Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I read this very well known and loved, Gone with the Wind - published in 1936, for the very first time just recently and I am glad I did - all 1,000 plus pages of it. It is a very exciting story , very well written backed by incredible research and based around personal background knowledge. It is peopled by several memorable characters , with a mighty setting around a great historical event which all makes for a tale on a grand scale. For me however the most outstanding and enthralling aspect of it all is the fictionalised historical background to the Amrerican Civil War from the point of the view of the South and in particular the aftermath Reconstruction period and its affect on Southern society. This was a part of this terrible war history that I was ignorant about . I am sure we are getting a very Southern view of this period from Margaret Mitchell , a proud and biased Southener, nevertheless it is fascinating one and has made me more aware of the background and some of the differences, sensibilities and perceptions in US Society even today.

Margaret Mitchell obviously knew this society so well - and even though she was writing about an earlier generation -it reads , in some ways, like a personal account of these happenings. The background detail of the society is incredibly strong . The desciptions and insights into Plantation life and the City of Atlanta are engrossing. All the prejudices about race, the impossible ideal of the southern white belle , the southern white male who must bear arms and fight to defend his and his family's honour against lesser mortals and northeners at any time , the fearful Ku Klux Klan - are so clearly and powerfully displayed in this story. The film was very good , followed the story quite well but it didnt really bring out the points about Reconstruction, Racism and and the Society mores near as well as in the book. Apparently this was a deliberate decision by Director Selznick- the racism and Southern bias was just too mush for his and Hollywood's sensibilities - the film came out in 1939 and was an instant success as was the book. We know Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to write it and that she published no other novels. The sales and the film made her very wealthy.

Re the characters one could go on and on about them - Could someone like Ashley really exist outside Scarlet's imagination ? Is Melanie too good for words? I understand that most young American women of the 50s and 60s considered Melanie was the main heroine to be admired and emulated whereas recent surveying in US schools has young women choosing Scarlett as their favourite and most admired character in the book. Margaret Mitchell is said to have thought Melanie was the main heroine - the perfect example of Southern womanhood - but I suspect Scarlett developed a life of her own for the author. For me, some of the very best minor characters are the white older dowager Women of Atlanta society - they are drawn affectionately by Mitchell - warts and all and are essential to the "feel" of the place. The sad racism means that none of the black characters can be believed - charicature and stereotyping are the norm .

My main thought is that one can enjoy and read this for the excitment and grandeur of the story and the clever writing however a current day reader gets most from it as as a major social and historical novel giving special insight into the regional mindset of some folks in the Southern (Dixieland) States of America. I think it is well worth reading. I would be delighted to hear from others about their experiences of reading it recently or years ago.


John Kennedy said...

Thanks for your very interesting comments, Faye. I found them illuminating, and this time I find myself very much in agreement with you.

I too tead GWTW for the fist time recently (after being a bit taken aback to find that it was fully a thousand pages long). I too enjoyed it, though like you perhaps primarily as a social and historical document. It does give a very vivid picture of the Civil War and the Reconstruction as viewed through Southern eyes. Mitchell lived on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, where quite a bit of the aciton of the book takes place, and she was writing sixty to seventy years after the period she descirbes, so her position is a bit like that of someone writing about World War II today. Civil War veterans were still alive: there is newsreel footage of a group of them making their way to the Atlanta premiere of the 1939 film version.

I was a bit shocked by the strength of Mitchell's prejudices, particularly in regard to black people, but like you I felt the novel gave me insight into the Southern mindset. I hope Southern attitudes have changed a bit since Mitchell wrote, though I recall a Southern telling me some years back that the line 'Old times there are not forgotten' in the song 'Dixieland' still held true!

I was interested in your comment that young women in America now prefer Scarlett to Melanie, and I can readily understand why. Melanie is a bit too saintly to be convincing. I am not sure that I would present Scarlett as an ideal role model: she has an indefatigable determination, and she refuses to be bound by stereotypical attitudes to the role of women, but much of the time her focus is remarkably self-centred and materialistic. (In this regard her concern for the wellbeing of those at Tara provides a bit on an exception, but the question arises as to whether the real motive is her belief that Tara is a part of herself. She seems curiously indifferent to her children.) It is indeed tempting to reapply Blake's comment on Milton's Satan, and say that Mitchell was of Scarlett party without knowing it.

What did you make of the final chapters, and the 'reform' of both Rhett and Scarlett? I found Rhett the doting father and Scarlett's sudden insights into his, Melanie's and Ashley's true worth just a bit 'Hollywoodish' and melodramatic.

I am glad I read this. I thought I might lose interest a bit after the Civil War finished, but the sceond half on the aftermath does hold one's interest.

Mylee said...

I read a bit about Margaret Mitchell and I think she was much more like Scarlett than Melanie herself!

Often people say that the book was better than the movie ... do you think that's true in the case of "Gone with the Wind"?

John Kennedy said...

Yes, I think Mitchell has far more of the assertiveness and determination of Scarlett than of the saintly self sacrifice of Melanie.

It is a long time since I saw the film, which makes it hard for me to compare it and the book. The flim was visually very powerful. I do recall thinking it dragged just a little after the end of teh war, a feeling I did not have when reading the book.

Faye said...

Dear Mylee,
Scarlett certainly is the more riveting character - her enduring flaw until the very end is to judge people poorly but her determination and get up and go does make her very appealing.

I think it is a very good film and follows the book quite closely for the most part - however as I said earlier I think the book is particularly powerful re the "Reconstruction" period and the Souithern attitudes to that. The war was a terrible one and ,as I understand it, was the first modern "Scorched Earth " type of campaigning so the Reconstruction was particularly important for the Souths recovery - schools had to set up etc - Black communities needed to be educated. I think the book gives one type of perspective on this which the film doesnt bring out as well. The bitterness about all of this comes out well in the book, I think.

John Kennedy said...

I 'did' a year of US history at university, and I remember learning that the Reconstruction period saw a great deal of corruption, with Northern 'carpetbaggers' going south to make their fortunes out of the opportunites it created. (An early example of reasonably well-meaning government initiatives being exploited by the unscrupulous.) The novel gave me an awarness of how it all seemed to Southerners. It is of course a very biased picutre, heavily tinged by racism, but it gives one a sense of how people felt, in the 1860s and 1870s, and when Mitchell was writing.

I'd be a bit less charitable in my judgement of Scatlett than you, Faye. I'd be inclined to add self-centredness and materialism to the list of flaws. A major achievement of the book, I think, is that Mitchell keesp us sympathetic to Scarlett despite her flaws.