Karen Cox: Gone With The Wind Evokes Strong Feelings

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6-2-11

“Gone With the Wind” defined Atlanta, the South and the Civil War for millions of people around the world. As the novel turns 75, the conjunction of that event with the 150th anniversary of the war it depicts — inexcusably romanticizes, many would say — is crackling like crossed wires.

Most other best-sellers published in 1936 have been relegated to oblivion (Charles Morgan’s “Sparkenbroke”) or, at best, school reading lists (Aldous Huxley’s “Eyeless in Gaza”).

“Gone With the Wind” can still be read in more than 40 languages and continues to draw thousands of devotees such as Selina Faye Sorrow to fan events. Sorrow, 48, owns 30 copies of the book, including one from Egypt. She makes her own replicas of Scarlett’s dresses and has hundreds of items of “GWTW” kitsch around her Powder Springs home, including the Rhett Butler-Scarlett O’Hara pillows on her king-size bed.

On Saturday, scores of others who share her passion — hoop-skirted women and gray-coated Confederate re-enactors — gathered for a celebration at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Other events include a film premiere on the life of Margaret Mitchell and a champagne toast at her grave in historic Oakland Cemetery. To this day, “GWTW” remains an Atlanta brand rivaled only by Coca-Cola and few others.

The book was spotted as a best-seller before the public even saw it. The actual publication date continues to cause confusion and controversy. The first printing of 10,000 copies contained a May 1936 date. But the distribution was delayed until June because the Book of the Month Club chose to feature it, said John Wiley Jr., co-author of “Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Best Sellers Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood.”

To this day, Mitchell’s novel and the successful film remain the most powerful forces in shaping the perception of Southern life before, during and after the Civil War, said Karen Cox, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture.”

“ ‘Gone With the Wind’ eclipsed everything else,” she said. “It cemented that vision of the Old South in the nation’s imagination for years to come.”

However, for many, especially African-Americans, “GWTW’s” portrait of black slaves as happy servants grates upon the nerves.

Edward DuBose, who grew up in Atlanta, remembers the movie being used as an elementary school teaching tool in the ’60s. He also remembers singing “Dixie” in class. “It was a false, soft version of the Civil War,” said DuBose, 53, who now serves as president of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP. “My understanding of it was you were second-class, not as intelligent as the other students.”

He finds no joy in all this “GWTW” partying.

“For African-Americans, it was a reflection of blacks as slaves,” he said. “I don’t get any enjoyment out of these celebrations.”

However it is regarded today, the publication of “GWTW” caused a sensation seldom matched in American cultural history. By the time the movie was released in 1939, the book had sold more than 2 million copies and the entire nation was engaged in a game of casting the actress who would play Scarlett. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, and the movie won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Emerging as it did in the midst of an industrial century and the depths of the Great Depression, the moonlight-and-magnolia romance offered an appealing alternative for readers in search of escape. The South may have lost the war, but for decades it won, with the help of this story, the battle over the public perception of the era.

Gordon Jones, the senior military historian with the Atlanta History Center, calls the book the dominant example of a particular view of the Civil War era — the vision of charming belles and grand plantations, devoted slaves and noble Confederates — called “The Lost Cause” narrative.

But the explosion of television news after World War II and the issues raised by the Civil Rights movement focused attention on the historical inaccuracies in the story, Jones said.

“Its cultural impact is diminishing,” he said. “It’s become kind of campy, like watching a 1950s horror movie.”

These days, the strongest emotional reaction the story stirs is resentment and outrage among African-Americans over the portrait of slavery, he said.

For fans such as Sorrow, race and politics are beside the point. For her, the story’s appeal endures in the colorful characters, the sweeping spectacle and the portrait — real or not — of a fairy-tale time of charming women, chivalrous men and elegant living.

To those who want to debate the novel’s historical accuracy, she offers a singular response: Fiddle-dee-dee. The only event she wants to re-enact is the movie.

“I do keep it separate,” she said.

However, in some quarters, people still take the story as history, said Cox, the author on Southern life. Her lectures abroad reveal that many Europeans still have a “GWTW” view of the South, she said.

Meanwhile, those old controversies still flare up, especially here in a state where people are debating the flying of the Confederate flag over the Dodge County Courthouse in Middle Georgia.

“In a lot of ways ‘Gone With the Wind’ is accurate,” said Calvin Johnson, 61, of Kennesaw, a member of the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “I like the way it shows the South in a respectful way.”

The story has its flaws, said Johnson, who stressed he does not defend slavery. Slaves were not happy servants in some households; but in many they were, he said.

He has no problem with Mitchell’s portrayal of slavery or the war.

“It’s not offensive to me,” Johnson said.

Can you feel that controversy crackling?

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