Where the wind still blows

The Irish Times
Monday, July 18, 2011

Atlanta, Georgia

Some hate Gone with the Wind for its racism, but many in the southern US still love the book, one of the best sellers of all time. Part two of our week-long series on the American South visits the novel’s birthplace

ONE OF THE best-selling novels of all time was written in a tiny, dark and dank ground-floor apartment at the corner of 10th and Peachtree streets in Atlanta between 1926 and 1935. Margaret Mitchell, the Irish-American author of Gone with the Wind , was a journalist with the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine , but decided to write the book when she broke her ankle.

Mitchell grew up in a white, columned mansion, not unlike the Tara of the film version of Gone with the Wind , on Peachtree Street. Her family had lived in Atlanta for four generations, and she grew up on stories of the Civil War, “sitting on the bony knees of veterans and the slippery laps of great aunts.” Until she was 10, Mitchell believed the South had won.

The manuscript was originally titled The Adventures of Pansy O’Hara . When Mitchell changed the main character’s name to Scarlett, she paid 50 cents an hour to have every page mentioning Pansy re-typed. Neither of the other titles she considered – Tote the Weary Load and Tomorrow is Another Day have the ring of Gone with the Wind .

Mitchell wrote the last chapter of the book first, then completed the others in haphazard order, storing each chapter in an A4 manila envelope. When completed, the stack of 70 envelopes was as tall as Mitchell, who was only 4ft 11in.

The Atlanta History Center is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the book’s publication this summer with an exhibition of the typescript of the last four chapters.

It’s startling to think that Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie and Ashley were born in the living room corner where two windows meet, chosen by Mitchell as her writing spot for the light. The success of the book is phenomenal: more than one million copies sold in the the US in the first six months of publication. Some 250,000 copies are still sold every year. The film is the highest-grossing of all time in the US and Canada.

At Margaret Mitchell House on a hot summer afternoon, the tour guide addresses our 20-strong group as “Y’all” and alludes sarcastically to William Tecumseh Sherman, the Yankee general who burned Atlanta. “Sherman – and you know how much we like him in Atlanta, even to this day,” she says.

Everyone in the group is white. Segregation may be over, but you learn quickly in the South that blacks and whites maintain their separate histories.

Three generations of women from a Georgia family have driven 100 miles to Atlanta to see where their favourite book was written. “I like it for the history,” says Ellen Lashley, the grandmother. “I like the romance,” says Annaleah, age 13. “It’s a manual for survival,” her mother Ellen adds.

THE FAST-MOVING tale of romance, resilience and rebirth has been embraced the world over. “It was passed around in the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation,” says Joanna Arrieta, manager of the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House. “It was banned by the Soviets, and Gen Douglas MacArthur showed the film to the Japanese after the second World War to give them courage.”

All of which seems surprising for a book which Arrieta describes as “very much a portrayal of the Lost Cause mentality” and “an insight into the mindset of white Southerners in the 1920s and 1930s.” Though some readers still mistake it for a textbook on the Civil War and slavery, “the majority of the population recognise the inaccuracies of the novel,” she says.

The Irish themes ring true. Near the beginning of the book, Gerald O’Hara tells Scarlett: “Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything … for t’is the only thing in this world that lasts … the only thing worth working for, worth fighting for – worth dying for.” After Atlanta is burned and Tara’s been ransacked by Yankees, Scarlett forages for a radish in the vegetable garden. “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” she swears. Though American commentators saw a parallel to the 1930s Great Depression, when Mitchell completed the book, Irish audiences can’t help thinking of the Great Famine.

Gone with the Wind is sacred to Confederate nostalgics. The book “was a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance,” the author Pat Conroy, who was born in Atlanta, writes in the preface to Scribner’s 75th anniversary edition. “If you could not defeat the Yankees on the battlefield, then by God, one of your women could rise from the ashes of humiliation to write more powerfully than the enemy and all the historians and novelists who sang the praises of the Union.”

Humiliated as the South was by its Civil War defeat and the outrages of carpetbaggers during the 1865-1877 reconstruction, by the early 20th century, “the white South has in many ways won the war,” says Gordon Jones, senior military historian and curator at the Atlanta History Center. “They have what they wanted since 1865 – the respect of the rest of the country, and white racial supremacy.”

After reconstruction, the South institutionalised segregation through Jim Crow laws. The Ku Klux Klan had died out in the 1870s, but was reborn with D W Griffith’s patently racist film, The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Demands for racial equality would come with the second World War. White supremacy would not crumble until the 1960s, with the civil rights movement – arguably the second defeat of the Confederacy.

In that sense, Jones says, Conroy was right to call Gone with the Wind “the last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy.”

In 1930, a group of Southern writers published a book entitled I’ll Take My Stand which portrayed the Old South as an idyllic, agrarian society – the real America – superior to the polluted, frenetic industrialised North. Today, Confederate nostalgics again exploit dreams of the South as an alternative to all that ails the US, says Jones. “This time, it’s based on the notion of states’ rights, small government and low taxes – the ideals of the Tea Party.

“That vision of America finds wonderful expression in the myths of the Confederacy.” Some African Americans find the perpetuation of those myths in Gone With the Wind distasteful. In 2001, Alice Randall, a Harvard-educated novelist, published The Wind Done Gone , a parody in which the heroine, Cynara, is the daughter of Gerald O’Hara and the slave Mammy. It sold 200,000 copies.

“A lot of people were unaware how many African Americans perceived the reading of the book to be an injurious experience,” Randall says. “I thought it was a text that should not sit upon the shelf unrebuked and unscorned, generation after generation.” It galled Randall to hear Gone With the Wind referred to as “America’s best-loved novel”.

“I wanted to provide the information that generations of African American readers detested the novel, had a very different reading of it,” she says. Her own grandmother, “a very light-skinned black woman born in Alabama”, was the first to tell Randall how offensive it was. In his autobiography, Malcolm X said a whole summer of his life was ruined by watching the film.

Randall holds three main grievances against Gone With the Wind : “the complete exclusion of mixed race children, when a huge percentage of the African American population is part-white because of forced and coerced relations during the antebellum period;” the portrayal of black women as unattractive and foolish (“If black women were so unattractive, why were these very privileged men having so much to do with them?” she asks) and the denigration of black politicians.

Gordon Jones calls David O Selznick’s motion picture “the PC version of Gone with the Wind.” Selznick excised racist terms and references to the Ku Klux Klan from the film. “That was because of a huge outpouring of letters from the African American community to Selznick and the studio asking that the word ‘nigger’ not be used, and that the most egregious aspects of the book not be included,” says Randall. The letters are in the archives at the University of Texas.

Ironically, says Randall, “the movie can live on into the modern world in ways in which the book, with the relentless use of the word ‘nigger’, cannot.”

Hattie McDaniel received the first Academy Award ever given to a black actor for her role as Mammy, and said it was a source of great pride to her. Butterfly McQueen, who played the air-headed Prissy, gave interviews towards the end of her life saying she regretted her part in the film.

When Gone with the Wind premiered at Loew’s Grand Theatre on Peachtree Street on December 15th, 1939, a columned facade imitating a southern mansion was erected in front of the cinema. Eighteen thousand people crowded in the street outside to catch a glimpse of Mitchell, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.

Hattie McDaniel and the other African American actors did not attend, because under the Jim Crow laws they were not allowed to sit with their white co-stars. To avoid any awkwardness, Selznick simply had their photographs removed from the programme.

© 2011 irishtimes.com

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