Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture

By Darden Asbury Pyron | Go to book overview
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The Inner War of Southern History

Darden Asbury Pyron

The Southern plantation legend is a part of the national parlance: the South as a land of courtly lords and gracious ladies, dazzling fêtes at pillared mansions, faithful retainers in the kitchens and happy servants in the fields; a world of style and quality, unconstrained by the routine of daily work and petty calculations of common folk hustling to survive or thrive. This vision of the South-- rather apart from its material reality--has had a life of its own in American intellectual history.

For more than one hundred and fifty years in both high and low culture--from Henry Adams to the dime novel--this ideal of an aristocratic South has served as a counterpoint or alternative to urban, industrial, middle-class values of mainstream culture in the United States.1 And since 1936 this imagery has been linked almost inseparably to Gone with the Wind. Indeed, it reached its apotheosis in the prologue (written not by Margaret Mitchell but by the urban Ben Hecht of Front Page fame) to David Selznick's film version of Margaret Mitchell's work:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South . . . Here in this patrician world the Age of Chivalry took its last bow . . . Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave . . . Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind. . . .2

If the film sealed the identification between Gone with the Wind and the willowy Old South ideal, this interpretation existed long before Selznick's first cameras were loaded. For example, in September 1936 Malcolm Cowley railed against the novel as an "encyclopedia of the plantation legend," which lent new credence to the false, vicious, and "generally pernicious" myth of the aristocratic Old South.3

This essay originally appeared in Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South 20 (Spring 1981): 5-19.


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