Those who think Gone With The Wind is a love letter to the Old South are wrong; it is, instead, a savage indictment of a deeply corrupt society.
I first read Gone With The Wind when I was 12. I remember vividly what a brilliant emotional ride it was. Of course, I didn’t share Scarlett’s passion for the weak Ashley Wilkes. Instead, I fell madly in love with Rhett Butler, a love I promptly transferred to Clark Gable when I saw him play that same iconic role a few months after I read the book.
I didn’t particularly like Melanie Wilkes, who was too much of a goody-two-shoes for me, but I know that I wept buckets when she died at the book’s end. Her death upset me more than the fact that Scarlett and Rhett parted at the end. As for Scarlett herself, I was ambivalent. I admired her beauty and her passion, but hoped never to meet someone like that — a woman who had a disruptive effect, almost invariably negative, on every life she touched.
More than anything, though, what I remember is that, Gone With The Wind left me thinking that the Confederates got a rough deal when they lost the war because they were so brave and so passionate. Looking back, I think it was the 1939 movie, more than the book, that created that impression. David O. Selznick did everything he could to romanticize the Confederacy, going far above and beyond what Margaret Mitchell wrote — which is really what I want to talk about in this post.
Before I get to the Confederacy as a whole, though, I need to address up front the race issue. As an ignorant 12-year-old, I remember thinking vaguely (to the extent I thought about the subject at all), that slavery couldn’t be that bad because so many of the fictional black people in Scarlett’s life were surprisingly powerful figures. Again, the movie exacerbated that sense, especially because Selznick gave the brilliant Hattie McDaniel a prominent role. Her Mammy, like Melanie Wilkes, is such a powerful moral figure that it’s hard to remember the endless indignities under which McDaniel and all the real “Mammys” of the South labored.
Thankfully, one of the things the Civil Rights movement did was to help late-20th century Americans understand what their 19th century Northern ancestors already knew about an institution that played out in real time before their eyes: Slavery has no redeeming features. It is an act of indescribable immorality and cruelty to deprive another human being of liberty without due process (as is the case with convicted criminals), merely because that person had the misfortune to fall into the power of a slave-owning society.
As far as I know, there have been only two instances in history in which people were enslaved, not in the ordinary ways (as battle captives, members of conquered nations, criminals, or debtors), but because of race: The first time was in Egypt when the Jews were designated as a slave race. The second time was in the late 17th century, when white Europeans designated blacks as a slave race. Both of these situations were worse than the ordinary slavery rampant throughout the world because they necessarily involved dehumanizing whole races of people. It really is a short step from that type of thinking to Auschwitz, where the Jewish race was so dehumanized that Germans thought nothing of eradicating it. [Read more…]