This coming June will mark 81 years since Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of the Civil War, Gone with the Wind, was published.
So let’s start with a little quiz: 1) What is the source of the title (which is a nice way of saying where did Mrs. Mitchell steal it)? and 2) Thomas Mitchell won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1939 (the year the movie version of Gone with the Wind was released) for what role? The answers are at the bottom of today’s column. Stay off the internet; you’re on the honor system.
Now I have to make a confession.
Until not too many years ago I’d never read Gone with the Wind.
I think I always assumed it was just a big melodramatic romance, sort of a hefty (over a thousand pages of fairly small print) precursor of Harlequin romances. I’ve seen the movie probably half a dozen times and, while I stop short of proclaiming it the greatest film ever made, it is very good indeed. But other great movies have been made from not-so-great novels; The Godfather comes quickly to mind.
And the fact that so many girls used to read Gone with the Wind over and over – my sister read it several times in high school – was probably instrumental in keeping me from reading it even once.
So a few years ago in honor of the book’s 75th anniversary I tackled that massive tome. And I can happily report that I enjoyed the journey and discovered that my reservations about both the story and the writing were completely unwarranted. It’s a finely crafted tale, wonderfully paced, with some beautiful sensory description.
And the major characters are a perfect blend of personalities: the gentleman scoundrel Rhett Butler, the aristocratic Ashley, his saintly wife Melanie, the caustic slave Mammy, the proud Irishman Gerald O’Hara. And, of course, his troublesome daughter, who is not only the main protagonist in this book but one of the brightest stars, and most complex characters, in all of American literature.
Scarlett O’Hara, shallow and capricious and almost silly at the beginning, becomes, in the course of the narrative, a determined force of nature not easily reckoned with and impossible to control. She’s completely self-absorbed, spoiled rotten, arrogantly vindictive, and deviously manipulative. But what sets her apart from other young literary divas like Daisy Buchannan in The Great Gatsby and Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, who are also those things, is that Scarlett manages to make readers admire her even while sometimes detesting her before everything comes to a close on page 1024.
It’s still easy on that page, after Rhett has made his famous exit, to see all her faults. But it’s much harder, after spending that long in her head and in her various predicaments, to leave her. I actually missed Scarlett for a while after finishing the book.
In my creative writing classes and workshops I encourage writers to pay constant attention to what I call the “Thing and the Bigger Thing”, which refers to the basic storyline and the greater series of events that swirl around it. In Gone with the Wind Scarlett’s escapades are played constantly against the hardships and sacrifices of the Civil War. In fact, that turbulent chapter in our past comes more fully to life in this novel than in any history book I’ve read.
I admit to being surprised at liking the novel as much as I did. It’s dated, to say the least, and the major characters’ overt racism is hard to take at times, even in a fictional setting. But it’s an extremely well-told story, and fully deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. If you’ve never read it give it a try.
And if you’re a writer pay special attention to how Mitchell worked her magic, creating a character that can be equally admired and detested and a setting, a unique time and place, that becomes a living, breathing character as well.
Here are the answers to the quiz: 1) though the phrase, or variations of it, had popped in numerous places, Mrs. Mitchell probably stole the title from herself. At one point in the book Scarlett wonders, when she is on her way home during the worst part of the war, if the big house on her family plantation, Tara, will still be standing or if it is “also gone with the wind which had swept through Georgia.” 2) Thomas Mitchell (no relation to Margaret), played Scarlett’s father Gerald O’Hara, but he won the award that year not for that role but for his portrayal of the tippling Doctor Boone in John Wayne’s first big movie Stagecoach.
If you got them both right I guess you’re expecting a prize. But, in the immortal words of Miss Scarlett O’Hara, I can’t think about that right now. I’ll think about that tomorrow.
[Most of this first appeared in a newspaper column that is long gone with the wind]