Inherit the Wind

At 75, Gone with the Wind is still mistaken for a romance. It's actually a gritty eulogy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Neither Rhett nor Scarlett was a silly romantic

My copy of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind — a 114th printing, now a bit tattered — carries an inscription from my mother: "A good book is timeless." Mitchell's novel, whose 75th anniversary has arrived amid many reconsiderations and even more sales, may or may not be a good book. But it has always been a popular one. Published in the summer of 1936 at the startling Depression price of $3 — the equivalent of nearly $50 today — it sold a million copies by Christmas. The novel now ranks among the best-selling books ever published in English.

Its success has always defied critical understanding. In a typical 1936 review, in The New Republic, Malcolm Cowley found Gone with the Wind not bad but puzzling. He wrote that Mitchell — a minor Atlanta newspaperwoman — "blundered into big scenes that a more experienced novelist would hesitate to handle for fear of being compared unfavorably with Dickens or Dostoyevsky." Somehow she pulls it off. "I would never say that she has written a great novel," Cowley wrote, "but in the midst of triteness and sentimentality her book has a simpleminded courage that suggests the great novelists of the past."

Although the book might be called a kitsch Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind quickly became one of those cultural products that transcend criticism, like Star Wars or Lady Gaga, while never losing its relevance. By 1970, when my parents gave me the middle name Ashley, for the blond and drowsy-eyed Ashley Wilkes, my mother had read the book and seen the film more times than she can remember. My mom is no disgruntled Confederate, though it is true that one of her great-great-grandfathers, a man with the splendid name Anderton Tillmon Story, fought for the Confederacy. According to family lore, Story got his thumb shot off and was so hungry during the journey home after Appomattox that he ate hulls from an old pea patch and promptly vomited.

Hunger is a constant theme in Gone with the Wind. Southerners' humiliation at having lost the war was compounded not only by the sickening knowledge that they never had a chance but also by the reckoning that came after. As historian Eric Foner writes in A Short History of Reconstruction, more than a quarter-million men were dead, and many cities and villages lay in near total ruin. The region had even lost nearly a third of its horses.

Taxes were required to rebuild, but the only thing left to tax was the ground itself. The planter class no longer had pigs or cotton or pretty French dresses, but it still had land. Most people see Gone with the Wind as a romance novel, but the force that drives Scarlett O'Hara the hardest — what pushes her to steal her sister's businessman fiancé, rob a man she shoots in the face and run a mill that sells wood at punishing prices to former friends — is having to pay the property taxes on Tara. The Southern antipathy toward taxes has never quite abated, despite the region's perpetually dismal public schools and almost nonexistent safety net.

Gone with the Wind also helps explain why the South sends so many of its sons (and, today, daughters) to fight wars. Scarlett may be a venal grasper, but she and Rhett Butler have little patience for war talk even as the plantation boys around them become "intoxicated" by the idea of war in 1861. Ashley is also wary. At the Twelve Oaks barbecue in Chapter 6, he tries to quiet the wild enthusiasm before Bull Run. "Let's don't have any war," he tells the roomful of hotheads. "Most of the misery of the world has been caused by wars." Yet he goes off to fight — and so does Rhett, eventually. Even Scarlett ends up killing a Yankee. The conflation of honor with the duty to fight defeats all other impulses. Like most feudal societies, the South had to defend its honor because it had little else. In the South, the hotheads usually prevail.

Gone with the Wind is surely a retrograde book — it is unforgivably racist — but a kind of progressivism emerges from it. For example, most of its men are far weaker than Scarlett. The book is not really a tale of North vs. South but of old South vs. new. Ashley represents the old; he "was born of a line of men who used their leisure for thinking, not doing, for spinning brightly colored dreams." Scarlett, by contrast, is "diamond hard." "I've found out that money is the most important thing in the world," she tells Rhett late in the book. With its loving descriptions of organdy and horsemanship, Gone with the Wind seems genteel, but it is actually an unrelenting tale of how honor gives in to greed. Mitchell knew that loss was as tragic and inevitable as the South's self-imposed despoiling.