Thursday, March 21, 2019

Gone With the Wind: Problematic, But Still Wonderful

The lovely 75th Anniversary edition.

Possibly the ultimate in Big Fat American Novels, I first read Gone With the Wind as a youngster, in the sixth grade; I'd seen the movie when it first aired on network TV in the 1970s, which was a huge television event. I've since read it at least a dozen times but it has been at least 20 years since my previous re-read. I did get a lovely hardcover edition as a holiday gift a few years ago but never got around to re-reading it until recently, inspired by  by the GWTW Readalong hosted by The Book Corps and by another recent read, Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind Letters," which I finished for the TBR Pile Challenge. 

As nearly everyone knows, GWTW was published in 1936 and was a runaway best-seller, and was adapted into the most successful movie of all time. The novel is more than 1000 pages long, but basically, GWTW chronicles the story of fiery Georgia debutante Scarlett O'Hara during the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and her undying love for the dreamy blond and bookish Ashley Wilkes. To Scarlett's chagrin Ashley marries his cousin, the sweet, saintly Melanie Hamilton, so in a fit of pique, Scarlett marries Melanie's brother, the shy Charles. Scarlett and Melanie are thus tied together during and after the War, and Scarlett must use her wits and bravery for them to survive, along with the O'Hara family's plantation, Tara. Scarlett also has a love-hate relationship with the dashing profiteer and scoundrel Rhett Butler, in what is one of American literature's greatest tragic love stories. 

It's always really hard for me to re-visit a favorite book from my childhood -- what if it doesn't stand up the test of time? Some books are just as good or even better (like To Kill a Mockingbird) and some are truly disappointing. For me, GWTW was a really mixed re-read. As always, I find the characters indelible and the story of spunky Scarlett so compelling -- she truly is a feminist icon. However, reading it decades later, I was constantly aware of the more problematic aspects of the book -- Mitchell's depiction of the African-American characters as mostly lovable but childlike and easily manipulated by those terrible Yankees (with the exception of Mammy), and it definitely perpetuates the romanticized, racist version of The Good Old South in which white people know best and all the African-Americans are happy and well-cared for, glossing over the fact that all the rich white folks are living of wealth accumulated by the suffering of generations of slaves. 

The same mass-market paperback edition as I read in 6th grade. 
Mine is equally tattered, I'm sure it's still packed away somewhere in storage. 

There's also lot of usage of the n-word and variations which made me really uncomfortable. Ashley Wilkes is the only character who seems to think Emancipation is a good idea and he's depicted as a dreamy and unrealistic. Scarlett is a feminist and I'm always rooting for her survival, but she is NOT a nice character -- she's really selfish and self-centered, and often cruel. Also, sometimes Mitchell's prose is a little flowery, and there are passages in which she digresses with battle scenes and background of Reconstruction history which definitely romanticize the white Southerners as victims. Um, no. 

However, it's a fascinating story with a great plot and great characters, and I found myself really enjoying the re-read, despite all my issues with the book. (Scarlett is definitely what I would call a fascinating train wreck). I still wish I knew what happened to Scarlett and Rhett Butler. Sadly, Mitchell never wrote a sequel nor left any hints about their fate before her untimely death in 1949.  It is a great, sprawling historical epic and I do still love it, despite its flaws.

 I'm counting it as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge

25 comments:

  1. I have fond memories of this book - not for its setting, characters, plot or message, but because it was the first long, 'grown-up' book I remember reading.
    I haven't had a chance to write about it yet, but I appreciated the fact that in the very last sentence of The Bostonians (my first Back to the Classics book!), Henry James essentially tells us that the marriage between Ransom and Verena will not be a brilliant one. I don't think that's a spoiler, because it's hard to imagine that it would be. So at least one's suspicions are verified!

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  2. I find it impressive that you read this a dozen times. I've read it once, and I long to read it again. But like you...I wonder if my impression will change and spoil how much I loved it the first time. I suppose, it is expected that a reader will pick out things that she did not before, like the uniform and content character and attitude of the slaves, though that may not be enough to discredit one's original pleasure. Nonetheless, it is important to reread great works so that we may exhaust our full understanding of the story and everything the author is trying to say...or maybe even missed.

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    1. Well, I was a prolific re-reader as a youth and back in those days we didn't have all the YA fiction we have now -- and I sadly didn't discover Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte as a youngster! I'm sure I would have read all those over and over if I'd had the chance. And I completely agree about re-reads.

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  3. GWTW is a terrific story that is flawed beyond repair. Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Ashley, etc are wonderful characters who play off each other's weaknesses in very real ways, but the portrayal of slavery is an abomination. I loved this book as a teenager and read it at least 5 times over a 10 year period. I last read it about 15 years ago, and decided that I wouldn't read it again. It's still on my shelf, but I wish current publishers would add a word of caution about it. It's bad history. I think of it more as a reflection of how southerners viewed the Civil War in the 1930s than an actual story about the war itself. That said, my reading of it as a teenager enabled me to ace the Civil War section of American History class in 11th grade, and read to my reading more about the war in general.

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    1. I completely agree about it reflecting the Southern nostalgia. I also read The Gone With the Wind Letters (review to follow soon) and this definitely reflects Margaret Mitchell's opinion.

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  4. I read this one summer, when I was 14 or 15. And I remember liking it...but also that I probably would never read it again. But I am really glad I've read it at least once. :)

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    1. It's definitely an accomplishment! I do love a great big long epic but sometimes they are daunting. I've been trying to read Buddenbrooks and I've heard it's great but I'm having a hard time getting into the story.

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  5. Hi Karen,
    I'd like to offer some counterpoint on reading Gone with the Wind in the 21st Century.
    I'd like to suggest that it's problematic whenever a work of fiction is removed from its historical context--in this case, the American South of the 1930s, and white America as a whole in the 1930s through the 1960s.
    Gone with the Wind is not a work of history. It is first and foremost a novel that only provides a clear picture of the views held by many Americans in the 1930s.
    Today we as readers may wish that these views had never existed, but we know that wishing will not make it so. Americans, North and South, loved the images of the Old South as set forth in this novel, and in the film in the late 1930s, and for decades thereafter.
    From a 21st-century viewpoint, the novel can be shocking for people unfamiliar with the views it expresses. In that way, it is informative about how many people long ago chose to transform a problematic, difficult past to make it easier to live with.

    It is far better to read Gone with the Wind, and understand its context, than to deplore the book to the extent that people forbid it or no longer read it. Gone with the Wind is an excellent example of sentiments in the "Old South" or the Southern U.S. in the 1930s that wished to cling to its fantasies of grandeur in the Antebelleum South.

    Because they were pure fantasies. The vast majority of Southerners did not own slaves. Most were extremely poor subsistence farmers.
    Gone with the Wind is a novel. It is not bad history, because it is first and foremost fiction. It is not really even historical fiction, based on the lack of historical research that the author performed to write the story of the book. Gone with the Wind is a classic American novel, set in its time period, as all classics and works of literature are.

    I would like to add that the tail end of the Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction were horrific for black and white Southerners. Upwards of 2 million black and white civilians lost their lives, most of them women and children, primarily due to starvation, and disease, made worse by malnutrition. Historians are well aware of this fact, but it's not politic to wax on about it today.
    I have extensively studied this period in history. My book Women during the Civil War: An Encyclopedia was five years in the making. I only mention this as a means to say that this is a topic quite close to me.

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    1. Woops--please excuse me, Karen. I did not mean to imply that slave-holding plantation owners did not exist. I reread my entry and was afraid that readers might think I was saying that. Slave-holding landowners did indeed exist, and because they owned land and lots of it, they held all the power in Southern society.

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    2. Karen,
      With a day's reflection, I'm very sorry that I over-reacted and wrote the lengthy post I did.
      I just don't want people (you and others) to feel bad or wrong about reading Gone with the Wind. That was the sentiment behind my words posted yesterday. Thanks.

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    3. No worries -- everyone is entitled to their opinion. I don't want to make anyone feel bad or wrong about reading GWTW either. I still love it, but I feel conflicted about it. Not everyone will agree with me.

      And you are absolutely right, the majority of southern slave owners didn't have large plantations like Tara, and in the book Scarlett looks down on them too. And wars are horrific for everyone. Scarlett, Ashely, and Rhett all talk about the futility of the war. But I feel like this does romanticize the Good Old South -- which it was, for but for only a very select few. I love historical fiction, but the trouble is that many people don't know the real facts, and form opinions based on what they learn in fiction, which is sometimes incorrect.

      And I wish there were an edit feature in Blogger comments!

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  6. Although I've seen the movie countless times, I've never read the book... though it's waiting on my kindle when/if the mood strikes. I remember moving to a new school when I was in 5th grade and being unbelievably impressed when a girl walk in carrying GWTW under her arm. We ended up being best friends for the two years I was there. Fifty years later, we still keep in touch.

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    1. I would definitely form friendships with people based on what book they were carrying around! I would have instantly have wanted to be her friend!

      If you like the movie, the book is definitely worth reading. They did a great job adapting the book into a four hour movie, but naturally they had to cut things. I think nowadays more books are adapted into TV miniseries, which I think is more true to the source material -- I think episodes of a TV series are more like the chapters in a book than a full-lenght movie.

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  7. I also read this book many times as a teen, starting around the age when you first read it. (I think I counted up to 7 or 8 times!) I have no recollection of it influencing my views on slavery or the South. I did think it was unfortunate to burn whole towns full of regular people but that was about it. I was pretty much just in it for the drama. But I must have internalized some of it because there were things that I had to unlearn later. I haven't reread it in years and am wondering if I ever will.

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    1. Scarlett's drama is really what I love about the book! She's definitely what I call a fascinating trainwreck.

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  8. Yes, those of us who read a lot of vintage or retro fiction have to keep a sense of time and place, but sometimes the expressions make you wince! I've always wanted to read this, though. I love to get lost in a big novel. I will aim to read it this year.

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    1. It's very painful to read racist terms and comments in a book, especially when you love an author.

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  9. I'm not sure where I heard this and I'm too lazy to look it up, but when Margaret Mitchell was once asked why she didn't write a sequel she responded that there was no point because the heroine had died. Rereading the novel with the idea the the heroine is actually Melanie is a different experience.

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    1. I never thought of it like that! I actually just finished the GWTW Letters and now that you mention it, that does ring a bell. I like Melanie but sometimes she is a bit over the top. I did cry when she died, though.

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  10. Wow, I struggled through Gone with the Wind in my mid teens, but the size and themes became an issue back then. I'd really like to give it another go, from a perspective decades down the track.

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    1. It is really worth reading, and not difficult. She did receive criticism for not being literary but she had been a journalist and came from a family of lawyers, so that style of writing was important to her. She was proud that people of all ages could enjoy the book, from fairly young people to very old -- some of her readers literally cut the book into sections because they were elderly and the book was so heavy!

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  11. Judith's comment struck a chord with me. I don't have a problem reading a book, written in a previous time that reflects the views and opinions of the writer and others at that time. I think it's a good thing for us to see how times have changed, to think about why things have happened the way they have, what lessons can we learn and I always wonder what are OUR world views right now, that future generations will cringe at when they read them in a book? But I've always had this fascination/obsession about time, the evolution of ideas and beliefs and the threads that move between the past, present and future.

    GWTW had all of this for me. Mitchell wrote this in a time now long gone for us, but she was living in a South that was feeling nostalgic about another time before that. She was writing to connect to her past, drawing in threads that spoke to her at that time, not knowing which threads would go forward in time. I wish I could time travel :-)

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    1. Excellent point about how future generations will regard us! I really do try to regard books and authors as products of their time, but sometimes it's tough.

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  12. I have never braved this one, mostly because of the length (and, indeed, I no longer own it - I felt it couldn't justify all the space it was taking up on the shelf!) But it is one of those cultural behemoths that I feel I should have read... cautiously, it seems!

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    1. It is definitely a cultural behemoth -- and I know how you feel about long books! You could easily fit two or three more books in that shelf space. Still, it's worth reading if you're at all interested in the time period, and the cultural relevance. It really didn't take that long to read.

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