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.
“…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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
A dream that is dying. I have to do it.
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?