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  • Louis Arata

Book Review: On Not Finishing "Gone with the Wind"

I couldn’t do it. I tried, but I could not make it through Gone with the Wind.

Before I began reading it (actually, rereading it after 30 years), I prepared myself for the romanticization of the Confederacy. Further, I braced myself for the racist depictions of enslaved people. Even so, I was taken aback.

My intention was to read it as a way to examine the shifting depictions of our country’s history. After all, here is a story which glorifies the Old South as though slavery is not a racist and cruel practice. Essentially, I wanted to understand why the book remains popular.

To be honest, right from the start, I had a hard time. I could barely handle Pat Conroy’s introduction, in which he noted how important Margaret Mitchell’s novel was to his mother and how she read it year after year. He described how the novel preserves the grandeur of the Old South and in particular the passing of a way of life. He glossed over any recognizable critique anyone might have with it.

I made it through the first quarter of the novel before deciding it wasn’t worth it. Gone with the Wind may remain a significant novel; it may be regarded as “literature,” yet what it does is whitewash our past.

Take the depiction of every single Black character in the novel. Mitchell resorts to stereotypes and dialect to underscore that they are less educated, less refined, simpler, naïve, and uncultured. “Slave” is just another word for “servant,” as though these characters chose this life. They are invested in preserving the dignity of their captors’ families and the prosperity of the plantations. Never is it suggested that they might desire their own freedom. Even Mammy, who has a keen eye and a degree of respectability, is caricatured as a bit of a buffoon.

The Old South is the closest thing to an aristocracy in the U.S., so it makes me wonder if Margaret Mitchell was modeling her style on that of Victorian-era novels, with their clear hierarchy of class. It suggests that the higher you are on the social ladder, the more respectable you are.

Curiously enough, two characters in Gone with the Wind question the South’s decision to engage in war. Ashley Wilkes, whom Scarlett O’Hara pines for, recognizes that it is a pointless battle. He will fight for the lost cause because he is brave and noble. And yet, he is smart enough to recognize that their aristocratic way of life is falling away. It must, given that society’s means of economy are continuing to shift.

Rhett Butler, that cynical scoundrel, also sees the writing on the wall, but he is too busy being a war profiteer to care.

At first, I thought Mitchell might use these characters to critique the complexity of the Old South. It became clear, however, that while Rhett and Ashley recognize the Old South's failing, they remain loyal to preserving it.

I grew up in Virginia, where Civil War memorials are ubiquitous. Memorials to the Confederacy were everywhere. Kids in my elementary school threw around the term Yankee as a comic insult. They also practiced the Rebel Yell. In fact, an amusement park in Virginia had a new rollercoaster (circa 1970s) called the Rebel Yell. It wasn’t until I was older that I caught on to what the term referred to.

Even as a kid living inside this milieu, I wasn’t the most knowledgeable kid about history, so I remember being confused about Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. They were still lauded as noble Southerners. There were statues to them all over the place. Yet, hadn’t they tried to secede from the Union? Hadn’t they endeavored to preserve slavery as an institution? Wasn’t that wrong?

I recognize that readers who are loyal to Margaret Mitchell’s novel claim that it preserves their cultural heritage. But I wonder if the book simply perpetuates a blind spot about the Confederacy. By elevating the Old South’s culture, it ignores the fact that it was riddled with cruelty, rape, and murder.

In the end, I couldn’t stomach Gone with the Wind. I couldn’t read it as a simple story because in essence it distorts the reality of the Civil War.

While it’s hard for me to not finish a book, eventually I got what I expected from Gone with the Wind: An awareness that depictions of U.S. culture through literature and art continue to change. I can’t imagine a story like this being published in the mainstream now.

Should Margaret Mitchell’s novel be censored? I don’t think so. But if it is read, it should be open to critique and examination. Otherwise, it remains a story of a fabled past which perpetuates a cultural lie. At least for me, it got me thinking about how U.S. culture changes. And how it lies to itself to preserve a false notion of its own history.

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