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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?

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