Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

History Lessons from Gone with the Wind

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

History Lessons from Gone with the Wind

Article excerpt

"You know I don't read novels."

--Scarlett O'Hara to Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind 778)

1936 WAS AN ANNUS MIRABILIS FOR THE HISTORICAL NOVEL AND FOR Southern arts and letters. As William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! was set to print in October, another novel purporting to "Tell about the South" (142) was published in June: Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. (1) Since the coincidence of their near-simultaneous publication, however, these two great Southern epics--one, a massively popular middlebrow historical romance, the other, an intricate specimen of American modernist aesthetics--have only moved farther apart. Nowhere is this divide more trenchant than in critical responses to history in both novels. Almost as much scholarly ink has been spilled considering the narratological intricacies of historical inaccuracy and indeterminacy in Absalom, Absalom! as has been spent cataloguing and debating the historical inaccuracies in Gone with the Wind, both novel and film. (2) Consequently, there remain more interesting historical questions to ask of Gone with the Wind than whether or not the gentleman-farmer Gerald O'Hara would ever wear a cravat on a weekday. (3)

If we accept the canonical accounts of the composition of Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell actually seems quite at home next to Quentin Compson, sitting in the still, hot air of Rosa Coldfield's drawing room, receiving a potent mix of history and memory. (4) Mitchell claimed that the only source she needed for her novel was her memory, full of a rich oral history that she had received as a child. As she often told reporters, "she was 10 years old before she learned that Robert E. Lee did not win the Civil War" ("Miss Mitchell"). It was not until she sold her manuscript to Macmillan that she fact-checked her inherited memory, and even then, Mitchell maintained that she found "exactly two minor errors, neither of which would ever have been found outside of Georgia" (Harwell 30). (5) Thus story and history have always been entwined in Gone with the Wind, and this pedigree places the novel in the same storytelling tradition whose fissures and complications provide the drama of Absalom, Absalom!

Nevertheless, most engagements with Gone with the Wind have fixated on issues of historical accuracy. As scholars have re-checked Mitchell's historiography, they have implicated its various inaccuracies and flaws in various ideological projects. Critics of the novel have argued that Gone with the Wind "propagandizes history" in order to advance a Lost Cause mythology (Watkins 89). Others have attempted to apologize for the novel's inaccuracies by historicizing its flaws: Mildred Seydell argues that the novel provides not a "true picture of the South of those days," but "a true picture of the picture of those days" (Harwell xvii). Still others attempt to absolve the novel of its historiographical offenses by universalist appeals to "truths ... of a mythic, epic and indeed tragic nature"--in short, by de-historicizing the novel altogether (Taylor 209). All these readings of Gone with the Wind, however, still emphasize the historical in historical fiction at the expense of the Fictional.

Distilling history from memory in Gone with the Wind is a fruitless pursuit, and such efforts ignore the real work that fictionalizing history--making history something that can be read and interpreted--performs within the novel. The historical question to ask of Mitchell's novel is not "What historical story does Gone with the Wind tell?" but rather "How does Gone with the Wind encourage us to interpret history?" Gone with the Wind's historical project is less about teaching its readers "accurate" history and more about teaching readers how to react to the historical. Embedded in the sweeping romance of Mitchell's novel is a suite of historical reading practices, methods of accounting for and interpreting historical change, that this essay will consider through one of the central relationships of the text--that between Scarlett and the novel's narrator. …

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