I am reading a terrific book called Secrets of a Charmed Life and I was thinking this morning as I read author Susan Meissner's blog, how many fascinating ways there are that my life is connected to Gone With the Wind - and not just because my home is in Atlanta.[I am speaking about the book here more than the movie.]
When I was ten years old my mother gave me a copy of the book Gone With the Wind.[Hereinafter referred to as GWTW] I was several grade levels ahead in reading skills, but it was still a struggle to get through the 1007 page tome, in some ways. In other ways - as in, being enthralled by the character of Scarlett O'Hara - it was not. The hard part was reading all the history.
Yes, you read that right. GWTW is filled with history.
Margaret Mitchell, the book's author, had been a newspaper reporter, and she spent years researching the history of the Civil War, or as southerners would have called it in her day The War Between the States. (That's what my mother was taught to call it, as a child.) Mitchell started writing the book in the late 1920's and didn't finish it until the mid 1930's. She did her research - which in those days involved musty old libraries, not 2 minute Google searches. Her accurate writing about of battles around Atlanta, Sherman's march, and most importantly how civilians fared in the south, during the war, were all accurate. There were civil war veterans still alive when Mitchell was born in 1900. The memories of Reconstruction were still fresh in the minds of many southerners in the 1920's.
Now, before you label me a delusional racist, let me make something clear: Gone With the Wind is a racist book and the movie is racist. Anyone who doesn't see that lives in a fantasy world. I cannot blame African Americans for hating the book because it depicts them very negatively. I won't even try to defend GWTW from charges of racism. However, I will say this. We are all products of our upbringing, and Mitchell's upbringing is where she got her attitudes, which are, from our perspective undeniably racist.
However, in her defense, Mitchell was not entirely racist, by the standards of her day. She was very upset that black cast members of the film were not invited to the 1939 premier, which was held in Atlanta. She developed a friendship with actress Hattie McDaniel and wrote many letters to her. Most importantly, she underwrote the cost of many scholarships to Morehouse College so black students could become doctors, at a time when public knowledge of that would have caused a furor. [See Dear Mammy, for more] The University of Georgia [my alma mater] possesses a collection of letters which bear out these facts.
"She was a white woman who had written a powerful novel embracing the antebellum South, its plantations and slavery. He [Dr. Benjamin Mays] was a black man who stood at the helm of a prestigious college that taught African-American men to succeed in spite of the past. But in 1942, when Benjamin Mays needed money to help poor students at financially struggling Morehouse College, he went to Margaret Mitchell. Over the next seven years, the author of "Gone With the Wind" paid the tuition of dozens of young black men to go on to medical school in Washington and Tennessee." (from Of race and a southern novel, Chicago Tribune, March 31, 2002)
So Margaret Mitchell was not 100% racist, and I feel that she should be judged by the standards of the time in which she lived, if she is to be judged fairly. I mean let's be fair - Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and yet was a slaveowner. History is full of great people whose lives are not exemplary by our standards today, but I think it's unfair to hold everyone in the past accountable by those standards. We cannot imagine what it's like to live in any time but our own.
Now, as to how GWTW intersects with my life...
When the film premiered in 1939, here in Atlanta, my grandparents went to the ball. My mother remembers going to the parade on Peachtree Street, even though she was a small child. Papaw knew somebody who had an office on the second floor of a building adjacent to the Loew's Grand, and she recalls: "We got to sit and look out the window and see the parade."
The book was considered "naughty" but my grandparents all read it and quoted it. It was slightly shocking the word "Damn" was in a book! Even Papa, who was very conservative and straitlaced, read the book, even to the point of ignoring his children while he read. Mamaw would laugh and say "He's not paying attention because he's gone with the wind!"
Mother: "When I was growing up everybody had read the book. Everybody I knew read the book. I used it for book reports all the way through high school and college. I had memorized the number of pages and the publisher. I could sit down and scribble out a book report in about two minutes flat."
"It was not considered a love story, a trashy book. It was considered a serious book. My daddy read it. I'm sure your daddy read it. Of their contemporaries, I'm sure everybody read it."
My grandmother Cordelia was awake late one night reading the book when a pedestrian was struck and killed on the street near their house. She was so enthralled by the book, she told the police she just hadn't heard anything, and could not be of any help to them.
I visited the Margaret Mitchell House and toured it around 2000 when I was working in an office just down the street, and it's a fascinating sight, this tiny brick house amidst the towering buildings in midtown Atlanta. I went to an event a couple of years later where family members of the Atlanta Crackers were recognized and author Tim Darnell spoke. His book, The Crackers: Early Days of Atlanta Baseball is a terrific read. (My grandfather was on the Crackers team in 1919 and again in 1932, as you can see here.)
When I was in my late teens I began to wonder about Margaret Mitchell, the woman behind the book. I read biographies of her. I began to see that an author will often use things from their own life even when they are writing novels. A few years ago PBS did a terrific American Masters program about Mitchell, Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel, and I think you can see the whole thing on the PBS website. It's very well done.
During World War II, Mitchell pitched in and helped with the war effort here in Atlanta. One of my great aunts remembered chatting with "Mrs. Marsh" many times, at bandage rolling events.
Margaret Mitchell was hit by a car and killed right outside the Atlanta Women's Club, where my grandmother was a member. My mother went there many times as a child, and learned to swim in their pool.
I remember as a child first reading the book that I loved and admired the character of Scarlet, because she got to wear fancy dresses and go to parties and Rhett loved her. After I had matured a bit, I realized that Scarlett really isn't all that admirable because she lies and schemes to get her way, not caring who she hurts, and she's a rotten mother. What intrigues us about her though is that she is a survivor. She goes through terrible things and she struggles mightily and she endures. I think that's why she will always be a classic character.
Unlike the North, the south was much more affected by the Civil War. It was everywhere - homes looted, families torn apart, homes burned to the ground. It was personal and real to civilians, not just soldiers. I think a lot of southerners feel a great affinity for the book because it talks about how the Civil War changed all of our lives, forever. I remember Mother telling me when I was a teenager that one reason to be proud of our heritage is that we survived. Despite poverty and devastation and hard struggles after the war, our family survived and eventually we flourished - on both sides of my family.
As a child, we took a lot of trips and my father took us to every Civil War battlefield. He told us the stories of those battles, because he was an avid student of history, particularly the civil war. The battle details were usually rather boring to me but watching how animated my dad was in telling us those stories left a big impression on me. History was not just something dry and boring, in my house, it was something to feel passionate about.
Finally, I remember sitting in a big chair in the living room of my house reading the book and feeling like I was living inside that book. Margaret Mitchell brought that time and place alive in a way that was incredibly vivid and passionate, and despite it's flaws, Gone With the Wind is a classic American novel and it deserves to continue to be read and studied.