Friday, July 1, 2016
July 1, 2016: Gone with the Wind Turns 80: The Worst and Best of Popularity
[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 problems and possibilities presented by troubling popular art.
A few years back, I started a week-long series on popular fiction with a post on the continued relevance of Jane Tompkins’ scholarly concept of the “cultural work” done by 19th century popular novels. As I noted there, Tompkins sought to revise and expand the literary canon as it had been developed over the prior half-century of criticism by redefining “greatness,” focusing not on intrinsic aesthetic qualities or successes so much as texts’ extrinsic social and cultural effects. Her most central example was the 19th century’s bestselling American novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that exemplifies cultural work, having impacted American society (in its own moment and for the century and a half that has followed) on countless levels. If we were to apply the same lens and argument to 20th century American literature, it’d be difficult to make the case for another work having been more popular and successful—and thus, at least potentially, having had a wider and more significant set of effects, in its own moment and in subsequent decades—than Gone with the Wind.
Yet as my posts this week have illustrated, from the perspective of either progressive political beliefs or a multicultural definition of American identity Mitchell’s novel did far different, and far more destructive, cultural work than did Stowe’s (which was itself, to be clear, far from perfect on issues of race and culture, but still significantly better-intentioned than Mitchell’s book). So what do us public AmericanStudies scholars do with that sort of popular fiction, one where the popularity and appeals and legacy are impossible to separate from cultural work that we’d spend a career resisting and challenging? The easy but (to my mind) unacceptable answer would be to argue that Mitchell’s novel (and/or the just as popular film adaptation) should be, not censored entirely, but less frequently read or viewed, that its continued cultural presence should be minimized. Yet even if that weren’t a deeply problematic thing to argue (and I would say that it is, one that’s much too close to censorship for my liking), I don’t believe it would lead in our current society to collective conversation or understandings. Instead, public scholars arguing that something shouldn’t be read as much seems guaranteed simply to put it on a required reading list for those individuals and communities who feel themselves opposed to our perspectives.
So if we accept that Mitchell’s compelling and enduring novel will continue to be read, what then? We could of course make the case for other texts that complement and complicate her novel, although the two contemporary works that I would particularly highlight—W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America (1935) and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936)—are about as far from page-turning bestsellers as books can get. But in any case, it’d be even more important to talk collectively, as I’ve tried to model in individual ways this week, about Gone with the Wind itself—about its strengths as well its flaws, about why and how it has endured as well as what mythic and troubling narratives it has reflected and perpetuated, about what it means to love a work of art and how even (indeed, especially) when we do it’s important to be able to be analytical and critical about it. I believe those are conversations we can all take part in, ones that parallel the best kinds of classroom discussions, and ones through which we can help a popular work like Gone with the Wind move into its ninth decade in a meaningful as well as pleasurable way.
June recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Memories or perspectives on Gone with the Wind you’d share?