Friday, April 20, 2012

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.” Elusive perhaps because it has already been written.  At least, that's the conviction of many who are fans of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading this most remarkable book for the second time and I was captivated once again by the force of Mitchell’s story and style.  I would use the word “masterpiece” except 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 a few girlhood attempts and her columns from four years as an Atlanta Journal reporter, Gone With the Wind stands alone to mark Mitchell’s shining literary talent. No matter – it is enough.

Gone With the Wind has been largely ignored by modern critics but I’m afraid that is due to the industry’s jealousy, political correctness, and love of the esoteric. 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.

Interesting enough, there was high praise for the novel initially but, in later years, the very popularity of the book seemed to be a reason that so many of the establishment critics turned against it. They, in turn, influenced the school teachers with the result that Gone With the Wind now languishes through scant attention. That, combined with the fact that the book is over a thousand pages, is enough to ensure that the novel will never be able to impact the TV addicts of today like it moved their great-grandparents.

This is really too bad because Gone With the Wind is a classic reading experience, an adventure into the most tumultuous decade of American history. It is full of pathos, tension and ethical challenge – 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 diving in, the length of Gone With The Wind actually becomes part of the book’s charm. Anything shorter could not do proper service to the grand spectacle which is the Civil War and Reconstruction. Like War and Peace is to Russia, Gone With the Wind is 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. It took her the next ten years to finish the thing.  And, by that time, the clarity, force, smooth progression, and insight of her prose became amazing. Indeed, her talent was sufficient to win for Margaret Mitchell the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

There are other problems, however, that are far more important and which tarnish those hopes that Gone with The Wind will 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 (meaning primarily white Southern) while others are bold enough to decry what is certainly racism. Her patronizing attitude of “quality” slaves; her negativity towards free blacks; her prolific use of the “n” word; her positive treatment of the Ku Klux Klan; her disdain for Republicans; and even her antagonism to the South’s “white trash” – these are all quite serious faults in Margaret Mitchell’s worldview.

Some defend the author by suggesting that she is merely reflecting Scarlett O’Hara’s moral mistakes and there is some basis for that view.  For example, O’Hara’s disdain for children is not Mitchell’s view nor does O’Hara’s arrogant and cruel lust for wealth in any way parallel Margaret Mitchell’s character.  With this said, however, the author must be held accountable for the “Confederate myopia” with which she interprets the past.

However, one should not avoid the novel merely because of these things. Indeed, I believe that to better grasp the issues that underlie some of our nation’s most profound tragedies, 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 her critics realize. For instance, in the novel itself, she repeatedly demonstrates a high regard for the humanity and spiritual power of African-Americans. Among the novel’s black characters, Mammy and Uncle Peter serve as two of the only four the moral heroes in the novel.   

And in her personal life, Margaret Mitchell displayed an unusually progressive attitude for her time and place regarding 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 was also 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 that she secretly performed for the rest of her life.

Readers of Gone With The Wind will not agree with all of Margaret Mitchell’s beliefs about the Civil War and Reconstruction nor will they end up respecting (or even liking) the protagonist.  But they will certainly be engaged, challenged and entertained. Gone With The Wind 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, Will Benteen and many others.

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