Academic journal article Southern Cultures

"I Was Tellin It"

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

"I Was Tellin It"

Article excerpt

Race, Gender, and the Puzzle of the Storyteller

I'd like to thank Drew Faust for taking on what still seems in some quarters to be an unpopular project: applying actual thought to popular literature. Between Faulkner and Mitchell, scholars have chosen Faulkner. Few have taken Gone with the Wind seriously enough to write about it. It's not anthologized, either. Of the southern literature anthologies I've seen, the only one to include a portion of, or even mention of, Gone with the Wind, is the Oxford Book of the American South, whose senior editor, Ed Ayers, is a historian.(1) Certainly one of the reasons for this critical and anthological neglect is the sheer size of the 1037-page book. Another must be the flapping of the last tatters of the old boundary dividing high literature, demanding study, from popular literature, which a true scholar would not even stoop to read. A third reason is the subject of Faust's talk: the knee-jerk racism evident in both what the book makes of black characters and what it omits. This last reason was critical a few years ago in the editorial board's decision to leave Gone with the Wind out of the Heath Anthology of American Literature. I was at that meeting and well remember the passion with which African American editors articulated their repugnance to and fear of what they saw as a novel that not only represented racism, but could actively construct racism in its readers.

One of the earliest literary scholars to write seriously about this putatively unserious novel was Louis D. Rubin Jr., who considered some implications of the same-year publication of Margaret Mitchell's award-winning Gone with the Wind and William Faulkner's relatively obscure Absalom, Absalom!.(2) Since then, feminists--myself included--have taken up the questions posed by and in this novel (for example, IS tomorrow another day?) to focus on its repetitive and revisionary renderings of gender constructions. Is Scarlett a New Woman or--in Jason Compson's words--just another Bitch? Is Rhett a Closet Southern Gentleman, or just another garden-variety rapist? Is Margaret Mitchell a southern Betty Friedan? Or a southern Phyllis Schlafly?

Faust has taken the important step of extending these questions beyond the racial boundaries set by the novel itself and by much of the thinking about it. She has asked, rightfully, how Mitchell's representations of race work in the novel, and how those representations impinge upon Mitchell's work with gender. Faust has, rightfully, joined at the hip two categories of analysis: race and gender.

Her conclusion, her thesis, as I understand it, is the following: Although she was working in a tradition of women who used the Civil War in their writing to question the boundaries of southern womanhood, Margaret Mitchell had to curtail her experiments with gender when she hit the brick wall of racism. To imagine freedom for a white woman necessarily and logically requires imagining freedom for anyone, even black people, even black men. Freedom does not respect categories of race and gender. Yet, in Faust's view, Mitchell could not allow herself to imagine past her traditional white southern stereotypes of African Americans. As a result, she faltered and failed in her imagination of Scarlett's liberation. She and her protagonist end by clutching the very chains that bind them to the past, the chains of southern racism.

There is a lot to be said for Faust's claim. Feminist thinkers since Simone de Beauvoir, and American women's historians at least since Nancy Cott, have written about the paradoxical bonds of womanhood, though for Cott and de Beauvoir the chains that bind have more to do with love and marriage than with racism. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston has Nanny describe loving men as "de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love!"(3) Sleeping with the enemy may be the more familiar paradox of women's liberation, but dwelling on the differences among women, such as the racial divide, is in many ways the more interesting one. …

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