Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gone With the Wind Turns 75

"When a Southerner took the trouble to pack a trunk and travel twenty miles for a visit, the visit was seldom of shorter duration than a month, usually much longer. Southerners were as enthusiastic visitors as they were hosts, and there was nothing unusual in relatives coming to spend the Christmas holidays and remaining until July."

Margaret Mitchell
"Gone With the Wind"

Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel "Gone With the Wind" was first published 75 years ago in May.

I was a teenager when the movie that was based on the novel was first shown on network television. It was the highest–rated program in TV history (it has been surpassed a few times since then), and I remember watching it in a special two–night presentation.

Shortly thereafter, I read the book.

My friend Phyllis, who died last summer (and of whom I have written in this blog and in my current events blog), introduced me to the book — and, because of her, I bought a paperback copy.

It really was a wonderful story. When you got right down to it, it was about a spoiled Southern girl who was hopelessly in love with a married man. I grew up in the South, and I knew many girls like her. In my experience, it was a timeless tale that could be told against the backdrop of the Civil War or the civil rights movement.

I had known for a long time that Phyllis loved the movie — but I always thought that was because she loved Clark Gable. I don't know why it never occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Phyllis loved the book first — and her affection for the movie and Clark Gable came next.

I never asked her about that so I'll probably never know which came first, and it really doesn't matter. It's a great book, rich with details about life in the South and a period in American history that no one now living (and, for the most part, no one living when the book was published in 1936, either) can recall.

I still have that paperback copy. In fact, I'm looking at it right now. I've been thumbing through it, and it's in remarkably good shape, considering all the moves it has survived — and that is certainly appropriate.

Wherever I have lived in my adult life, that book has been with me. I will always be grateful to Phyllis for introducing me to it.

(I remember showing her my copy the day after I bought it. We were sitting in some class together, and I handed it to her. She thumbed through it, smiled, said something to me that I have forgotten and handed the book back to me.

(Whatever DNA she might have left on that book is probably long gone, but I'd be willing to bet that her fingerprints can still be found on it.)

If you've seen the movie, you know the story. There are just so many details in the book that couldn't be worked into the movie — even though the movie was nearly four hours long.

Conversations are more extensive in the book than they are in the movie, and the reader gets the opportunity to dive more deeply into the characters' thoughts and motivations.

And the burning of Atlanta, as vivid as it is in the movie, seems to go on endlessly in the book, recapturing what must have been the absolute terror of the people of that time and place.

Slavery is part of the story's backdrop, but it isn't really what the book is about — just as it wasn't what the war was about at first. However, the book did have a tendency to present the slaves as being considerably more content with their lot in life than I would have expected.

That led to an interesting point about the social hierarchy that existed in the slave population. There was, as a British writer who visited the South a few years before the outbreak of the war noted, a difference between slaves who were house servants and slaves who were field hands. The "most important distinction," he wrote, was that the house servants were "comparatively well off."

Consequently, it was realistic when Mitchell's book suggested that the house servants at Tara were loyal and remained with Scarlett even after they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation — whereas the field hands did not hesitate to leave when they could.

Mitchell was criticized for some things. She was accused of sugar–coating the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and of penning a racist portrayal of black Americans of that time.

But people who focus on those things miss the point of the story. It isn't about the Klan. It isn't about slavery. It isn't even about a spoiled Southern girl who is fixated on a married man.

It's about survival, as Mitchell herself said.

"What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under?" she asked. "It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality 'gumption.' So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn't."

That quality was summed up in Scarlett's final line in both the book and the movie: "After all, tomorrow is another day."