How Gone with the Wind Burned Atlanta

A critical review of the city’s unfortunately touchstone tome
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When the world comes to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, it will be looking for Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler — not for the animated airbrush named Izzy the city has chosen for its mascot. This is because Atlanta has for so long so successfully defined itself by Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind

Scarlett and Rhett would seem a public relations natural; so why aren’t they Atlanta’s Olympic mascots? Why aren’t they fronting Atlanta’s party for the world? 

It’s no large mystery. It’s more like an ill-kept family secret. The city knows that its twin icons have character defects which, if they were closely scrutinized, would be embarrassing. The book in which they live and on which the city thrives is less than it might seem. It is, in fact, a propaganda tract for a sort of regional xenophobia.

So Atlanta is keeping Rhett, and Scarlett in the background, like two dotty cousins with strange tastes in clothes and fantasies of living in another, grander time when people knew their “places.” They are merely to be enjoyed for their novelty. Their images will be sold on trinkets as souvenirs of the city but not of the Olympics. 

But what becomes of Scarlet and Rhett when the visitors leave? Do we allow them out of the kitchen and back into the parlor? Do they resume their former places of importance? It may be the most important decision Atlanta has had to make since it sent its mayor out on horseback to surrender the town to Gen. Sherman, bearing a note urging moderation with matches. As we know, such gestures do not always work. It would be most tempting, when the world has gone home, to return to living by the book that has been so commercially useful. 

There are indications the city would like it known that it’s ready to deal with the reality of the book and its image (or that it has dealt with it and no one need go further). The Atlanta History Center has devoted space to the myth and the reality of Gone With the Wind. But the display seems to make a case that the disparities between the fiction and the fact are inconsequential. I can hardly blame the center for its timidity. Any criticism of the book brings an outcry from its hostile audience of adoring readers.

Why, they ask, do you want to pick on this book? So what if it is sentimental? Why don’t you just leave it alone? It isn’t doing anyone any harm. Ah, but it does great harm. But the harm of Gone With the Wind tends to be invisible to its defenders.

Gone With the Wind paints a simplistic and one-sided picture of a culture that does not wish to look any more closely at itself. The book was, in a way, created by that culture and, once written and popularized, came to “stand for” it and to “complete” it. Creativity, which might have prospered on such rich material as Atlanta afforded, stalled instead. The book locked the culture into a regional bias. Each time that bias is nudged by uncontrolled forces, such as the civil rights movement, the culture has had to update its self-image to accommodate the new situation, each time through an “extension” of the book into new versions of itself, new self-describing arts of other sorts. The book, through this process, continues to do harm – to repress honest self-appraisal by a city and its people, and to dampen creativity by its writers.

The central myth of Mitchell’s story may be summed up as follows: Once there was an Edenlike organic society in the South. It wasn’t doing anyone any harm (not even the race of people it enslaved), but it was attacked by less refined beings from harsher climes who were jealous of its pastoral existence. The peaceful Southern people were forced to become warlike and protect their way of life. Once they did, they proved to be the better soldiers, braver, hardier, more daring, more resourceful than the enemy. The invaders, however, not respecting chivalry, used unscrupulous tactics, overwhelming numbers and the wealth of their rusting, mechanized society to outlast the South and, finally, fight it to a draw, at which time the leaders of the South, not wishing their land to be raped further, gave in. There followed years of outrage and indignity that only served to make the Southern people stronger, and soon, with their superior intellects and wills, they were back in control again. In fact, they were soon back to their old ways, with only minor adjustments for new legalities. And everyone recognized that all the South had ever wanted was to be left alone, and that Southerners had never done anyone any harm. 

It is never easy or pleasant to attack someone’s most cherished delusions. And so the book, with its myth, has found adoring audiences throughout the world, virtually unresisted by criticism, even praised for its lack of pretensions to literary status. Overlooked is the fact this much-beloved novel is marred by easy, simplistic regionalism; anti-black bias; sentimentality; and shallow characters operating in shallow history.

Regionalism

Patriotism, as Samuel Johnson said, is the last refuge of scoundrels. In literature It IS the first refuge of a small talent. Regionalism is a form of patriotism, with all its logic-numbing doting on one’s “place,” all its insistence upon the rightness of one’s national policy, one’s family, one’s religion. Regionalism crowds out deeper insights and substitutes for them its own easy understanding. It is death to art. 

Gone With the Wind is virtually all regionalism, and it is an artless, chamber of commerce version of history. The information put out by a chamber of commerce may be harmless boosterism, but it remains propaganda nonetheless. Gone With the Wind is, in a sense, a propaganda tract from the 19th century South. It was not written then, of course, and yet it was. Southern newspapers of the day contained all the same sentiments as those found in Mitchell’s book: One Southern soldier could lick 10 Yankees; black men had an insatiable lust for white women; the Klan served a useful purpose; the South would rise again.

Mitchell began her career on the staff of the Atlanta Journal Sunday magazine, writing about local debutantes and visiting celebrities. She quit the paper to write full time of headier stuff – of a willful, spoiled girl who survives the catastrophes of war and unrequited love, and of a “nation” on its knees but rising valiantly. These were tales of brave men and nervy women, like the flapper she styled herself to be; of a heroine who naturally flaunted her sexuality and used it in a way that Mitchell never was able. The South of Mitchell’s day, in the 1920s and 1930s, was busy proving correct all the dire predictions of its ancestors, holding on to those values while enduring the barbs of critics such as H.L. Mencken and his imitators. Her brother said later, Gone With the Wind “struck a blow for her Southland.” 

Anti-Black Bias

It may surprise no one that the novel does not reflect the “enlightened” sensibilities towards race that Atlantans now supposedly pride themselves upon. We cannot say with certainty that had we lived in Scarlett’s time, we would have seen the humanity behind the black face, would have shunned chattel slavery, would have treated all people equally regardless of color. But a writer without an agenda might have been expected to recognize the inherent artistic and dramatic value in the figure of the freed slave. Some did. William Faulkner, writing at the same time as Mitchell, developed complex characters of the white, black, red and mingled races, made all the richer for their interactions, and never once portrayed beyond the believable bounds of everyday life in Mississippi.

Mitchell, it would seem, just didn’t know enough of such things to write about them. Her view of the black race was the standard white Southern one, without the saving grace of the artist’s insight. She was taught and taught well by her family and her culture. She was 5 when the Atlanta race riots of 1906 occurred. According to a biographer, she recalled many years later, “They fought all day just a block behind our house.” She did not mention, perhaps did not know, that it was more a massacre of blacks by whites than a battle, and that acts of butchery by whites were common. On Peachtree Street mobs of whites chased down blacks and clubbed them.

The corpses of three black victims were laid at the foot of Henry Grady’s monument in front of the offices of the Atlanta Constitution. Rumors circulated that Negro mobs planned to burn the town and cut the water pipes. Margaret and her father stood guard at the front of their house, he with an ax and a water key, she with a sword borrowed from a neighbor. The state militia was called out and soldiers camped in Margaret’s front yard. 

Later, when she was 17, Margaret refused to sit in a Smith College classroom with a black student. When her teacher accused her of racism, she accused the teacher of hypocrisy and asked her if she “had ever undressed and nursed a Negro woman or sat on a drunk Negro man’s head to keep him from being shot by the police.” 

Scarlett’s relationship with Mammy, her faithful black nurse, exhibits the “maternalistic” relationship that Mitchell came early to idealize and to use to justify her view of blacks. In times of stress and trouble Scarlett thinks of Mammy’s comforting breast and hands. Yet the main feature of Mammy is that she “knows her place.” She snorts at “uppity niggers” and makes fun of freedmen who have the idea they can be as good as whites. She takes care of her grown-up little mistress, who in turn takes care of her. It is the romanticized, ideal Southern black-white relationship. And it is patently shallow and false. It is written to remind the scornful Northern critics of the 1930s that they have no idea what such a relationship entails. Still, not all Georgia writers of the time toed the chamber of commerce line. Lillian Smith, who lived in Clayton, in the north Georgia mountains, had a firmer grip on reality and wrote of it in her non-fiction Killers of the Dream with a concise, cutting eloquence that gets to its honest point without romanticizing the pain it detects: “Of all the humiliating experiences which Southern white women have endured, the least easy to accept, I think, was that of a mother who had no choice but to take the husk of a love which her son in his earliest years had given to another woman. She valiantly made jokes about it, telling her friends that her child preferred Mammy to her and that was fine …. ‘I don’t know how I could have done without her,’ she would say and laugh a light, tinkling laugh which sounded like little glass bells about to break into splinters.”

Mitchell writes disapprovingly of the freed slaves cluttering Atlanta’s sidewalks. She and Mammy walk through them, barely restraining themselves from pushing them out of the way. Smith wrote honestly of her upbringing in the South. Her mother, ” … who taught me what I know of tenderness and love and compassion, taught me also the bleak rituals of keeping Negroes in their ‘place.’ ” She remembers, as a little girl with her white friends, encountering a group of black children on the sidewalk. They exchange taunts: Chocolate drop! Cracker! ” … Sudden strange struggle. Hot feelings pouring over you, driving you to push hard against wiry dark quick breathing little bodies, push hard until they are off the sidewalk.” Mitchell and Smith met after Gone With the Wind was published. Smith asked Mitchell to write a piece on the writing of the novel for her small literary magazine. Mitchell refused. The two women didn’t like each other. Writing such as Smith’s soon came to be cosigned to what critics, Southern critics especially, called and still sometimes call “the shame and guilt school,” indicating that those two emotions were not worthy of the task ahead.

The sexuality of race brings Mitchell to her most virulent propagandist fever. Two of the central scenes in the book concern “rape” of white women by blacks and the murders of the offending blacks by white men. One of the scenes, the “rape” of Scarlett in Shantytown by a black man, appears in the lavish movie made of the book, but in a much sanitized form. The description of the attack is couched in excruciatingly bad romance writing. Scarlet can smell the “rank odor” of the Negro. He tries to drag her from the buggy. ” … With a ripping noise, her basque was torn open from neck to waist. Then the black hand fumbled between her breasts, and terror and revulsion such as she had never known came over her and she screamed like an insane woman.” The sexuality of the scene is virtually erased in the movie, and the main point becomes Scarlett’s rescue from danger by Sam, the former slave of Tara.

Sentimentality

Mitchell claimed to disdain and to have left behind the “moonlight and magnolias” writing of the 1890s, in which even the moonlight was richer and flowers more fragrant in the Southland. Still, she sentimentalizes the north Georgia planter aristocracy, giving it much greater wealth and pomp than it actually possessed. In her book, plantation owners own many more slaves than the 1860s planter aristocracy of Clayton County actually did. There are frequent barbecues among the planters, huge feasts interspersed with nap times, processions of hoopskirted women led to bedrooms by doting slaves. Gerald O’Hara wears a cravat just to ride to a neighboring plantation on business. 

Ashley Wilkes calls patriotism the “love of home and country.” He says, “I am fighting for the old days, the old ways I love so much but which, I fear, are now gone forever.” Still, we do not know why Ashley carries on so melodramatically. Mitchell paints hun as a man of principle, but we never learn what his principles are, except that one of them is not to succumb to Scarlett’s advances.

The city of Atlanta, after the war is lost, is sentimentalized almost as a shrine to a lost cause and to a people’s determination never to give in. Scarlett returns to the city, which bumed 130 years ago, on Nov. 14, 1864, to find it in ruins and filled with Yankees and Negroes.

” ‘They bumed you,’ she thought, ‘and they laid you flat. But they didn’t lick you. You’ll grow back just as big and sassy as you used to be!’ ” If ever a line of dialogue was written to be used through the ages by the chamber of commerce, this is one. It has ended up in prologues, poems, pamphlets, preachments and prayers and engraved in stone.

The old days are, indeed, “gone with the wind,” and that fact draws easy tears from anyone old enough to have endured sufficient time to qualify. Nothing remains the same in anyone’s life, then or now. But the book is one big annoying whine over the losses of Southern aristocrats, most of whom Mitchell was unable to endow with any believable redeeming qualities. Ashley Wilkes, who consistently moons over the mundane, is placed in the book to be a sad figure and to give Scarlett a “tragic” loss against which to position her stubborn achievements. Rhett Butler, in turn, is denied the real prize, Scarlett’s love, even though he gains her in marriage. For a man who eschews and follows causes with equal lack of motivation, Rhett becomes, at last, the firm, principled father figure the book has been searching for when he decides, after all this, that Scarlett is just too flighty for his taste. It is Mitchell’s final sad joke on herself, on her heroine. And it gives her an ending so perverse no one could possibly accuse her of sentimentality – unless they had read and remembered the preceding bulk of the book.

Historical Inaccuracy

Facts are not sacrosanct. And a good historical novelist need not be able to defend each and every statement of historicity. But a bad historical novelist – one who sets out to prove a view of historical interpretation – must indeed look to his or her facts. Such a novelist is left with little else to defend. For the good author of historical novels, history is not the primary focus. A work written to be a record of everything that happened is barely a novel at all. There’s plenty of history in William Faulkner and in William Styron, but no one bothers much to check its accuracy. If it were found that Faulkner had placed a river or a road or a town five miles from its actual site, what would it matter to the story of Sutpen as his house is burned down by his half-caste daughter? It is the human heart that is the subject. Even though Faulkner was thoroughly familiar with Civil War history, especially in his own area of Mississippi, he did not load his books down with it. But people generally do not go to writers such as Faulkner and Styron out of curiosity about history. They do flock, however, to the likes of Margaret Mitchell and her modem emulators. 

A friend at work, when I asked him if he’d read Gone With the Wind, said no, he hadn’t, but that his wife had read it all the way through. It was right after they moved to the area, and she wanted to learn about its history. The respected Southem historian C. Vann Woodward ruefully points out that most people do not read history but learn a version of it from fiction and other entertainments – books, film and television. This, Woodward says, places a serious burden upon fiction not to distort the spirit or the essence of eras it depicts while creating rounded characters and telling situations within it.

The careful process of protecting Gone With the Wine from charges of historical inaccuracy was begun even before it was published. In letters to editors, publishers and friends, Margaret Mitchell predicted that armies of unsympathetic reviewers and historians would be combing through her pages for evidence that she didn’t know her subject matter. She pointed out in speeches and letters that she had spent long hours at the historical society checking and double checking historical facts, and in spite of that, had to admit that she had herself found two errors in the thousand-plus pages. The errors, of course, turned out to be just the sort of minor discrepancies the nitpicky pedants might be expected to unearth. After all, these matters of geographical and temporal accuracy really are not worth checking. But it matters if the complexity and spirit of an era are distorted deliberately for the purpose of proving a point dear to the chamber of commerce.

To show the real despicable character of Yankee soldiers, Mitchell notes that the number of mulatto babies dramatically increased after they came to town. If mixed-race babies were tllat rare before the end of the war, it would make it difficult indeed to explain such historical situations as the following: In September of 1868, when Georgia set about expelling all Negroes from its Reconstruction legislature, four members of the House were so light-skinned that there was some question that they met the one-eighth blood definition, and they were allowed to remain. Had they been fathered by Yankee soldiers, it would have had to have happened closer to the time of the war with Mexico than to the Civil War. The fact is that the abuse of slave women by white Southern masters was a well-known scandal even before the war, and that such things are never acknowledged in Gone With the Wind.

Shallow Characters

The characters in Gone With the Wind are flat and unbelievable because they have but one purpose to serve, and that is to prove the preconceived notions of their creator. It would not serve her propagandistic purpose to develop a truly complex character, full of rights and wrongs, triumphs and mistakes – that is, a truly human character. That would merely detract from the story.

The two major characters, Scarlett and Rhett, have their hidden sides, but only because they deliberately hide them. They do not doubt themselves. They do not “develop” through the book’s story. Scarlett comes to feel, at last, a true kinship with her society, only through the common threat to them all- the threat of the black freedman. Rhett finally is revealed to be a “real man” and a “real Southerner” only by joining with the remnants of Hood’s army to fight in Tennessee and by saving the men who formed a hooded mob of night riders and murdered the black man and his white accomplice who had attempted to “rape” Scarlett. 

But you are missing the point, admirers say. Mitchell is satirizing much that she describes. Scarlett in particular. Her obsessive dreams of chivalry and the ultimate victory of the right thing are revealed as unrealistic. But Scarlett had learned nothing except to be more cynical. If chivalry no longer works, it is merely because the world has been turned upside down, not because chivalry is a silly idea to begin with; the right thing is to summarily kill blacks who are thought to have offended white women.

In Gone With the Wind, perhaps not unexpectedly, the Yankees are all bad. Not one redeeming feature is found in one Yankee. They reel drunkenly in the streets and set fire to buildings, steal and cheat and put freed blacks up to being disloyal to their former masters. There is no trace, no acknowledgement of the existence of white teachers and missionaries who came South to help freed blacks rise to self-help through learning; no characters such as those found in history who are torn almost beyond endurance between conflicting views.

The Atlanta culture of the 1920s and 1930s created Gone With the Wind through the strength of its regional boosterism. The book became overwhelmingly popular and, in turn, reinforced the culture. The two have been inextricably bound together ever since.

A local writer out to find a place in the bosom of the culture would be hard put to come up with something more effective and more pleasing to the local society than Gone With the Wind. Still, some have tried. Some have admittedly emulated Margaret Mitchell, others seem unaware of their debt. None has outdone her, although some have written extremely entertaining unintentional parodies. Bad writing, like bad money, drives out good.

Of all the fiction writing now going on in Atlanta, Anne Rivers Siddons’ Peachtree Road is the most deliberately evocative of Gone With the Wind and the most likely to be passed along to newcomers as a “history” of Atlanta during the black civil rights movement. It shares many features with Mitchell’s novel: It presents a chamber of commerce version of history; it contains easy, simplistic regionalism; it stereotypes blacks; and it presents characters who are either all good or all bad. 

Like Gone With the Wind, Peachtree Road has hoards of fans who do not mind its violence to history or its ignorance of the truly tragic in its midst. It has been praised for taking on a subject other writers were afraid to handle, while escaping an accounting for covering up the real and emphasizing the false. Peachtree Road manages to make the black civil rights movement a power grab by demagogues, kept from degenerating into violence and disorder by a highly romanticized white power structure. 

While the real mayor, Ivan Allen Jr., was jostled from a cartop into a rioting black crowd and had to call in police with tear gas, the romanticized white mayor of the book calms black rioters with his presence before toppling from a car. The romanticized white heroine provides some of the intellectual guidance of the local black movement but suffers a breakdown and kills herself. The historical movement, of course, was led by black figures like Martin Luther King Jr., too prominent to require listing them here. The first black mayor of Atlanta, in Peachtree Road, is the son of the chauffeur of the enlightened white mayor, who has groomed the new black mayor, educated him and eased him into office as the flunky of the white power structure.

This mangling of history, of course, ignores the significant advent of black empowerment by the election of Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, who came from a long line of upper middle class blacks and did not need any white man’s largesse. Siddons can no more admit the inadequacies of her set of businessmen heroes than Mitchell could admit that of her planter aristocrats. Neither of them can admit the guilt that underlies the psychopathology that produced their work.

And where would the guilt lie that requires such a massive restraint? A war fought to preserve black slavery might seem a good candidate – and the lingering “problem” of black-white relations.

Atlanta and its region still await those novelists who can do justice to the great, unplumbed topics of the Civil War and civil rights. There are many critics today, many of them Southerners, who think the time has passed for such concerns. They say a new generation of Southern writers has moved on to more relevant topics. But the repression is never really gone and is liable to reassert itself at any time. It remains for writers of the region to confront it, write it and only then get rid of it. The rest is escapism. 

Perhaps the coming of the 1996 Olympics will provide us the impetus we need to rid ourselves of Rhett and Scarlett once and for all. Like the Confederate battle flag on the Georgia standard, Scarlett and Rhett are an expression of our anger and our hurt pride. We can’t erase our history, and we have no need to. But we can insist upon an honest look at it. We need not consign Gone With the Wind to the trash heap of forgotten books, but we can recognize it for what it is – a moral anachronism. 

It is time to stop humoring Scarlett and her cult. Tomorrow may be another day, but those days need not go on forever.

Atlanta writer Phil Gamer won the 1991 National Headliner Award for consistently outstanding feature column for his literary essays in Atlanta Magazine. He is currently at work on a book about Atlanta and its writers.

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