Gone With The Wind and the Confederacy

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

When Americans think about the Confederacy, they often think about Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic, Gone With the Wind, Cass R. Sunstein says:

Inspired by recent debates over the Confederate flag, I decided to give the book a try. I confess that I did not have high hopes. I expected to be appalled by its politics and racism, and to be bored by the melodrama. (Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes? Really?) About twenty pages, I thought, would be enough. I could not have been more wrong. The book is enthralling, and it casts a spell.

I felt the same way about the movie.

Both are now considered Confederate propaganda:

But in 1936, The New York Times thought that Mitchell “writes from no particular point of view, although now and then there glitters a dull rage at the upset that ended such a beautiful civilization.”


At this point, skeptics might respond that subsuming the actual politics of the war, and the pro-slavery convictions of the Confederacy, beneath the gauzy romance of the plantation is precisely what the Lost Cause has been about — that in the end, Gone With the Wind is inescapably a set of political claims, designed to promote political ends. That’s a fair objection to some depictions of the world of the plantation, but it’s grossly unfair to Mitchell’s book, which is much more interested in memory, love, and resilience than it is in causes, won or lost. Of course, Gone With the Wind is a novel, not a work of history, and what it offers is only a slice of what actually happened. But as Americans remember the war and their own history, they have an acute need for novels, which refuse to reduce individual lives to competing sets of political convictions. That is an important virtue, even if one set of convictions is clearly right and another clearly wrong. In fact that very refusal can be seen as a political act, and it ranks among the least dispensable ones.

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