A Tale of Two Southern Books

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This
time of year we begin seeing recommendations of books for Christmas
presents. This article is also a recommendation for a gift book
but I admit that I have an ulterior motive. I intend to compare
this book with another one in order to illustrate a political phenomenon
that has always intrigued me.

The
phenomenon I am referring to is how political trends exert a disproportionate
influence on art and entertainment. Conversely, art and entertainment,
i.e.works of fiction, have the power to sway political opinions.

In
the last one hundred years American political beliefs have changed
more rapidly and radically than during any previous century. Most
of these changes have not been propitious. And, beginning around
1960, writers realized that they had a better chance of being published
if their books reinforced current political trends.

To
demonstrate these changes, let's look at two books beginning with
the similarities, which are striking: Two female authors both born
and raised in the South. Each wrote a first novel that became a
best seller but neither was able to produce a second. Both books
were set in the South and both won Pulitzer Prizes for literature.
Both novels were made into successful Hollywood films and both films
won Academy Awards in various categories.

When
I tell you that one book was published in the 1930s and the other
in the 1960s you will know I am referring to Margaret Mitchell's
Gone
With the Wind
and Harper Lee's To
Kill a Mockingbird
. But with all the similarities mentioned
above, it would be difficult to imagine two more disparate books.

Margaret
Mitchell loved her native Georgia and the South in general. Her
father, a prominent attorney, was president of the Atlanta Historical
Society and from childhood she was immersed in the history of the
region, especially the Confederacy and what became known as the
Civil War and its aftermath.

Unlike
some writers, Margaret didn't spend time navel-gazing or hanging
out with literary types. After graduating from college, she immediately
went to work as a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution.
This profession kept her in touch with people from various walks
of life as well as helped her to hone her writing skills.

Ms.
Mitchell became concerned about the number of recollections of the
Confederacy that were disappearing from library shelves and being
discontinued by publishing companies. To friends she confided the
uncanny foresight that posterity would take a one-sided, unfavorable
view of the Old South. So she decided to write about that period
and she selected the novel format. Her goal was simply to produce
a book that would inform future Georgians and other Southerners
about the Confederacy before, during and after the Civil War. The
result was Gone With the Wind.

Harper
Lee was almost the exact opposite of Margaret Mitchell. She was
one of those starry-eyed, u2018There's a novel in meu201D types who left
her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and made a beeline to New
York City where she lived the life of the struggling bohemian writer,
while being subsidized by friends. Ms. Lee made contacts with all
the important people and socialized with literati. Having Truman
Capote as a friend from childhood was certainly a door opener.

Ms.
Lee dreamed of writing a famous novel, one that would be made into
a Hollywood film. But after churning out numerous unreadable and
unpublished short stories, she began to feel her dream was eluding
her. Then the process I mentioned in the opening paragraphs came
into play.

In
the late 1950s the civil rights movement was gaining momentum and
book publishers, tv executives and Hollywood producers were aggressively
seeking stories depicting racism. It was in this environment that
Harper was encouraged to write To Kill a Mockingbird. She
concocted a story of an innocent black man falsely accused of raping
a white woman, convicted by a bigoted white jury, and murdered by
sadistic white prison guards. Obviously the story was set in the
South. Harper Lee knew she had found a winning formula and she also
knew her Southern background would lend credence to her novel.

First
novels often contain flaws, but To Kill a Mockingbird had
more than its share. As the book has now been almost canonized because
of its political message, it may be difficult to believe that its
publication was not well received by many literary critics of the
time. They viewed the book as simplistic, predictable, and overly
moralistic. The characters were perceived as one-dimensional stereotypes
more suited for children's' stories than adult literature. Indeed
the novel is often called a child's book.

Ms.
Lee seriously overestimated her writing skills when she decided
to tell the story through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl. This
literary technique is difficult enough for a seasoned author but
with Ms. Lee's limitations as a writer, it turned out to be a disaster.
Sometimes the young girl sounds like an authentic eight-year-old
but as one reviewer complained, she is too u201Cself-consciously cute.u201D
At other times she sounds like an adult, using phrases such as:
u201Cit was a time of vague optimism,u201D u201Cthe summer passed in routine
contentment,u201D and u201Cmy cries were monosyllabic.u201D

Often
Ms. Lee forgets about her young storyteller and slips into the voice
of a neutral third party. Naturally this is jarring to the reader
and interrupts the flow of the story. Consequently it takes an effort
to read the book all the way through although it covers less than
300 pages.

In
contrast, Margaret Mitchell avoided gimmicks because she realized
that the voice of an omniscient third party was necessary for her
to properly tell her story. She was able to vividly portray people,
their moods, landscapes and action. Her characters are not cardboard
but real people with both good and bad qualities. Like any well-written
novel, the characters are permanently changed by the events that
they experience.

Contrary
to what many may think, GWTW doesn't eulogize the Confederacy
or try to mitigate the effects of slavery. In fact, most of the
main characters are opposed to secession and do not support a war
with the North that they think the South cannot win. They are simply
individuals, complex and attractive individuals, caught up in tragic
events. How these events impact their goals and lifestyles and how
they react to these upheavals is what makes for a great book, especially
in the hands of an outstanding author like Margaret Mitchell.

If
you didn't know better, you would never guess GWTW is the
author's first novel. Margaret Mitchell avoids the clumsiness and
mistakes usually found in a first outing. Her sentences have a continuous,
faultless rhythm, which is not hindered by flashbacks and dialogue.
Gone With the Wind is more than 1000-pages long, but it holds
your interest from beginning to end.

Conversely,
To Kill a Mockingbird has such serious flaws, that, had it
not been for the subject matter and the political climate in which
it was issued, I do not believe it would have won a Pulitzer Prize.
In fact, I believe, in any other time, a publisher would have demanded
numerous corrections and revisions before even considering the book
for publication.

It
is politics rather than literary merit that keeps this work of fiction
in the public's eye. Currently, To Kill a Mockingbird is
on the reading lists of many schools because some educators prefer
to avoid complexity in favor of simplistic approaches to issues.
In addition to the book being required reading at schools around
the country, showing the film has become an annual event with the
television industry.

It's
hard to imagine an educator recommending Gone With the Wind
in today's political climate. I fact, I don't believe that any book
that didn't condemn the Old South would be recommended. But Mrs.
Mitchell's book doesn't need reading lists or teachers' recommendations
to improve its popularity. Her loyal readers have boosted sales
to more than 28 million copies. And it continues to sell after six
decades. Because of its popularity in other countries it has been
translated into 25 languages.

The
full importance of Gone With the Wind as a great work of
literature has yet to be realized, although the book is being rediscovered
by hordes of new readers. Margaret Mitchell did indeed write the
great American novel.

Whereas
Mrs. Mitchell's book is a result of an almost filial devotion to
the South, Miss Lee's book seems to be an opportunistic exploitation
of the region. To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most
overrated book of the century just ended. Also, with the new problems
facing our nation the book is no longer politically useful. If educators
take a fresh and impartial view of Miss Lee's book, they will realize
that it is simply passe.

To
Kill a Mockingbird will not satisfy a discerning reader. But
if you are looking for a Christmas gift for such a person, you can't
do better than Gone With the Wind; a hardback copy, of course.
The recipient should read it slowly, chapter by chapter, savoring
Mrs. Mitchell's singular literary achievement. I suspect that every
few years they will take it off the shelf and read it again.

December
17, 2001

Gail
Jarvis [send
him mail
] is a CPA living in
Beaufort, SC, an unreconstructed Southerner, and an advocate of
limited government.

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