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An Indefensible Pleasure

Published Nov. 19, 2000|Updated Sep. 28, 2005

Margaret Mitchell, who was born 100 years ago this month, wrote Gone With the Wind, which has become a major, albeit controversial, part our American culture.

Everybody knows Gone With the Wind.

People who've never read the book and maybe only half-seen the film on cable can describe the burning of Atlanta and quote Rhett Butler: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" (though that's not quite what he said in the novel). Gone With the Wind is now as much a part of western cultural currency as Oliver Twist or Superman. Rhett and Scarlett are as familiar _ if not quite as dignified _ as Romeo and Juliet.

The Nazis banned the book and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People disparaged it, though for quite different reasons. Aficionados still hold running arguments over whether Scarlett can get Rhett back (what with tomorrow being another day); feminists justify reading it on the grounds that it's about a woman's survival in a patriarchal society; and, until they were shamed out of it, generations of beauty pageant contestants recited Scarlett's set-piece speech (delivered as she defiantly clutched a large root vegetable in the ruins of Twelve Oaks) about how the Yankees wouldn't lick her and that as God was her witness, she'd never go hungry again.

The novel still sells, the film is still shown. The whole GWTW enterprise is still raking in money from people who _ whether they'll admit it or not _ have some hankering after a time when men were men, women were ladies and black folk knew their places. We think we've built a New South, but the Old South, so lavishly articulated in Margaret Mitchell's potboiler, still haunts us like an army of ghosts in hoop skirts and head rags.

Margaret Mitchell herself tends to get lost in the Gone With the Wind myth, but she was at least as interesting and complicated as her heroine Scarlett O'Hara. Born in Atlanta 100 years ago this month, she was raised in an affluent, educated Catholic household family with slaveholding antecedents. She was a weird mix of progressive and reactionary, what the society columns called a "certified belle," with a wild streak. Mitchell never questioned the racial system of the South: Like all white Southerners of her class, she grew up on Lost Cause stories of gracious plantations and happy slaves. One of her earliest memories was of the Atlanta race riots in 1906 when lynch mobs of whites took to the streets to "avenge" the alleged assault of a white woman by a black man. At Smith College in Massachusetts, where she was an undergraduate in 1918, she stormed out of one class, refusing to sit in the same room as a "Negro girl."

But though Mitchell was undoubtedly a racist _ a product of her time _ she was something of a feminist as well, rebelling against the conventions of white Southern ladyhood. Her mother, Mary Isabel Mitchell, had been a noted suffragette, stumping around Atlanta giving speeches demanding the vote for women. Mitchell took the political and made it personal, showing no sign that she wanted to catch herself a suitable husband and settle down in the Junior League. As a debutante, she wore low-cut dresses and danced at balls in ways deemed "shocking" for 1921. She declared she wanted to "come down off the auction block" and make her own living. So she did, becoming one of the first female reporters at the Atlanta Journal.

She married first a mentally unstable part-time bootlegger called "Red" Upshaw, who, she claimed, hit her on several occasions, then dumped him for his older, calmer friend John Marsh. At some point in 1926 (probably _ she gave contradictory accounts) she began to write a Civil War novel. She was extraordinarily secretive: Her friends knew that "Peggy was writing something," but most were stunned when Gone With the Wind appeared in 1936, became a best-seller, and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Depression-era Americans loved it, both because it showed triumph over poverty and pain and because the "romantic" Old South was back in fashion: The Confederacy may have lost the war militarily but it won the war culturally. Progressives pointed out Mitchell's egregious racial stereotypes and her glorification of the plantation system. William Faulkner, who published a Civil War novel of his own in 1936, the high-modernist Absalom, Absalom!, took a dim view. When he wasn't dismissing it as fiction of the "Kotex Age" (i.e., for women) he was blaming it for the white-columned verandas which started springing up on plain Southern houses. It didn't matter. Not since Uncle Tom's Cabin _ a novel Mitchell considered she was "correcting" _ had a book so grabbed the popular imagination.

As if this weren't enough, the film version in 1939 was a smash, too, forever giving faces and voices to Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Ashley and Mammy. Mitchell herself was horrified at the liberties taken with her book, plantations that "looked like Grand Central station" and the wrong kind of fence at Tara, but nobody else cared. Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable became icons of love gone wrong and the South rose again (and again and again). Margaret Mitchell was killed crossing Peachtree Street in 1949, but her creation cranks on merrily without her.

The notoriously paranoid, litigious Mitchell estate realized that eventually someone would use GWTW's characters, so they hand-picked Alexandra Ripley, a writer of soft-center "Southern romances," to produce a sequel. Scarlett, which came out in 1991, is truly one of the most hilariously bad novels ever written. In it, Scarlett takes her oath to never go hungry again with utmost seriousness, as she seems to eat about five lovingly described meals a day without adding much to her 17-inch waist (talk about fantasy literature!). Ripley gets her back together with Rhett after their rowboat capsizes in Charleston harbor and hypothermia drives them to level of mutual passion unknown in the annals of medical science, only to part them again when Scarlett goes off to hang out with the kinfolk in Ireland and help them Struggle for Freedom against the English. Apparently there are to be more sequels, if only someone pliant can be found to write them. One distinguished Southern writer, who was approached for the job threatened to have Scarlett fall in love with a black man produce a mixed-race child, then die.

Gone With the Wind has become a goldmine of kitsch merchandizing: Pretty much every Sunday there's an ad in Parade magazine for Scarlett dolls and Tara commemorative plates. There are Gone With the Wind tours in Georgia and whole shops dedicated to GWTW memorabilia. Atlanta is about as good at selling Scarlett as it is at selling Coca-Cola, the city's other iconic product. But underneath this edifice of tackiness lies the fundamental appeal of the story. We may feel we shouldn't like it, but it seduces us. An indefensible pleasure, it's like eating a whole box of Godiva truffles: lovely at the time, but you may feel a little sick later.

Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, teaches English at the University of Alabama.


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