Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gone With The Wind: Is It "The Great American Novel"?

It remains the ambitious but elusive dream of our nation’s writers to pen “the great American novel.” Well, perhaps that is because it has already been written! At least, that's the conviction of many who are devoted fans of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

I will admit, though I didn't get around to reading it until late in my life, I am one of the book's admirers. With reservations, yes. But an admirer nevertheless.

Margaret Mitchell’s creation is unique in many ways. I almost used the word “masterpiece” in the previous sentence but that would imply that it was the best of all of her life’s work. However, Gone With the Wind was Margaret Mitchell’s only work. Aside from some girlhood attempts and her columns from four years as an Atlanta Journal reporter, Gone With the Wind stands alone to mark her shining literary talent.

No matter – it is enough.

Gone With the Wind has been largely ignored by the critics, but then that cottage industry frequently suffers from a blindness to genuine art. It's a blindness caused by jealousy, political correctness, love of the esoteric and preoccupation with self. But the public, in its best moments, is indifferent to the preening of the professional literati and Gone With the Wind has sold more copies worldwide than any book except the Bible.

Actually, there was high praise for the novel initially but in later years, the very popularity of the book was a reason so many of the establishment critics turned against it. They, in turn, influenced the professional teachers with the result that Gone With the Wind has languished from scant attention in the modern era. That, and the fact that the book is over a thousand pages, is enough to ensure that the novel will never be able to impact the television-addicted citizens of today like it moved their grandparents.

This really is too bad because Gone With the Wind is a classic reading experience, an adventure into the most momentous decade of American history. It is full of pathos, ethical challenge, and details of the most turbulent part of our past – all in a literary accomplishment that is marked by exceptionally good writing. The length of the book is admittedly daunting but only before one begins to read. After that, the length actually becomes part of the book’s charm. Anything shorter could not do service to the grand spectacle of the Civil War and Reconstruction that Margaret Mitchell undertakes. Like War and Peace is to Russia, Gone With the Wind establishes itself as our national saga.

With all of this praise for the novel, however, I must emphasize that there are in this huge novel some huge problems which cannot be glossed over. One is the book’s ending which is markedly weaker than the rest of the story. This can be explained by Mitchell’s inexperience – she actually wrote the last chapter of the novel before anything else. Still the clarity, force, smooth progression, and insight of her prose is amazing, especially considering she wrote the novel in secret over several years and had very little editorial overview after she gave the manuscript to Macmillan. But her talent was sufficient to win for Margaret Mitchell the Pulitzer Prize for Literature within the very year of the novel’s publication,

There are other problems, however, that are far more important in diminishing Gone with The Wind’s hopes to be known as The Great American Novel I spoke of earlier. These are Mitchell’s attitudes towards plantation life, slavery and Reconstruction. Some describe her view as Southern (though they generally mean white Southern) while others are bold enough to decry what is, certainly to some degree, racism. Her patronizing attitude of “quality” slaves; her demonizing of some (not all) free blacks after the war; her prolific use of the “n” word (although used almost exclusively by her black characters towards other blacks); her grudging acceptance of the Ku Klux Klan; her disdain for the Republicans; and even her antagonism to the South’s “white trash” – these are all quite serious faults in Margaret Mitchell’s worldview. And they should not be overlooked or excused merely because of the culture in which she was raised and wrote the book.

However, neither should one avoid the novel because of these things. Indeed, to better grasp the issues that underlie some of our nation’s most profound tragedies, I believe a reading of Gone With the Wind is singularly valuable.

It is also noteworthy that Margaret Mitchell’s views about race were more complex and enlightened than what most realize. For instance, in the novel she demonstrates a high regard for the humanity and spiritual power of African-Americans. One of the book’s black characters, Mammy, the O’Hara family’s loyal matron, is one of only three moral heroes in the whole novel.

And in her personal life, Margaret Mitchell displayed an unusually open attitude in racial issues. For instance, as a 19-year old girl, she was the only one of her debutante group who chose to work in the city’s Negro clinics, losing her chance to be in the Junior League because of this boldness. She also was involved in seeking the desegregation of Atlanta’s police department. And only recently revealed has been Mitchell’s generosity to black medical students. After the publication of Gone With the Wind, she accepted the invitation of Dr. Benjamin Mays, the President of Morehouse College to donate funds to black medical students, a task she secretly performed for the rest of her life.

Readers of Gone With The Wind will certainly not agree with all of Margaret Mitchell’s beliefs about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and more but they will be engaged, challenged and entertained. GWTW presents a truly fascinating journey which covers ante-bellum plantation life, the coming of a grievous war between two ways of American life, the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, the siege and destruction of Atlanta, the harsh realities of Reconstruction…and the fascinating lives of Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Melanie Wilkes, Mammy and many others.

The Great American Novel? Perhaps not. But I'd suggest you read Gone with the Wind yourself to find out just how close it comes.