Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture

By Darden Asbury Pyron | Go to book overview

Richard King


The "Simple Story's" Ideology: Gone with the Wind and the New South Creed

"'The Wind'," wrote James Agee in 1944, "was perhaps the greatest entertainment natural in screen history." Much the same might be said of the novel's place in American literature. Its strength is that of all enduring popular art: the presentation of striking and memorable images, characters, and situations in a style neither difficult to follow nor hard to understand. Gone with the Wind is a cracking good story, offering vivid examples of grace (or at least courage) under pressure, cowardice, loyalty and perfidy, scrappy underdogs and rapacious occupiers, high sentiments and low cynicism. Nor was it surprising that a novel set during the harrowing years of the Civil War and Reconstruction should find a response in the 1930s, a decade of unprecedented economic and social distress.

Neither Margaret Mitchell nor her novel made any pretenses toward high art of the modernist variety. She complained that contemporary literature was needlessly obscure and trafficked in sordid themes. And, when questioned, she admitted that she had read neither Vanity Fair nor War and Peace, two classics which overheated supporters were known to compare with her gigantic novel. All she claimed was to have told a "simple story" based on conversations with survivors of the war and Reconstruction, extensive research, and several years of hard work.1 If, as the story goes, every Southerner has an unfinished novel in a desk drawer, Mitchell's was the legendary fulfillment of such literary dreams.

Yet the naïve popular artist who tells the "simple story" is as illusory a creature as the value-free social scientist or the objective historian. Artlessness is itself a technique and a style; and what appears to be "realistic" fiction is highly stylized and composed. Nov. els working with the realistic conventions, such as Gone with the Wind, are shaped by both personal and collective visions and assumptions. Indeed, the invocation of simplicity by a novelist signals that what follows partakes of the mythic and ideological.2

I will expand this theme by placing Gone with the Wind in the intellectual context off the Southern Renaissance, specifically the varieties of historical consciousness articulated in that literary and intellectual movement. The novel fits within a second context as well, what I call the Southern "family romance." I will treat the novel as it both expresses and departs from the family romance, with particular attention to the role of women in the patriarchal tra

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