The novel Gone With The Wind was written by Margaret Mitchell and published on June 30, 1936. It stands now as one of the most popular novels in American history, and the film by the same name won a bucket load of Academy Awards when it came out. understanding why a novel about the Civil War would be so popular in the 1930’s reveals a lot about how the majority of Americans view not only the Civil War but the lessons of the most violent war in American history.
History.com records the following about Gone With The Wind:
Published in 1936, Gone with the Wind caused a sensation in Atlanta and went on to sell millions of copies in the United States and throughout the world.
While the book drew some criticism for its romanticized view of the Old South and its slaveholding elite, its epic tale of war, passion and loss captivated readers far and wide.
By the time Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, a movie project was already in the works. The film was produced by Hollywood giant David O. Selznick, who paid Mitchell a record-high $50,000 for the film rights to her book.
The success of the novel is impressive, no doubt. What is interesting to note in the retelling of the publication here is how History.com quickly mentions the controversial manner of the retelling of the Civil War as “romanticized.”
The use of this term to describe a novel that reverses the cause and consequence of the Civil War into a tale of sadness and terror for white Southerners, without regard to the terrors or sadness of the slaves is telling not only of History.com, but also of the idea that it is romantic to imagine the reality of the war in this way. In fact it is the very definition of white privilege and the reality in which many Americans continue to live even now.
Instead of showing the selling of human beings, slave owners are described as defenders of a paradise known as the Antebellum South. It is a reality where everything is tea parties and talk of marriages to your cousin. Then the war comes, courtesy of the unseen and alien Northerners, and it begins a series of horrors imposed unjustly upon Scarlett O’Hara, the heroine of the novel.
In fact (Gone With The Wind) is the very definition of white privilege and the reality in which many Americans continue to live even now.
One is reminded of Mammy, the maid and servant to Scarlett, who struggles to tie her corset tighter. She complains that it is Scarlett’s fault, and she is being silly to expect that the corset can be tied any tighter.
What about the lynching of slaves, who complained and ran from their captors. Could they complain that the hangman’s noose was too tight? This tradition of violence is absent form the novel. It would be unseemly to include it, as it would undermine the sympathy and support for the main characters if included.
Nevertheless, at least 4,000 african Americans were lynched starting after the Civil War. Yes, after the war whites in the South continued to murder African Americans on average once a week for nearly eighty years, from 1882-1968
The idea that race issues are overblown in this country is represented by Gone With The wind and its popularity with many white Americans. It represents history as we wish to see it, whitewashed of any sin or guilt, where the efforts of well meaning Americans (aka white people) are born out of good hearts and blessed by a divine god above.
Indeed the story of Scarlett O’Hara is the story of Manifest Density. The idea that despite the injustices of savage enemies to destroy our way of life, hard working, god-fearing Americans can rise above and succeed through hard work and determination.
It’s not a bad story, but it is not history. The problem is that novels like Gone With The Wind become the history many people choose to remember. It is not our history, but this type of white privilege, also better known as willful denial, may actually be the American Historical tradition.
The male opposite of Scarlett was Rhett Butler, a smuggler and a scoundrel who didn’t play by the rules and just wanted to love Scarlett. He pined for her for most of the novel, with her often in denial of her true feelings for him. (Seems like denial is a recurring theme!) At the end, when Scarlett was still confused about her wo
rld and her place in it, he leaves her,
throwing down one of the classic mike drops of American literature. Walking out on her one last time, he turn to her as she asks, “But Rhett, whatever shall I do?” He responds, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
This shocking lack of concern for his fellow human and love of his life is stunning not only to Scarlett, but also to the reader. It works well in the novel, and the film, because at this point the reader (aka white American) feels sorry for Scarlett, but secretly also feels she deserves to be treated this way, after the way she has behaved towards the good hearted Rhett Butler.
I’m reminded of the jacket that Melania Trump wore when visiting the children of illegal immigrants who were torn from the arms of their parents and placed in government detention camps. Shockingly, the First Lady wore a jacket that had a message of disdain scrawled on her back. It read I really don’t care, do you?
It is as if FLOTUS turned to her fellow humans, in need of sympathy and comfort and pulled a classic Rhett Butler. She really doesn’t give a damn.
Thanks to a tradition of white privilege, this reaction is expected and sad. Melania Trump will not be judged harshly by many Americans, because frankly they don’t give a damn either. Their tradition is one that sees only white Americans in need as legitimate, and ignores the suffering of minorities, much like the novel Gone With The Wind does as well.
If we see how this tradition of willful denial and cruel inhumanity continues to play out in American society, maybe we can start to change it and stop it from continuing to hurt others in the future.
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The original version of this post was published on July 2, 2018 entitled Gone With The Wind.
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