In the summer of 1936, thirty-one years after the publication of The Clansman his own successful Civil War romance, Thomas Dixon wrote Margaret Mitchell an enthusiastic letter of praise for Gone with the Wind. He said she had "not only written the greatest story of the South ever put down on paper, you have given the world THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL." He then expressed his pleasure at seeing Yankees lined up at bookstores to purchase what he considered to be a novel based, like his own, on authentic Southern history: "It certainly warms the cockles of my heart to see these good old damyankees flocking into the bookstores and joyfully paying $3. per copy for the record of their mean deeds."1 Although Mitchell's response was more restrained, avoiding references to sales in the North or anywhere else, she was obviously pleased: "Your letter of praise about "Gone With the Wind" was very exciting. . . . I was practically raised on your books and love them very much."2
These letters reveal the respect the novelists had for one another and suggest their mutual regard for their Southern heritage; however, their correspondence barely hints at the important role their stories have played in American cultural history, first as novels, then as movies. Dixon's novel was a best-seller, and Margaret Mitchell's of course has become internationally famous; but as films-- D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation ( 1915) and David O. Selznick Gone with the Wind ( 1939)--the stories have reached even wider audiences and generated greater controversy. Both films involved major technical achievements in their making and were significant expressions of the film styles of their eras; this essay is in part an examination of these artistic and technical achievements. But their unusual power to seize the imagination of American audiences and stimulate strong reaction suggests that there is more than aesthetic appeal behind their popularity. The larger purpose of this essay is to analyze the social appeal of the two phenomena: their common reliance on domestic melodrama that seeks to reaffirm social values about love, marriage, and the home and their integration of these domestic values with actual historical events so that our history becomes, in effect, the collective record of private American families.
Finally, while all four works reflect common themes about the domestic melodrama in American history, they differ significantly in their treatment of those themes. Mitchell's world view is far bleaker