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Thursday, June 30, 2016

June 30, 2016: Gone with the Wind Turns 80: Revisiting Rhett Butler



[June 30th marks the 80th anniversary of the initial publication of one of the 20th century’s bestselling novels, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). So this week I’ll offer a handful of thoughts on the book and its legacies, as well as some of the broader issues to which it connects.]
On why I’d still critique Mitchell’s hero, and a more interesting side I’ve come to better appreciate.
Earlier in the week I referenced my first published article, which appeared in the Southern Literary Journal just over 13 years ago: “‘What Else Could a Southern Gentleman Do?’: Quentin Compson, Rhett Butler, and Miscegenation.” The quoted question in that title comes from the pivotal scene, early in Mitchell’s second half, when Scarlett finds Rhett in jail; he’s shot and killed an African American man for “being uppity to a [white] lady” (614), and asks the question of Scarlett. But as I noted in yesterday’s post, for the whole first half of the novel Rhett has resisted and challenged the stereotypical “Southern gentleman” worldview on issues like slavery and the Civil War, such as in the key scene where he argues that the “Southern way of living is as antiquated as the feudal system of the Middle Ages. … It had to go and it’s going now” (238). This moment and statement in prison thus represents a striking change in his perspective and character—one that will continue throughout the remainder of the novel, culminating in his final decision to leave Scarlett in search of somewhere in the South “where some of the old times must still linger” (1022).
In my article I called Rhett’s transformation into a conservative white supremacist the greatest failing of Mitchell’s novel, and I would still say the same. After all, she creates Rhett as a really compelling and attractive romantic male lead (including for the reason I’ll get to in the next paragraph), and thus draws readers into feeling the same continued interest in him that Scarlett does (despite Scarlett’s repeated attempts to focus instead on the far more conventional Ashley Wilkes). As a result, we’re willing to go along with Rhett into those white supremacist perspectives far more easily than we otherwise might have been (at least if we’re more progressive readers), and even to see our own move, like his, as simply a begrudging recognition of the realities of Reconstruction’s “horrors,” of racial equality and the threat of miscegenation, and a bunch of other mythic nonsense that Mitchell’s second half fully and frustratingly perpetuates. (Rhett’s and Scarlett’s realizations of what “Reconstruction in all its implications” means [635] indeed comprise a key arc of Mitchell’s second half.) For all those reasons, with Clark Cable’s uber-charismatic film performance layered on top of them, I would call Rhett one of the most destructive characters in American literature.
No literary work can or should be defined through the lens of a single social or political issue, though, and Mitchell’s novel isn’t simply or solely about race and the South (important as it is to keep those themes in mind). And if we turn instead to the question of gender roles and expectations, Rhett, like Scarlett, becomes a more consistently complex and genuinely attractive character. As I argue in my article’s opening, Scarlett appears to be a Southern belle stereotype (with her “magnolia-white skin” and “seventeen-inch waist” [5]) but throughout the novel challenges and undermines those images, becoming instead an increasingly independent and strong woman. Similarly, while Rhett could be superficially described as a classic gentlemanly suitor, I would argue that his continued interest in Scarlett is due instead to his recognition of how different she is from the stereotype—particularly if we contrast their relationship with that of the far more conventional/stereotypical Southern characters Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. If readers are going to continue falling in love with Rhett—and again, it’s very hard to read Mitchell’s novel and not find him attractive—at least he offers (especially for the time periods of the novel’s 19th century setting and its early 20th century publication) a relatively nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of gender and identity.
Last Gone post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Memories or perspectives on Gone with the Wind you’d share?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

June 29, 2016: Gone with the Wind Turns 80: The Plantation Tradition



[June 30th marks the 80th anniversary of the initial publication of one of the 20th century’s bestselling novels, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). So this week I’ll offer a handful of thoughts on the book and its legacies, as well as some of the broader issues to which it connects.]
On one important—if ironic—way that Mitchell’s novel revised historical narratives.
I’ve been pretty hard on Gone with the Wind in this week’s first two posts, and am going to continue to be pretty hard on it in the last two; to paraphrase one of my very favorite film lines, the contexts for which would comprise a huge spoiler for the film in question so I’m not gonna give them, “Gone is a goddamn legend; it can handle it.” But I would be remiss if I didn’t dedicate at least one post to highlighting and analyzing an aspect of Mitchell’s novel that deserves a great deal of praise: the skeptical, and at times even downright subversive, perspectives on the antebellum South and the Civil War that she allows her main characters Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara (respectively) to voice in some key passages in the novel’s first half. To cite only a couple examples: Rhett tells Scarlett that he’s happy to make his wartime fortune out of “the wreckage” of the antebellum South (193-194), having consistently poked fun at that society and its stylized and outmoded customs and social mores during the novel’s pre-war period; and when it comes to the war Scarlett goes even further, arguing in response to some proudly Confederate neighbors that the South’s cause is “not sacred” but rather “silly” (171).
You don’t have to be particularly familiar with the literary and historical contexts for Mitchell’s novel to recognize such lines for the unexpected and surprising moments they are. But there’s one especially salient literary context that makes the point even clearer: the plantation tradition. As scholar Donna Campbell details at length on that site (part of her wonderful webpage), the plantation tradition comprised a dominant form of American local color writing in the late 19th and early 20th century, one through which idealized images of the slave South and the Lost Cause and many related historical myths were created, amplified, and communicated to mass national audiences. Mitchell would famously write to Thomas W. Dixon, one of the tradition’s most prominent and influential purveyors, that she was “practically raised” on his novels; she sent him the letter in response to one from Dixon to her in which he had called Gone “the greatest story of the South ever put down on paper.” Yet despite the similarities in her second-half portrayal of Reconstruction to those in Dixon’s Clansman and Birth of a Nation (the troubling issues about which I wrote in Monday’s post), there’s simply no way to read Gone with the Wind and miss the distinctions in her first-half depictions of the antebellum South and the Civil War from those of the plantation tradition’s defining works.
Or so you’d think. Yet one of the most enduring legacies of Mitchell’s novel (and, certainly, its film adaptation) has been the formation of communities of Windies, groups of uber-fans who have undoubtedly read the novel as frequently and thoroughly as any audiences could and yet who seem to focus much of their attention on recreating precisely a “moonlight and magnolias” version of the antebellum South. How do we explain this central Gone with the Wind irony? Certainly Mitchell’s troubling second half, and especially Rhett Butler’s culminating conversion to a nostalgic Lost Cause devotee (on which more tomorrow), has played a role. So too has an overarching fascination with the Old South and its belles, beaus, and balls, a cultural narrative that has adopted Gone as an iconic text despite the novel’s aforementioned critiques of many elements of the Old South. Whether we place the blame more on Mitchell or on her (and our) culture and society, we can in any case certainly learn a lot about how historical myths are created and perpepuated. Yet we shouldn’t allow that process to overshadow the interesting moments and ways in which Mitchell’s characters and novel resist and challenge such mythmaking.
Next Gone post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Memories or perspectives on Gone with the Wind you’d share?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

June 28, 2016: Gone with the Wind Turns 80: Hattie McDaniel



[June 30th marks the 80th anniversary of the initial publication of one of the 20th century’s bestselling novels, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). So this week I’ll offer a handful of thoughts on the book and its legacies, as well as some of the broader issues to which it connects.]

On the power, limitations, and possibilities of performance.

To follow up on this post on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus and its cultural legacies, another argument for re-releasing Disney’s controversial and currently shelved film Song of the South (1946) would be that it features one of the final film performances of Hattie McDaniel, the multi-talented singer and actress who performed in more than 90 films (!) between 1932 and 1949 and who became in 1940 the first African American to win an Academy Award (for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind [1939]). In many ways, McDaniel, whose parents were former slaves and whose father fought with the US Colored Troops during the Civil War, embodies the most inspiring kind of American life; and her Oscar victory, like her legendary and hugely successful film career, reflects just how culturally and socially influential that life was. You can’t tell the story of the rise of Hollywood in the 1930s without a chapter on Hattie McDaniel.

But does it matter to that story that so many of McDaniel’s most famous characters, from Mammy in Gone and Aunt Tempy in Song to the nostalgic post-Civil War mammy figure in Shirley Temple’s The Little Colonel (1935), embodied stereotypical, even mythic, visions of African American identity, figures for whom slavery seemed to be the pleasant idyll of plantation tradition legend and in whose life the highest duty seemed to be caring for young white children? The preponderence of such roles is, to my mind, a reflection of McDaniel’s era and culture far more than of any choices or emphases of hers; but nonetheless, it does seem impossible to tell McDaniel’s individual story without recognizing the ways in which it too often dovetailed with a broader, longstanding, and still in that period dominant narrative of African American identity and community. Which is to say, an Academy Award-winning performance as a mammy is still a performance as a mammy—and one hardly (if at all) distinguishable from century-old images of that stock type.
Yet if the type had not changed much, the performers certainly had. The Mammy role in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, was played by a white actress, Jennie Lee, in blackface; a quarter of a century later McDaniel would win her Oscar. Change and progress aren’t always pretty, and they’re hardly ever ideal; but the shift from Lee to McDaniel—like McDaniel’s busy and successful two decades of work more generally—represents change and progress to be sure. Indeed, it’s fair to ask whether the far more complex female slave characters and performances in two ground-breaking recent historical films—Django Unchained’s Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and 12 Years a Slave’s Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)—would have been possible without Hattie McDaniel and her mammies. I don’t know that they would have—and I certainly know that McDaniel comprised a vital, and far too easily dismissed, step along the way.
Next Gone post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Memories or perspectives on Gone with the Wind you’d share?