Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture

By Darden Asbury Pyron | Go to book overview

One The Critical Setting

Critics were enraptured by Gone with the Wind when it appeared in the early summer of 1936, from the small-town Southern press to the great metropolitan dailies and literary journals. The New York Sun review related the work to "the great panoramic novel such as the English and the Russians and the Scandinavians have known how to produce"; it suggested that "in spaciousness, emotional power (and no American writer has approached Miss Mitchell in this respect) and in its picturing of a vast and complex social system in time of war, Gone with the Wind is most closely allied to Tolstoy War and Peace." Similarly, even while conceding the novel's flaws, Herschel Brickell was enthusiastic in the New York Post: "A good Southern novelist who is also an excellent critic wrote me the other day that he thought it was probably the greatest novel ever written in the United States. I am not willing to go this far, but . . . it is far and away the best novel that has ever been written about the Civil War and the days that followed." The Saturday Review and the New Yorker praised the book, and John Crowe Ransom expressed his "extreme" admiration "for the architectural persistence behind the big work."1

In this welter of enthusiasm, Henry Steele Commager front-page review for the New York Herald Tribune Books is particularly outstanding and summarizes all of the virtues--and more--that most critics saw in the novel.

Commager was singular among Gone with the Wind's reviewers in being a professional historian; he was, moreover, of the first rank among the young historians of his generation--and Mitchell's. Indeed, the two shared biases that certainly fostered Commager's sympathy with the novel. Reacting against the economic and class interpretations of the preceding generation of historians--typified in the work of Charles and Mary Beard--Commager's generation rediscovered history as tradition, as epic, as politics, and as the study of individual historical characters. The Civil War period offered a fertile field for this sort of inquiry: in its military, social, and even political aspects, heroes and heroines abounded and, with them, monumental actions. Such values helped define the form as well as the content of history written in the interwar years: there was an emphasis on biography and a revival of narrative history, or history as literature. With these also came a surge in popular his-

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