“Oakland cemetery hasn’t changed much in the hundred and thirty-odd years it has sheltered Atlanta’s favored dead,” writes the contemporary Atlanta novelist, Anne Rivers Siddons, in her novel Peachtree Road. “Our crowd has always been in and out of Oakland almost as frequently and as easily as we enter and leave our homes and clubs…. Lucy always swore that it was here that she and Red Chastain first made love, on top of Margaret Mitchell’s grave.”
Fifty-five years after its 1936 publication, GWTW remains a cult novel of the American Civil War, and its author, Margaret Mitchell, a local Atlanta deity. An instant best seller on publication, the novel’s amorphous quality, like a ghost unobstructed by doors and walls, allowed it to be interpreted to nearly any purpose by nearly any of its nonblack readers. During the war, it was popular in Britain, presumably as a picture of a courageous and embattled people; it was equally popular among the Axis powers, presumably for its picture of a master race defending civilization. A wartime pirated edition was immensely popular in Japan, and the story was eventually adapted as an all-female musical revue in Tokyo. Polish resistance fighters read it avidly, as did Eva Braun, who listed Margaret Mitchell as one of her two favorite authors.
To date,the book has sold 28 million copies, second only to the Bible, and is available in at least thirty countries. The book’s life was extended, too, through the equally popular David Selznick film of 1939, and through having become a cultural toy not unlike Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, although Tara has not matched the wealth of the magic kingdom. It is tempting to see Mickey as a spokesman for the playfulness, the fun of commerce, while Scarlett and Rhett represent commerce as a kind of eroticism. There are Gone With the Wind perfumes exhorting us to “feel their passion,” GWTW chess sets with pieces modeled after Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, and costume dolls of Scarlett O’Hara, an odd example of an ironic current in the American toy industry, conjuring a picture of little girls playing with the image of a murderess who despised her two eldest children. There are lithographs, posters, and collector’s plates. And now there is a sequel, written by a romance novelist under the guidance of the Mitchell estate, and a lengthy biography of Mitchell herself, written by a history professor named Darden Asbury Pyron, who shares Mitchell’s southern roots and has previously edited a collection of critical essays on Gone With the Wind titled Recastings.
Gone With the Wind was from the outset an arena for critical and historical conflicts. The contradiction between its popular success and critical rejection by the most influential critics of its day, a failure that increasingly embittered Margaret Mitchell, dramatized the characteristic aesthetic irony of the United States: How can it be that if majority rule democracy represents supreme political judgment, that degree of readership does not also represent ultimate artistic judgment? And what is the nature and meaning of popular success when many African American thinkers, including James Baldwin and Malcolm X, have found Gone With the Wind offensive? Critics like Malcolm Cowley, the champion of Faulkner, and Bernard De Voto have argued, on different grounds, that GWTW was an artistic failure. Richard Dwyer, in an essay included in Mr. Pyron’s collection Recastings, argues that “its popularity is the only criterion by which GWTW is still being judged here and elsewhere.”
Gone With the Wind’s role as the central popular account of the white South’s political theology continues to be controversial, too. Richard Harwell, editor of a GWTW “scrapbook,” Gone With the Wind As Book and Film, wrote that the novel was “that great desideratum of the UDC [United Daughters of the Confederacy], an unbiased history of the war from the Southern point of view.” GWTW exemplifies the ongoing arguments over which story of the Civil War South is the true story, fights as bitter as the ones between religious denominations over which sect represented the real Jesus, and as important.
The unresolved aesthetic and historical struggles over the book’s value make the title of a 1940 Count Basie recording a shrewd and witty question: “Gone With ‘What’ Wind?”
Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900, to a well-to-do Atlanta lawyer, Eugene, and his Irish Catholic wife, May Belle. Eugene’s family was known in Atlanta when it was still a village called Marthasville; his grandfather was a circuit-riding Methodist minister supposed to have performed the first wedding in the town, while the minister’s brother opened Atlanta’s first cotton brokerage house in 1843. Eugene Mitchell’s father earned a substantial living in real estate speculation in post–Civil War Atlanta, and was the city’s mayor pro tem in 1880. It was a family of urban businessmen and politicians, invoking its Confederate service through naming family members for Confederate generals. Margaret Mitchell’s maternal family was less orthodox in its southern heritage, since they were Irish Catholics who had preserved their Catholicism in the New World by marrying newly arrived Irish immigrants. Mitchell’s mother’s side of the family provided the model for Tara, a three-thousand-acre, thirty-five-slave farm in Clayton County, Georgia, known to the family as Rural Home. And Mitchell’s landgreedy, argumentative Irish maternal grandmother seems to have provided in part a model for her future heroine, Scarlett O’Hara.
Mitchell’s maternal grandfather did well, too, in real estate and local politics, as a member of the Atlanta Police Commission. They were the kind of family who as stockholders in the City Railway Company could send a servant to stop a passing trolley car outside their house until they had finished dressing and were ready to board.
It would be interesting to have some sense of how Mrs. Mitchell’s Irishness and Catholicism might have affected herand her children’s daily life in Atlanta, a largely Protestant city. Pyron describes the Atlanta police force of the 1880s as substantially Irish, and William Howard Russell, the London Times correspondent during the Civil War, was struck by the number of Irishmen in the Union Army, both circumstances that might have invited snubs. Oakland Cemetery, the prestige address for Atlanta’s dead, has a separate Irish quarter, “tactfully dedicated to the Hibernian Rifles of our cherished War,” writes Anne Rivers Siddons. Pyron tells us that Eugene Mitchell’s father was “bitterly opposed” to his marriage to May Belle Stephens, but the objection to the union between two wealthy and prominent families is never fully explained. Could it have been May Belle’s Irish Catholicism? Mr. Pyron, disappointingly, does not raise the question.
Mitchell spent her early childhood in a thirteen-room Victorian house; she was a tomboyish girl who loved baseball and horseback riding, and was often dressed as a boy, her mother’s response to an early accident when Margaret’s skirt caught fire from an open grate.
When she was five, Pyron tells us, she witnessed one of the most violent race riots in regional history, the 1906 Atlanta riots that were reported with mesmerized horror throughout the nation. “White gangs roamed the city searching for victims…. When the rumor circulated that ‘negro mobs had been formed to burn the town…,'[a Mitchell neighbor] ‘went down the street warning every man to get his gun and be ready at a moment’s warning.’ ” Margaret suggested that Eugene Mitchell stand guard with a sword, and he “adopted the suggestion.” Twenty years later, Margaret remembered having taken panicked refuge under the bed.
There is a troubling lack of detail in Pyron’s account of what must have been a crucial traumatic event in Mitchell’s childhood. It was white mobs who, “inflamed by the Democratic party’s successful white supremacy election,” “looted, plundered, lynched, and murdered.” How did the violence of white mobs become translated in Mitchell’s neighborhood to town-burning “Negro mobs”? Did Mitchell’s family, loyal Democrats with ties to city government, have any role in or view of the inflammatory elections? And what was the little girl told about the danger she was in—did the situation create tension and mistrust between the white family and the black household staff such a family inevitably employed?
Pyron tells us later in the biography that
Atlanta and its newspapers remained tightly controlled by local elites…. [Margaret’s] family had known the editors, publishers, and owners of the town’s press for decades; they had indeed been owners themselves. Her uncle, Frank Rice, had helped found the Atlanta Journal, for example, along with the close family friend, the political boss, Hoke Smith.
One wonders what were the official accounts of the riots published in the Mitchell’s friends’ papers? Pyron does not explore these questions, concentrating on Mitchell’s personal relations with her immediate family. It is frustrating that he tells us so little about the society she grew up in and her family’s part in it.
Mitchell’s generation, including Wilbur Cash, author of The Mind of the South, William Faulkner, and the Georgia novelist and civil rights activist Lillian Smith, grew up in the heyday of southern lynching. They were surrounded by its rhetoric and by the conviction of their South that states’ rights included the right to torture and murder blacks. W.J. Cash and Lillian Smith wrote about lynchers who were figures of local folklore, inspiring fear, awe, and often admiration as men who were free to kill without social, legal, or moral constraint. This was the South of Pitchfork Ben Tillman, James K. Vardaman, the Mitchells’ friend Hoke Smith, and Coleman Blease, in which campaign promises included threats of violence against blacks. Coleman Blease boasted of having “planted” the finger of a black lynching victim in his garden. Speeches like these were part of the public political discourse of the South. These men were often the elected officials of Margaret Mitchell’s South. Their rhetoric and imagery, its fragments in overheard discussions of the grownups, must have formed a part of her childhood memories and impressions.
Another curious obscurity in Mr. Pyron’s account of her childhood is any mention of a black nurse who might have cared for Margaret. As Lillian Smith pointed out, this remarkable feature of southern childhood, in which children were brought up by two conflicting mother figures, “powerfully influenced the climate of many Southerners of the dominant class.” Mitchell’s memories of her nurse would shed some light on the character ofher childhood; and there is room for speculation if she was silent on the subject.
Mitchell’s first contact with story-telling was through her relatives’ accounts of family history and experiences of the Civil War: “I heard so much when I was little about the fighting and the hard times after the war that I firmly believed Mother and Father had been through it all.” In an autobiographical sketch, Mitchell wrote with an air of self-mockery, “In fact I heard everything except that the Confederates lost the war. When I was ten years old, it was a violent shock to hear that General Lee had been licked.” The knowledge of the South’s defeat in the Civil War, her humorous exaggeration aside, pervaded Mitchell’s childhood, and even her relations with her family. Her mother, whom Pyron presents convincingly as the important relationship of her life, used images of the Confederate defeat and its consequences to terrorize her daughter into obedience.
Mrs. Mitchell, with the exception of her Catholicism, seems to have been a living summary of the values of a well-to-do southern lady. “Ramrod stiff, her back never touched the back of a chair.” She believed that “prompt, vigorous application of the hairbrush” would correct any disciplinary problems a child might present, and addressed Margaret’s early shyness through that method. Mitchell’s brother remarked that “with Mother rudeness ranked with sins which cried to heaven for vengeance.” Her brand of Christian charity appears to have been so aggressive that it would have alarmed Jesus. She worked steadfastly on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church during the worst years of the hysterical outbursts of Georgia Democrat Tom Watson against her religion, attacks extreme enough for him to have been indicted three times (though never convicted) for his vicious 1910 book, The Roman Catholic Hierarchy. One wonders how the young Margaret, presumably attending Mass and Sunday classes, reacted to the fierce anti-Catholicism that was becoming an almost institutionalized feature of Southern politics during the period.
Mrs. Mitchell was also an ardent suffragette, although the cause of votes for women in the South was often put to dubious political uses, gathering momentum during the very years that southern states were instituting the practices of segregation made legal by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, and creating the legislative programs that undercut the hard-won right of blacks to vote. Enfranchising women would add to the pool of white voters, and would also differentiate white women’s social stature more sharply from that of blacks, a group from which they had not been so securely distinguished in prewar days. “Let women and Negroes alone,” said the hero of Beverley Tucker’s 1836 plantation novel, George Balcombe. “Leave them in their humility, their grateful affection, their self-renouncing loyalty, their subordination of the heart, and let it be your study to become worthy to be the object of these sentiments.”
Whether or not Mrs. Mitchell’s feminism combined, as many southern women’s did, the progressive and the reactionary, she cuts a figure with a bitterly imperious, not to say garbled, view of the world. ” ‘Don’t talk to me about liberation in modern society,’ she exclaimed. ‘We’ve got to go back three or four hundred years and treat women as they were treated then.’ ” In her deathbed letter to her daughter, she conflates “mental,” “moral,” and “financial success,” and she emerges in the Pyron biography as someone whose chief ambition for herself and for her children was to maintain their place in the highest southern caste.
When Margaret threw a tantrum about entering first grade, Mrs. Mitchell drove the little girl to “the ruins of once-proud houses” where
charming, embroidering, chinapainting one-time belles, who, after the war had deprived them of their means, degenerated pitifully. And she told me that my own world was going to explode under me someday, and God help me if I didn’t have some weapon to meet the new world.
Mrs. Mitchell’s message is not unlike her daughter’s future heroine’s: “degeneration” is a degeneration of money and caste; the ultimate goal to which feminine education, ambition, and even independence must cleave is the preservation of money and caste. Here too is the underlying bitterness toward men shared by Scarlett O’Hara. Men, after all, had contracted for and failed to provide these women with means. The even more implicit message in taking a child to a decaying neighborhood, the sort of neighborhood that black housing might border on, is that once money and caste erode,once privilege is lost, whites are no better and perhaps even worse than blacks, having fallen so much farther.
May Belle Mitchell, paradoxically, did not instill respect for education in her daughter by this tactic, but rather a terror of defeat, and a lifelong inability to tolerate competition so powerful that it was a relief to use the excuse of her mother’s death to drop out of college. She wrote to her brother from Smith, “There are so many cleverer and more talented girls than I. If I can’t be first, I’d rather be nothing.” So she returned to Atlanta where she knew how to be first.
The seething bitterness of defeat was a part not only of southern family life, but of its political and sexual psychology. A rage at defeat underlay white supremacist platforms; whites could still be masters with or without slaves; the humiliation of defeat increased the virulence of whites toward blacks, who had after all, explicitly or implicitly, been on the winning side. The knowledge of defeat added variants to the white terror of interracial sex. The defeated white southern men had begun the war as masters, boasting of their virile invincibility in battle, and failed before the witness of white women to back these boasts up. Part of the emotional logic of segregation was that unlike slavery, it made a world in which black people were nearly invisible; their very existence was unbearable evidence of southern defeat.
The tortuous evasion of the fact of southern defeat was as strenuously carried on in southern literature as in southern life. Thomas Dixon, the white supremacist novelist par excellence of Margaret Mitchell’s childhood, was so preoccupied with proving that Lincoln had never really meant to free the slaves that he wrote a novel about Lincoln called The Southerner. One would be hard-pressed to come up with a southern novel whose central figure is Robert E. Lee; he is too nakedly a figure of defeat, however heroic. Mitchell’s own strategy was to emphasize that her two victorious characters, Rhett and Scarlett, had both never believed in the Confederate cause, and therefore never shared in its defeat, a solution which brilliantly simplified readers’, and particularly southern readers’, response to them.
Margaret never developed a taste for school, but she loved to read, although she claimed that her mother “just about beat the hide off me for not reading Tolstoy or Thackeray or Jane Austen, but I preferred to be beaten.” From age twelve, according to Pyron, “she gave herself over to romances and adventures, dime novels, and cheap thrillers.” She was also her neighborhood playwright, producing plays and pageants, dramatizing and acting in her own version of a Thomas Dixon novel about the Ku Klux Klan called The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire. Dixon’s novels about reconstruction and the knightly glory of the Ku Klux Klan, or “invisible empire,” included The Clansman, on which D. W. Griffith’s well-known and controversial movie Birth of a Nation was based. The Dixon family was a powerful presence in Margaret Mitchell’s South. Both Dixon and his brother, A. C., were Baptist ministers; A. C. delivered the commencement address, warning of “the menace of evolution,” at W.J. Cash’s 1922 graduation from Wake Forest College, while the story of how Thomas Dixon enlisted the help of Woodrow Wilson to quiet the protests of the NAACP (which Dixon called the “Negro Intermarriage Society”) over Birth of a Nation is a fascinating one.
Dixon’s books were novelizations of the standard white southern view of Reconstruction, celebrating the Klan, and almost always containing an obligatory rape of a white woman by a black man. It seems disingenuous of Mr. Pyron to tell us nothing about the plot of the play young Margaret adapted from The Traitor; if it offered Dixon’s usual convergence of sex and racism, then it would have been highly charged material for a gently bred sixteen-year-old girl to act out.
When Gone With the Wind was published, Thomas Dixon wrote Margaret Mitchell a fan letter that Mr. Pyron does not quote. He raved, “You have not only written the greatest story of the South ever put down on paper, you have given the world the Great American Novel.” Mitchell replied with thanks, “I was practically raised on your books and love them very much.”1
Mrs. Mitchell was ambitious for her daughter to attend college, and enrolled Margaret at Smith. Perhaps as a subtle way of reassuring her family thatshe still belonged to them, Margaret displayed an intense dislike of the Northeast. “It’s a barbarous country,” she wrote, “it’s only money, money, money that counts,” perhaps placating her father by repeating this reliable southern cliché. Her brother, however, later wrote freely about the Mitchells’ affluence, remembering Margaret’s teen-age flirtations with the young World War I officers of nearby Camp Gordon: “Margaret could entertain these young men. She had a big house, servants, a car that would hold seven people….” Mitchell was never able to examine the role of privilege in her life, either as obstacle or opportunity. If anything, she tended to fantasize herself as a pioneer, singlehandedly clearing acreage others were too weak to work. Incredibly, when she returned permanently to Atlanta after two semesters at Smith, she described herself as entering “an unknown country where I knew no one except Dad and Steve and had to make my own way.”
At Smith, she renounced “the religious Catholic code under which I had been brought up,” and “abandoned the church entirely after returning to Atlanta,” although she seems to have left no record that would help explain her reasons for doing so; these must have been complex, given that her childhood coincided with the anti-Catholic politics of Tom Watson. She witnessed too, during the period of writing Gone With the Wind, the region-wide, virulent, highly publicized attacks on Al Smith as a Catholic that helped defeat him in his 1928 campaign for the presidency against Herbert Hoover. A friend remembered, “She used to talk about the Catholics the same way some people talk about New York Jews,” but there is nothing concrete to explain such hostility.
Mitchell’s dislike of the North was increased by her rage at having to share a history class with a black student. She demanded a transfer from the teacher, who refused to grant it; Mitchell managed to wangle the transfer finally from the college administration. Mitchell remembered twenty years afterward confronting the Yankee teacher and accusing her in the standard southern way of knowing nothing about the real lives of blacks: “She wanted to know if Miss Ware ‘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.’ ” The speech seems more revealing to me than it does apparently to Mr. Pyron, who quotes it without comment. But it is a striking example of the duplicity of southern paternalism and charity giving, of the moral slavery of obligation demanded in return. It could have come straight out of Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, in which blacks like “Old Aleck” are castigated for running away from whites “who saved him from burning to death when he was a boy!” The other striking feature of Mitchell’s remark is its unmistakably sexual imagery, the bizarre conflation of sexuality and power that is central to racism. Negro men of the 1920s may well have been far more likely to survive the police if white girls did not sit on their heads in public.
At Smith, too, other elements of her preoccupation with sex as power began to emerge. There is something sadistic in her pleasure in refusing even the most noncommital physical encounter. Of a man she refused to kiss, she wrote, “I knew as he bent to kiss my hand, that I was mistress of this last situation….” To the same man, she wrote challengingly, “I’ve drawn a line that men can’t pass except by force.” The idea of rape surfaces in repeated references throughout the rest of her life. “John,” she wrote to her husband’s sister, “never tried to rape me.”
Mitchell returned to Atlanta to keep house for her father and brother more as an excuse to leave school than out of domestic necessity. Despite the cook and the chauffeur-handyman, she found housekeeping exhausting.
The butler, who thought he was merely for ornamental purposes, received the shock of his youthful career when I walked in Monday, coupling my “Hello folks,” with “Wash the windows, wax the floors, polish the furniture.” After two days of labor (both for me and him—it was hard work making him work!) he privately thought I was the meanest white woman God ever made.
“Such tasks,” writes Pyron, “proved to be only more examples of the numberless obligations that fragmented her days, frayed her nerves, and drained her strength.” “The next year actually increased the pace,” he writes solemnly. “She debuted.”
Mitchell’s return toAtlanta also coincided with the onset of a lifetime of ambiguous physical suffering, some of it due to a steady occurrence of the accidents for which she was a magnet, and some of it due to hypochondriacal fantasy. At the end of her debut year, for instance, she summered largely in the local hospital, being treated for an undiagnosed illness whose cause was according to her that “just about everything below my waistline was out of place.”
After a contretemps with the local Junior League, possibly over a too daring Apache dance she performed at a charity event, Margaret became involved with a pair of roommates, both of whom she married, one after the other. The first husband, Red Upshaw, was a rough alcoholic ne’er-do-well; the second husband, John Marsh, a phlegmatic Mama’s boy who seems to have had some features in common with the plodding “old-maidish” Frank Kennedy character who is Scarlett O’Hara’s second husband. Upshaw, Mitchell, and Marsh were a strange threesome—Marsh was his rival’s best man, writing an almost comically Oedipal letter to his mother after the wedding. “Dearest Mother, there were many times when I wanted you terribly. No one else could have taken your place…. We’re all children even when we grow up, and we don’t want nobody else but our mothers some times.”
Mitchell’s marriage to Upshaw lasted ten months; Upshaw had failed even at bootlegging and had also behaved violently to his wife, culminating in a punch in the face mentioned in the divorce suit. In the aftermath of her separation from Upshaw, Mitchell went to work for the Sunday magazine of the Atlanta Journal. Mitchell herself saw this part of her life history as a step of heroic unconventionality: “I stopped being a nice girl and became a reporter,” she wrote, and described herself as “a product of that era when city editors kept long-handled polo mallets beside their desks just to shatter the skulls of applicants for jobs.” While Mitchell’s work at the Journal certainly represented daring and rebellion to her, her account of her Journal work obscures the fact that she worked as a features writer on the Sunday magazine, where, Pyron mentions, “almost all the staffers…were females; all the writers were.”
She not only obscures but doesn’t acknowledge another relevant fact; the Atlanta Journal was founded by the close Mitchell family friend Hoke Smith, and by Mitchell’s uncle. It is hard to imagine that being a niece of the founder, as well as the wealthy debutante daughter of a prominent family, would have had no bearing on her hiring, which is not to say that she was not a talented features writer. As Pyron points out, “She possessed a great sense of good leads.” The opening sentence of Gone With the Wind was probably the most perfect lead she ever wrote. With the keen sense of the pictorial that journalists in particular cultivated in those pretelevision days, the control of pace that Mitchell learned responding to deadlines and word limits, the smooth vocabulary purged of any complication, and an expert way with the well-timed anecdote, the prose style and structure of Gone With the Wind is descended from the style of features journalism.
At the Journal, Mitchell wrote features on such subjects as heroines of Georgia history, summer camps, and debutantes. Some of her newspaper work gives a helpful glimpse of the upper-class southern life of the Twenties that H.L. Mencken had mocked in his famous article “The Sahara of the Bozart.” In a piece on the adventures of Georgia debutantes on the Grand Tour, Mitchell records their responses to Europe and Egypt: “Oxford isn’t a bit like Tech or Georgia,” one says. And another describes the guide on their visit to Egypt: “Although he was a little too dark to be romantic, he had wonderful manners…. We didn’t waste any time on Tutankhamen. We couldn’t be bothered.” The girls drove “at top speed through the streets of Jerusalem” and giggled at the “Eastern women” who watched them “in horrified awe as we tore around in the car,…honking the horn…. We certainly had the right of way in the Holy Land.” Interestingly, Pyron asserts, “These bumptious, unpretentious provincial belles actually represented something close to the models that the author herself admired.” What comes through here, though, is hardly unpretentiousness, but the blindness of a provincial ruling class, whose inability to perceive life on other terms than its own is a point of pride, a demonstration of power.
Mitchell sharedin the concerns of the post–World War I flapper generation, though characteristically her approach to these issues seems personal to the point of egocentricity: “Could a girl be virtuous and bob her hair? Could she have a home and husband and children and a job too? Should she roll her stockings, park her corsets, be allowed a latch key?” Her newspaper work seems not to have taken her outside her milieu, judging from the number of pieces she wrote about debutantes. She seems not to have taken any notice of events like the Scopes trial, though she was a working journalist in 1925, and the southern newspapers were full of debate about an event that dramatically polarized the region. The tone of her relatively brief time as a journalist (four years) is, like her Apache dance, less one of considered rebellion than that of a madcap society girl, following the iron butterfly of her will.
John Marsh, the rival of Mitchell’s ex-husband, resurfaced during this period; they seem to have been fatally compatible. Mitchell, Pyron tells us, was “repulsed” by sex, and Marsh found “certain aspects of the [marriage] relationship…distasteful.” They agreed, however, to marry on Valentine’s Day of 1925, which produced an episode out of Freud by the Marx Brothers. The day after John informed his mother of the engagement, he got sick, oddly enough with symptoms described in a recent article of Mitchell’s. He had to be hospitalized, and “reached his lowest ebb on February 14.” After two months of hospitalization and convalescence he recovered enough to go through with the wedding, though he appears to have slept through most of the marriage while Mitchell amused herself looking over her collection of pornography, including picture postcards from Paris. Mitchell remarked, “I have to put him to bed around nine thirty except on the one night a week when we go out and hardly see him any other time.”
Not to be outdone, Mitchell herself got sick, nine significant months after the marriage, perhaps when she, who felt ambivalent to the point of hostility toward children, began to feel pressured by social expectations that she would have a baby. She was sick, she believed, because “a mysterious spring of corruption poisoned her whole body, and this toxic fountain became the source of…ailments…that plagued her in these years.” Mitchell’s marriage thereafter is the story of husband and wife alternating ailments and furiously repudiating doctors who frustratedly suggested their sufferings had “nervous” origins.
Mitchell left the paper when she married, and used her leisure to write. During 1926, she wrote a draft of a jazz age novel and a Southern Gothic novella, with “a hint of miscegenation,” according to her private secretary, Margaret Baugh, who recorded her memories of both stories in 1963. Mr. Pyron accepts Baugh’s memory of the first story, but seems at pains to refute her memory of anything to do with ” ‘Ropa Carmagin”; Mitchell’s lost story, he tells us, was a reworking of a story told her by an Alabaman “without anything to do with race or miscegenation…. Mitchell had her obsessions, but they did not include this category of folk.” It is not clear from the biography whether or not “‘Ropa Carmagin” was destroyed by Mitchell’s brother’s order, as the jazz age novel was.
Mr. Pyron, in any case, seems too insistent on this point; he can only say with strict truth that there are two memories of the story, one mentioning miscegenation, one not. Nor can he say so absolutely that Mitchell had no interest in the subject of miscegenation, since her papers have been preserved so selectively, and since the subject does figure in Gone With the Wind. Her brother, Stephens Mitchell, as Pyron himself points out, was burning papers until “the early sixties”; indeed the original draft of Gone With the Wind was burned. It seems manipulative of Mr. Pyron to accept the secretary’s memory in one case, but not the other, and to guide us so hastily away from the subject.
In 1926, Mitchell began writing Gone With the Wind. It is difficult to establish much about her process of writing it, or the time it took her, since Mitchell kept her book hidden from nearly everyone in her circle until it was published, and after publication, she circulated, as Pyron points out, “the most various chronologies and origins of her novel.” The time she claimed to have spent in writing the book lengthened, it seems, in proportion to the consistencywith which critics dismissed it as important literature. During the early years following its publication, she said that it was the work of three years, and could have been finished in one under better circumstances, but by 1942, “she now presented the decade-long labor as a fact.” It was so characteristic of Mitchell to change her story to suit her mood and her listener that she presents a biographer with particular problems; unless there is substantial external corroboration, we can never be sure that Mitchell is telling the truth. She handled inquiries about her work as she did personal relations, with the traditional belle’s opportunism; one friend describes her social character: “As soon as Peggy could discover or imagine the trend of one’s secret wish as regarded one’s self, she played up to it quite openly and laid on the flattering picture.”
The stories of Macmillan’s discovery of Gone With the Wind—Mitchell’s last-minute delivery of the manuscript to a publisher scouting the South for fiction, the change of the heroine’s name from Pansy to the more glamorous Scarlett, the title’s metamorphosis from Tomorrow Is Another Day to Gone With the Wind—are familiar, Gone With the Wind, with its enormous sales, record-breaking movie rights fee, and publicity spinoffs, became an industry for Mitchell and her family; the rest of Mitchell’s professional life was spent on Gone With the Wind business; there were foreign rights and contract disputes, while the rest of her writing time was absorbed by her insistence on sending personal replies to the countless letters she received. She had told Lillian Smith in 1936, during an interview before publication, that she hoped the Lord would protect her from writing another book, and she assisted him in answering her prayer.
Pyron also takes us over the old Hollywood ground; the public casting of Gable, the highly publicized search for Scarlett, the patchwork script, to which F. Scott Fitzgerald, who felt “a certain pity for those who consider it [the novel] the supreme achievement of the human mind,” contributed a minor scene or two.
Here is Margaret Mitchell railing with tart charm against the columns the producer added to Tara, which should have “looked nice and ugly like Alex Stephens’ Liberty Hall.” Mitchell was, as usual, having it both ways; she did after all take a farm called Rural Home and give it the name “Tara,” the home of the legendary kings of Ireland.
Pyron describes the maniacal excitement of Atlanta over the 1939 movie premiere; Clark Gable’s arrival eclipsed reports of Hitler’s ongoing war in Europe. Anti-aircraft spotlights were installed by Army technicians to light the stars’ arrival at the premiere. “This triumph blotted out the stigma of Appomattox,” writes Pyron.
It was Margaret Mitchell’s moment of maximum lionization. When Gable appeared at the theater, he reminded the crowd, “This night should belong to Margaret Mitchell.” What Pyron does not tell us is that the black stars were not invited to the premiere, against David Selznick’s protests. His representative in Atlanta persuaded him that it would be embarrassing to have to house the black actors in blacks-only hotels, and that their presence “might cause comment and might be a handle someone could seize and use as a club.” The programs distributed in the South deleted the picture of Hattie McDaniel that the northern programs retained.
Pyron lavishes his account of the premiere with details of Mitchell’s clothes—white velvet evening coat, pink tulle gown, and her speech, following the emcee’s fervent “God bless our little Peggy Marsh,” in which she thanked the taxi drivers, the Junior League, the bankers, and filling station attendants—“What could I have done—and my Scarlett—without their kindness and their helpfulness!” “It was classic Mitchell generosity,” writes Pyron.
What he does not tell us about were the painful and vitriolic divisions of black opinion over Gone With the Wind: Was it a bone with meat on it or was it a bone stripped bare? The whites-only Junior League ball Mitchell and the movie stars made their way to after the premiere was attended by another famous Atlantan. Martin Luther King, Senior, was present since his own Ebenezer church choir, dressed in “Mammy” costumes, serenaded the all-white audience under the direction of Mrs. King. Martin Luther King, Junior, ten years old, was sitting on the stage in pickaninny costume. It seems remarkable that Mr. Pyron does not add to his account of the Gone With the Wind premiere that the greatest black emancipator since the Civil War attended,dressed as a slave, what was probably the gaudiest celebration of white supremacy in the twentieth-century South. Martin Luther King, Senior, was severely censured by the Atlanta Baptist Ministers’ Union for his decision to participate in the event.
Pyron does not touch on the racial issues that making Gone With the Wind presented. While he describes the outrage of Mrs. Dolly Lamar Lunceford, president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, over foreigners playing southerners, he does not describe the negotiations of the NAACP with Selznick over the use of the word “nigger” in the script, or the proposals of various black activists that a black adviser be employed as consultant, as two white advisers, one northern, one southern, were. Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, wrote David Selznick to suggest that the film makers read W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, a wonderfully ironic suggestion since the historical substructure of Mitchell’s novel had its foundation in the accepted white southern view of Reconstruction. It was the second time Du Bois’s scholarship had been brought to the attention of a film maker; D.W. Griffith had offered a reward to anyone who could prove historical errors in Birth of a Nation, but refused to pay the African American scholars who accepted his challenge.
Selznick, to his honor, struggled to “make the Negro come out on the right side of the ledger.” “I feel so keenly,” he wrote, “about what is happening to the Jews of the world that I cannot help but sympathize with the Negroes and their fears….” While Selznick did substitute the word “darky” for “nigger” and substitute a white for the black man who attempts to rape Scarlett in the novel, the bulk of his changes—ridding the film of explicit references to the KKK and excising the book’s contemptuous speeches about “free niggers”—had less the effect of presenting a more accurate view of history than of removing any traces of white enslavement of and violence toward blacks. For all Selznick’s good intentions, the movie portrayal of blacks extended the astonishing sleight-of-hand of the book, which presented a picture of slavery that made it seem almost perfectly voluntary on the part of blacks, not to mention positively virtuous.
Fame brought Mitchell a corrosive blessing; she could never face the prospect of writing another book, a hard fate for a writer, while the attention given the book made more public its failure among serious reviewers, a failure she attributed to the influence of left-wing critics. She was bitterly defensive in identifying criticism of Gone With the Wind with leftist politics; in 1936, she wrote to the southern Civil War novelist Stark Young,
I would be upset and mortified if the Left Wingers liked the book. I’d have to do so much explaining to family and friends if the aesthetes and radicals of literature liked it. Why should they like it or like the type of mind behind the writing of it? Everything about the book and the mind are abhorrent to all they believe in. One and all they have savaged me and given me great pleasure.
Political liberalism and its connection to the criticism of Gone With the Wind seemed to preoccupy Mitchell increasingly in her late years. Her own politics were impeccably right wing, and she supported the notoriously racist Georgia governor Herman Talmadge, kept “Red” files on other southerners, including the social worker Katherine DuPre Lumpkin and the novelist Lillian Smith, and grew obsessively concerned with attacks on Gone With the Wind in Communist journals. “Between 1936 and 1944, no journals in the United States paid as much consistent attention to Mitchell’s novel and its cinematic avatar as New Masses and the Daily Worker,” writes Pyron. And these journals probably had few readers as avid as Margaret Mitchell, who believed their “ultra radical statements about ‘Gone With the Wind’ and the South…by 1946 were appearing [in] magazines heretofore considered conservative.”
Her last years were a welter of bitter politics and hypersensitivity to anyone she felt failed to do justice to GWTW, critically or financially (she hounded a Dutch publisher on a rights matter throughout the entire Nazi occupation of Holland), and the usual fights with doctors. Mitchell’s handling of a prominent cardiologist who advised her husband to stop smoking and exercise regularly after a heart attack is noteworthy for its characteristic combination of fantasy and aggression. She indignantly fired the doctor, and put her husband to bed for virtually two years, feeding him “spoonbread for breakfast,apple pie for lunch, caramel pie and peppermint ice cream for supper.” He never again, after this regime, returned to work or normal life. Four years after Marsh’s heart attack, in August 1949, Mitchell was struck by a speeding taxicab and died in an Atlanta hospital, killed by the last of the series of accidents that had begun in childhood and recurred throughout her life.
Mr. Pyron’s biography is courageous in its revelations of some aspects of Margaret Mitchell’s life, while programmatically evasive toward others. It cannot have been easy for a champion of Gone With the Wind to have recorded in much greater detail than in previous biographies Mitchell’s troubled sexuality, hypochondria, and the near fanaticism of her right-wing politics, or the neurotic degree to which personal fantasy governed her life. Mr. Pyron has effectively corrected the public image so carefully cultivated in her lifetime of the author as an ordinary housewife.
His unfortunate occasional attempts at novelizing scenes of Mitchell’s life and a florid, sometimes pompous prose style, reminiscent of the intensely oratorical American Abimelech V. Oover in Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, undercut somewhat impressions of his frankness. His habit of referring to the young Margaret Mitchell as “the child” in hushed tones is off-putting, while his must be one of the very few biographies published in the late twentieth century that calls an American teen-ager a “maid.”
The stunning length devoted to the short-lived author of a single book is testimony to Pyron’s ambition on behalf of Margaret Mitchell and her novel, as is the elaborate critical account he gives of Gone With the Wind.
In order to make his case for the novel, Mr. Pyron must struggle to present it as offering radically innovative views of its period, a novel almost exclusively concerned with “the burden of contradiction” that “was a woman’s life.” Mr. Pyron’s view of the book, like his account of Margaret Mitchell’s life, is based on his presentation of her novel as essentially a domestic story: “the larger purpose of her novel,” he tells us, was “to write women’s history.” But this claim gives us an incomplete, evasive, and ultimately specious view of the novel, as Mr. Pyron’s reduction of Mitchell’s childhood to essentially the history of one relationship, Margaret’s and her mother’s, gives us only the most partial understanding of who she was or the period she grew up in, the pervasive intensity of its legally sanctioned racism, and the incalculable pressures on whites who questioned that racism, threats that were not only social, but intimate.
We can imagine the pressures on whites who rebelled through the plot of another popular novel, The Godfather, in which the hero has to embrace criminal life or lose his family’s love and respect. The Atlanta of Pyron’s biography is largely confined to the interior of Mitchell’s houses and the Piedmont Driving Club, in order to facilitate his effort to portray a woman who lived an essentially conventional upper-class southern life as a rebel, and in order to elude the difficulties of making a case for a whites-only novel as a work of art. If Gone With the Wind is primarily about what is now fashionably called gender issues, then we must draw the strange conclusion that there are no black women.
In Gone With the Wind, Pyron tells us, “race and politics and their Reconstruction moral are quite irrelevant, constituting no more than a backdrop for the real story—Scarlett O’Hara’s struggle against the confines of Southern womanhood.” “Slavery as a social or economic system hardly exists in the novel,” though Mitchell expends many pages in her Reconstruction section praising it as a better way of life for blacks than freedom. Nor can we find in the world of the southern household any safety from racial issues. “Slavery,” wrote South Carolinian William Henry Trescott before the Civil War, “informs all our modes of life, all our habits of thought, lies at the basis of our social existence, and of our political faith.” Slavery and racism underlay every aspect of southern life from social behavior to philosophical thinking to erotic love. White assumptions about blacks permeated colloquial southern speech, apparent even in the ordinary conversation of Mitchell’s daily life: she describes John Marsh as sleeping more “than any white boy I ever saw,” and when Marsh seeks a metaphor for working hard what comes to mind is, “I was sweating like four niggers.”
It is hopeless to retreat from the problem of racism to Mitchell’s personal and Scarlett’sfictional struggles against the role of the “icon” the “Southern Lady,” a figure utterly entangled with the practice of slavery. We can look at Scarlett’s own definition of southern ladyhood: “She knew she would never feel like a lady again…until black hands and not white took the cotton from Tara.” And when does Rhett cease to be a renegade and prove himself the lady’s counterpart, the traditional southern gentleman? In his words, “I’ll frankly admit…I did kill the nigger. He was uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do?”
In addition, Scarlett is no rebel; her only protest against the absolute power of the southern patriarch, a power so absolute that the Alabama Supreme Court could not define any limit for it, is that she is not a patriarch. Her rebellion is over the degree of her personal power, not over the nature of that power, her quarrel only over exchanging one role for another more powerful one in a system she thoroughly accepts. How does Scarlett escape the confines of southern womanhood? By embracing for herself the absolute power of southern manhood.
Pyron has claimed that criticisms of Gone With the Wind as a novel that is an apology for racism are criticisms on “cultural” or “sociological,” not strictly “literary” grounds. But racism is an imaginative as well as an ethical failure; Mitchell’s failure to imagine black people as fully human is a devastating artistic failure, although it mirrors her culture’s failure to do so; and that failure falsifies her view of the relationships she describes while it overtly distorts her book’s picture of the past. Mitchell has not an ambiguous perception of reality, but a demonstrably false one. There is a point at which the intersection of imagination and moral life becomes inevitable, since the faculty of imagination is one of the elements that make moral life possible. And there is a point of inevitable intersection between literature and culture, since the stories people believe about what happened in the past will often govern the way they lead their lives.
Gone With the Wind was the culmination of a line of polemic southern fiction that preceded the war, gained momentum after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin through proslavery novels like The Planter’s Northern Bride, and was carried on even more fervently after Reconstruction by writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon. It was a missionary literature, pleading the Confederate cause in antebellum years, and insistently continuing the war by other means when it was lost. Thomas Nelson Page wrote in his 1898 novel, Red Rock, “It was for lack of literature that [the Southerner] was left behind in the great race for outside support, and that in the supreme moment of her existence, she found herself arraigned at the bar of the world without an advocate and without a defense.” Thomas Dixon’s works had the same underlying intention; he said exultantly of The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 movie based on his novel, that “every man who comes out of one of our theatres is a Southern partisan for life.” Some of the elements of the southern literature of advocacy vary, but the basic propositions of the creed remained unchanged; the uncritical certainty of the justice of the Confederate cause, the belief that the South had created a superior civilization that flowered in the antebellum past, and the conviction that black people were inferior to white people and needed to be ruled by them.
These elements of the advocacy school of fiction stayed continuous from Page’s Cavalier mansions to Mitchell’s lusty red clay country, whether the blacks were worshipful peasants, as in Stark Young’s 1934 So Red the Rose: “Valette had a way of ordering the servants like a young tyrant, and the Negroes adored her for it,” or “autocrats of the kitchen” like Mitchell’s Mammy and Uncle Peter. In each case, the atmosphere is different; Thomas Nelson Page’s books have the earnest flavor of tracts, while Stark Young’s novel is a haughty guide to good manners for the uncouth, and Gone With the Wind has more in common with the vernacular of advertising. Scarlett is like something out of a perfume ad; a tempestuous, photogenic heroine, a “wild mad night,” almost photographic scene-setting, a realism of decor that, as advertising has recognized, is often the most successful way of promoting fantasy. And it is as fantasy rather than literature that Gone With the Wind was so readily embraced byreaders.
Stephen Vincent Benet inadvertently struck home when he wrote that it reminded him of his childhood experiences of reading. An Atlanta news-paperwoman wrote of it when it was published, “I don’t know whether Gone With the Wind is a true picture of the South of those days. But I do know that it is a true picture of the picture of those days that I had gotten when a child.” Gone With the Wind is a kind of macabre children’s book, with its toylike stereotypes, its universe of people who are good when they do as they are told and bad when they don’t, its handling of facts and human beings as no more than components of a single will. With its primitive and unexamined fantasies and beliefs transferred intact onto the page, it offers a child’s interpretation of history; it is a bedtime story for the white South.
Mitchell’s family were in a sense official custodians of southern history; her father was president of the Atlanta Historical Society, her brother edited a local history journal, and she described her mother as “an authority on Southern history.” Were there black members of the Atlanta Historical Society during Mitchell’s lifetime? Almost certainly not. That Mitchell set out to write a historical novel suggests how conscious she was of this family legacy, and her much publicized preoccupation with verifying historical detail reinforces the impression. But as any editor will testify, fact-checking is not quite the same task as research. Mitchell wrote a somnambulist’s historical novel; she seems to be unconscious of the meaning of many of the details she so carefully verified, and, as in a dream, contradictory fragments are set side by side without examination in her book, while the reader of Gone With the Wind is supposed to dream his way past these contradictions, to think about them tomorrow. Does no one notice that Rhett, supposedly a figure of romance, is a murderer of black men? Does no one notice that Tony Fontaine, the flower of Clayton County youth, kills a black man, naturally for making a sexual approach to a white woman. And what is the invincible Scarlett’s response to this? ” ‘What can we do with devils who’d hang a nice boy like Tony just for killing a drunken buck and a scoundrelly Scallawag to protect his women folks?… There were thousands of women like her, all over the South, who were frightened and helpless.”
This passage slips past in its unconscious confidence that it will occur to no one that black women stood in far greater need of protection from white men, who exercised a complete sexual tyranny. And the reader drowsing over his julep can also be relied on not to register the odd notion that the central establishing act of gentlemanly white virility is murder—for Tony Fontaine, for Rhett, and Ashley, and even Frank Kennedy, Scarlett’s effeminate second husband. Here Tony recounts a killing to Frank: ” ‘No, by God, I cut him to ribbons.’ ‘Good,’ said Frank casually. ‘I never liked the fellow.’ Scarlett looked at him. This was not the meek Frank she knew…. There was an air about him that was crisp and cool…. He was a man.” And when Scarlett discovers that Frank and Ashley have set out to lynch the men she encountered on the Shantytown Road, she is told, “Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan and Ashley, too, and all the men we know…. They are men, aren’t they? And white men and Southerners.” Scarlett, too, has entered into this fraternity of murder by killing a marauding Yankee soldier.
Mitchell seems almost thematically unaware of the significance of even the details she records of daily life. In a novel partly set on a plantation, we are shown only one Tara servant who is married and has a child; incredible from many perspectives, including the fact that black children were salable commodities on plantations. In chapter one, the Tarleton twins’ servant Jeems tells his masters, “Ah heap rather de paterrollers git me dan Mis Beetriss when she in a state,” a single minimizing reference to the patrols funded by plantation owners to capture runaway slaves. One of the many reasons it was important to keep slaves illiterate was that they would not be able to write out passes for themselves to show the patrols.
Even a simple detail of costume in the novel reveals an ignorance on Mitchell’s part that approaches brutality. In the famous scene after the birthof Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter, Mammy celebrates by wearing a red petticoat Rhett has given her as a present, in a scene intended to show the teasing affection and warmth that existed between blacks and whites. The scene takes on a different contour if we look closely at the petticoat. Black women, of course, couldn’t wear hoops—they had to be mobile to fetch and carry, and hoops were costly. A slave remembers, “De white women wore hoops skirts but I neber seed a black woman wid one on. Dey jes starched their petticoats an’ made their dresses stand out like hoops under dem.”
Details like these help us see how impossible it is in novels about the South to isolate one element of southern life such as the lives of white southern women, and declare it to be a zone free of the consequences of slavery; the enslavement of blacks was not only an inescapable reality of southern life, but became, even more defensively as the institution was challenged, a central feature of southern values. Its shadow was everywhere; Mitchell was helpless to keep it out of even the affair between Rhett and Scarlett, which has inexplicably been taken for a love story, when it is almost entirely expressed through the imagery of slave and master. Although human beings can sustain an astonishing level of contradiction, it seems useful to point out yet again that the central sexual act of this love story is a rape; in fact, it is sex used punitively, as punishment for Scarlett’s infidelity. And Scarlett’s response to this romantic night in which Rhett “had humbled her, hurt her, used her brutally”? She feels “passion…as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee….she could hold the whip over [Rhett’s] insolent black head…. From now on she had him where she wanted him….where she could make him jump through any hoops she cared to hold.” Isn’t it romantic?
Gone With the Wind is a historical novel which exists to obscure and conceal the reality of the past. It has less claim to being a classic than Atlanta’s other most popular product, Cocacola. If Mitchell had a genius, it was genius for omission, operating even in her choice of the title Gone With the Wind. It is the last half of a line from an Ernest Dowson poem—the full line reads, “I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind!”
Although Gone With the Wind has been praised by Pyron among others for the innovation of the realism with which it supposedly presents the frontier quality of plantation life of the southern interior, a far more powerful work of realism which presents a much less glamorous picture of plantation life was published, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931, predating Gone With the Wind by five years. Curiously, Margaret Mitchell appears not to have read T.S. Stribling’s The Forge. But Mr. Pyron’s biography also indicates that she made no comment during her lifetime about any book by William Faulkner, the preeminent southern novelist whose publication history spans Mitchell’s entire adult writing life, and whose Absalom! Absalom! was published in the same year as Gone With the Wind. The Tennesseeborn Stribling’s novel is a remarkable work of realism of the Dreiser school. Dreiser himself wrote that it “is the only novel of all those attempting to cover either the Southern or Northern point of view, that I think worth a straw…it is fair to life and to the individual in the South who found himself placed as he was at that time. Really, it is a beautiful book—dramatic, amusing, sorrowful, true.”2
Stribling’s fictional plantation is not named Tara; it is called “Old man Jimmie Vaiden’s home…half a house and half a fort.” Vaiden has risen from the trade of blacksmith to the dignity of a landed man, and Stribling gives a scrupulous picture of the plantation life of the interior South, the town general store, the small-scale brawls, the range of opinion about the practicality of secession, the crudity of its amusements. When news of Fort Sumter reaches Vaiden’s neighborhood, the boys celebrate by shooting at iron anvils and enjoying their noise in the same spirit in which they now rush for their car horns on New Year’s Eve.
Faulkner’s powerful exploration of the consequences of southern life reveals the racking double life that racism imposes on blacks and whites, but at times can make racism seem a matter more of inner life. Stribling’s novelshows us, without melodrama, slavery as an integral part of domestic life; it is a world of casual arbitrary power over the lives and deaths of human beings, where men and women are material sold in as quotidian a way as dress lengths, where the sale of someone’s black husband or wife may be financing the preparation for a white relative’s wedding. It is the breathtaking ordinariness of slavery as Stribling narrates it that is more shocking than acts of deliberate and calculated cruelty that have sometimes made enslavement seem the work of a few insane perverts. Stribling’s pleasant, attractive white heroine is capable of impulsive acts of generosity toward the attractive, pleasant slave girl who neither realizes is her half sister, but while Marcia is happy to lend a pretty dress to Grace, she is outraged when she is ordered to put on the dress “after a nigger’s had it on!”
Stribling’s black characters are seen through the multiple unstable relationships they had to the world of the white masters. Stribling is not afraid to write a scene in which a slave encounters the patrol without a pass, to let us see how danger, oppression, and duplicity were part of daily life, as the slave expresses his joy to the white patrol over the Confederate victory at Manassas, and later, in the quarters, tells the other slaves of his despair over the outcome of the battle. The steady, determined documentary intention Stribling brings to his account of southern life of this period exposes the domineering insistence of Mitchell’s selectivity in her treatment of the era. None of the real artist’s delicate, patient, risky effort to explore the relationship of what he imagines to external reality is practiced.
In Mitchell’s novel, the imagination is not employed for the purposes of creation, but as an extension of her will. Margaret Mitchell’s approach to the problems of human relationships, of history, to the external world, is to create a counter-world in which things are what she says they are. Gone With the Wind gives us frightening and useful insights into the operations of imagination corrupted by power, and into the processes through which white fantasies about black people were enacted as legislation.
Now, with the blessing of the Mitchell estate, we can tote the weary load of a sequel, written by the romance novelist Alexandra Ripley. An enterprising computer, possibly the audience most suited to Ripley’s novel, has determined that it has a fourth-grade reading level, as opposed to the original novel’s fifth-grade reading level.
Communism evolved an official fiction in which novels were interchangeable; official ideology made possible the novel without an author. Late capitalism seems to have developed a novel whose only content is its own publicity. Ripley’s book is nothing more than a promotion for a novel she didn’t write; Scarlett, Rhett, and other characters recycled from Mitchell’s novel show up in the sequel like guests on TV talk shows, flogging their forthcoming movies, or in this case, their appearance in Ripley’s novel.
Scarlett, the product of the land of the fee and the home of the slave, is excruciatingly dull: Otherwise its effect alternates between the comic and the pitiful. It is pitiful to witness the tiny gnat of Ms. Ripley’s imagination beating against the impenetrable glass of fiction, but what she has done with the figures of Rhett and Scarlett is almost compulsively comic.
The plot of the novel is very simple; it consists almost entirely of shopping. After Melanie’s funeral, Scarlett follows Rhett to Charleston, where he has retreated to the company of the mother he “worships,” Ripley tells us approvingly. In Charleston, Scarlett makes friends with Rhett’s mother; they shop together. Rhett, that former master of the theatrically burning gaze, has changed. Ripley’s Rhett takes Scarlett sailing and points out dolphins, saying, “I always think they’re smiling, and I always smile back. I love dolphins, always have.”
A storm forces Rhett and Scarlett to a beach, where they engage in an impulsive act of sex, of “swirling, spiraling rapture” that brought nothing to mind so vividly as the name of an old recipe: Shrimps Aflame.
Even sex is a form of shopping in Ripley’s novel, since its sole purpose is to acquire Rhett. At any rate, the couple quarrel, and Scarlett visits Savannah, where she goes shopping. She returns to her ancestral Ireland, where she acquires land and another child by Rhett from their beach rapture. She also hires a decorator for her country house,who does the child’s room with a “frieze of alphabet animal paintings” and “child-size chairs and tables.” She and Rhett are eventually reconciled, a reunion which doubtless increases their purchasing power.
Far more important than anything else Alexandra Ripley has written is the contract she signed with the Mitchell estate not to include miscegenation in her sequel. Her agent, Robert Gottlieb, clarified the agreement for New York Post reporters by explaining “that falls under the category of bizarre sexual behavior.” The contractual acceptance of this literary Nuremberg law is shocking, but so is the phlegmatic public response. What would have been the response if a neo-Nazi novelist had signed a major book contract on the basis of excluding any romance between Jews and Germans? Or a black novelist had agreed to exclude sexual relationships between blacks and Jews?
The taboo against interracial sex remains central to white and black racism, partly because interracial sex represents to racists a relinquishing of power, an acceptance of the common humanity of the partners. It is a marvelous irony that being human is the greatest terror of all. Given the treacherous complexities of the history of blacks and whites in relation to each other, and given the pressures exerted on interracial lovers by both whites and blacks, interracial romance is always a matter of emotional intricacy, and at times, of heroic love. It is a paradoxical spectacle to see this display of contempt for human love by a writer whose trade is the romance novel. It is also a paradoxical spectacle to see that a novel in which shopping is the principal erotic experience is not considered sexually bizarre.
Alexandra Ripley, the Mitchell heirs, and the publishers who cooperated with this agreement are still whistling Dixie, that defunct national anthem whose message to its followers is still “Look Away, look away.”
December 19, 1991