When I was in middle school, I adored Gone With the Wind. It had everything a dreamy twelve-year-old might love: vivid descriptions of the Civil War-era South, juicy old-money drama, fiery romance. Mitchell certainly had a way with words, and I flew through the 1024 pages in the span of a few days. Then I insisted on watching the movie, and even though I had identified more with quiet, bookish Melanie Wilkes, I couldn’t resist sighing over Vivian Leigh’s glowing onscreen loveliness as Scarlett O’Hara.
At that time, I closed my eyes to the parts of the book and movie which weren’t so glossy and glamorous. Rhett’s abusive nature; Scarlett’s vicious cruelty; and worst of all, slavery. If Gone With the Wind is a tapestry of a bygone time, slavery was the loom on which it was woven. Slavery was omnipresent within the story, from the pre-war crude caricatures of Prissy and Mammy to the post-war vilification of formerly-enslaved Black men. Mitchell is unambiguous about her position on the matter: if slavery was what kept that era of moonlight and magnolias up and running, then it was something to be accepted and even celebrated.
I probably don’t need to explain why that view is evil. Owning other humans is vile and no amount of glitz and superficial gentility can possibly make it okay. That antebellum world which seemed beautiful to white Southerners like Margaret Mitchell was a hellscape for millions of Black Southerners. In writing Gone With the Wind, in indulging her own fantasies, Mitchell did America one of the greatest disservices she possibly could.
Actually, I think Gone With the Wind is even more dangerous than Birth of a Nation, another infamous and utterly ahistorical representation of slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and Reconstruction. Although Birth of a Nation played a large role in forming the second Ku Klux Klan, today few people turn to it, with its clunky silent-film format and overt racism, for entertainment. By and large, it has been relegated to film classes and history courses. Barely anyone knows about The Clansman, the novel it’s based on, and for good reason: its writer Thomas Dixon is objectively untalented, even if one overlooks his blatant racism.
Gone With the Wind, though, that’s a different matter. Gone With the Wind is eminently readable and eminently watchable. Mitchell was a talented writer. When I read her work, I was ensnared by the story. The inhabitants of Tara and Twelve Oaks leapt off the pages as fully-formed, complicated individuals. Scarlett is one of the most fascinating women in the American literary canon: calculating, cold, pragmatic, mathematically gifted, the very antithesis of the angelic ideals Victorian women were expected to uphold. Mitchell’s novel was – is lively, engaging, fun.
And it’s just as racist as The Clansman. The subjugation and ownership of Black people is lauded in both novels; Mitchell’s superior prose does not negate her vile bigotry. Perhaps Gone With the Wind’s film adaptation doesn’t involve white actors clowning around in blackface, but it still perpetrates the same stereotypes. The Black nursemaid who exists only to cater to white women, with no dreams or aspirations of her own, the sex-crazed Black men who lust after innocent white women, the heroic KKK coming to the white Southern woman’s rescue. All these motifs, false ideas which have directly instigated thousands of lynchings of Black men throughout our history, are present in both Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation, yet we still regularly watch one of these films even as we condemn the other.
So much of white American society still celebrates the supposedly wealthy, chivalrous, romantic universe Mitchell spun into being. So many people wish they could be Melanie or Scarlett. For some of them, this craving for a fictitious time of prosperity has created a tendency to burrow deeper and deeper into extreme rightwing politics. They rail against immigrants, enforce systemic policies of discrimination against Black Americans, and do their best to yank us into a past which was great only for a select few individuals. They storm the Capitol with Confederate flags as a message to all of us: you have no place in our America, they say.
Yesterday’s inauguration marked an end to their time in charge of our nation, at least in a formal sense. But those people who are swayed by a glittering alternate world, the promise of assured supremacy over anyone who isn’t white and straight and cisgender. Their viewpoint still exists, and is fuelled by a misplaced nostalgia for Mitchell’s world – which, in some sense, the wind has not blown away. They are determined to recreate it in full, and so they cling to politicians who promise to keep them in power.
Does Donald Trump have ghosts on his payroll? Because he owes a lot of money to Margaret Mitchell.