"Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
"As she chattered and laughed and cast quick glances into the house and the yard, her eyes fell on a stranger, standing alone in the hall, staring at her in a cool impertinent way that brought her up sharply with a mingled feeling of feminine pleasure that she had attracted a man and an embarrassed sensation that her dress was too low on her bosom."
Is it the great American novel? Is it the great novel of the South? Is it racist propaganda? Is it undeserving of its reputation? Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind is is certainly some of these things, but not all of them.
For the record, I enjoyed this book immensely. For me it worked both as a love story and as a historical novel. And I say this as someone who approached it without either a great interest in love stories or Southern history. I also say this as someone who tries to approach every novel with an open mind, and as someone ready to accept a novel on its own terms, without too much thought about what kind of message it should impart.
Even so, a book as old, as celebrated, and as fashionably reviled as Gone with the Wind has drawn many criticisms over the years. I feel the need to address at least some of these criticisms here. The four major criticisms are as follows:
1. It's too long.
This I think is a valid complaint. There are moments in this book when the level of detail is a real strength, and when it lends to the events described an immediacy and vividness that they wouldn't otherwise have, but there are also times when this book just gets SLOW, and when I began to ask myself if it wouldn't be better just to skip ahead. The passages centering around Scarlett and Rhett's relationship are always interesting, but I feel like some of the early Reconstruction stuff could have been left out, particularly the business about Scarlett's mill.
2. It's racist.
Well... yes, of course. It's a book about a society predicated on racism, so of course it's racist. The real question is, does it promote racist values? I don't think so. When Mitchell uses words like "nigger" and "darky," when she describes African-Americans in animalistic terms, she's describing a worldview prevalent in the South at that time. Using vocabulary other than that used in the pre- and post-Reconstruction South would have made Gone with the Wind feel anachronistic, and would have distanced the reader from the story.
The descriptions of African-Americans in this book are indeed degrading, and fail to tell the whole story of who these people were - but that's the whole point. People of Scarlett and Rhett's class would have failed to see them as the individuals they truly were, and would have also failed to recognize the personal struggles that shaped their behavior. In this, I think, Mitchell is only holding true to the time period she's describing.
3. It glamorizes the Ku Klux Klan.
This is a really weak argument. It will ring false for anyone who's actually bothered to read the book, especially given the fates that befall several Klansmen and the Klan itself in the novel. None of the main characters take the Klan all that seriously, and the characters that do end up looking somewhat ridiculous because of their devotion.
4. It's boring.
This depends on what sort of books you favor. If you like sprawling Victorian novels you'll love Gone with the Wind. If you like authors such as Faulkner you'll find in this novel the "foundation" over which they wrote. If you like Dickens, you'll love Rhett Butler. If you like historical novels you'll like this one, too.
If, however, you like clipped, modern sorts of novels, you'll probably hate Gone with the Wind. If you're looking for philosophical abstraction and impressionistic prose, you'll find almost none of that here. This book is a slow burn, and if you have the patience you'll be rewarded. If you lack the patience, however, you probably won't be bothering with this novel in the first place!
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