Gone With The Wind: An American Epic of Nostalgia and Survivalism

“…tomorrow is another day.”

Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

In a rare interview with the Atlanta Journal in 1936, Margaret “Peggy” Mitchell described her debut (and only) novel, Gone With The Wind, as “the story of a girl named Scarlett O’Hara, who lived in Atlanta during the Civil War and the days of Reconstruction. The book isn’t strictly a book about the war, nor is it a historical novel. It’s about the effect of the Civil War on a set of characters who lived in Atlanta at that time.”

In essence, this is an accurate summary, though it is quite terse for the greatest bestseller of all time. Gone With The Wind is a beautifully written and thoroughly researched novel that offers the essential mythology of the American South before, during, and after the Civil War, from the antebellum era to the period now known as Reconstruction. While the prose in Gone With The Wind is gripping, no review of the novel would be complete without discussing the inaccurate, disappointing, and dehumanizing portrayal of Black slaves in the novel. Throughout the book, African Americans are characterized as one-dimensional simpletons who are mostly untrustworthy, ill-educated, and in need of strong guidance. Many are compared to animals or children, with frequent reference to “darkies” or “negroes.” The racist tone is pervasive throughout the novel and it casts a dark shadow over an otherwise compelling but extraordinarily lengthy novel (the original first edition published by MacMillan was 1,037 pages long).

Ironically, while on the surface the novel presents a powerful nostalgia for the antebellum South, the only characters who successfully survive the Civil War are those who look forward to a better future, not backward. Self-seeking, ignoble, and unpatriotic people are shown to be the truly strong survivors while other lives are destroyed amidst Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia destroying farms, plantations, railroads. His troops eventually torch and loot the city of Atlanta -a key metropolitan junction for the Confederacy. I had never truly grasped the tactical importance of the city of Atlanta prior to reading this novel, nor did I fully understand how small of a city Atlanta was at the time. Most of the South was rural, pastoral, and agricultural with only several small pockets of towns and cities. Atlanta was an important city primarily because of the railroad intersection connecting Georgia to the ports of Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington, and therefore it was a hub of communication and trade, as well as a gathering place to care for wounded soldiers.

At any rate, the central theme of the novel is: survivalism. Which characters have the necessary gumption and leadership in times of extreme turmoil? Who successfully survives the aftermath of the Civil War? And why?

Our central protagonist in the book is Scarlett O’Hara, a frustratingly flighty, selfish, and spoiled Southern belle. She lives at a vast Northern Georgia cotton plantation, and she comes of age right on the cusp of the Civil War, though she cares little for the war. Her days are spent fretting about dresses and parties and toying with young men who might be potential suitors, like the Tarleton twins. Mitchell provides a brief but telling summary of the antebellum South when describing Scarlett’s Irishman father, Gerald O’Hara:

“He liked the South, and he soon became, in his own opinion, a Southerner. There was much about the South – and Southerners – that he would never comprehend; but, with the whole-heartedness that was his nature, he adopted its ideas and customs, as he understood them, for his own – poker and horse racing, red-hot politics and the code duello, States’ Rights and damnation to all Yankees, slavery and King Cotton, contempt for white trash and exaggerated courtesy to women. He even learned to chew tobacco. There was no need for him to acquire a good head for whiskey, he had been born with one” (62).

The Civil War is merely the setting of Gone With The Wind, but the central tension lies in Scarlett’s hidden love for her neighbor -a graceful, blonde, country gentleman named Ashley Wilkes who is betrothed to his shy but innocent and lady-like cousin, Melanie. On the other hand, Scarlett is pursued by a curt and arrogant scallawag named Rhett Butler. While neither man is particularly supportive of the war, Ashley is overwhelmed by a sense of duty to his home state when Georgia secedes and the war begins, while Rhett is reviled for his blockade-running, and prostitution businesses. He maintains neutral business activities both North and South of the Mason-Dixon line. Rhett mentions the impossibility of victory for the South due to the extensive Yankee network of resources, technology, manufacturing, and manpower, while he characterizes the Confederacy’s call to war as Quixotic and naïve.

As the novel progresses, the war begins with much enthusiasm and Scarlett hurriedly marries a young suitor named Charles Hamilton in a foolhardy attempt to make Ashley jealous, but her husband soon dies of a disease while en route to the warfront, leaving Scarlett pregnant with a child. And despite her obligatory public displays of mourning, she moves to Atlanta and quickly begins attending parties and engaging in playful banter with the unscrupulous Rhett Butler while he is in town. She stays at her Aunt’s home along with her sister-in-law Melanie (now pregnant with Ashley’s child) and she tends to the wounded soldiers who increasingly fill the streets of Atlanta as Confederate forces continue to fall back. Just as Melanie goes into labor, the Union army begins their assault on the city of Atlanta and as a last ditch hope Scarlett finds Rhett Butler who helps them escape the tumult just as Atlanta is torched to the ground. The loss of Atlanta essentially spells the end of the Confederacy -a shock to many prideful Southerners.

In the second half of the novel Scarlett quickly grows up. She returns to her family’s plantation, Tara, and becomes a survivalist -caring and providing for a postpartum Melanie, as well as her ill and depressed father (saddened by the loss of his wife), and other members of the house, including a handful of former slaves who choose to remain at Tara. They all raise livestock, pick cotton, and grow vegetables to survive. Ever-present is the threat of Union soldiers or General Sherman’s troops storming their land, taking their possessions and much worse. At one point, Scarlett displays her own gumption by killing a stray Union soldier who enters the house, presumably to rob and rape. Scarlett becomes the de facto leader of her household. However, as Reconstruction begins the Radical Republicans take control of everything in Georgia and they begin brutally punishing any former Confederate sympathizers, and for those they cannot imprison they disenfranchise and raise exorbitant taxes on properties. With little money to spare, Scarlett goes to Atlanta to beg Rhett Butler for money only to find that he has been imprisoned. She offers herself to him as a mistress but an amused Rhett claims he has no access to his money. Meanwhile, Ashley stumbles his way to Tara after surviving a Union prison camp. With more mouths to feed, Scarlett grows desperate for money. By happenstance, Scarlett runs into an old acquaintance, Frank Kennedy -a gentleman from the old days of Georgia before the war. Although he is betrothed to Scarlett’s neighbor, Scarlett quickly concocts a lie and marries him for his money and security, earning her the ire of her neighbors.

In order to secure for herself a lasting income stream, Scarlett uses her husband’s money to build herself a lumber mill which quickly grows into a successful business, despite efforts to thwart Southern enterprise by Republican political leadership. The entire order of Georgia is cast aside as crime and lawlessness rules the day. However, Scarlett grows arrogant with her business and one night she rides through a notorious shantytown filled with vagrants and two attempt to rob her, leading a regional “vigilante” group, the infamous Ku Klux Klan, to seek vengeance. In the chaos, Scarlett’s husband, Frank Kennedy, is killed but Rhett Butler saves Ashley Wilkes and company by providing an alibi: the men were drinking all night at a local brothel (which, it turns out, is actually owned by Rhett Butler). The story checks out and Ashley is allowed to recover from his wounds.

Almost immediately after Frank’s death, Rhett Butler proposes marriage to Scarlett and in a heated passion she agrees. They honeymoon in New Orleans, spending Rhett’s vast sums of money, and the happy couple returns to Atlanta -to Peachtree Street- to build a house near where Scarlett stayed during the Union Army’s assault on Atlanta years earlier. Scarlett has a baby girl, much to her chagrin, and Rhett nicknames her “bonnie” because of her blue eyes -an allusion to the “bonnie blue flag,” an original flag of the Confederacy. Rhett dotes upon bonnie day and night, and he proudly rides her around town. One day, Scarlett visits her mill where Ashley is now employed and they reminisce about the old days before the war, but they become caught in an improper moment beside one another which causes a great scandal around the gentry of Atlanta, and Rhett Butler grows furious. He drags Scarlett out to a party to embarrass herself, and in the evening (Mitchell suggests) Rhett assaults his wife –Gone With The Wind is filled with overt improprieties that shocked even 20th century readers. Scarlett becomes pregnant with another child, but in a fight with Rhett she lunges at him and accidentally falls down a flight of stairs, causing a miscarriage as Scarlett breaks her ribs.

She flees home to Tara to recuperate with her children:

“They left the village behind and turned into the red road to Tara. A faint pink still lingered about the edges of the sky and fat feathery clouds were tinged with gold and palest green. The stillness of the country twilight came down about them as calming as a prayer. How had she ever borne it, she thought, away for all these months, away from the fresh smell of country air, the plowed earth and the sweetness of summer nights? The moist red earth smelled so good, so familiar, so friendly, she wanted to get out and scoop up a handful. The honeysuckle which draped the gullied red sides of the road in tangled greenery was piercingly fragrant as always after the rain, the sweetest perfume. Above their heads a flock of chimney swallows whirled suddenly on swift wings and now and then a rabbit scurried startled on the road, his white tail bobbing like an eiderdown powder puff. She saw with pleasure that the cotton stood well, as they passed between plowed fields were the green bushes reared themselves sturdily out of the red earth. How beautiful all this was! The soft gray mist in the swampy bottoms, the red earth and growing cotton, the sloping fields with curving green rows and the black pines rising behind everything like sable walls. How had she ever stayed in Atlanta so long?” (645-646)

However, tragedy soon strikes again. Bonnie falls in a horse-jumping accident, much like her grandfather, which snaps her neck and kills her. Rhett falls into a deep, alcoholic depression just as Melanie Wilkes becomes pregnant again, causing her already frail body to grow deathly sick. Scarlett goes to speak with her just before her death. Scarlett also speaks with Ashley and she finally realizes that she does not love him anymore, and that maybe she only ever loved the idea of Ashley. In truth, he is an effeminate relic of the old Southern aristocracy -incapable of caring for himself or his own business interests. Rhett Butler describes Ashley as follows:

“…Ashley Wilkes-bah! His breed is of no use or value in an upside-down world like ours. Whenever the world is up-ends, his kind is the first to perish. And why not? They don’t deserve to survive because they won’t fight – don’t know how to fight. This isn’t the first time the world’s been upside-down and it won’t be the last. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. And when it does happen everyone loses everything and everyone is equal.” (Rhett Butler defaming Ashley Wilkes to Scarlett pg 719)

Scarlett runs to Rhett Butler in love and hope, but her dreams are dashed as he has since moved on, uttering the book’s most famous line:

“My dear, I don’t give a damn.” 

The novel ends with Scarlett finally overcoming her girlish infatuation with Ashley Wilkes, and with the hope of gaining back the trust and love of Rhett Butler, for “tomorrow is another day.”

The title of the novel is derived from the third stanza of an 1894 poem by English writer, Ernest Dowson. The poem refers to a deep loss of love that will never be regained, while ‘gone with the wind’ in the novel refers to the old antebellum Victorian aristocracy, an agrarian economy of gentleman farmers, as well as a caste system predicated on human enslavement. In summary, the wind that sweeps through Georgia decimates an entire way of life, for better or worse.


The 1937 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The selection of Gone With The Wind for winner of the Pulitzer in 1937 was controversial. There was a growing chorus of accusations of racism, but also the Pulitzer decision was criticized for apparently caving to popular opinion (Gone With The Wind was a surprising, smash-hit bestseller).

The 1937 Novel Jury was composed of the same three people for the eighth and final year in a row: Jefferson Fletcher (Chair of Columbia University), Robert Lovett (a literary scholar), and Albert Paine (an American biographer known for his work on Mark Twain -he died later that same year in 1937). This trio would be the longest serving consecutive group to populate the Novel Jury. Apparently, in 1937 they provided a list to the Pulitzer Advisory Board of the top 6 novels recommended for the award. The two at the top of the list were Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind and George Santayana’s The Last Puritan. The Pulitzer Advisory Board simply unilaterally selected Gone With The Wind.

Today (as recently as 2014) Americans rank Gone With The Wind among their favorite books, second only to The Bible. Nevertheless, controversies continue to plague the novel. Gone With The Wind has frequently found its way onto lists of banned books (remarkably the Nazis banned the book in Germany in the 1930s), and even as recently as 2020 an online video streaming service removed the classic film adaptation from their selection our of a fear of appearing to feature racist content on their service (Gone With The Wind was later re-added with a detailed introduction discussing its racist content). As with many of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels on my list, reading Gone With The Wind has been strangely timely amidst continuing controversies and a national conversation on race in America following the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020 and the ensuing protests and riots.


Who Is Margaret Mitchell?
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) was raised among the traditions and mythology of the old South. She grew up hearing the stories of the time before the war, as well as the difficult days of Reconstruction. Her father, Eugene Mitchell, was an attorney and a remarkable historian of the Civil War, particularly with regard to Georgia. In one of her few interviews, Margaret Mitchell recalls how her father could recite every single battle of the Atlanta campaign, the names of the commanding officers, and if they were shot and where. Her mother and brother were also Civil War historians.

Margaret-Mitchell-1938

Mitchell attended Smith College for one year, but when her mother died she returned home and never finished college. In 1922, at the age of twenty-two she began working as a writer for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine (she was one of the first female reporters in the state of Georgia). A few years later she married John R. Marsh and left her job due to recurring injuries, including an ankle injury. Bored and restless, she began writing her epic, Gone With The Wind. She typed some pages here and there while others were scribbled down on handwritten notes, and various editions and pages were hidden around her house. Only a few friends close to Mitchell knew about the book. For nine years Mitchell continued writing and re-writing the manuscript.

One day a publishing agent for the MacMillan Company (from New York) was touring through the South hunting for new talent. A friend referred Mitchell, and the rest is history. After a few months of editing, Gone With The Wind went on sale on June 30, 1936 and became a phenomenon -a surprising turn of events to everyone. It won the Pulitzer in 1937 amidst both celebration and controversy. When she received her congratulatory phone call for the Pulitzer, Mitchell simply continued about her plan for the evening – attending service at a black church. The press hunted for her all over Atlanta but they never did find her.

She was often asked if she would write another book, but Mitchell always responded that she was far too busy being the full-time author of Gone With The Wind. She was paid $50,000 for the rights to the film by David O. Selznick -a massive sum in those days- and the incredible technicolor film later won Best Picture in 1939 (read my review of the film here). Margaret Mitchell attended the premiere for the film at the Loew’s Theatre in Atlanta, alongside the mayor of Atlanta, Producer David Selznick, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, and a cohort of surviving Confederate Civil War veterans. The whole city was filled with cheering crowds and parties honoring the Old South.

Despite persistent accusations of racism (in both the film and the novel) in the 1990s, it was revealed that Margaret Mitchell had anonymously funded the education of many Black/African-American medical students to attend Morehouse College throughout her lifetime. She risked her life to do so. In addition, she was outspoken about the plight of women in America – she was a flapper girl and a debutante in her 20s, as well as a tomboy. As with most writers, a greater degree of complexity lurks just beneath the surface of their works and this axiom holds true for the enigmatic and reclusive Margaret Mitchell .

In 1949, while en route to see a movie on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, a street that ironically plays an important role in Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell was struck and killed by an off duty cab driver. She was only 48 years old. Gone With The Wind was the only novel she published in her lifetime. Years later, another short romantic novella surfaced that she wrote in her teenage years and it was eventually posthumously published and entitled Lost Laysen.


Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With The Wind. Scribner, 1996.

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