“Your love is an hallucination.”
My young student in China wanted to discuss Gone with the Wind, wanted to take months to read and understand it.
I read this book when I was about twelve years old, about the same age as my student, Xinlin, in Shanghai. The story engaged me completely but I have to wonder now what I understood. I can still see the grey book cover and feel its weight. Now, I have finished it again, a process stretching over months.
I can remember when Atlanta was a sleepy place just beginning to be recognized as the capital of “The New South.” A friend and I passed through, experienced “Underground Atlanta” which was an innovation in city planning at the time. We attended a lecture by photographer Jerry Uelsmann at their cultural center, which was a knock off of Lincoln Center in New York, a good one. We walked on Peachtree Street, the main thoroughfare which features so prominently in Margaret Mitchell’s world. It was, ironically, the street that killed her. She was hit by a drunk driver as she tried to cross it.
A lot has been said about Gone with the Wind. Most people know about it from the movie, which is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Everybody, almost, has seen it. The book is over six hundred pages; it took Mitchell three years to write it, and the manuscript was destined to be lost. She was discouraged and had basically given up finding a publisher. Only happenstance or serendipity saved it, got it to the right person who was captivated immediately.
Gone with the Wind was a sensation and made Margaret Mitchell famous beyond imagination. But, despite all the glamor and attention given at the time, I don’t think this novel is considered as highly as it should be. Some candidates for “the great American novel” are: Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Moby Dick. I just spent some time looking at several lists citing candidates for this distinction. Gone with the Wind is not on any of them. And yet to me, a lifelong avid reader and English teacher, Gone with the Wind is better than any of them.
So why has this masterpiece been ignored over time? Racism is the reason. It is always there, the question of race and America’s history of four hundred years of slavery. In my view, however, the novel is mostly about other issues. That being said, the black characters in the novel are important, their vernacular language captured beautifully my Mitchell who knew them so well. Mark Twain also heard that special speech in perfect pitch. Was any northern writer ever able to do that?
As I was reading Gone with the Wind again with my student I kept mentioning to her how the issues in the book are still so alive today, issues that are important for her as a young woman growing up and issues that are very important for anyone trying to understand America.
I have spent time in the south and I like the south even if it doesn’t like me. “We don’t like y’all,” is the way it was put to me by an ex-girlfriend from North Carolina. A teaching colleague of mine from Mississippi (we were working at an international school in Bangladesh) told me, “They changed an economic system; that’s all.” The culture itself didn’t change, not much. For example, this is from a few years ago as remembered in Wikipedia.
The Unite the Right rally was a white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, from August 11 to 12, 2017. Far-right groups participated, including self-identified members of the alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and various right-wing militias. Some groups chanted racist and antisemitic slogans and carried weapons, Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols, the Valknut, Confederate battle flags, Deus vult crosses, flags, and other symbols of various past and present anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic groups. The organizers’ stated goals included the unification of the American white nationalist movement and opposing the proposed removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville’s former Lee Park.
This shameful craziness does not represent the south and yet it does in some ways. The issues are still alive for many people there. They still love their confederate heroes. They remember the history or reconstruction bitterly. And they have an awareness that six hundred thousand people died.
And for Margaret Mitchell, this terrible war was recent history indeed. She had living relatives to question. She heard the stories over and over. One of the most important and interesting aspects of the novel is the description of antebellum life, plantation life, the life at Tara and the other plantations in Scarlet’s domain. Forget for a minute that it was built on the backs of slaves. What else is new? Nineteenth century Russia was the same, maybe even more, all supported by serfs. I think the wealth the upper classes accumulated would embarrass the southern plantation owners.
The kind of genteel, honorable life and culture described by Mitchell before the war is a thing of great beauty. Period. We can see them riding their horses to visit each other, dressing up for parties, elegant dinners, courtship games going on all the time. It is a lovely picture.
The war that landed on them changed everything. And Mitchell describes it in excruciating detail garnered from the oral histories of relatives who were living witnesses to it. And out of that calamity, emerged one of the greatest characters ever created, Scarlet O’Hara. She survived it all and against all odds. I loved her all the way through six hundred pages despite her character weaknesses and failings. Rhett Butler, who cares?
Plantation life, reconstruction, carpetbaggers, bloody battles: all of these are worth their own essays. That is how rich the book is. But, I read this book with a young woman in China and we took our time. And for her, for all of us, there is something central to this work that might be missed by people focused on slavery or the war.
What drives Scarlett so restlessly? It starts in the beginning and ends at the end, her love for Ashely Wilkes. As my student, Xinlin, and I talked over the weeks and months about this story I often kept asking her why Scarlett loved him at all. To me he seemed like a big nothing really, good looking perhaps, but not a lot there. And Scarlett, well there is more there than you could find in ten people, which is why, of course, Rhett was so attracted.
Scarlett’s love for Ashley is a hallucination which she realizes it too late at the end of the novel. Finally the scales fell of her eyes and she could see him for who he really is, a rather weak character lost in the new world created by the war. This realization is the great triumph of her maturation, the attainment of her mature self. This is the real story of Gone with the Wind.
We all do this. We make up a person and love that person without any idea who the real person is behind the illusion we have created. Our desires and our needs are so great, and our romantic fantasies so rich, that it is often impossible to see clearly when “the blood is up” and we are vulnerable. When you are hungry, anything looks good, to put it crudely.
June 21, 2022