This year marks the semi-centennial of the publication of Gone with the Wind. That occasion merits celebration, for to the most remarkable degree Margaret Mitchell’s epic remains a central icon of 20th-century American civilization. After 50 years, it retains a permanent place in popular culture, and any contemporary novelist might envy the size of Mitchell’s continuing readership. Beyond these obvious facts, however, scholars and critics still wrestle inconclusively with the sources and implications of the novel’s popularity, the meaning and significance of the work itself, and its place in literary or intellectual history. Curiously, with the singular exception of Louis Rubin, the preeminent scholar of Southern letters, critics have not examined the novel in the specific context of its time. This becomes all the more curious given the enormous scholarly interest in that very context—the regional renaissance after World War I. Ten years ago Rubin compared Gone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom!; no one followed his lead. The aversion to connect Mitchell’s epic and the renaissance might tell its own tale, but the very connection allows a new understanding of both an extraordinarily influential book and one of the remarkable affairs in American cultural history.
The study of Southern culture between the two world wars presents numerous problems. Faulkner and the New Critics have cast long shadows. They have, for example, crowded out the examination of lesser figures of the movement. Their prominence has also dictated, in effect, the exploration of the period in literary terms and from a literary perspective. Their accounts, too, still govern the general understanding of the age. In his 1935 essay in The Virginia Quarterly Review, “The Profession of Letters in the South,” Allen Tate argued that the social and economic transformation of the region precipitated the creative downpour. After 50 years, that mostly unexamined view still dominates, especially among literary critics concerned with history, like Richard Gray or Louis Rubin. The true offspring of the New Criticism, however, most literary critics of the awakening ignore historical context to focus upon the individual creator or the individual art object. The common sources of creativity go aglimmering. At the same time, historians have generally neglected the literary and intellectual record. Recently, however, this pattern has begun to change. George Brown Tindall finds a place for literary as well as political figures in his encyclopedic The Emergence of the New South, 1913—1945, and Fred Hobson’s study of Mencken in the South combines social, intellectual, and literary history. Like Hobson, the historians Daniel Singal, Richard King, and Michael O’Brien change the context of the awakening by analyzing sociologists, historians, and editors and by treating the biographies of less famous novelists and poets of the region. While little consensus emerges from their work, their breadth provides new bases for understanding the intellectual ferment of the region in the interwar period. Among these, generational values loom significantly.
To a remarkable degree, figures in the movement come from a common age group, those born around 1900 and in the closing years of the 19th century. Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, born in 1905 and 1906 respectively, represent the very youngest participants, while very few of the activists were born before 1893. Those born earlier frequently remain exceptional on other grounds as well. Born in the late 1870’s, James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow, along with H.L. Mencken, exercised authority at a distance and inspired the movement as godparents, midwives, or Dutch uncles. Howard Odum and John Crowe Ransom, born in 1884 and 1888 respectively, also played progenitor as much as participant. While Odum shifted his focus, he also began his career investigating blacks, yet this constituted generally a relatively minor concern of the movement. Also born in 1888, the Atlanta novelist Frances Newman shared many values of the awakening while she remained still profoundly eccentric.
Youth manned the battlements of the cultural renaissance. Figures in the movement accomplished their greatest work in the twenties and thirties, generally well before reaching 40. Indeed, by 1935 the movement had exhausted itself or significantly changed its character. In this regard, the short span between 1926 and 1929 or ‘30 witnessed the most extraordinary burst of all of the awakening’s cultural energies. Faulkner published Soldier’s Pay in 1926 followed rapidly by Mosquitos and then Satoris and The Sound and the Fury, both in ‘29. Look Homeward, Angel appeared the same year, so did the Kentuckian Evelyn Scott’s experimental Civil War novel, The Wave. Two years before, Paul Green, the self-styled North Carolina country boy, won the Pultizer Prize for his play, In Abraham’s Bosom. Tate completed Ode to the Confederate Dead in first form in 1927, too. Revisionist historical works appeared at the same time. Although born in 1890, Frank Owlsley published States Rights in the Confederacy in 1925, and John Donald Wade initiated the flurry of regional biographies with his Augustus Baldwin Longstreet in 1926, followed by Tate’s Stonewall Jackson in 1928 and his Jefferson Dams the next year. Robert Perm Warren and Andrew Lytle published their biographies of John Brown and Nathan Bedford Forrest almost simultaneously. While he did not complete his work for more than a decade, W.J. Cash began his monumental Mind of the South during this period, and the Agrarians ventured their own brand of social criticism in 1930 with I’ll Take My Stand. She, too, would wait a decade for publication, but Margaret Mitchell also started Gone with the Wind in 1926 and completed it before the Great Depression.
Regional journalists constitute a special category. They reflected the very essence of the Young South spirit. They had left their mark earlier; in the late 1920’s, however, they often won national reputations, the Raleigh columnist Nell Battle Lewis personifying the breed. So did her fellow Tarheels, Gerald Johnson, W.J. Cash, and Jonathan Daniels; the Richmond editor Virginius Dabney; and the Alabama-Georgian Mark Ethridge, who won the editorship of the Louisville Courier-Journal—and a Pultizer Prize—in this period. Other figures in the awakening first claimed public reputations in journalism. Margaret Mitchell took her first job with the Atlanta Journal in 1923. Erskine Caldwell worked in the same newsroom; so did the screenwriter Lamar Trotti. Clarence Cason, who made a national mark with 90° in the Shade, practiced the trade in Alabama. All over the South from crossroad weeklies to the great metropolitan dailies, newsrooms buzzed with talk of Mencken and Don Marquis, of The Smart Set, The American Mercury, and The New Yorker. With cocked hats and skeptical eyes, young reporters modeled themselves on these national institutions and set out to write about their region like no one had ever done before.
The insouciance of young journalists typified a critical aspect of the awakening and introduced a whole range of generational values that governed the movement. In varying degrees, generational themes appear in the most diverse products of the period, from poetry, fiction, and criticism to sociology, history, and journalism. These concerns overlap and often shade into one another, but it is useful to isolate a series of these motives: the rejection of tradition, sociological realism, negativity or violation of norms, marginality, and the redefinition of virtue and authority. Such values drew on both national and international currents of the 20th century and helped define the South’s place in modernism. The regional movement, however, remains distinctive. In the South, tradition and the old way maintained a monolithic power. Even as young rebels and intellectuals sought to break with tradition and break tradition itself, the past still exerted tremendous influence in their lives and in their fundamental definitions of themselves. In this regard, the concept of the “the Young South” helps define the cultural awakening and illuminates some of its contradictions. Thus it was that the generation of 1900 still defined itself as Southern yet sought to forge some separate identity. This created tremendous difficulties, especially for those who remained in the old Confederate states, constantly subject to the old way’s power. For such reasons, the examination of renaissance ideas toward the past appropriately initiates a reexamination of Southern intellectual history of the interwar years.
In rejecting tradition, the Young South repudiated a very specific vision of the Southern past. W.J. Cash’s only half hyperbolic sketch captures its main outlines:
It was a sort of stage piece out of the eighteenth century, wherein gesturing gentlemen moved soft-spokenly against a background of rose gardens and dueling grounds, through always gallant deeds, and lovely ladies, in farthingales, never for a moment lost that exquisite remoteness which has been the dream of all men and the possession of none. Its social pattern was manorial, its civilization that of the Cavalier, its ruling class an aristocracy coexistentive with the planter group—men often entitled to quarter the royal arms of St. George and St. Andrew on their shields, and in every case descended from the old gentlefolk who for many generations had made up the ruling classes of Europe.
They dwelt in large and stately mansions, preferably white and with columns and Grecian entablature. Their estates were feudal baronies, their slaves quite too numerous ever to be counted. . . .
The rejection of this Cavalier ideal manifested itself in numerous ways. Cash’s comic inflation named only one. There were others. On the first page of the first issue of the Vanderbilt poetry group’s magazine, John Crowe Ransom declared, ” “The Fugitive” flees from nothing faster than the high caste brahmins of the Old South.” In the second volume, Donald Davidson similarly repudiated “a tradition that may be called a tradition only when looked at through the haze of generous imagination.” In New Orleans the first issue of the Double Dealer scorned “the storied realm of dreams, lassitude, pleasure, chivalry and the Nigger.” In the general spirit of the age, the Young South also debunked the legendary regional aristocracy itself. Instead of the sad, tragic grandeur of the Lee-inspired mythology, their aristocrats are often hollow, sickly, or diseased in some fundamental way, like Faulkner’s Satorises and Comptons or Allen Tate’s Buchans of the The Fathers. Smelling of the sickroom or asylum, they often lack even a dark romantic appeal.
The Young South, however, dealt still more typically with the aristocratic traditions. It delighted to strip the regional notables of aristocratic trappings to reveal nothing more than crackers made good, yokel arivistes. Thus, for example, Faulkner depicts the great planter Sutpen as a hillbilly who succeeds like some robber baron to make an estate. Even the “good families” in Jefferson prove no more than solid, stolid, bourgeois Methodists like the Coldfields. In Mind of the South, Cash uses a “concrete example” to debunk the storied Cavaliers. Described at his death as ” “a gentleman of the old school” and “a noble specimen of the chivalry at its best”,” Cash’s Great Planter is only “a stout young Irishman” abetted by luck who struck it rich in the cotton boom. Cash mocks the “aristocratic” wife just so. Still more telling than this debunking, Cash collapses even his pseudo-aristocracy into the first 20 pages of a 430-page text, and he manages to encapsulate the entire antebellum and Civil War South into only about 80 additional pages. In all this, blacks and slavery figure negligibly. Reflecting the real focus of his book, Cash devotes 400 pages to post-Reconstruction history, and he deals almost exclusively with yeomen, poor whites, and workers—the “men in the middle,” the “real Southerners” of his own time and generation.
Cash’s emphasis upon nonplanter whites introduces the second major characteristic of the Young South movement: sociological realism obsessed the generation of 1900. Like Cash, they used it to pervert the Cavalier tradition. Accordingly, they emphasized the yeoman origins of the planter class and exaggerated the importance of a leveling frontier and egalitarian democracy in regional history. The professional historians William Dodd and Frank Owlsley reflected this bias as early as 1919. Their work celebrated the yeomen, an egalitarian white Volksgeist, and democracy at the expense of planters, their black minions, and oligarchy. Donald Davidson’s coonskin-clad poetic heroes speak to the bias. Wade’s Longstreet did too. For all his interest in black lore, Paul Green’s historical dramas did much the same, while his outdoor productions were democratic and folkish of their very nature. Even so, the crusading Raleigh journalist Nell Battle Lewis condemned this as “hoopskirt history.” Continuing the clothing figure, she insisted that “the 1924 calico wrapper of the mill hand in her hours of ease (?) frankly interests us more. . . . Give us the masters and slaves of the present,” she demanded, “before you reproduce the plantation owner and the black bondsmen of the [1850’s].” Lewis argued that regional mythology and planter romance corrupted all history in the South, however realistic. This prompted her, like Cash, to deemphasize the past altogether and encouraged a burning interest in contemporary social conditions, especially among poor whites. Many young intellectuals in the region shared her view. The bias defined the fundamental motive behind the regionalist school of sociology at the University of North Carolina in these years. Although Howard Odum had concerned himself centrally with blacks in his “Ulysses” series early in his career, the Chapel Hill regionalists committed themselves to investigating small white proprietors, tenant farmers, sandlappers, crackers, and hillbillies. Erskine Caldwell does the same in fiction, and Faulkner draws on similar values, if more ambiguously. While the Snopes exist best in counterpoint to old planters, his Bundrens affirm the integrity of the once and ever yeomen.
If Faulkner’s Flem Snopes and Caldwell’s Jeter Lester originated in the Young South’s desire for sociological realism, such images go much further, They introduce the third general characteristic of the movement: a negative concern with violating norms and rebellion for itself. In his 1935 Virginia Quarterly essay, Allen Tate had written that real literature in the region “would require the speaking of unpleasant words and the violation of good literary manners.” Tate spoke softly. Many did not. More the norm, Faulkner, Cash, and Caldwell left dead cats, as H.L. Mencken urged, as calling cards in the stuffy parlor of Sunday Culture in the region. The power, authority, and rigidity of the Southern tradition prompted the young rebels to opposite extremes. Hence the Gothic, the weird, the bizarre, the eccentric or simply the odd or literally offbeat became the means and sometimes the ends of the Young South’s creativity. Literary productivity itself became only one medium to shock and scandalize, too. If the rape in Sanctuary might have horrified polite society in the South, Faulkner carried through the impulse in his own life, as did many within the movement. For example, the dramatist Paul Green recalled an arcane, boozy Faulkner at the Virginia Writers Conference in 1931. Making small talk, the North Carolinian inquired of the Mississippian which of his characters he most admired. “The corncob,” the future Nobel laureate drawled.
The violation of norms worked another subtler way as well. Again given the omnipotence of the tradition in the region, even minor violations in the code suggested larger breaches. Within the very constricted limits of Southern life, the very presentation of rednecks and yahoos in fiction or in sociology implied major breaks in the Southern discipline. The Young South played ambiguously around the edges of the system at the margin of social acceptability. Hence the rebels often made use of the very conventions of the social order for parody or caricature. They would concede that a planter class existed—but define it slyly as a self-deluding, self-made class of capitalists. Like Cash and even Faulkner, they often employed their elders’ inflated, traditional rhetoric. Or like Cabell, they mocked the heroic posturing of the aristocratic mode. Inspired by the Virginian’s double and triple entendre, Frances Newman’s two novels had much the same effect. With both writers, if manners served conventional repression of creativity, the gross exaggeration of manners and form hinted at a greater hidden horror, corruption, or perversion. In this way, the most mannered and obscure writing of the Southern renaissance often carried the same suggestive messages as the more obviously Gothic and bizarre.
The Young South was self-consciously skeptical of regional mores and alienated from tradition, but the continuing power of traditional culture prohibited alternative systems. This prompts a fourth characteristic of the movement, the sense of marginality, indeterminacy, and uncertainty. Like Wolfe’s George Webber, young Southerners walked out “into a kind of sunlight of another century . . . . They heard wheels coming and the world was in, yet they were not yet wholly of that world.” Figures of the renaissance responded variously to this circumstance. Alienation from tradition influenced both form and content of art and criticism in particular. Tate’s Ode to the Confederate Dead summarized these. At the outset, the poet-persona is marginal—at but not through the cemetery gate. Even so, this figure is only half alive in the chilling presence of the past, but in the same way the past is only half dead: “these memories grow/From the inexhaustible bodies that are not/Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.” It is contemplation of this deadly past that drains the life from the figure at the gate; Medusa-like it turns him into stone or heaves him “turning like the blind crab.” The autumnal, twilight setting underscores this half-life ambiguity as does the repeated image of the endlessly swirling leaves. Vague and obscure if portentous, the poem’s very language affirms ambiguity. Quentin Compson’s depiction in Absalom, Absalom! conveys the same sense, with “the two separate Quentins now talking to another in the long silence of notpeople in notlanguage.” By title Faulkner sets up a similar mood in The Sound and the Fury, while the same values govern that novel’s structure. Appearing the same year as The Sound and the Fury, Evelyn Scott’s novel, The Wave, achieves the same end. She shatters the Civil War into scores of narrative shards. From another direction, John Crowe Ransom’s essay, “Poets without Laurels,” emphasizes alienation and marginality. “Apostate, illaureate, and doomed to outlawry,” the artist must be estranged of his nature, he insists. Yet his idea of outlawry describes the fundamental condition of the regional young against the Southern social tradition, too.
Such estrangement reflected both the cause and effect of morality in the renaissance and prompted the redefinition of virtue and authority, the fifth characteristic of Young South values. The rejection of traditional pieties and the absence of alternative loyalties fragmented meaning. Antinomianism resulted, with reality or virtue coming to reside in the object itself. From this assumption in “Poet without Laurels,” Ransom justifies the amorality of the work of art even as he defends its complete autonomy. By the same process, the poem itself reflects the innermost subjective sense of the poet at a unique moment. This radical privatization of values denies access to content. Prohibited true knowledge of the artist’s intentions, the critic, it follows, must judge purely on matters of form—hence the New Critics’ formalism. The style, mode, or appearances of things came to substitute for their unknowable essences. If such values shaped the New Formalism, they affected the Young South’s modes and expression in many other ways. They prompted, on the one hand, a fascination with disguise and costume or of tricks and hide-and-seek. They possessed, on the other hand, more serious and fatal implications. Thus, in the absence of other significance, the physical processes of things became ends in themselves, creation and procreation the ultimate moral activity. In this fatal frame, man’s virtue is no different from the crab’s, as suggested in Tate’s Confederate Dead. Ellen Glasgow captured the idea neatly as she ruminated on her heroine in The Sheltered Life:
In the end she would triumph through that deep instinct for survival, which had ceased to be a negative quality and had strengthened into a dynamic force. She would be hardened by adversity, but hard things, as she said, are the last things to decay. The only thing that mattered was her triumph over circumstances.
Within this system, irony became the dominant voice and mode. The ironic voice, in turn, reinforced other values of the movement, most implied elsewhere, such as indeterminacy, ambiguity, paradox, oxymora, disguise, and indirection. Faulkner gets it one way with the idea of talking “in the long silence of notpeople in notlanguage,” Frances Newman quite another with her doubly layered mockery of irony itself, while finally the New Criticism demanded irony as the only legitimate voice of the modern age.
Two initial problems hinder the appreciation of Margaret Mitchell’s epic within this framework of Southern intellectual history, the first more esthetic and formal, the second more practical and immediate.
First, even as the most flattering reviewers noted, Gone with the Wind lacks art. Thus, typically, Henry Steele Commager wrote, “if not a work of art,” Gone with the Wind is “a dramatic recreation of life itself.” This distinction involves rather more than stylistic infelicities or ineptitude. It relates to the absence of self-conscious, esthetic intention. The idea of “the dramatic recreation of life itself” might suggest something of the distinction between art and journalism. Mitchell was a good journalist. She practiced the craft of novel-writing in a similar way, basically of ordering concrete facts about a page. She never claimed a higher revelation. She specifically disclaimed more elevated purpose. If her novel might still speak to something in the human spirit, Mitchell herself did not set out with this aim in mind. Yet her novel’s very lack of artfulness and coherent esthetic vision makes it useful; it reveals more clearly many of the intellectual and social currents that lay behind 20th-century civilization, still more, regional intellectual history after World War I. If her novel does not belong in the literary canon, it does, however, inform that canon. As a document, if not a text, it merits serious inquiry.
A more practical problem of fixing Mitchell’s epic within the interwar world lies in the novel’s very close identification with the Old South romance, that central target of her generation’s sharpest barbs. That identification has its own history. David Selznick’s memorable film sealed the interpretation upon the novel. With its exaggeration of aristocracy and slavery and its omissions of yeomanry, his version amused the author. She “yelped with laughter” on seeing the Hollywood Twelve Oaks, for example, which she described whimsically as an impossible hybrid of Grand Central Station and the State Capitol at Montgomery.
Evoking the Old South ideal lay very far indeed from her mind. She consistently expressed dismay at being categorized “among those writers who picture the South as a land of white columned mansions whose wealthy owners had thousands of slaves and drank thousands of juleps,” she wrote in almost paraphrase of Cash. “North Georgia was certainly no such country—if it ever existed anywhere, and I took great pains to describe North Georgia as it was.” She ridiculed the “lavender-and-old-lace-moonlight-on-the-magnolia” romance and insisted that no one could ever confuse that form and her own who had actually read the “gentle Confederate novel of the Thomas Nelson Page-type.” Sometimes the facile identification angered her, as with the New Republic review by Malcolm Cowley, who surely had never read a page of In Ole Virginia. Mitchell finally resigned herself, however. She observed plaintively to Virginius Dabney, the highly sympathetic editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and fellow-activist in the Young South:
. . . we Southerners could write the truth about the antebellum South, its few slaveholders, its yeomen farmers, its rambling, comfortable houses just fifty years away from log cabins, until Gabriel blows his trump—and everyone would go on believing in the Hollywood version. . . .people believe what they like to believe and the mythical Old South has too strong a hold on their imaginations to be altered by the mere reading of a 1,037 page book.
Yet the issue did go deeper. To Dabney she specifically disavowed any intention of writing about Cavaliers, insisting that all her characters, “except for the Virginia Wilkes, were of sturdy yeoman stock.” These same “Virginia Wilkes,” however, provided the very opening for the other reading of her novel, for through them, she displays the full panoply of the plantation romance. Ashley in particular represents that myth, not least of all in his nostalgic profusions about moonlight, magnolias, mocking birds, and singing darkies. Mitchell certainly knew and used the conventions of the plantation South and the Lost Cause romance. To what end and effect, however, remains another matter.
Like others of her generation, Mitchell challenged the legend. She did so in various ways. Thus, while she presents the most sentimental notions about the Old South, she usually distances them from the auctorial voice. This is especially notable with Ashley Wilkes. She uses the device of letters within the text to isolate his most sentimental memories of the past’s “golden glow.” The two main characters in the novel, Rhett and Scarlett, served the same distancing function. At every puff of platitude or romantic convention, they deflate with words, deeds, or sometimes merely pointed gestures the pretentions of the myth. The famous barbecue and armory scenes demonstrate neatly these characters’ purposes. Mitchell drew each scene to represent the traditional Southern world in microcosm. This makes her characters’ debunking realism and commonsense skepticism all the more significant. With a few pointed questions, Rhett shatters the pretty harmony of the country picnic and reduces the Cavaliers to stammering rage. Scarlett’s cynical reflections on the regional bellehood have similar effects.
The armory ball is better still. Selznick’s very memorable version emphasized the romantic play between the protagonists. In sharp contrast, Mitchell uses the scene to mount a quasi-political assault against every aspect of Southern traditional life. Rhett burlesques Dr. Meade’s buncombe oratory, the sanctification of women, and even slavery. Scarlett challenges all this and more in both word and deed. She questions war profiteers, draft evasion, conscription’s equity, romantic patriotism, and the deification of regional leaders and heroes. She protests a still wider set of Southern values relative to rigid gender roles and social mores. Making this critique more pointed still, Mitchell sketched her traditionalists especially negatively here: Melanie Wilkes is never more simpering and mindless; the foolish Old Guard never booms more dangerously.
Mitchell undermines the aristocratic idea in other ways. As opposed to the grace and easy harmony of the mythic social order, she depicts its conflicts and oppressions. If she ignored the oppression of slavery, she lost no occasion to show the restrictions upon women. Scarlett describes conventional society specifically as a prison, but the author shared these values, demonstrated, as Louis Rubin has argued, in the corset-lacing scene. Throughout the work, Mitchell bares the covert violence with which the social order compelled allegiance, as in Rhett’s exclusion from polite society and rejection by his Charleston family. Whispers work effectively as whips in this regard.
Generational negativity colors her individual aristocrats as well as her aristocracy as a class. She denies them life and vitality. Ellen Robillard lacks any color or spontaneity. She is a ghost in the novel. Repressed herself, she becomes a prime agent in her daughter’s repression. While Mitchell employs traditional language to describe the class—aloof, ineffectual, passionless, and weak, she also associates them with illness and physical disfiguration, like spindly-legged, knock-kneed spavins and the sallow look of malaria. Her animal analogues are telling, too: The Wilkes-Hamiltons are lap dogs, does, and rabbits, while the Butlers are lumbering dinosaurs. Natural selection does the South a favor to weed them out. Like Faulkner’s planter class with Benjy’s castration at the end of the Compson line, Mitchell’s aristocrats are impotent too.
As she testified to Virginius Dabney, however, traditional aristocrats did not really interest her. She intended to strip the whole class of its pretensions. Like Faulkner’s self-made Sutpen or Cash’s “stout young Irishman,” her planters are nothing more than self-made men who hustle fortunes where they find them. As a poor, ungainly Irish Catholic immigrant who first made money in his Savannah brothers’ store, Gerald O’Hara represents the very antithesis of the ideal, yet he typifies Mitchell’s planter class. Luck and pluck built his estate. Mitchell’s South is a melting pot of peoples; its rich soil and promise of wealth attract all manner and classes of folk. If it allows ignorant bogtrotters to rise, its bounty extends indiscriminately even to lethargic Virginian Cavaliers who drift to the frontier. And Mitchell purposefully set her tale in North Georgia on the frontier of plantation culture and far removed from the coasts and deltas, the storied realms of regional aristocracy. Further, she consistently draws the contrast between these hearty upcountry people, actually more concerned with farming than with planting, and the etiolated traditionalists of the Tidewater. She does not stop here either. She makes the hustling values of the farm compete with still more progressive values of the city. Like another regional contemporary, the Virginian Clifford Dowdy in Bugles Blow No More (1937), she sets a city on the center of her literary stage, and she makes urban, bourgeois, commercial values of that town a driving force within the entire novel. However natural this might seem in retrospect, little could have violated that plantation romance more.
In this rewriting of antebellum history, Mitchell reflected the second characteristic of the Young South movement, sociological realism. She sketched a highly fluid social order that rewarded diligence but punished lassitude. If Mitchell’s cosmos imposes Gerald as the norm in a self-made planter timocracy, she allows others to slip through the cracks at the bottom. She illustrates this decline in a character like Cathleen Calvert, whose degradation is witnessed in her dirty hands and fingernails that show half-moons of grime. Actual yeomen also figure in Mitchell’s work, A veritable congeries of social types parades her pages: the shy merchant Frank Kennedy, the illiterate small farmer Abel Wynder, the two-slave cracker Will Benteen, the mountain man Archie. All actually represent some version of the non-aristocratic yahoos at the top of the social heap like the Tarletons, Fontaines, and O’Haras. High or low, however, they belong to the same tribe in which democracy and egalitarianism dominate. Like Dodd and Owlsley later, she affirms the South as a democratic meritocracy, expressly illustrated in her treatment of the local Confederate cavalry unit and in the graveside scene of Gerald’s funeral.
In keeping with other biases of her generation, Mitchell’s social realism stops short of blacks. Black actors are important in her drama, race and slavery are not. Much more than simple Southern negrophobia fired her position. The earlier reference to the New Orleans Double Dealer established the linkage between “the storied realm of chivalry and the Nigger.” Gone with the Wind elaborates these connections. Ashley and Pork are clearly brothers beneath the skin: they both prove incapable of sustained, systematic labor; both ornament rather than advance the social order; neither has a place in a modern world. By setting her novel in the back country on the frontier where slavery historically figured less significantly than the coasts, Mitchell also underlined the Young South’s biases against both aristocracy and the peculiar institution.
Her realism crops out in other ways. She dispatches poor Charles Hamilton ignominiously to measles. Her battle pieces, depicted from the home front, are devoid of glory. Her hospital scenes represent a sordid slice of life with their lice, maggots, festering sores, and filth. Melanie gagging quietly into her handkerchief rounds out the image nicely. If Mitchell ignores the horrors of slavery, her inclusion of the chilling convict lease system went beyond what many Southerners of her own time would acknowledge. At the same time, old men belching loudly at the barbecue and the images of Scarlett and Rhett in dishevelled drunkenness fail to fit any pattern from the Southern romance even as they mirror the grimy naturalism offered up by her rebel generation.
This sort of realism blends into the Young South’s emphasis on shock appeal, the abnormal, the eccentric. The scraggly-bearded, wife-killing Archie who escapes from the state penitentiary reveals Mitchell’s debt to the regional Gothic. If lacking all Archie’s physical abnormalities, the two principals have even greater shock appeal. Scarlett and Rhett utterly disrupt the novel’s social order. They scandalize Mitchell’s fictional world. They are Mencken’s dead cats in more ways than one. Given the potency of tradition in the world of the twenties, these two ridicule and mock contemporary pieties and pretensions about the purity of the regional past: except on race, Mitchell challenged the shibboleths of her own age through them.
The fourth set of Young South characteristics, uncertainty, indeterminacy, alienation, and marginality, also influence the novel. At the outset, the protagonists would seem to deny these values. The two principals make their own way heroically, and Scarlett in particular serves popular culture as an icon of strength and self-determination. Her platitudinous reaction to delay hard decisions to another day, however, describes another dimension of her character. Her nightmares of wandering lost in an impenetrable fog betray her anxieties. While Rhett would master every scene, his confidence and self-possession prove even shallower than his wife’s. Even in his heyday, he depends on women—Bell, Scarlett, Bonnie, and when they betray him, finally with Bonnie’s death, he flees back to Charleston, respectability, home, and mother. From the very beginning, Ashley personifies the marginal man.
Within the larger structure of the novel, no system of belief animates the characters. Ashley, for example always does his duty as both a soldier and member of the social gentry, but he serves only as an act of duty, without passion or whole commitment. The characters commit themselves to nothing but one another, but even this passion is perverted. Dying, Melanie admits that she has loved an empty vessel as she commends her widower to Scarlett’s care. In a flash Scarlett recognizes that she has adored a maniken whom she dressed to suit her fancy. Scarlett loses her faith in Ashley too late to transfer it to a more legitimate object, Melanie herself. While she tries the transfer to Rhett, he is proven quite as hollow as his alter ego, Ashley. Ashley perpetually professed his belief in Melanie, but it lacked corporality; when he actually loved her physically, she died. Affirming the idea of alienation, no character quite understands the other; words and actions perpetually fail to synchronize; both tend, actually, to obscure meaning rather than to clarify. Alienated from one another, the characters are divided quite as much within themselves. Louis Rubin dealt with this fragmentation in the context of Absalom, Absalom!’s “two Quentin Compsons.” The comparison is apt. The characters blunder about like Tate’s blind crabs. In keeping with this fatalistic imagery, Mitchell conceived of her novel ending in death and dissolution. Although she had signed away all rights to influence the film version of her book, she fretted privately lest Selznick brighten her ending. She demurred. She wanted it as she planned it—unhappy. Moreover, as she had written the ending first, this sense of fatality became the last for which the first was made.
This fatalism and fragmentation introduces the final aspect of Young South thought reflected in the novel, the redefinition of meaning and authority. Margaret Mitchell’s own responses to her work clue the relationship. The author adamantly resisted the popular fervor to interpret her fiction. On the contrary, she abjured both meaning and moral for her narrative. She had not written for publication in the first place, but honestly for her muse or her own amusement. An intensely private person, she wrote from the most profoundly subjective impulse that she herself failed to acknowledge. Over and over she repeated that her novel was a tale told for itself. For her, literally, the form and process of the telling and the creative act existed for themselves. Her explanations ring true. They underline the lack of artfulness in her work and her absence of esthetic intentions. Even so, they suggest just the same some of the deepest impulses of her age which other members of her generation would fashion into high art.
Mitchell conceded only one theme for her novel: survival. This echoes specific voices in her times. Thus Ellen Glasgow had celebrated “that deep instinct for survival, which had ceased to be a negative quality and had strengthened into a dynamic force.” “Triumph over circumstances,” Glasgow also wrote, was the only thing that mattered. This aptly defines the career of Mitchell’s heroine. The novel rejects the past as a legitimate source of authority. It repudiates, ignores, or ridicules alternatives such as religion, politics, art, or learning. In the failure of all else, what counts is being, energy, determination, and courage in some almost physiological form like heart or “gumption” as one character called it. Scarlett is essential being. She has no morals. She is a faithless child, a miserable spouse, a loveless mother, a spiteful friend, and a traitorous member of her community. She violates all the Ten Commandments. She lacks human sympathy, compassion, and altruism. When she does do good, she never has noble ends in mind. Indeed, she altogether lacks a mind. She possesses only sensibility and the keenest animal sense of practical cause and effect. Knowing nothing of herself, she is also unself-conscious as the sun about the other characters whom she holds in orbit—the neighborhood beaux, Rhett, Ashley, Melanie, Aunt Pittypat, Pork, Gerald, Little Wade, and all the rest. Like the god of the burning bush or Popeye of the comic strip, Scarlett simply is. In the same way, the narrative measures out her being in the catalogue of her ceaseless struggle with circumstance.
With the fragmentation of meaning, irony and paradox enter Mitchell’s fictional world even as they pervaded the intellectual history of her times. On the simplest level, this mode dominates Rhett Butler’s characterization. Mitchell treats this character differently from all the others by seldom allowing the reader into his mind or motives. She also identified Rhett’s voice with the original inspiration for the book. By such means, Rhett’s irony suggests a central intelligence of the novel. These values affect the novel’s structure too. Almost 20 years ago, the critic Perry Carleton Lentz noted the novel is based upon a dual vision between “stated conventional myth and iconoclastic undercutting of that myth—so spaced that [they] exist comfortably side-by-side.” Lentz’ aperçu had broader applicability. Mitchell used all the conventions of the plantation romance and then subverted them. One might take examples almost at random, rape, for instance. De rigueur in postwar Lost Cause romance, rape figures centrally in Mitchell’s epic, too. By making the Shantytown assault a biracial affair, however, Mitchell utterly changed the meaning of the act from Page’s Red Rock or Dixon’s The Clansman. In their work, a clear political action follows rape—a vigilante raid that purifies the political order. Not so with Mitchell. Gone with the Wind displays the same forms of this reaction with none of the content. In the first place, Scarlett is not the innocent virgin of the romance; the author leaves no doubt about her social and moral responsibility for the “outrage.” Her reckless foolishness, in turn, forces the men to action, almost against their will. Neither heroic nor noble, they bungle the job. The cynical Rhett saves them through the comic and mortifying device of Belle Watling’s whorehouse. The raid repels no invaders, purges no racial pollution, and prompts no political revival. Beyond the humor of the matrons’ silly questions about the madam’s establishment, the affair has only personal meaning with the plot. By removing poor Frank Kennedy, it facilitates Scarlett’s and Rhett’s inevitable coupling, but even that waits upon another funny scene, of Scarlett fretting about going to hell. The second rape inverts the convention still more thoroughly. When Rhett kidnaps his own wife to the bedroom, the consequences are entirely personal, private, subjective, and psychological. The meaning is exclusively interior; it lacks any public implication whatsoever, in the very sharpest contrast to the political, public symbolism of rape in the plantation romance.
Mitchell employs irony in other ways. Using the plantation myth to demythologize that very legend is not the least of these. Yet the mode gets away from her. Via the double negative, Mitchell, like other debunkers of the 1920’s, often ran the shoals of celebrating what she criticized. In particular, Scarlett’s cold-eyed realism often reflects less on the social order than on herself. The reader is fired two messages. This especially affects the sections on Reconstruction, where Mitchell is far less sure of herself—and her history. Thus, when Scarlett visits her neighbors after the war and sneers at the expensive gravestones, sympathy flees to the Tarletons; the heroine seems especially crabbed and small. The affair of Cathleen Calvert reveals the author’s esthetic and moral ambiguity more clearly still. Belle of the county before Fort Sumter, Cathleen is second only to Scarlett in beaux, feminine wiles, and lack of consciousness. Nothing redeems this negative imagery. Her characterization changes with the war, and Mitchell shifts her focus. In a clearly heroic act of self-sacrifice to save her brother, Cathleen weds the overseer and seals her own fate. All the imagery supports the impression of her nobility. In this affair, Scarlett seems quite as ignorant, blind, and unrealistic as Melanie was at the armory, while Melanie intuits exactly what is happening. Yet if here Mitchell galvanizes readers’ empathy for Cathleen, Melanie, and tradition, she negates this picture one more time at Gerald’s funeral when Cathleen appears finally as a full-blown slattern.
This shuffling back and forth prompted one early reviewer, the Young South poet John Peale Bishop, to reject the novel for its moral ambiguity. Another reviewer in the movement, Evelyn Scott, isolated the same flaws in terms of the novel’s “petty Nietzscheanism” and its “undigested influence of that literature of pessimism” that characterized the twenties. Unlike Bishop, however, Scott allowed the novel’s power for all its flaws because of “the wholeheartedness which [Mitchell’s] imagination yields itself. . . . [She] makes the reader’s absorption into a narrative sprinkled with cliches and verbal ineptitudes a contagious growth.” Even the arch young Malcolm Cowley admitted as much. Mitchell, he finally concluded,
writes with a splendid recklessness, blundering into big scenes that a more experienced novelist would hesitate to handle for fear of being compared unfavorably with Dickens or Dostoevsky. Miss Mitchell is afraid of no comparison and no emotion. . . . I would never, never say that she has written a great novel, but in the midst of triteness and sentimentality, her book has a simpleminded courage that suggests the great novelists of the past.
Here, then, is another paradox: what limits the novel as art or literature creates the source for its universal appeal and its power to speak to fundamental values in the human condition. If such terms as wholeheartedness, fearlessness, splendid recklessness, and simple-minded courage apply to the way that Mitchell wrote, they apply equally to her heroine’s character—and to her huge appeal as well. There is, finally, a kind of unself-conscious unity here; if not art, per se, Gone with the Wind still is greater than its parts, as Commager argued. Taken together, the style and content play off one another to underline the novel’s desperate vitality. This, in turn, relates back to the age itself again. In challenging their mythic tradition, Young South intellectuals repudiated a primary source of their personal and collective identity. Being remained, it and the creative processes of life itself. Writing and sometimes art became redemptive in this context. It absorbed extraordinary passion. “I write, therefore I am,” might have been the motto. Mitchell instilled this passion into her book. While repudiating, then, one mythic construction of the world, her novel, as “a dramatic recreation of life itself,” still captures something Protean, for all its artlessness. Fixed thoroughly and permanently in the particular history of postwar Southern values, Mitchell’s work transcends them to speak to people across culture, time, and space. Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell remains illaureate, but for all this, she has her merit.