Gone With the Wind: An American Epic
by Donald W. Miller, Jr., MD
by Donald W. Miller, Jr., MD
Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind, about the fall of the Confederacy, the burning of Atlanta, and the military occupation of the South, has struck a chord with people around the world. It has been translated into about 40 languages (and published in 50 countries), which include Kannada (in India), Arabic (Egypt and Lebanon), Amharic (Ethiopia), and Farsi (Iran).
The book was published in 1936. Despite a three-dollar price tag ($43.50 in today's dollars), in its first year Gone With the Wind sold 1,383,000 copies. Over the next several years, before World War II began, 24 countries had published translations of the novel.
As with Americans during the Great Depression, Mitchell's Civil War novel resonated with Europeans who found their lives turned upside down by World War II. People in Nazi-controlled France, Holland, Norway, and Belgium prized the novel highly. Bootlegged copies of Gone With the Wind sold for sixty dollars ($665.80 today). The Nazi occupiers seized them, and people caught with the book in their possession risked being shot1. In her Holocaust memoir, The Net of Dreams: A Family's Search for a Rightful Place, Julie Salamon writes that her mother had read Gone With the Wind numerous times before she was sent to Auschwitz; and "she would never forget the way the book had helped her [mentally] escape from Lager C [in Auschwitz-2/Birkenau], day after day, as she told the story, in installments, to her bunkmates."
In Ethiopia, Nebiy Mekonnen, an Addis Ababa University student, translated Gone With the Wind into Amharic while in prison. Along with two-thirds of the young men in that country, he was arrested during Mengistu's Red Terror of 1977—78. A fellow prisoner, arrested at the airport and later executed, had a copy of Gone With the Wind in his personal belongings that the jailers ignored. Over a three-year period this student, who spoke English, translated the novel onto the only source of paper available, the inner linings of 3,000 empty cigarette packs. He read the passages that he translated each day to his cellmates, who when released would smuggle out portions of it disguised as packs of cigarettes. When Nebiy was released from prison in 1985 he managed to track down and retrieve all 3,000 "pages" of his translation and get it published. A censorship committee at first wanted him to remove the word baria, the Amharic word for "slave," because in common parlance it describes Ethiopians from the south; but as Nebiy pointed out, "There is no such thing as Gone With the Wind without mentioning slavery."2
In Vietnam, Gone With the Wind has broken records for readership. The first Vietnamese translation of this novel was published in 1951. Since then there have been 6 other translations published in 12 editions, with 100,000 copies sold. Thi Thanh Le, who grew up in the Mekong River Delta, explores the novel's "striking vitality" with Vietnamese women in her 2003 PhD thesis (at the University of Massachusetts) titled, ‘Gone With the Wind' and the Vietnamese Mind. Among other things, she explores the Vietnamese view of "the novel's concept of womanhood, especially the central female protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara, who dealt with the collapse of the plantation's system of values and the emergence of a new role for women."
Margaret Mitchell (1900—1949) began writing Gone With the Wind when she was 26 years old. When the book was published ten years later she was overwhelmed with praise and heart-felt thanks from readers and reviewers. In Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell, Darden Pyron recounts how wives wrote letters to her sympathizing with Scarlett because "no woman knows the degradation she will stoop to until she needs to defend her home and those she loves," and men broken by the Depression poured out their hearts in understanding for Ashley Wilkes, the novel's Hamlet-like planter aristocrat. Critics equated Gone With the Wind with Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, to which Mitchell replied (in a letter), "I've read review after review saying the same thing and have realized with a sense of growing horror that eventually I'm going to have to read War and Peace."3
The communist regime in the former USSR effectively banned Gone With the Wind. A Russian translation, by Tatiana Kudriavtseva, was finally published in Russia in 2001. In a CNN interview, she says, "The whole thing happened in Russia…We were survivors of the war, like Scarlett, and this novel was ringing a lot of bells for us. We saw the ravages, we saw the fires, we saw the pilloried villages, we saw the poverty and the hunger… Gone With the Wind is considered in Russia as [the] American War and Peace."
The similarities between these two lengthy, panoramic novels are striking.3 They encompass the literary genres of historical novel, family chronicle, and Bildungsroman (tracing the development of people as they change in response to historical necessity). Each addresses the forebodings and repercussions of war; Tolstoy, Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. They both canvas the theme of individual fate in the midst of social upheaval. And both novels chronicle the fates of three families, the Rostovs, Bolkonskys, and Kuragins in War and Peace and the O'Haras, Hamiltons, and Wilkeses in Gone With the Wind. A central, unrelated character in each novel interacts with members of these families, Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace and Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.
Margaret Mitchell, answering questions about her novel, writes, "Despite its length and many details it is basically just a simple yarn of fairly simple people. There's no fine writing, there's no philosophizing, there is a minimum of description, there are no grandiose thoughts, there are no hidden meanings, no symbolism, nothing sensational."3 In What Is Art (1886) Tolstoy writes: "There is one indubitable indication separating real art from its counterfeit, namely, the infectiousness of [real] art…[It must] transmit the simplest feelings of common life, but such, always, as are accessible to all men in the entire world." Gone With the Wind fits Tolstoy's definition of "real art." The title itself bespeaks the novel's artistic simplicity — four one-syllable words with a poetic lilt that capture its spirit.
In the 71 years since its publication, this novel has attained the status of an epic. The Oxford English Dictionary defines epic as "that species of poetical composition, represented typically by the Iliad and Odyssey, which celebrates in the form of a continuous narrative the achievements of one or more heroic personages of history or tradition… [Epics] have often been regarded as embodying a nation's conception of its own past history, or of the events in that history which it finds most worthy of remembrance." Like myths, epics tell the essential truths about a given culture, truths about its history, laws, and class structure.
James Cantrell, in How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature (2006), describes how Gone With the Wind meets the criteria of an epic, as originally established by Homer in the Iliad and Virgil in the Aeneid. Each culture typically has only one or two true epics in its literature, and Gone With the Wind is a good candidate for being America's Epic. Like the Iliad and Aeneid, Gone With the Wind addresses a universal theme, that of struggling through adversities created by war. Its characters embody American culture. And the narrative deals with a pivotal event in American history that changed the balance of power between the U.S. Federal government and the States. Two epic-defining criteria that Gone With the Wind does not observe is that it is in prose (not a poem); and the story starts at the beginning, not in medias res — in the middle of things. (In the Iliad, a lot has already happened when the poem begins. Flashbacks introduce the characters, setting, and conflict, along with characters relating past events to each other.)
Mitchell's prose is earnest and dignified, as befits an epic. It flows smoothly, in an oral poetic tradition, through 1,037 pages (419,218 words). Her style is clear and lucid. Mitchell describes Scarlett, four years into the story after the fall of Atlanta, this way: "Somewhere, on the long road that wound through those four years, the girl with her sachet and dancing slippers, had slipped away, and there was left a woman with sharp green eyes, who counted pennies and turned her hands to many menial tasks, a woman to whom nothing was left from the wreckage, except the indestructible red earth on which she stood." And this is Rhett Butler at the end of the narrative: "He was sunken in his chair, his suit wrinkling untidily against his thickening waist, every line of him proclaiming the ruin of a fine body and the coarsening of a strong face. Drink and dissipation had done their work on the coin-clean profile, and now it was no longer the head of a young pagan prince on newly minted gold, but a decadent, tired Caesar on copper debased by long usage."
In his 1975 introduction to the Anniversary Edition of Gone With the Wind, James Michener (no mean storyteller himself) lauds its "extraordinary readability" and "sentences and paragraphs which positively sing." He writes: "She [the author] is best considered, I think, a unique young woman who before the age of ten loved to tell stories and who at twenty-six began a long and powerful recollection of her home town. That it was destined to become a titanic tale of human passions, loved around the world, was a mystery then and remains one now."
Reader response plays an essential role in determining what work of literature is worthy of being termed Great and an Epic. In American Academia and the Survival of Marxist Ideas (1996), Dario Fernandez-Morera observes: "[Great books] have been considered great not because they have been imposed upon the hapless public by a hegemonic cabal [e.g., English professors and Nobel and Pulitzer Prize committees], but because they have proved to be richer, more complex, and more stimulating sources of thoughtful feeling at different times and in different nations." From political prisoners in Africa to women in Vietnam, people of diverse nationalities and walks of life continue to relish the richness and complexity of Gone With the Wind.
John Wiley, Jr., in "70 Years Later, ‘Scarlett Fever' Still Raging Around the World," recounts what Margaret Mitchell had to say (in letters) about this phenomenon. She writes, "While many critics in the United States based their criticism upon the love story or the narrative, European critics evaluated it on a different basis. In practically every European country critics wrote at length of the "universal historical significance." Each nation applied to its own past history the story of the Confederate rise and fall and reconstruction. French critics spoke of 1870 [the Franco-Prussian War], Poles of the partitioning of their country, Germany of 1918 and the bitterness which followed, Czechs wrote not only of their troubled past but of their fears of the future, and I had letters from that country just before it went under [Nazi domination], saying that if the people of the South had risen again to freedom the people of Czechoslovakia could do likewise." In another letter written in 1947, two years before she died, Mitchell notes: "Every country [in Europe] has had its recent experience with war and occupation and defeat, and people in each country apply the experiences of the characters of Gone With the Wind to themselves."
These characters, most importantly Scarlett, Rhett Butler, Ashley and Melanie Wilkes, and Mammy, personify the antebellum South. Scarlett's father is Celtic-Irish and her mother, Anglo-Norman, which represent the two primary cultures in the antebellum South. Celts, from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, were in the majority. Many were hardscrabble "poor whites," and few Celts owned slaves. The Anglo-Normans, from England, like Ashley, were the genteel, slave-owning upper class in this culture. Tara, Scarlett's plantation, is the name for the capital of ancient Ireland and is the spiritual center of Irish culture. (A statue of St. Patrick now stands on the Hill of Tara, in County Meath, Ireland.)
James Cantrell's "Celtic-Southern thesis" brings a fresh perspective to this work.4 He maintains that "Gone With the Wind is not merely a novel about fighting and rebuilding from a losing war, nor is it merely a cloying though ultimately heartbreaking love story; it is an epic in which the protagonist ultimately has the tragic perception that her life has been false in cultural terms. The conflict in Gone With the Wind concerns which of the two different cultures should be pre-eminent in the South, a conflict Mitchell embodies in Scarlett's relationships with her parents and, especially, in her love for Ashley Wilkes." Cantrell contends, "The South's tragedy, in Mitchell's vision, is that its Celtic hardheadedness did not prevent it from choosing the pretty illusions of cavalier [Anglo-Norman] gentility, which include a cavalier defense of chattel slavery and the caste system that goes with it. The South, like Scarlett, blinded itself to reality, and thereby lost what was most precious to it."
Mainstream historians, presenting the victors' version of events, focus on slavery and downplay the economic reasons why the South seceded from the Union. They view Mitchell's novel as a "moonlight on magnolias" plantation romance that creates a falsely alluring picture of the Old South. James McPherson, in Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, echoes this sentiment when he writes, "Gone With the Wind glamorized the Old South and romanticized the Confederacy." Academic literary critics dismiss the work as being conventionally written and uneven. And American educators, in today's political climate, avoid the book.
The slaves in Gone With the Wind, notably Mammy, Uncle Peter, and Prissy, are well drawn people who have individuality and dignity. Mammy is a strong woman who understands people and their personal relationships better than any other character in the novel. Uncle Peter, for want of a (white) male presence, oversees Aunt Pittypat's home, in a stern but thoughtful manner. Prissy has a sweet, manipulative, and sometimes exasperating teen-age charm. They speak an African-American dialect, which in the text Mitchell spells in a way that anticipates present-day Ebonics.
In Gone With the Wind, Mitchell treats the institution of slavery as a fact of life. Up until the 19th century slavery in human societies was considered to be a normal state of affairs, crossing racial lines. Some free blacks in the South owned African-American slaves, and people of other races when defeated in war have been sold into slavery. (The Bible, in the Old Testament, affirms that slaves are a form of property and that the children of a slave couple are the property of the slaves' owner [Exodus 21:4]. Abraham and Jacob kept slaves, and the New Testament says nothing against slavery.) Black Africans exported 11,000,000 slaves to the New World, of whom 500,000 (5 percent) came to America. Between 1823 and 1888, every country in the New World that had slaves, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, freed them peacefully — except Haiti (in 1804) and the United States, who did it through war. The Confederate States of America would have freed their slaves peacefully fairly soon after it became a nation had it not been attacked and destroyed by the Union.
Mitchell does not dwell on Lincoln's handling of slavery, an issue he skirted until midway through the war. I examine the issue of slavery and Lincoln's handling of it in A Jeffersonian View of the Civil War (published on LewRockwell.com.)
The film version of Gone With the Wind (1939) presents a falsely romantic picture of the Old South. A prologue (not in the book) scrolling over a bucolic Georgian landscape informs the viewer that "…in this pretty world Gallantry took the last bow... the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Masters and Slaves… no more than a dream remembered." The film skips over Sherman burning Atlanta and the hardships of Reconstruction, devoting the bulk of its footage to Scarlett's love interests (shorn of children she had in her first two marriages). Ashley professes ardent feelings for Scarlett in the film that are absent in the novel. The film version of Gone With the Wind is a pale and distorted mirror of the book.
Gone With the Wind (the novel) has a timeless quality in how it describes the struggle for survival and freedom in turbulent times. The economic devastation inflicted on the Confederacy in its failed War for Southern Independence in the 19th century could happen again in the United States today with its "War on Terrorism." The U.S. is deeply in debt, and it is getting worse (the Federal budget deficit for March set an all time monthly record of $108.2 Billion — $1.3 Trillion annualized). America's manufacturing base is contracting (from 54 percent of the world's industrial output in 1945 to 17 percent today). The Euro continues to rise in value against the U.S. dollar and challenge its status as the post-World War II reserve currency. The U.S. Dollar Index has fallen (once again) close the 80.00 level, the "floor" for this index since the beginning of the fiat currency era in 1973. If this floor does not hold, the dollar could succumb to runaway inflation, bankrupting government entitlement programs. As Gary North puts it in Solvency: Gone With the Wind, "When you think ‘Social Security/Medicare,' think Confederate Bonds 1866." People in the United States today risk suffering the same kind of privations people in the South experienced during and after the Civil War. Should this happen, Americans will once again treasure Gone With the Wind like they did in the Great Depression, and like people still do in other nations around the world.
Recorded Books has a 50-hour unabridged audio production of Gone With the Wind (on 36 or 28 cassettes) for rental or purchase. Linda Stephens, a Broadway actor with an ear for Southern dialects, is the reader. Listening to her narrate this story is a captivating experience. It is arguably the best way, following the oral tradition of poems, to "read" this prose epic.
- Pierpont, Claudia Roth. "A Critic at Large: A Study in Scarlett." The New Yorker. August 31, 1992, pages 87—103 (see page 101).
- Huang, Carol. "Tomorrow Is Another Day: An Ethiopian student survives a brutal imprisonment by translating Gone with the Wind into his native Amharic." The American Scholar. 2006, Volume 75 (Autumn, Issue 4), pages 79—88.
- Schefski, Harold K. "Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind and War and Peace." In Gone with the Wind as Book and Film. Richard Harwell, Editor. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1983.
- Cantrell, James P. How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2006.
April 17, 2007
Donald Miller (send him mail) is a cardiac surgeon and Professor of Surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is a member of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness and writes articles on a variety of subjects for LewRockwell.com. His web site is www.donaldmiller.com
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