Gone With the Wind Turns 75, and Shows its Age

It’s with some dis­com­fort that the author names Gone with the Wind, pub­lished exact­ly 75 years ago today, her favorite child­hood book: It was thick, it was roman­tic — and per­haps most cru­cial­ly for any awk­ward, bespec­ta­cled pre­teen girl — it fea­tured a head­strong hero­ine whose appeal to the oppo­site sex derived more from her charm than her phys­i­cal beau­ty.

Nonethe­less, there’s no way around the pro­found fail­ings of both the book and the MGM epic film based on it: Nov­el and film treat­ed slav­ery as an inci­den­tal back­drop to the war; they glo­ri­fied and mis­rep­re­sent­ed the actions of the Ku Klux Klan; and most egre­gious­ly, they por­trayed the mas­ter-slave rela­tion­ship as one which nei­ther mas­ter nor slave should ever dream of alter­ing. In the words of his­to­ri­an and soci­ol­o­gist Jim Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Every­thing Your High School His­to­ry Text­book Got Wrong:

[Gone With The Wind] laments the pass­ing of the slave era as “gone with the wind.” In the nov­el, Mitchell states open­ly that African Amer­i­cans are “crea­tures of small intel­li­gence.” And this book is by far the most pop­u­lar book in the U.S. and has been for 60 years. The book is also pro­found­ly wrong in its his­to­ry. What it tells us about slav­ery, and espe­cial­ly recon­struc­tion, did not happen…it is pro­found­ly racist and pro­found­ly wrong. Should we teach it? Of course. Should we teach against it? Of course.

Mean­while, Hat­tie McDaniel took home a best sup­port­ing actress Oscar for her role as Scar­lett O’Hara’s loy­al house slave, Mam­my. She was the first African-Amer­i­can woman to win an Acad­e­my Award. The fact that she was not allowed to attend the film’s pre­miere in Atlanta makes her accep­tance speech (1940) even more poignant. It appears above.

Sheer­ly Avni is a San Fran­cis­co-based arts and cul­ture writer. Her work has appeared in Salon, LA Week­ly, Moth­er Jones, and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low her on twit­ter at @sheerly.

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  • “…most egre­gious­ly, they por­trayed the mas­ter-slave rela­tion­ship as one which nei­ther mas­ter nor slave should ever dream of alter­ing…”

    On the con­trary, this is what makes GWTW an amaz­ing piece of art. It por­trays the hearts and minds of those char­ac­ters, AS IF THEY WERE REAL, and not sim­ply as loath­some car­i­ca­tures to be viewed through the mod­ern day “we must look down on these peo­ple for their cul­tur­al insen­si­tiv­i­ty” lens.

    I’m not say­ing slav­ery is some­thing that we ought to ven­er­ate now, or that racism is some­thing that should be ignored. Not at all.

    But I do think if you’re going to cre­ate a qual­i­ty piece of art, you need need more than just under­stand­ing of your sub­ject, you need empa­thy.

    Because of the for­tunes of his­to­ry, and the time we were born into, we’re no longer able to empathize with Scar­lett, Rhett, or Mam­my. Which, to me, makes GWTW even more rare and pre­cious. Some­thing like it could nev­er be made again.

  • DeDuva says:

    “And this book is by far the most pop­u­lar book in the U.S. and has been for 60 years.” — by what mea­sure is GWTW the most pop­u­lar book in the US?

  • Sheerly Avni says:

    Hi Dedu­va,

    Good ques­tion. “Pop­u­lar­i­ty” can be ranked in so many ways, includ­ing sales, library requests, var­i­ous best-of lists… I can’t speak for Pro­fes­sor Loewen, or know what cri­te­ria he had in mind dur­ing the inter­view above. But accord­ing to at least some sources, he is not far off: Accord­ing to a 2008 Har­ris poll, for exam­ple, GWTW ranked #2 among Amer­i­cans, after The Bible.



  • With­out address­ing the fail­ings of Gone With the Wind as a social­ly enlight­ened film I’d like sim­ply to men­tion that Hat­tie McDaniel gave a splen­did per­for­mance and, curi­ous­ly, like­ly deserved to win the Best Sup­port­ing Actress Oscar. I say *curi­ous­ly* because his­tor­i­cal­ly the Acad­e­my of Motion Pic­ture Arts & Sci­ences was noto­ri­ous for its deeply opaque motives in choos­ing win­ners — often snub­bing big box office per­son­al­i­ties (e.g. John Wayne, Cary Grant) until they were either retired or near death. In McDaniel’s case it appears they sim­ply did the right thing for a woman who, thanks to Jim Crow, could­n’t even attend the film’s pre­mier in Atlanta. Of course, dis­mal­ly, the Acad­e­my would­n’t give anoth­er Oscar to an African-Amer­i­can for 40 more years.

  • poison poisson says:

    I stil can’t fath­om how it ever won the Pulitzer except that the Pulitzer peo­ple just went with the most pop­u­lar book of the day. Because it was atro­tious­ly writ­ten, had no like­able char­ac­ters and was com­plete­ly unbe­lie­ve­able in every way, even if you dis­count the bla­tant racism and his­tor­i­cal fic­tions.

    It is the only instance I can think of where the movie was bet­ter than the book and the movie was at least 2 hours too long.

  • David Akins says:

    Wow! To see so many mis­con­cep­tions about the GWTW, the author of GWTW, the per­spec­tive of the nov­el, the polit­i­cal his­to­ry or our nation, the his­toric set­ting of the nov­el, the his­toric set­ting of the time the nov­el was writ­ten, and the culu­tral per­spec­tive of the novel.…is just plain stun­ning!

    May I sug­gest a re-read­ing of the nov­el, includ­ing the Pref­ace of more recent releas­es by Pat Con­roy. Per­haps a his­to­ry les­son or two would be in order.

    I hope my com­ments did not sound as pious­ly con­de­scend­ing as the orig­i­nal post and sev­er­al of the com­ments.

  • Dreambox says:

    A dream that is dying. I have to do it.

  • Antny says:

    To Greg G

    Slaves ran away, fac­ing recap­ture and death, to escape from servitude.They were NOT hap­py, and con­tem­po­rary accounts tell us so. We don’t have a dis­tort­ed per­spec­tive because of his­tor­i­cal dis­tance, as there were plen­ty of peo­ple back then who knew that slav­ery was demean­ing and wrong. So GWTW, how­ev­er pret­ti­ly writ­ten, was telling lies about the slaves. Hon­est­ly, when will we stop mak­ing excus­es for wrong­do­ing?

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