Features September 2020
Knights & their ladies fair
On the cold-eyed realism of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
Just after the opening credits of Gone with the Wind and before the start of the film proper is a title card that reads as follows (ellipses in the original):
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South . . .
Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry took its last bow . . .
Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave . . .
Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind . . .
These are four very important sentences, because they’re intended to shape the way we view the entire 238-minute movie. Down through the decades, they’ve continued to serve that function. But those four sentences were not written by Margaret Mitchell, the author of the 1936 novel on which the film was based. They aren’t even remotely based on anything in the novel. On the contrary, when Mitchell first encountered the title card at the film’s Atlanta premiere, according to her biographer, Anne Edwards, she winced. “ ‘Cavalier,’ ” wrote Edwards, “was not a word she liked associated with the South.” The words don’t appear in the final shooting script, credited to Sidney Howard, or in any of the innumerable earlier versions of the screenplay done by other hands (including F. Scott Fitzgerald). Instead, the title card, along with six cards that appear later in the film, was composed by the prolific screenwriter and playwright Ben Hecht at the last-minute instigation of the movie’s producer, David O. Selznick (“i am certain you could bat them out in a few minutes,” Selznick telegraphed), and was slipped into the beginning of the picture a few weeks after its first sneak preview.
In the novel Mitchell doesn’t depict the pre-war South as “an era of greatness.”
Many people who’ve seen Selznick’s movie but who’ve never opened Mitchell’s novel have acquired the impression that the book is just what Hecht’s title-card suggests: a gauzy, romantic take on the pre-war South. In fact, when the novel is mentioned in passing in accounts of the movie, it’s often summed up by a statement to precisely this effect. For example, in a 2005 biography of Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the film, Jill Watts, a professor of film studies at csu San Marcos, wrote that “In Mitchell’s view, the antebellum South was an era of greatness.” In 2004, Matthew Bernstein, a professor of film studies at Emory, described the racial politics of Selznick’s movie as “less-than-progressive,” while adding that “the film is less offensive than Margaret Mitchell’s novel.”
Did Watts or Bernstein read Mitchell’s novel before they wrote those sentences? I doubt it. Because in the novel Mitchell doesn’t depict the pre-war South as “an era of greatness.” As for “less-than-progressive”—well, that depends on whether you’re judging it by the “woke” progressivism of today or by the progressivism of Mitchell’s own era, that is to say, the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose absolute embrace of white superiority in the name of human advancement Mitchell’s novel never endorses, explicitly or implicitly. What of the charge that the novel is “offensive”? Well, some of the words used in the book (by both blacks and whites) to describe blacks are offensive by today’s standards. But there are also disparaging references to poor whites and Northerners; at one point, the expression “Jew him down” appears. In virtually every case, Mitchell’s choice of language can be defended on the grounds of verisimilitude. To be sure, there are a few places in the book where Mitchell could be criticized for being highly insensitive. After the death of her third child, Bonnie Blue, in a pony-riding accident, our heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, wonders why God couldn’t instead have taken her older daughter, Ella (omitted from the movie), who “was no comfort to her, now that Bonnie was gone.” Then there’s the episode (reproduced in the movie) in which Rhett Butler, Scarlett’s third husband, carries her to bed against her will and rapes her—and in the morning she wakes up feeling wonderful about it.
Far from seeing the pre-war Southern social system simply in terms of black and white, Mitchell recognizes its intricacies and subtleties.
But no, the viewpoint summed up in the film’s opening title card is simply not that of the novel. Before publishing Gone with the Wind, Mitchell had been a staff writer at the Atlanta Journal, and her novel is, in large part, the work of a dispassionate and coolly realistic reporter. Yes, the story and characters are the products of imagination, but that story is told against a complex and shifting social backdrop that Mitchell made an extensive and exhausting good-faith attempt to render with clarity and precision, based on her own library research, her consultations with experts, and the stories about the war and Reconstruction that had come down to her through relatives and friends. To a great extent, indeed, her book can fairly be described as a highly sophisticated (if amateur) work of social anthropology, providing readers with remarkably nuanced social taxonomies of the pre-war and post-war South, and in particular of the city of Atlanta and Clayton County in northern Georgia, where Mitchell locates the O’Hara plantation, Tara.
And those taxonomies are really quite impressive. Far from seeing the pre-war Southern social system simply in terms of black and white, Mitchell recognizes its intricacies and subtleties. At the bottom of the white hierarchy are “white trash”; above them, in turn, are “Crackers,” or ordinary white smallholders; and above them are planters and their families. People born into the society can recognize the differences between members of these groups on sight, without necessarily being able to explain how. (Reflecting on Will Benteen, a character who doesn’t appear in the film but who in the novel marries Scarlett’s sister Suellen, Scarlett thinks that “before the war, Will would certainly not have been an eligible suitor. He was not of the planter class at all, though he was not poor white. He was just plain Cracker, a small farmer, half-educated, prone to grammatical errors and ignorant of some of the finer manners the O’Haras were accustomed to in gentlemen.”) Even within the planter class there are distinctions: Scarlett’s mother, Ellen, who is of French ancestry and was raised in Savannah, is the most highly ranked kind of white Southerner—a coastal aristocrat. Scarlett’s father, Gerald, is considerably lower-born, an Irishman who killed a man back in Ireland, but who, thanks to his accomplishments, has managed to find a place on the top rung of the Clayton County social ladder. Existing outside of this system, and relegated when they enter it to a low rung, are Northerners, whose “pretensions to gentility were based on wealth, not breeding” (as Scarlett puts it to herself), and people from the states of the interior. (We’re told that “to India [Wilkes], born in Georgia and reared in Virginia traditions, anyone not from the eastern seaboard was a boor and a barbarian.”)
As for the blacks, they’re divided, before the war, into house workers, yard workers, and field hands. The house workers, chosen in childhood for their intelligence, take pride in their position and regard themselves as superior to the other blacks, as well as to “white trash.” After the war, of course, everything changes. Mitchell describes how:
The former slaves were now the lords of creation and, with the aid of the Yankees, the lowest and most ignorant ones were on top. The better class of them, scorning freedom, were suffering as severely as their white masters. Thousands of house servants, the highest caste in the slave population, remained with their white folks, doing manual labor which had been beneath them in the old days. Many loyal field hands also refused to avail themselves of the new freedom, but the hordes of “trashy free issue niggers,” who were causing most of the trouble, were drawn largely from the field-hand class. In slave days, these lowly blacks had been despised by the house negroes and yard negroes as creatures of small worth.
Historians of Reconstruction might call this an oversimplification of reality: surely not all of the former slaves who made it to the first rank of the new social order had previously been at the bottom, and surely not all of the house servants stayed on with their former masters. But as a generalization, this will do. Today it can be considered offensive even to acknowledge that a certain percentage of former slaves preferred to remain in servitude, albeit as free citizens, rather than to strike out on their own; but why is it hard to believe that people who’d only known one home in their entire lives, and had always felt secure in it, chose to stay there rather than risk poverty and homelessless in unfamiliar surroundings? (One of the sentimental conceits of our time is that everybody thirsts for freedom. Alas, no. Give Muslims in the Middle East freedom and they vote in a theocratic tyranny; give Russians freedom and they elect Putin.)
When Mitchell is accused of depicting blacks condescendingly, Exhibit A is always Scarlett’s slave girl Prissy, a flibbertigibbet who was played in the film by Butterfly McQueen. But Mitchell also created Aunt Pittypat Hamilton, a white woman who’s at least as much of a fool as Prissy even though she’s a half-century or so older. (Both characters could have been conceived by Mitchell’s favorite novelist, Charles Dickens.) Mitchell also gave us Uncle Peter, Pittypat’s slave, who is the de facto master of her household and without whom Pittypat would not be able to run it; he protects her and orders her about, for her own good, as if she were a child, and she always obeys. After the war Peter stays on with Pittypat, and when she learns that the Northerners want to give black people the vote, she says: “Did you ever hear of anything more silly? Though—I don’t know—now that I think about it, Uncle Peter has much more sense than any Republican I ever saw and much better manners.” (The line doesn’t appear in the movie.) Pork, a house slave at Tara, has a similarly protective relationship with Scarlett’s father, Gerald; indeed, he’s the closest thing Gerald has to a son, and when her father dies Scarlett gives his watch to the former slave. (This did make it into the film.)
Mitchell recognizes that relations between whites and blacks aren’t fully defined and delimited by the official owner–slave paradigm.
Despite the rigidity of social categories in the Old South, then, Mitchell recognizes that relations between whites and blacks aren’t fully defined and delimited by the official owner–slave paradigm. When Scarlett is stung after the war by Uncle Peter’s disapproval of her, Mitchell offers this gloss: “Not to stand high in the opinion of one’s servants was as humiliating a thing as could happen to a Southerner.” Rhett, who respects virtually nobody, tells Scarlett after their marriage: “Mammy’s a smart old soul and one of the few people I know whose respect and good will I’d like to have.” He treats Mammy, Mitchell tells us, “with the utmost deference, with far more courtesy than he treated any of the ladies of Scarlett’s recent acquaintance. In fact, with more courtesy than he treated Scarlett herself.” When Scarlett upbraids him, saying that he “should be firm with Mammy, as became the head of the house,” Rhett laughs and says that Mammy’s “the real head of the house.”
The N-word—which Selznick removed entirely from the film—appears in the book ninety-seven times, or once every ten or so pages. In the first few hundred pages, with the exception of one occasion on which the narrator uses the term “house nigger” (which is put in scare quotes), it’s used exclusively by black characters, who use the word in much the same way that many hip-hop artists do nowadays, and for reasons that neither Mitchell nor those hip-hop artists consider it their job to analyze or explain. Then, on page 369 of the 969-page digital edition that I read, Scarlett tells Prissy to tie up a cow. “Ah’s sceered of cows, Miss Scarlett,” replies Prissy. “Ah ain’ nebber had nuthin’ ter do wid cows. Ah ain’ no yard nigger. Ah’s a house nigger.” To which Scarlett replies, “You’re a fool nigger.” Whereupon she thinks: “I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.”
This episode takes place when Scarlett is shepherding her sister-in-law, Melanie Wilkes, and Melanie’s newborn baby back to Tara after escaping from Atlanta, which is about to fall to Sherman’s army. In the film, this scene comes shortly before the intermission. It marks the turning point of the story, the point at which pre-war white Southern society—which, at its most genteel and proper, is embodied here by Scarlett’s well-bred mother, Ellen (who, we are about to learn, has just died)—is crashing down forever. In its place will spring up a new world in which genteel types like Melanie and her husband, Ashley, will forever feel out of place and in which Scarlett will have to jettison everything her mother taught her about propriety in order to regain her lost prosperity. As Mitchell’s narrator puts it: “Ellen’s ordered world was gone and a brutal world had taken its place, a world wherein every standard, every value had changed.” The use by whites in the post-war years of the dreaded N-word is reflective of this transformation.
After this episode on the road to Tara, Scarlett uses the N-word a few times, without apparent misgivings. In the new post-war order, people with less than lofty social backgrounds take up roles in her life that they would never have held before the war—among them the low-born Benteen, who runs Tara for Scarlett (and who was eliminated from the film)—and they, too, freely spout the N-word. Rhett even uses it—exactly once. Throughout, it’s plain that Mitchell is using the word not callously and insensitively but carefully and with calculation, her objective being to show not only the coarseness of lowborn whites but also the newfound vulgarity of formerly proper whites who would never have used such language before the war. It’s significant that Melanie and Ashley never once use the N-word, either before or after the war: for although the war brings them low financially, he’s still a gentleman and she’s still a lady, in contrast to Scarlett and Rhett, who, as Scarlett’s personal maid, Mammy, puts it, are, despite their gentle birth, a couple of mules pretending to be horses.
In the book, however, the Klan in Georgia is closed down thanks to the joint efforts of Rhett and Ashley.
You can read in any number of places that Mitchell’s novel celebrates the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, it’s Selznick’s film that does so, although without using the words Ku Klux Klan: after Scarlett is almost raped by a freed slave, several white men, including her second husband, Frank, and her teenage crush, Ashley, go, as Melanie tells Scarlett, “to clean out those woods where you were attacked. It’s what a great many of our Southern gentlemen have had to do lately for our protection.” This is plainly a reference to the kkk, and it’s unarguably a positive one. In the book, however, the Klan in Georgia is closed down thanks to the joint efforts of Rhett and Ashley. As Rhett tells Scarlett: “Ashley never believed in the Klan because he’s against violence of any sort. And I never believed in it because it’s damned foolishness and not the way to get what we want.” (Note that while the film includes near-cartoonish moments featuring black characters—for example, the brief sequence in which, to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw,” the slave Uncle Peter is seen, hatchet and umbrella in hand, chasing down a rooster in the rain, begging it to “stand still so you can be Chrismus gif’ fer dey white fo’ks”—there are no such episodes in the novel.)
Though Mitchell was fully aware of white racism, Mitchell knew that it wasn’t limited to the South, either in her own time or in the mid-nineteenth century. A post-war exchange between Scarlett and a well-off transplant from Maine is illuminating. When the woman asks Scarlett how to find a nurse for her children, Scarlett suggests that a black woman would be “the best kind of servant possible,” leading the Maine woman to exclaim: “Do you think I’d trust my babies to a black nigger?” She wants an Irish girl, she says. Then this:
“I’m afraid you’ll find no Irish servants in Atlanta,” answered Scarlett, coolness in her voice. “Personally, I’ve never seen a white servant and I shouldn’t care to have one in my house. And,” she could not keep a slight note of sarcasm from her words, “I assure you that darkies aren’t cannibals and are quite trustworthy.”
In response, the woman continues to protest. Then this:
Scarlett thought of the kind, gnarled hands of Mammy worn rough in Ellen’s service and hers and Wade’s. What did these strangers know of black hands, how dear and comforting they could be, how unerringly they knew how to soothe, to pat, to fondle? She laughed shortly. “It’s strange you should feel that way when it was you all who freed them.”
“Lor’! Not I, dearie,” laughed the Maine woman. “I never saw a nigger till I came South last month and I don’t care if I never see another. They give me the creeps. I wouldn’t trust one of them. . . .”
The woman goes on to mock Uncle Peter, who is present, as a family “pet.” Scarlett feels the impulse to murder her:
They deserved killing, these insolent, ignorant, arrogant conquerors. But she bit down on her teeth until her jaw muscles stood out, reminding herself that the time had not yet come when she could tell the Yankees just what she thought of them. Some day, yes. My God, yes! But not yet. “Uncle Peter is one of our family,” she said, her voice shaking.
Although set in the immediate post-Civil War years, this scene—which was not included in the film—captures to a T the difference between the white Northern racism of fear and repulsion and the paternalistic but affectionate white Southern racism as I, for one, experienced them, a century later, as a white child in New York City and small-town South Carolina respectively.
As pronounced as the social differences among the races and classes in the world of Mitchell’s novel are the social differences between men and women. During the pre-war years, white women from “good families” are expected not to speak or even think about certain things; their role is in the home, as wives, mothers, hostesses at social gatherings, and as nurses to the sick, both white and black. To be sure, married women are permitted somewhat more leeway than “spinsters” when it comes to discussing certain delicate matters. This, too, changes with the end of the war. For Scarlett, the post-war years represent not just a challenge to survive but an opportunity to succeed in ways that would have been denied to her before. She goes into business and proves to be better at it than Frank or Ashley. Both Frank and Scarlett are startled by this. Frank finds it “unbecoming” that a woman should have a head for figures and believes that, “should a woman be so unfortunate as to have such unladylike comprehension, she should pretend not to.” For Scarlett, the notion “that a woman could handle business matters as well as or better than a man” is “a revolutionary thought,” given that she’d been “reared in the tradition that men were omniscient and women none too bright.” (Scarlett’s business acumen will not be entirely a surprise to the attentive reader, who will recall that it was her mother who had handled the finances of Tara.)
Is Mitchell nostalgic for the world of pre-war cavaliers and their ladies? Quite the opposite: she’s cynical about the unwritten rules under which they lived. “A gentleman,” Scarlett reflects, “always appeared to believe a lady even when he knew she was lying. That was Southern chivalry.” Forced into mourning garb after the death of her first husband, Charles, Scarlett ponders: “There were such a lot of foolish things about life among nice people. Having to pretend that her heart was in the grave when it wasn’t. And how shocked everybody had been when she danced at the bazaar. And the infuriating way people lifted their eyebrows every time she did or said anything the least bit different from what every other young woman did and said.” As the Old South breathes its last, Mitchell has Rhett say to Scarlett that “our Southern way of living is as antiquated as the feudal system of the Middle Ages. The wonder is that it’s lasted as long as it has. It had to go and it’s going now.” Mitchell speaks through Rhett on this topic more than once:
“In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out. At least, it has been interesting, if not comfortable, to witness a Götterdämmerung.”
“A dusk of the gods. Unfortunately, we Southerners did think we were gods.”
One of the pillars of the Old South is an enforced semblance of female delicacy and modesty. Scarlett repeatedly expresses her impatience with this stricture. “Why does a girl have to be so silly to catch a husband?” she asks when enjoined by Mammy to chow down at home so that she can “eat like a bird” at the Twelve Oaks barbeque; years later, when Melanie, in accordance with her upbringing, is embarrassed to take off her “shimmy” in front of Scarlett, the latter thinks: “Thank God, I’m not that modest.” One aspect of this female modesty is that visibly pregnant women should keep out of sight and that no one should mention their condition. Rhett has no patience for this: “pregnant women do not embarrass me as they should. I find it possible to treat them as normal creatures. . . . The Europeans are far more sensible than we are.” Or as he puts it more succinctly at the bazaar in Atlanta: “How closely women clutch the very chains that bind them!” (It’s interesting to read in Edwards’s biography that Mitchell herself was a “rebel against convention” who “enjoyed a ‘man’s’ joke, was not embarrassed by strong language, and could hold her corn liquor.” As a young journalist she outraged Atlanta by writing an article about unconventional women in Georgia history; in a letter, she described herself as “one of those short-haired, hard-boiled young women who preachers said would go to Hell or be hanged before they were thirty.”)
If Mitchell celebrates anything, it’s not the conformist pre-war lives of planters and their families but the spirit of nonconformity exhibited by Rhett and Scarlett.
Gone with the Wind tells the story of the flirtation, lasting from the eve of the war until many years after, between Scarlett and Rhett. They’re drawn to each other, Mitchell wants us to understand, because they’re both, by nature, at odds with the social system into which they were born. If Mitchell celebrates anything, it’s not the conformist pre-war lives of planters and their families but the spirit of nonconformity exhibited by Rhett and Scarlett. During the war, the other members of their race and class are devoted heart and soul to what they describe as “the Cause.” In her account of the Atlanta bazaar, Mitchell describes the devotion of the women present to “the Cause”—“A Cause they loved as much as they loved their men, a Cause they served with their hands and their hearts, a Cause they talked about, thought about, dreamed about.” But neither Scarlett nor Rhett has any attachment whatsoever to the “Cause.” He runs Union blockades, he tells her, only to enrich himself; as for Scarlett, it’s plain from the first page that she has no attachment to the Confederacy. Toward the novel’s end, he says: “We are both scoundrels, Scarlett, and nothing is beyond us when we want something.” When Scarlett finally realizes that she loves not Ashley (the now-useless embodiment of pre-war Southern knighthood) but Rhett, she sees that “he, like her, saw truth as truth, unobstructed by impractical notions of honor, sacrifice, or high belief in human nature.” With this long-delayed self-insight, Scarlett fully embraces Mitchell’s own cold-eyed realism.
No, this is assuredly not a soggy, sentimental drama of cavaliers and chivalry, but a candid, even cynical, study of two strong-minded survivors set against the backdrop of America’s greatest social upheaval. Nor is it, as Mitchell readily and repeatedly admitted, a beautifully written book or a masterpiece of plotting. (She could never grasp why it became a bestseller or won the Pulitzer Prize.) But there’s no fictional work that paints a more sweeping and meticulous picture of the South at war, or that contains more characters of that place and time—women and men, black and white—who stir our sympathies and tremble with life. It’s a puzzlement, then, that Selznick—who in supervising the writing and rewriting of the script was almost fanatically insistent that, wherever possible, it was preferable to use dialogue from the novel rather than to write original lines—decided to frame the film with a title card that invites audiences to view the pre-war South with a romantic nostalgia that Mitchell’s book itself urges the reader to reject.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 1, on page 20
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