By Jason Garshfield
In an era in which The Cat in the Hat can be deemed racist, it was inevitable that the cancel mobs would come for the most politically incorrect story of all: Gone with the Wind.
Sure enough, the film was removed from HBO Max last summer; it was eventually replaced, with a disclaimer added to remind viewers who may have forgotten that slavery is, in fact, bad. While the film may remain accessible for now, societal trends seem to all but assure that it will soon live up to its name.
And yet those who casually dismiss Gone with the Wind miss its true message.
The film – and the book – portray an idealized vision of the Antebellum South, as “Lost Causers” see it: a world of hierarchical harmony, of slaves as content in their subservience as Hogwarts house-elves, a land of “Cavaliers and Cotton Fields,” as the opening chyron of the film says, of “Knights and their Ladies Fair” where “Gallantry took its last bow.”
It is a ridiculous vision, historically speaking. And yet it is crucial to understand, because if you cannot fully comprehend the powerful emotional pull that the Lost Cause narrative holds over its adherents, then you cannot effectively combat it.
This is why good stories, particularly antihero stories, give the strongest possible argument for the opposition even as they undermine it. We can see this with films like The Godfather and shows like Breaking Bad, which portray criminal activity as attractive while simultaneously depicting in great detail its terrible consequences.
It is arguable as to whether Gone with the Wind does this effectively. But there is an even deeper level of analysis to the story. It is more than a cheap dime-a-dozen romanticization of the Antebellum South. The book and film, whatever Margaret Mitchell’s intentions may have been while writing it, serve as a striking allegory for the South’s tragic downfall.
The first clue that this is not a simple story is the moral ambiguity of the main character. Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara is no hero; she is amoral, conniving, manipulative, exploitative. She mistreats and callously takes advantage of almost everyone around her: all three of her husbands, her sister, her kindhearted friend Melanie. And yet, although her success is based on a long trail of exploitation, she remains a captivating figure.
Scarlett is a stand-in for the Antebellum South itself, a place both alluring and morally bereft. The entire story is summarized, more or less, in the novel’s very first sentence: “Scarlet O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” That is the old South, in a nutshell. It was not beautiful – it was an ugly place of slavery – but many have been caught by its charm nonetheless. (The Tarleton twins, as you’ll recall, were minor characters who died early in the novel at Gettysburg. Being caught by the South’s charm, or Scarlett’s, can be deadly.)
The fact is, the South was always a backwards region. As Thomas Sowell details in Black Rednecks and White Liberals, the Southern colonies of the United States were first settled by “crackers” from the (at the time) lawless regions of northern England, the Scottish highlands, and County Ulster; in contrast to the Northern colonists, the Southerners came from an unruly honor-based culture which placed little value on industriousness. As a result, the Antebellum South was strikingly poor by the standards of its time; even the wealthy plantation owners were living in squalor compared to their Northern contemporaries. Most of them could scarcely afford butter.
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass related how when he first arrived in the North after escaping slavery, he expected to find it much poorer than the South, because he had always unconsciously assumed that there could be no wealth without slavery. Instead, Douglass was amazed at what he found: everything looked “clean, new, and beautiful.” The ships were larger, the buildings were in better condition, and the people were healthier and happier. Even Douglass’ fellow escaped slaves, relatively poor by Northern standards, were often wealthier than their former masters: “I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland.”
The difference between the quasi-feudalist South – the land of “Cavaliers and Cotton Fields” – and the industrialized North was capitalism. The claim that America was built “on the backs of slaves” could not be further from the truth. American wealth was built by capitalism, the exchange of goods and services between free men, and it was capitalism that made the industrialized United States seem so wonderfully wealthy to Douglass, as it did to Boris Yeltsin a century and a half later. Slavery was an aberration from the American way, not an expression of it. The Southern system of slavery brutalized the slaves while simultaneously holding back the region from reaching its full economic potential.
Scarlett’s romantic conflict, which forms the center of Gone with the Wind, represents the moral conflict of the South. The man she loves, Ashley Wilkes, is a gallant Southern gentleman who grows more and more anachronistic after the Civil War ends, until he is practically a walking statue, handsome but dead on the inside. He represents the old way, and Scarlett’s unhealthy obsession with him complements the South’s fixation with its undeservedly idealized past. Meanwhile, Rhett Butler represents capitalism, as seen from an Antebellum perspective: he is a war profiteer, rich, brash, resourceful, unsentimental, and fairly unscrupulous, willing to rub shoulders with carpetbaggers and Republicans if it will make him wealthy.
Rhett’s tumultuous, loveless marriage with Scarlett symbolizes the tortured relationship between the Union and the Confederacy. Rhett rapes Scarlett; this is another scene which is bound to outrage modern politically correct audiences, but which is an accurate metaphor for the Union conquest of the Confederacy, and particularly Sherman’s March. Meanwhile, the child born out of Rhett’s and Scarlett’s marriage – a beautiful girl named Bonnie Blue, after the secessionist flag – dies in the exact same manner as her slaveholding grandfather, when she jumps a horse badly. (Remember the part about Southerners being unruly?) The fruit of the union between North and South is doomed, because the legacy of prior generations’ folly is in the blood.
At the end of the story, after Ashley’s wife Melanie (the sweeter side of the old South) dies in childbirth, Scarlett finally realizes that she has wasted her life pining after Ashley, and that Rhett was the right man for her. But by now it is too late. Rhett has grown justifiably tired of Scarlett and her immoral behavior: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
This is the history of the South, before, during, and after the Civil War. The region rejected the American way, that strange concoction known as capitalism that came out of the North and has defined our country, for good or ill, for the last two centuries. By the time the South had realized its folly, the North had moved on. Today, Americans from other regions tend to view the South with condescension, as a swampy land of racist rednecks. Like Rhett, we don’t give a damn for them anymore. Even hearing a Southern accent lowers the perception of the speaker’s intelligence.
There is something schizophrenic about the modern South, a region that often engages in over-the-top effusive displays of patriotism while clinging tightly to treasonous relics such as the Confederate flag. The excessive adulation of America is, to some degree, a common attitude of the conquered towards the conqueror: many postwar Japanese held a deep reverence towards General MacArthur, for instance. But in the modern South, it goes deeper.
Here are a people who doth protest too much, who wave American flags feverishly because they are not confident that they are fully American, who are conscious of their ancestors’ culpability in fighting against the United States, but too proud to disavow it entirely, or to move beyond the dysfunctional “cracker culture;” the heartbreaking consequences of which J.D. Vance writes about in Hillbilly Elegy. They are a people who want desperately to be part of the American story but do not entirely see their place in it. Northern commentators who sneer at the Confederate flag miss the point, failing to notice how sad all of this is.
Gone with the Wind ends on a paradoxically optimistic note: having lost Rhett, Scarlett vows to go back to her plantation Tara – to her roots – and to win him back somehow: “After all, tomorrow is another day.” This is where the story currently stands. Mitchell never wrote a sequel, and she was hit by a car and died in 1949.
The Civil War reverberates through our history. It is only two lifetimes ago, and still blearily within living memory: some elderly Americans today can remember a time when Civil War veterans (or emancipated slaves!) were alive, and a witness to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination lived long enough to appear on a 1950s game show. Furthermore, the social dynamics that led to the war, and the question of the South’s place in our nation, have never been fully resolved. Echoes of them haunt the American political scene to this day.
It is for this reason that Margaret Mitchell’s great novel, and the great film it inspired, have maintained such a lasting presence on the cultural scene, despite the story’s obvious (and at times cringeworthy) racism. Generations of Americans – Northern and Southern alike – have been captivated by Gone with the Wind, because the tragic story it tells is deeply American. Today’s unlettered sheepdogs of political correctness who dismiss the book and film are missing a great deal. If they read and watch carefully, they might see a key to understanding what is wrong with America today. Only by doing so can we hope to make tomorrow a day worth awakening to at all.