"Painfully Southern": Gone with the Wind, the Agrarians, and the Battle for the New South

Article excerpt

The 1936 reviews of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind appeared during a chaotic cultural period: Mitchell's subject, the South, was undergoing a kind of regional crisis as various groups, including the Agrarians (with I'll Take My Stand published a few years earlier), attempted to claim and define southern culture and literature; the nation was in crisis, experiencing the height of the Great Depression; even the world was in crisis, as Germany threatened to appropriate its neighbors. But in the pages of The New Republic and The Southern Review, the awful popularity of Mitchell's novel seems more threatening than all of these. In the September 16, 1936 issue of The New Republic, Malcolm Cowley cites, in horror, a recent press release which claims that "if the pages of all the copies [of Gone with the Wind that have been purchased] were laid end to end they would encircle the world at the Equator two and two-thirds times" (161). If the rhetoric of his chosen press release suggests an image of the novel as boa constrictor, it is not surprising. Cowley goes on to denigrate Gone with the Wind as a popular but flawed monster, suggesting to his readers that they had nothing to fear but a bestseller written by a hack female novelist.

Cowley is intent on placing Mitchell's novel in its proper sphere--the popular woman's novel. To Cowley, Gone with the Wind "meets the specialized demands of the book-buying public (as distinguished from the larger and less prosperous public that borrows its books from the library). It is written from the woman's point of view, and most book buyers are women" (161). Though they espoused diverging political views, John Crowe Ransom echoed Cowley in his emphasis on the gender of the author when he reviewed the novel for The Southern Review. He complains that the novel is lacking in detailed political description. His explanation for this is "that the principal point of view is Scarlett's, and Scarlett is a woman, and so is her author, who may therefore feel relieved of the responsibility of understanding what would have been the instant and urgent interest of a man" (399). Ransom also characteristically collapses the categories of female writers and popular literature when he suggests that despite its grandiosity upon the first read, "minuter inspection discloses not too much acquaintance with the technical resources of modern fiction" (399). By emphasizing Mitchell's gender, these reviewers are able to call up in their readers what was already an unfavorable connection between the female and the artless or merely popular. Beginning with Suzanne Clark's Sentimental Modernism, literary criticism has shown that the conflation of the sentimental and the feminine with bad fiction was hardly uncommon. Despite its shared critical fate with sentimental fiction, however, Gone with the Wind does not offer a plea for the value of the sentimental. Indeed, the Agrarians' dismissal of the book as sentimental may actually have been based more on their stake in its particular subject--the South--than on its so-called sentimentalism.

The Agrarians were deeply invested in how the Old and New South would be perceived and defensive of its historical and contemporary significance. It would seem, then, that even if Ransom couldn't forgive Gone with the Wind's technical and artistic deficiencies, he could enjoy its regional championship. However, like Cowley, Ransom found the novel "too southern" in its themes. For Ransom, "the point of view is intensely and sometimes a little painfully Southern" (399). This "partisanship of the author," as he calls it, comes out in Mitchell's presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. He sums up her narrative: "Sherman's army burned Atlanta. Then, while it was rebuilding, the carpetbaggers, black Republicans, and scalawags were in control, and it was heroic if the old-style Southerners held out" (399). Similarly, Cowley finds Gone with the Wind "an encyclopedia of the plantation legend" and gives his own version of this cliche: "it is all here, every last bale of cotton and bushel of moonlight, every last full measure of Southern female devotion working its lilywhite fingers uncomplaining to the lilywhite bone" (161-162). …