In Defense of GWTW

What Margaret Mitchell’s Novel tells us about Contemporary Critics

At fashion designer Elena Velez’s 2024 NYFW event – the widely talked about, and snarkily criticized, Gone With the Wind Ball – Red Scare’s Anna Khachiyan and social media personality Mason tracked Gone With the Wind’s sartorial setpieces as both an index of waning Southern fortunes and a means of gutsy self-fashioning amidst wartime conditions. What bothered its critics was that the panelists didn’t frame their discussion as a meta-discussion about whether or not they were allowed to engage in discussion about enjoying the book. Instead, along with the even more ambitious proposition of reviving the old-fashioned practice of aesthetic appreciation keyed to a popular audience, they did what Anti-Woke Inc. has proved itself too cowardly to do: shift the discussion beyond the suffocating grift monopoly of lib culture to consider a cultural artifact on its own merits and terms.

When I first read Margaret Mitchell’s sprawling historical masterpiece as a teenager, I was immediately enthralled by its plain but perceptive prose and warm representation of Antebellum life captured by a gaze that was intimately familiar with the fading rose of Southern gentility. Mitchell is today neglected as a portraitist, but she was capable of vividly depicting the idiosyncrasies and psychological interiority of a sweeping cast of characters drawn from every strata of Georgian social life. Mitchell was also a great satirist, skewering the pretensions and delusions of characters ranging from the grotesque Ms. Pittypat to the bratty adolescent Prissy, daughter of the stately Dilcey. And nowhere was Mitchell’s talent for characterization more expertly realized than in the iconic figure of the impudent, scheming, unsentimental, yet loyal, Scarlett O’Hara. 

Critics often talk about the archetypal “great novel” of the 19th century, the so-called Bildungsroman with its emphasis on the formation of the protagonist through struggles, successes, and failures, but GWTW is rarely included in this conversation, despite the fact that Mitchell cited the influence of Walter Scott and Charles Dickens on her writing. GWTW’s omission from that lineage might be because the surrounding war epic makes it closer to an American War and Peace, as Monica Chmelev has suggested, or even “The Iliad with a Southern accent,” as Pat Conroy put it. But another reason is that it is difficult to square Scarlett’s moral development with the Southern backdrop that composes her character, even as it withers away. 

Scarlett’s formative struggles are pitched against a cultural and political juggernaut that everyone these days is trained to recognize as the ‘good guys’. How can we sympathize with a character whose challenges include facing the Union army’s siege of Atlanta, and the seizure of her ancestral home by opportunistic former sharecroppers, when she is unquestionably allied to a forsaken cause? 

When a character’s literary telos confronts the behemoth of Progress, as Scarlett’s does, critics have been eager to sweep it into the dustbin. Criticism from the second half of the 20th century to the present has embodied this tendency, consolidating on a solemn narrative of “moral clarity,” with all the ponderousness of a lead foot. Claudia Roth Pierpont proclaims that “Mitchell’s racism permeates GWTW,” while James Lowen blasts it as “a profoundly racist novel [that] laments the passing of the slave era.” Professor Sarah Churchwell’s 389-page scholarly screed can be concisely reduced to her own formulation, provided on page 15: “Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are both homicidal white supremacists with profoundly fascistic world views.” 

Emblematic of an even more perfidious tendency is W. J. Stuckey’s sneering 1981 critique: “Miss Mitchell’s art most noisily proclaims its indebtedness to the literature of wish fulfillment – the sub-pornographic historical romance, novel, and the Hollywood extravaganza.” The statement exemplifies a now-common maneuver of swathing discomfort in the dressings of snobbish “aesthetic judgment.” But what Stuckey pegged as “lowbrow” was also what lent GWTW its phenomenal success in the literary market, with the book selling over a million copies immediately upon its 1937 publication. Early reviews praised its “sheer readability,” with a Time critic approvingly noting that it was “an old-fashioned, romantic narrative with no Joycean or Proustian nonsense about it.” If Stuckey’s judgment feels prescient of our reigning culture cartel’s contempt for anything so vulgar as the popular taste, Khachiyan summed up that intuition with the remark, “Less important is all the racist controversy, more important is that people think it’s a piece of pulp.” 

Victor Fleming’s “Gone With the Wind”, 1939

Even as early critics (begrudgingly or not) acknowledged GWTW’s popular appeal, what distinguished it from the sentimental Southern romances of yore was Mitchell’s knack for granular historical detail. The daughter of the president of the Atlanta Historical Society, Mitchell grew up immersed in documents and scholarly accounts of the Civil War and later trained as a jour. Her sole novel was the product of a decade’s worth of archival research. In an otherwise lukewarm review for the New York Times, Ralph Thompson conceded that “[t]he historical background is the chief virtue of the book.” Another critic admitted, “[f]rankly and blatantly I did not ever expect to read a book anything like this written by a woman.”

Unsurprisingly, progressive critics of the New Deal Era struggled to reconcile the book’s erudite command of Civil War military history with what they rightly clocked as Southern self-regard. Evelyn Scott remarked that Mitchell “writes with the bias of passionate regionalism, but the verifiable happenings described eloquently justify prejudice.” More pointedly, Louise Kroenenberger detected beneath the veneer of historical veracity “a nostalgia and melodrama that have been written about the Confederacy from the time of Thomas Nelson Page to that of Stark Young.” Still, a far cry from the accusations lobbed during the fever-pitch of George Floyd protests that Mitchell had penned an American Mein Kampf.

The refreshingly nuanced early reception of GWTW offers a foil to the braindead quagmire that passes for the culture industry today. To approach Mitchell’s work by this route, one must slog through thickets of official “context” that repackages it as a didactic object lesson in the Evils of White Supremacy. But readers who take the time to actually read GWTW, as I did again this past fall, will find an argument far more provocative than the antebellum nostalgia it is accused of harboring. 

What animates Mitchell’s novel is her often bracingly materialist account of the Civil War, stripped of partisan mythologizations. It’s easy to discern that Mitchell’s sentiments are given voice in the mercenary character of Rhett Butler – deaf to the siren song of the Cause but with eyes wide open to the fact of Northern industrial dominance that virtually guarantees its ascendancy over a cotton-dependent Southern economy. Rhett’s disdain for Southerners is not motivated by moral righteousness, but by their obstinate blindness to the rapidly changing historical conditions “breaking up [the Cotton Kingdom] right beneath their feet.” 

While landed aristocrats cling to a doomed way of life, Rhett preaches the Nietzchean doctrine of amoral adaptation: “Most fools won’t take advantage of the situation created by the collapse, I’m making my fortune out of the wreckage.” Scarlett’s bildung progresses lockstep with her adoption of Rhett’s message, spurring her transformation from a spoiled belle of the barbecue to lumberyard magnate who transacts with Yankees and employs prison labor. By the novel’s close, it is Scarlett who scorns the simple-minded Dixie ladies for whom “[t]he Lost Cause was stronger, dearer now in their hearts than it had ever been at the height of its glory. It was a fetish now.” 

In the Reconstruction period of the novel, readers find Mitchell’s most unsparingly anti-Northern perspective. Academics have handily ghettoized this section with the appellation of “Lost Cause pseudohistory” but Mitchell’s eye is keener. Her treatment sees Yankees ruthlessly stoking racial animosity for political ends, suspending due process for military-run show trials, and systematically disenfranchising former Confederates of their vote. These days all this this should feel familiar to anyone with half a brain or even brain-damaged social media users trolling the timeline. 

Mitchell’s challenging counter-narrative to our Whiggish paradigm bears attention. What probably perturbs our critics is not GWTW’s Southern nostalgia, but that it douses the red-hot myths fuelling the war, seeing it for what it was: the extermination of young American men at an unprecedented scale and the merciless political subordination of the vanquished by the victorious. That Mitchell allies herself with the vanquished does nothing to affect her judgment that this outcome was inevitable, because delivered by economic, cultural, and political forces much greater than anything so flimsy as moral convictions. 

Catherine Sulpizio is a writer and the co-host of The Temple of Friendship podcast. She can be followed @jardinsecret888.

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