Alternative Facts in an American Classic

I just finished reading Gone With The Wind. I definitely got some eyebrow raises when I told people what I was reading. I didn’t explain why I was reading it because no one ever asked but I was deep enough in the text to know that the book was troubled. However, I was determined to finish it.

A while ago, I set a goal to get through the American classics. All the books I hadn’t read in high school that gave insight into American culture in different aspects of time. During that time I read the Scarlet Letter, A Raisin in the Sun, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (got subsequently sucked into Letters to My Daughter), and started reading Gone With the Wind but never finished it (The book could easily be 3 separate novels). So this year I sought to finish what I had started.

So why is GWTW troublesome? Well first it’s blatant white washing of the civil war. They say there are two sides to every story but this story ….let’s just say my head was shaking in various points throughout the text.

And really that’s the only problem.But it’s a major issue.

There were times in the book when the magical black person troupe was used unabashedly. The Negroes, as pretty much any person of color is referred to in the book, are this group of people that magically communicate with one another using a system no one knows about (I assume they use words), and mysteriously always know what’s really going on in the lives of their masters (because the main characters assume the walls are thick).

And of course the men and women of color in the story aren’t central to the plot line and are relegated to something more than stranger but less than side kick. Mind you this is taking place during the civil war. The author provides further insight on other characters that also are not central to the plot line but those are all the white well off characters. Anyone who is “white trash” or of a different race is caricatured.

There are many times that the author reveal’s the southerner’s “generosity” to their slaves. Examples of this generosity were sprinkled throughout the text like when a mother and daughter are bought together to keep them from being separated, or when it’s pointed out how one family never laid a finger on the slaves. Another example is how the protagonist whose brought up to be a great lady ends up working the field to be able to feed all the tummies in her household, white and black alike, how she (the protagonist) even considers some of her (former) slaves family, and is appalled when the northern ladies wouldn’t have a black woman take care of their children when she was raised by a black woman and so are her children. The author tries to give us this idea that southern plantation owners were truly kind and just to slaves and the mean north just took away all their wealth, their power and their social status for no other reason than to make them miserable.

The story is written in a way that you’re pulled to feel empathetic for the southerners who lost everything and are too prideful to switch allegiances to pull themselves out of poverty. The southern white ladies must be protected at all costs but the men are punished for taking the law into their own hands to uphold the honor of their women when a freed slave tries to hurt one of their white ladies  (hurt is up to interpretation as it could mean saying a rude remark or physically assaulting but all is fair to the southerners in the story). So it’s only natural, you infer from the plot, that the men must cloak themselves in white and ride at night to uphold the honor of the south as as many of the southern gentlemen go on to do.

This other side of the story was the reason I was compelled to read it. The version I borrowed, had a forward by Pat Conroy who explains how much his mother loved GWTW. And it intrigued me as I read more of the story how the south had held on so long (and even to this day) onto the old days of southern aristocracy.

The book romanticizes the southern loss in the civil war. And at times you’re made to think that the author is criticizing the evils of slavery when the protagonist has no problem in creating her own success,thinks it foolish to join the KKK, and distances herself from the culture that brought her up. But if you finish the book you quickly see how there’s a joke being played on the protagonist and you’re left to wonder if all along she was meant to fail because of her character and decisions.

Near the end Scarlett O’Hara is remorseful of the way she’s acted, for alienating herself from the southern neighbors she’s grown up with. In the end she is left with no one to turn to. The novel is saying something about what happens in the quest to search for wealth but it also has a lot to say about turning your back on southern values.

Scarlett is not a likable character at all. She’s selfish, greedy, childish, bad tempered and almost comically vain. And her flaws like hitting a slave, leasing convicts to work her mill and having them worked to death, trying to and succeeding in stealing other people’s fiance’s and husbands, hating motherhood and hating children, and working with instead of against the northern “oppressors” to gain her wealth are part of the reasons she’s set up to be disliked and fail. But where the author paints Scarlett as an example of how a southern lady shouldn’t behave she goes on to say nothing of the men and women that support the clan, who fought for the south and are just as troubled as Scarlett. The message of GWTW is clear, blood lines over gumption, southern values over riches and  loyalty over everything. And the fact that they used slave labor to build their status of “gentlemen” is overlooked and forgiven because these are nice southern men and women.

But it was necessary for myself to read this book, especially at this time. Because as much as I disagree with a lot of the storytelling it is true that there are people who still wave the confederate flag like a badge of honor.That still believe the government has overlooked them in favor of others they think are less deserving. Whom feel their whole way of life is threatened. And as much as I don’t like it I have to learn to work with them if I don’t want things to turn back to pre-civil rights era, and that starts by understanding what’s in their heart. Next step- talk to someone who voted for Trump, ask them why and actually listen without turning red in the face and storming out of the room. I’ll let you know when I get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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