Once upon a time, a female journalist with a taste for history and erotica broke her leg and decided to spend her downtime writing a novel that could combine her two interests. The end result was a long, somewhat maudlin soap opera detailing the tempestuous love affair between two abusive, angry drunks. After being rejected by dozens of publishers, our heroine finally managed to get her opus published, where it was an instant success. Not only did this work conquer the bestseller lists, it was also adapted into a highly successful film that swept the 1940 Oscars and became even more of a pop culture icon than the original book. Alas, success was short-lived for our heroine, and she was killed roughly ten years after the release of the movie based on her only published work.
By now, the reader has probably figured out that the author in question is Margaret Mitchell and the book is Gone With the Wind. Mitchell is probably Atlanta’s favorite native child, whose popularity is only matched by MLK. While the star of Atlanta’s other antebellum romanticist, Joel Chandler Harris, has dimmed considerably in the past (not the least because the Wren’s Nest used to be run by a group of insane segregationist women) the various cottage industries that have popped up in the wake of GWTW’s success are still going strong, at least as of now.
The problem with simultaneously feting Margaret Mitchell and MLK should be obvious, since these figures represent two completely different takes on Southern history. While Margaret Mitchell considered herself to be a liberal, she never questioned the Confederate cause or white supremacy. GWTW reflects the Lost Cause view of history, in which secession was a noble, but doomed endevour and “good negroes” knew their place (which was being the property of some white person). Mitchell was influenced by Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s novel The Clansman, which was the source material for The Birth of a Nation, especially the idea of creating a family saga using the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Indeed, one could argue that GWTW takes the plot of The Birth of a Nation and simply tells it from a distaff perspective. The crude racism of The Clansman/The Birth of a Nation is missing in GWTW, not because Mitchell was that much more liberal than Dixon, but rather because the focus of her work is Scarlett and her various misadventures, not slavery as such. Consequently, the black characters in GWTW are more like horses, not just because of their subhuman status, but because there are simply “there” and have inner lives or agency worth mentioning. It would have been interesting to see how Mitchell might have responded to the Civil Rights Movement, especially its desire to completely rewrite the Southern history that she took as a given.
While works like the TV mini-series Roots and Twelve Years a Slave have helped to challenge the narrative put forth by GWTW, they haven’t dislodged it from its place in our cultural consciousness. Despite the rawness of Roots and Twelve Year a Slave, they both still had to have token “good whites” who wouldn’t make white viewers feel too bad about themselves. Much of the brouhaha about Selma not being historically accurate surrounded the fact that LBJ supposedly didn’t come off well enough to be considered a “good white.” A film that discusses slavery, Jim Crow, or racism from an entirely black perspective without thought to making white audiences feel better about themselves is never going to be commercially successful or reach GWTW levels of cultural saturation. The audiences who watch films like Twelve Years a Slave or Selma tend to be people who are already somewhat liberal in their political views. Simply put, the people who would benefit most from such films, the Paula Deens of the world, if you will, aren’t going to see them. Incidentally, if you want to see a film about slavery that completely dispenses with any desire to make whites feel better about themselves, watch the 1993 film Sankofa by Ethiopian director Haile Guerima.
Given the continued “brownward” march of our country, I suspect that interest in all things GWTW will simply die out on its own from lack of interest. Mitchell was lucky to have published her novel in perhaps the last period in which the mass media could unquestioningly sympathize with the Confederate cause. The irony of the United States fighting against the Nazis while blithely supporting Jim Crow and institutionalized racism wasn’t lost on many people, whether at home or abroad and the “Negro question” became a liability in the Cold War era, when the American government needed to convince newly independent nations to pick it over the Soviet Union. I don’t know if GWTW would have been as popular as it was had it been published after World War II. Even younger conservative whites don’t seem to be as interested in the antebellum period as did their elders who had more of a direct connection to that period of history. Perhaps in thirty years or so, GWTW will itself be “gone with the wind,” at least in terms of the pull it has on our culture.
Fun Fact: The Atlanta premier of GWTW was a thoroughly segregated affair, and none of the black actors and actresses were allowed to attend, not even future Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniels. However, there was a choir of black children from Ebenezer Baptist church singing “negro spirituals” as the white performers and Atlanta’s white high society binged on plantation porn. Among those children was a ten year old boy named Michael King, who would later be known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Thus, even as Southern whites basked in what they thought was their finest moment, the seed of the destruction of the Lost Cause was already there among them.