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Southern Identity in Gone With The Wind

By Rosalind Yang (2022)

Published in 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s debut and only novel, Gone With the Wind is a sweeping historical epic that tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara before, during, and after the civil war. Hailed by critics as an instant classic, the novel was a runaway bestseller that sold a million copies in the first 6 months (Silber 2020). The novel retained relevance to the point where the film, adapted 3 years later, was the highly anticipated and hosted one of the largest premieres of all time. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, while the film won the Oscar for Best Picture. Gone With the Wind was a social and cultural phenomenon in every sense of the word, and in this paper, I will examine the Southern response to Gone With the Wind (both the novel and film) and how Southerners viewed it through the lens of Southern and by extension, Confederate pride. The South is broadly defined as the states that formed the confederacy, in this paper I will be focusing on Georgia and specifically Atlanta

Gone With the Wind tells the story of petulant Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, from her start as a conniving coquette to a widowed ruthless businesswoman. Beginning with her idyllic antebellum life on a plantation, the novel traces her survival through the horrors of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as her love affair with Rhett Butler. An Atlanta native, Margaret Mitchell came from a wealthy and politically prominent family. She grew up regaled with stories of the Civil War and later became a reporter for the Atlanta Journal, eventually writing Gone With the Wind while recovering from an ankle injury. She would continue to write the novel over the next 9 years (Brown). Published in the thick of the Great Depression, Gone With the Wind owes at least some of its popularity to the economic and social conditions of the time (Beye 1993); the disaster that the southern white aristocracy faced after the civil war was likely relatable to the contemporaneous American audience. Gone With the Wind is one of the “most Southern of novels in its literary and cultural aspects,”(Millichap 2018) and it informed American perception of the South’s role in the civil war for decades to come (Schneider 2011). Despite the South losing the Civil war, the novel was so iconic and ubiquitous that it allowed the South to exert control over their image and reputation to the American public. Mitchell minimizes the key role of slavery as part of Southern ideals and instead heavily romanticizes the antebellum South as the picture of gentility, eulogizing it as a “time of order and contentment, a time of prosperity and amicable race relations, a time when men were manly,” (Meindl 1981) thus perpetrating the Lost Cause Narrative.

The cultural phenomenon of Gone With The Wind influenced not only perception of the South, but also the genres of historical epics and romance. Gone With The Wind was interesting because of the way it portrayed Scarlett O’Hara as a complex, and depending on who you ask, unlikeable female protagonist, something unusual in the romance genre at the time. Her unscrupulous and selfish character has been criticized and “responded to in a variety of negative ways,” (Palmer 1992) and for some, “Mitchell is just the creator of a bitch (!)” (Lozano 1992). However, the novel’s instant and enduring popularity speaks to the ability for women’s transgressions to be condemned yet comprehended despite gender stereotypes. Both the novel and Scarlett are still loved, despite her ruthless behavior, because she “rebelled against her oppressive society’s expectations for a woman, she didn’t do anything that a man wouldn’t have been praised for,” (Bennett 2014) even though “at the end, she is defeated by her society, though none of us, witnesses of her struggle, think that she has been defeated” (Lozano 1992). Mitchell champions a female protagonist who rejects the stereotypically feminine ideals of the time, and thus uses Scarlett as a depiction of the tensions of womanhood, creating an interesting case study in the romance genre. Another part of the novel’s influence is its impact on the historical epic. Scholars note that Gone With The Wind is one of the most illustrative examples of the novel “where history provides the setting as opposed to those whose subject is history,” (Fox-Genovese 1981) with Gone With The Wind as the latter. Gone With The Wind also defines the key narrative trope for many historical epics, which utilizes “juxtaposition of times of upheaval, conflict and injustice with blossoming romance – even as they come into conflict with [the novel’s] supposedly historically accurate framework” (Donald 2017).

Reviews of Gone With the Wind emphasized the novel’s strong connection with its setting. The New York Times Book Review noted, “[Margaret Mitchell] draws on the whole social fabric of the antebellum, war time, and reconstruction South for her people…That choice of Atlanta, (Miss Mitchell’s native city) as the focal point of her novel, was a happy one. It has not been done before in fiction of the period, and it brings to her book a freshness and vitality of background” (Adams 1936). Another review in a trade journal observed, “the author comes from the state of which she writes — Georgia — and she knows her background thoroughly,” (Trade Journal 1936) and the novel shows an “authentic picture of people and places and incidents, something of the moonlight and honeysuckle of the glamorous Old South, much of the traditions and manner of life and thought” (Trade Journal 1936). These reviews show the novel’s adoration of and deep identification with the South. Setting is so important in Gone With the Wind: the entire novel takes place in Georgia during the Antebellum and through Reconstruction. The same way the setting informs the plot in an essential way, the South was also an important part of Margaret Mitchell’s identity as a writer. Despite the novel being written over 60 years after the Civil War, these reviews acknowledge Mitchell’s credibility as a Southerner and praise her portrayal of the South, one newspaper writing, “In the novel’s broader moments, such as the aftermath of Gettysburg, the narrator’s allegiances to ‘every Southern heart’ and ‘the South’ surface explicitly, demanding certain sympathies from the reader that she may or may not be inclined to provide” (New York Times 1936). Mitchell positions herself to defend the South and the Southern way of life — she draws a distinct line both between the antebellum and reconstruction South as well as the North and the South. Scholars debate Mitchell’s portrayal of the war, some say she subtly critiques it by emphasizing civilian suffering and the horrors of reconstruction and destruction of the South (Meindl 1981). Although one could argue that Mitchell’s treatment of the South and the Civil War is complex, its interpretation by consumers was not.

Southern response to Gone With the Wind was unanimously positive. Reviews often looked at Gone With the Wind as a point of pride and expressed sentiments of grandeur, as shown in a poll of Atlanta viewers immediately after its premiere: “Greatest picture I have ever seen in my life”, “So great that it is hard to find words to do it justice”, “Surpasses Birth of a Nation”, “The movie is true to the book and the South” (Atlanta Constitution 1939). The Birth of a Nation (1915) reference is compelling, because both movies were technically and visually innovative for the time, and Birth of a Nation also glorified the antebellum period and engaged in anti-black stereotypes and images that are arguably worse than those of Gone With the Wind. The Southern pride in Birth of a Nation glorifies the Klan, and the fact that it is the standard shows that Southerners upheld and perpetuated these ideals when consuming media. The quote regarding being true to the South touches on the question of authenticity and trueness in regards to the idealization of the Antebellum. Mitchell was consistently lauded for her portrayal of the South, which is interesting because it was seen as so genuine when it clearly was not.

Gone With the Wind was such a ubiquitous Southern phenomenon that it inspired poetry. A 1949 ode to Margaret Mitchell declared, “And generations that are yet to come/Will proudly always claim the South as home./While millions more throughout the world’s wide scope/ Will bless her name because she gave them hope./ Atlanta” (Matthews 1949). This shows the scope of her influence and how iconic this book was, as well as the pure devotion and pride felt by those who shared a home with her. It exemplifies regionalism as a form of nationalism, strengthened by the nature of the Civil War. The novel’s strong identification with its setting is further evident in the civic celebrations in Atlanta. The film’s (segregated) premiere was a four-day event, called the “greatest event in the history of this town” (Variety 1939).  Stores decorated their window displays in the style of the 1860’s, and girls dressed in the crinolines of the antebellum. With “the Stars and Bars of the beloved Confederacy flying from every vantage point,” (Variety 1939) Atlanta embraced its role as an Old South city. In reference to the film’s premiere, one Atlanta magazine noted, “Recapturing thus the spirit of its past to glorify its present and its future, Atlanta rose to the occasion…the beauty and spirit of institutional proclamations by the stores and other businesses of Atlanta” (Atlanta Constitution 1939). The city of Atlanta rallied around the book and film, demonstrating how Gone With the Wind united the city and became part of its identity. Both the book and film’s overwhelming popularity and its nonstop promotion reinforced Atlanta’s connection with Gone With the Wind, and further encouraged Southern identification and pride. There were ceremonies and parades meant to honor Confederate soldiers, which one reporter deemed an “eternal flame to the Confederacy” (Camp 1939) and “symbolic of the thought of the South today toward its Lost Cause” (Camp 1939). The South harbored a lot of lasting Confederate pride and used the film and book as a reason to celebrate it, further emphasizing and creating the Lost Cause narrative – the narrative that focuses on the supposed just heroism and honor of the Confederacy rather than the horrors of slavery. In the novel, Ashley Wilkes says, “Before the war, life was beautiful, there was a glamor to it, a perfection and completeness and symmetry to it like Grecian art” (Mitchell 1936). Mitchell portrays the antebellum South as an idyllic agrarian society, a better time when life was simple and beautiful. She crafts a sense of wonder and nostalgia into the setting, the picturesque “vision of charming belles and grand plantations, devoted slaves and noble Confederates” (Schneider 2011).

Critics of the novel mainly focus on its racial attitudes and its portrayal of slavery. While a lot of modern discourse around Gone With the Wind surrounds these topics, reviews at the time also condemned the novel and film for it. Mitchell failed to extend black characters beyond caricatures — she described slaves as devoted to their masters and uninterested in the prospect of freedom (Faust 1999), used imagery related to animals to describe slaves, further dehumanizing them. Mitchell denied agency to black characters and minimized the role of slavery in antebellum Southern life, never acknowledging the brutalities and evil of the plantation system (Beye 1993). This was a point of contention for several reviews, who openly condemned the novel and called for boycotts of the film. One Michigan newspaper commented, “We realize that Negroes are getting pretty sick and tired of the pro-slavery hokum and subtle anti-Negro propaganda Hollywood so consistently ladles out to an all to gullible American public”(Hayden 1940). Another Chicago newspaper opined, “Gone with the wind is the campaign of vilification that precedes a new wave of mob terror against black people” (Chicago Defender 1940). A Pittsburgh civil rights group said that Mitchell’s book was “a glorification of the old rotten system of slavery, propaganda for race-hatreds and bigotry, and incitement of lynching” (Silber 2020). It is interesting but perhaps unsurprising to note that most of the commentary on Mitchell’s portrayal of slavery comes from the North, and that there were few, if any, Southern news sources that discussed the topic. There is an obvious conclusion to be drawn here — Southern attitudes towards race and slavery remained starkly different from those of the North, even 60 years after the war. Furthermore, the Lost Cause ideology emphasized Confederate pride, which Southern reviews tended to focus on: “Southern newspapers of the day contained all the same sentiments as those found in Mitchell’s book: One Southern soldier could lick 10 Yankees; black men had an insatiable lust for white women; the Klan served a useful purpose; the South would rise again” (Silber 2020). It is not difficult to see why there were complaints that the novel is propaganda; Southerners blindly rallied around Gone With the Wind and its biased and misleading information. Its failure to recognize the crime of slavery is probably only overshadowed by the fact that it was used to defend lynching. In January 1940, Rep. Knute Hill (D-Wash.) opposed the federal anti-lynching bill, referencing Gone With the Wind. Hill praised the depiction of good Southern (white) men, men who had been unfairly punished by federal Reconstruction measures, just as good Southern white men in 1940 were being unfairly targeted by legislation that defined the lynching of African Americans as a federal crime (Garner 1994). This demonstrates the far reach the novel had — its extension from beyond a media phenomenon into politics. It shows that people, even politicians, used Gone With the Wind as a touchstone of Southern pride and its depiction and romanticization of the south, chivalry and gallantry, as a reason and excuse to perpetrate racist attitudes and policies.

Upon its initial publication, Gone With the Wind garnered rave reviews, as critics praised its vivid characters and lush storytelling. Examining the novel’s treatment of race and setting allows us to better understand how and why it became an immense Southern phenomenon, and contrasting Northern and Southern responses to both the novel and film show how it shaped American perception of the South for decades to come. Gone With The Wind reinforced the Lost Cause narrative, as Southerners hailed it as an authentic portrayal of their home, when in reality it was a heavily romanticized version of the past.




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