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Romance Permitted

ISSUE:  Autumn 1936

Gone With The Wind.
By Margaret Mitchell. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.00.

The arbiters of what is what among us have dealt with Margaret Mitchell’s first novel very generously, During the first week after its publication it was possible for a reader far from New York, going about his own business, to gather the impression that one could esteem “Gone With the Wind” without losing respectability. Down the eastern side of the mountains reports came gliding —all the way from those which said that here at last was the great American novel to those that sanctioned a reading of it, for recreation purely, even by the austerest thinkers. For even the austerest thinkers, one of the pronouncements implied, may from time to time, when cocktails cloy, permit themselves a wee snifter of romance.

A thousand-and-thirty-seven pages constitute a considerable snifter, and it seems sure that anybody who could justify such a free potation objects in general not so much to romance in principle as to the quality of romance most usually available. A truly good romance may well recommend itself to very unyielding realists; and “Gone With the Wind” is an instance of such a victory.

The main interest of this novel is the story, which is told with a gusto and suspense that sets its author high in the roster of the born-story-tellers who have written in the English language. There the background is—Atlanta and the South for ten portentous years of civil war and technical reconstruction, with many decades of subsequent reconstruction implied—and all the details are masterfully handled. There is the fixed and dependable social order of the pre-war plantations—the planters and the yeomanry and the white-trash and the Negroes, each recognizing the limitations of their position with reference to the others, yet all hobnobbing together with the frontier informality that their rigid social hierarchy made possible. There is the disruption of all of this by war, and the emergence of Atlanta as a capital of the new and more bustling order.

Miss Mitchell is particularly convincing in her treatment of the Negro, More humorous and sprightly than, for example, Thomas Nelson Page, she nonetheless holds to the conventional picture in this matter. She has the sense not to let her comprehensible wish for freshness, and for endorsement by “enlightened” thinkers, tempt her into giving a report at odds with what really was.

She is also largely Page-conventional in her attitude toward the North and the South in the Civil War. War is a terrible, quite inhuman, ruthless, insensate monster, launched wholly by implacable economic rivalries—and so on, in the best manner of Stephen Crane. Yet in Miss Mitchell’s story the Southern fighters, at least, never achieve a frenzy that makes them anything less exalted than men. That ultimate frenzy, the followers of Sherman may reach, and do, but never those of Lee or Johnston.

The book is old-fashioned also in its technique. Distinctly not literary in the assertive, Flaubert sense, it dashes on, racy and indigenous in style, copious and voluminous, studded with “asides” from author to reader as to what at this or that moment this or that character is secretly thinking. But a sort of discipline governs the entire book, the discipline of a valid mind that is confident of its instinct to stop short, always, of violating the basic citadel of plausibility. This predicates a godsend rare in our time, an author of indubitable power and alertness in whom the forces of self-criticism have not become an enervating malady.

A reader not so immune to self-criticism is sure to be distressed by some of Miss Mitchell’s procedure: her putting into the mouths of her characters catchwords hardly devised before the time of their grandchildren, her use of trite expressions, her diagnoses of ailments hardly recognized before 1900, her accusation of muddiness against a river that was in 1860 mainly clear. And a reader who, philosophically if not by actual performance, has in some degree rounded the circle of self-criticism—his faculty for analysis having turned on itself, a kind of suicide—is likely to be distressed by Miss Mitchell’s endorsements of the lately current doctrine of inevitability, that he can no longer believe inevitable. But whoever can discern this much can discern more, and can comfort himself with the faith that on the score of inevitability Miss Mitchell, in some of her moods, can probably match him doubt for doubt.

It is a safe bet that walking down the street Miss Mitchell has more the favor of her sub-heroine, Melanie, than of her heroine, Scarlett. It is Scarlett in her mind who has made her so cognizant of the modern world, so ready to suggest that an event was in the fated course of evolutionary progress and could not be held off, so ready to detail for her contemporaries the intimacies of childbirth without sparing one of the requisite preliminaries. But it is Melanie in her mind, or in the bottom of her heart, who has persuaded her that codes and appearances and traditions are really important, that by them one must form one’s judgments or be thrown back upon quite amorphous bogs of speculation.

All of this must be subsidiary in a discussion of a book of this sort. For, first and last, this is a novel with a plot, massive in bulk and in historical suggestion, wise and regenerative in its handling of human character, and, above all, of the most rapid movement, and of the most engrossing, unflagging interest.


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