a pleasant land of brick houses, [and] peaceful plowed fields.” [10] This portrayal presents a version of the Antebellum South that is more spectacle than substance, and it is not without its critics. Historians frequently express that Mitchell’s novel overlooks the harsh realities of the Antebellum South, especially the brutalities of slavery and the exploitation inherent to the agricultural economy. [11] Scholars further criticize Mitchell’s selective depiction of the Antebellum South for contributing to a distorted perspective of history. [11] By romanticizing the Confederacy and downplaying the atrocities of the Civil War, Gone with the Wind perpetuates a false version of the Antebellum South that continues to justify historical inequalities and racial injustices.

Despite criticism of Mitchell’s portrayal of the Antebellum South in Gone with the Wind, its reception by readers was straightforward and overwhelmingly positive. The novel’s profound appeal led to impressive sales, with one million copies sold within the first six months of its release. [2] Sources from the 1930s attribute this success to the way the novel resonated with contemporary sentiments. Book reviews from that decade often express a wistful nostalgia for the Antebellum South. For instance, a 1939 review in The Atlanta Constitution commended Mitchell for capturing the “spirit and charm of the Old South,” describing her novel as “a revival of a cherished past for those who remembered it,” as well as “an introduction to its glory for those too young to have experienced it firsthand.” [12] Another reviewer in The Atlanta Constitution (1939) acclaimed the novel as “another ‘Birth of a Nation’” and said that it had surpassed its cinematic predecessor, which was considered “the finest of its time” until then. [12] An additional review from The Atlanta Journal in 1939 further noted that “the novel had given to the new generation, thrice removed from civil strife, a romantic interest and a sentimental feeling for the Confederacy, which it had been unable to obtain from its school books or from the tongues of the actors in it.” [13] These book reviews underscore a collective appreciation for Gone with the Wind and its romanticization of the Antebellum South, emphasizing its role as a source of nostalgia and its connection to the sociocultural landscape of the 1930s.

Relatability and Resilience during the Great Depression

Amid the uncertainty and upheaval of the Great Depression, Gone with the Wind provided more than just a nostalgic escape to the Antebellum South; it also offered a narrative of resilience and survival that resonated with contemporary readers. Scarlett O’Hara, in particular, emerged as a symbol of determination and resourcefulness. In an introspective moment, Scarlett reveals her tenacity for adaptation and survival: “Scarlett herself, in her darkest moments, recalls her ancestors… They had not been broken by the crash of empires, the machetes of revolting slaves, war, rebellion, proscription, confiscation. Malign fate had not broken them, and it would not break her.” [14] True to her word, Scarlett thrived in the post-war economy, venturing into business by running a lumber mill, which underscored her adaptability and resilience. Her evolution from a pampered Southern belle into a tenacious businesswoman inspired many amid the Great Depression, as evidenced by letters from fans to Mitchell. In a 1937 fan letter, Katharine Brown praised Scarlett’s vow: “as God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again” — a vow that Brown related to her own struggles with unemployment and poverty. [15],[16] Brown found “solace in Scarlett’s resolve never to face hunger again and long[ed] to emulate her.” [17] Similarly, Marion Fritz expressed in another 1937 fan letter that Scarlett’s desire for material security reflected what many sought during the Great Depression: “Scarlett wanted only what so many of us want now… material security for our families, that life may hold something but the endless drudgery of a bare existence.” [18] Fritz further echoed this view in her 1937 review of the novel: “the real stroke of genius is in the story of Scarlett’s struggle to survive… it is the story of thousands of women during the Great Depression.” [19]

Additionally, Mitchell herself acknowledged survival as a key theme in her work. In a 1936 letter to friend L.H. Clark, Mitchell revealed her personal connection to the era’s economic struggles: “On the day when I thought I would write a book, I decided that I’d better write about something I was familiar with… [and] I was familiar with economic struggle, so I’d decided I’d write about [that].” [20] In a 1936 interview with The Atlanta Journal, Mitchell also discussed human resilience and adversity, asking, “What quality allows some people to survive catastrophes while others, apparently just as brave and strong, fail?” [21] This question is directly relevant to the challenges faced by many during the Great Depression, as highlighted by the fan letters above, and Mitchell’s reflection on resilience went beyond mere discussion; she vividly represents it through the protagonist in her novel. In her 2018 book This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, Nina Silber corroborates how Scarlett exemplified the resilience needed to navigate the hardships of the Great Depression, embodying both the struggles and potential for overcoming adversity. [22] The personal experiences of fans like Brown and Fritz, along with Mitchell’s insight and Silber’s scholarly perspective, underscore how Scarlett’s pursuit of survival mirrored that of Americans, particularly women, during the Great Depression. Through Scarlett’s relentless pursuit of survival, Gone with the Wind served as a profound source of inspiration and resilience for readers amid the economic landscape of the 1930s.


In conclusion, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind struck a deep chord with contemporary readers by integrating a nostalgic portrayal of the Antebellum South with a narrative of resilience amid the Great Depression. Set against the backdrop of the Antebellum South, Civil War, and Reconstruction era, the novel embraced the “Lost Cause” narrative, which romanticizes the Confederacy in line with the racial and cultural dynamics of the Jim Crow era. Despite criticisms of its selective historical representation, the novel achieved undeniable commercial success, selling over a million copies shortly after its release.2 Sources from the 1930s, including interviews with Mitchell, letter exchanges with her fans, and contemporary book reviews, underscore this broad appeal and success. Specifically, these sources highlight how Gone with the Wind tapped into a deep-seated nostalgia for the Antebellum South, drawing readers into a bygone era of Southern gentility and grandeur. Furthermore, the journey of Scarlett O’Hara from wealth to poverty, and back again, mirrored the real-life struggles of many Americans during the Great Depression, making her character both relatable and inspirational. This connection provided readers a reflection of their own resilience and adaptability in the face of economic hardship. Altogether, the enduring popularity of Gone with the Wind highlights its role not merely as a form of escapism but as a cultural artifact that provided nostalgia and resilience to a nation in crisis. The novel remains a powerful example of how literature can seamlessly blend nostalgia and resilience within harsh realities, deeply influencing public consciousness and leaving a lasting impact on readers.


[1] George F. Will, “Gone with the Wind, Indeed,” The Washington Post, June 24, 2006, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2006/06/25/gone-with-the-wind-indeed/a3b7e9a5-dfcc-46e3-97b0-3b750dc53e08/.

[2] Nina Silber, “‘Gone with the Wind’ is also a confederate monument, but on film instead of stone,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/12/gone-with-wind-is-also-confederate-monument-film-instead-stone/..

[3] “King Cotton,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/King-Cotton.

[4] David W. Blight, “Lost Cause,” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 2, 2024, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lost-Cause.

[5] Erin Sheley, “‘Gone with the Wind’ and the Trauma of Lost Sovereignty,” The Southern Literary Journal 45, no. 2 (March 2013): 1–18, https://doi.org/10.1353/slj.2013.0010.

[6] Richard H. Pells and Christina D. Romer, “Great Depression,” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 29, 2024, https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Depression.

[7] Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1936), 629.

[8] Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 527.

[9] Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1036.

[10] Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 3.

[11] Jacqueline Stewart, “Why We Can’t Turn Away from ‘Gone with the Wind,’” Cable News Network, June 25, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/12/opinions/gone-with-the-wind-illuminates-white-supremacy-stewart/index.html.

[12] “First Nighters’ Praise of ‘Gone with Wind’ Indicates it Will Soar to Record Popularity: Length of Film Held No Drawback to Sustaining Interest,” The Atlanta Constitution, December 17, 1939, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/first-n%20ighters-praise-gone-with-wind-indicates/docview/503200258/se-2.

[13] Edwin Camp, “’Gone With Wind’ Stirs The South: She Recalled A War,” New York Times, December 17, 1939, https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/gone-with-wind-stirs-south/docview/102673489/se-2.?parentSessionId=5DxkhD81VQIUtYsRn9Uv%2FLdXl0f752wgawrIX%2FgNWzo%3D&accountid=10598.

[14] Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 654.

[15] Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 629.

[16] Richard Harwell, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Letters (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1986), 172.

[17] Harwell, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Letters, 173.

[18] Harwell, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Letters, 213.

[19] Harwell, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Letters, 211.

[20] Harwell, Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Letters, 53.

[21] Margaret Mitchell, “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel,” interview by Medora Perkerson, The Atlanta Journal, July 3, 1936, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/margaret-mitchell-american-rebel-interview-with-margaret-mitchell-from-1936/2011/..

[22] Nina Silber, This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).


Blight, David W. “Lost Cause.” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 2, 2024. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lost-Cause.

Camp, Edwin. “’Gone with the Wind’ Stirs The South: She Recalled A War.” New York Times, December 17, 1939. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/gone-with-wind-stirs-south/docview/102673489/se2.?parentSessionId=5DxkhD81VQIUtY sRn9Uv%2FLdXl0f752wgawrIX%2FgNWzo%3D&accountid=10598.

“First Nighters’ Praise of ‘Gone with the Wind’ Indicates it Will Soar to Popularity: Length of Film Held No Drawback to Sustaining Interest.” The Atlanta Constitution, December 17, 1939. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/history-newspapers/first-n ighters-praise-gone-with-wind-indicates/docview/503200258/se-2.

Harwell, Richard. Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Letters. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1986.

“King Cotton.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/King-Cotton.

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: The Macmillian Company, 1936.

Mitchell, Margaret. “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel.” Interview by Medora Perkerson. The Atlanta Journal, July 3, 1936. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/margaret-mitchell-american-rebel-interview-with-margaret-mitchell-from-1936/2011/.

Morton, Marian J. “‘My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn’: Scarlett O’Hara and the Great Depression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 1980. https://doi.org/10.2307/3346512.

Pauly, Thomas. “Gone with the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath as Hollywood Histories of the Depression.” Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1982.

Pells, Richard H., and Romer, Christina. “Great Depression.” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 29, 2024. https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Depression.

Sheley, Erin. “‘Gone with the Wind’ and the Trauma of Lost Sovereignty.” The Southern Literary Journal 45, no. 2 (March 2013): 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1353/slj.2013.0010.

Silber, Nina. “‘Gone with the Wind’ is also a confederate monument, but on film instead of stone.” The Washington Post, June 12, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/12/gone-with-wind-is-also-confederate-monument-film-instead-stone/.

Silber, Nina. This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Stewart, Jacqueline. “Why We Can’t Turn Away from ‘Gone with the Wind.’” Cable News Network, June 25, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/12/opinions/gone-with-the-wind-illuminates-white-supremacy-stewart/index.html.

Will, George F. “Gone with the Wind, Indeed.” The Washington Post, June 24, 2006. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/2006/06/25/gone-with-the-wind-indeed/a3b7e9a5-dfcc-46e3-97b0-3b750dc53e08/..

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