As the few places that still fly the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia begin, at long last, to strike those colors, it’s understandable that other symbols of Confederate sympathies seem increasingly marginal. “If the Confederate flag is finally going to be consigned to museums as an ugly symbol of racism, what about the beloved film offering the most iconic glimpse of that flag in American culture?” Lou Lumenick wrote in the New York Post last week. “I’m talking, of course, about ‘Gone with the Wind,’ which won a then-record eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1939, and still ranks as the all-time North American box-office champ with $1.6 billion worth of tickets sold here when adjusted for inflation.”
I’m all for removing a symbol of treason from government property and government documents, including license plates. And Lumenick has a point in arguing that it would be inappropriate for “Gone With The Wind” to be celebrated without criticism or context. It’s undeniable that characters in “Gone With The Wind” use racist language, and are portrayed in racist ways. And the film’s racism is even more striking in light of the chapter of Jill Watts’s biography of Hattie McDaniel (who plays Mammy in the film) devoted to the making of “Gone With The Wind,” which recounts David O. Selznick’s insistence that he would remove bias from the story while simultaneously shrugging off suggestions from black advocates.
But I’d like to make the case that this is a particularly important moment to read Margaret Mitchell’s novel, and to watch the movie alongside it: Mitchell’s book and the film adaptation of it are a valuable document of the way the Lost Cause curdled into a regional religion. Mitchell’s treatment of black people doesn’t invalidate her still-relevant portrait of white ones.
One of the most striking elements of “Gone With The Wind” is how detached Scarlett O’Hara is from the political consensus around her. After she hears Rhett Butler’s lecture about the South’s weaknesses at the Wilkes family barbecue, Mitchell writes that “something in Scarlett’s practical mind prompted the thought that what this man said was right and it sounded like common sense. Why, she’d never even seen a factory, or known anyone who had seen a factory.” At a bazaar in Atlanta, Scarlett recognizes in a flash that “The Cause didn’t seem sacred to her. The war didn’t seem to be a holy affair, but a nuisance that killed men senselessly and cost money and made luxuries hard to get…Oh, why was she different, apart from these loving women? She could never love anything or anyone so selflessly as they did. What a lonely feeling it was — and she had never been lonely either in body or spirit before.”
Through Scarlett’s perspective, we see a version of the Confederate position that is essentially a system of religious belief. During that bazaar, Scarlett actually tries to squelch her doubts by telling herself “I mustn’t think such things! They’re wrong — sinful.” It’s a deft explanation of why Mitchell’s characters were able to shake off Rhett Butler’s sensible analysis of the Confederacy’s chances and to convince themselves that victory was assured even as William Tecumseh Sherman advanced on Atlanta.
And it explains why it was so impossible for Scarlett’s peers to relinquish the fanaticism that animated them: Admitting the Confederacy was wrong (much less racist) would require Scarlett’s peers to accept that their faith in the superiority of Southern culture and the valor of Southern men had also been mistaken. The moral case for doing so is clear, but it’s quite another thing for individuals and a society to have the capacity to so radically re-imagine themselves.
In a piece about interviewing Olivia de Havilland, the critic Glenn Kenny highlighted her thoughts on the film’s appeal. “All countries have experienced war and defeat. And survival,” de Havilland told him. “They can identify with that film for, I think, that reason.” The journalist Tony Horowitz identified a similar sentiment in his 1998 book “Confederates in the Attic” when he was interviewing a Scarlett O’Hara impersonator — who happened to be named after Melanie Wilkes, Scarlett’s nemesis-turned-best friend — about her Japanese fans. “[Melanie] sensed another kinship between nineteeth-century Georgians and twentieth-century Japan; both rebuilt themselves after being ravaged by war,” Horwitz notes.
“Gone With The Wind” captures both the terrors of total war, and the self-pity that lingered after the Confederacy’s defeat. After the South’s surrender, Scarlett struggles to eke a subsistence crop out of her family home, once a cash crop plantation. The Union deserter who robs her home and the Union troops who burn her family’s cotton stores are horrifying figures, alternately lascivious and callous.
But for all her setbacks, and all the ways she bends morality and propriety to make a living, Scarlett’s willingness to throw herself into work differentiates her from her fellow former slaveholding aristocrats. One of the things Mitchell’s novel and the film adaptation capture is the sense that white Southern resentment wasn’t merely about race, but class. In losing their slaves, members of Scarlett’s class lost both their sense of moral superiority and the wealth that let them pursue whatever professions or pleasures most attracted them.
”The only reason we lasted as long as we did was because of the ladies behind us who wouldn’t give up.’ ‘Who’ll never give up,’ amended Hugh, and his smile was proud but a little wry,” Mitchell writes in a scene where Scarlett meets up with old friends in Atlanta, and finds many of her former suitors working in manual jobs, a diminished station that upsets the women in their lives more than the men themselves. “‘There’s not a lady here tonight who has surrendered, no matter what her men folks did at Appomattox. It’s a lot worse on them than it ever was on us. At least, we took it out in fighting.’ ‘And they in hating,’ finished Tommy. ‘Eh, Scarlett? It bothers the ladies to see what their men folks have come down to lots more than it bothers us. Hugh was to be a judge, René was to play the fiddle before the crowned heads of Europe…And I was to be a doctor.'”
These sentiments don’t have direct racist sting of Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan member Nathan Bedford Forrest’s declaration that “I am not an enemy of the negro. We want him here among us; he is the only laboring class we have.” But the implication is clear.
While Scarlett shares this bitterness about being forced to learn hardship, in Mitchell’s book she is markedly different from these women who define themselves by their longing for the past and their fury about having been forced into the future. In the film, the first act closes with Scarlett’s famous declaration that “I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” But the filmmakers cut the context into which Mitchell placed Scarlett’s declaration.
As Scarlett settled the heavy basket across her arm, she had settled her own mind and her own life. There was no going back and she was going forward. Throughout the South for fifty years there would be bitter-eyed women who looked backward, to dead times, to dead men, evoking memories that hurt and were futile, bearing poverty with bitter pride because they had those memories. But Scarlett was never to look back.
And for the most part, she doesn’t. Scarlett not only rejects Confederate nostalgia, but goes on to break with almost every norm that governs how Southern women were supposed to behave and think — with one exception.
I’m sure by this point in this piece, you’ll notice that I haven’t discussed how the characters in “Gone With The Wind” think about race. The answer is that neither Scarlett nor her antagonists pay much attention to the subject, even as their comfort depends on a race-based system of slavery, and the cataclysm of their lives centers on the destruction of that system. Scarlett’s revered mother Ellen teaches her daughters to regard themselves as the guardians of their slaves’ morals, and when Scarlett first hits her slave Prissy and calls her a racial epithet, her main thought is that her mother would be disappointed by her behavior. Without the supervision of Southern whites, Scarlett and her peers believe that African-Americans — like the ones who attack Scarlett — are likely to be corrupted, whether by their peers, or by nefarious Union sympathizers.
“Gone With The Wind” doesn’t deny that the Civil War was about slavery: After Gettysburg, Scarlett tells Rhett that the Southerners should have freed their slaves rather than fight a war to keep them. But the extent to which the characters don’t think about race over 1,024 pages or three hours and fifty-eight minutes is actually a remarkable and useful thing to witness. Their blindness is a testament to the persistence with which Confederate apologists would deny that their beliefs have anything to do without race — and to the idea that you don’t have to walk around fulminating about the inferiority of African-Americans to participate in keeping them in bondage.
“Gone With The Wind” is a rich, complicated book. And while we can and should argue about a story that’s achieved such a hold on the American imagination, I’m struck anew every time I read it by a basic idea that drives the story from start to finish: Romanticizing the South has a deforming influence on its characters’ lives.
Rhett Butler, who begins “Gone With The Wind” as a clear-eyed analyst of the South’s chances and a cheerful exile from its polite society, abases himself to earn the good will of people he hates to better his daughter Bonnie’s social chances.
“If I have to crawl on my belly to every fat old cat who hates me, I’ll do it. I’ll be meek under their coldness and repentant of my evil ways. I’ll contribute to their damned charities and I’ll go to their damned churches,” Rhett tells Scarlett in a passage in the book that is heavy with resignation. “I’ll admit and brag about my services to the Confederacy and, if worst comes to worst, I’ll join their damned Klan — though a merciful God could hardly lay so heavy a penance on my shoulders as that.”
And while Scarlett believes she’s shucked off her past that dreadful afternoon at Twelve Oaks, she holds onto her sentimental dream of Ashley Wilkes, an obsession that leads her to sacrifice years of Melanie’s friendship, hold Ashley to a standard that contributed to his sense of failure in the post-war era, and to fatally damage Scarlett’s own marriage. It’s only after Melanie’s death that Scarlett shakes off the last vestiges of that sentimentality, and begins to see Ashley, who represents the only thing in the old South she truly loved, with clarity and a bit of disgust.
“He never really existed at all, except in my imagination,” Scarlett recognizes. “I loved something I made up, something that’s just as dead as Melly is. I made a pretty suit of clothes and fell in love with it. And when Ashley came riding along, so handsome, so different, I put that suit on him and made him wear it whether it fitted him or not. And I wouldn’t see what he really was. I kept on loving the pretty clothes — and not him at all.”
“Gone With The Wind” — particularly in film form — is both the pretty clothes and the argument for stripping them away, a justification for Southern anger and an argument that it’s possible to thrive by leaving that anger behind. If Margaret Mitchell’s characters are bitter, backward-looking, self-contradictory, hypocritical, and yes, racist, they’re not alone, and the particular shape their bitterness, racism and nostalgia take is still with us. We can read “Gone With The Wind” to sigh over the past, or to learn more about ourselves, and the wisdom of Scarlett O’Hara’s mantra. We have harder work before us than winning back Rhett Butler’s heart. And after all, tomorrow is another day.