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Homage To Mistress Mitchell

June 2024
3min read

For any young person “growing up southern” in the thirties, Gone with the Wind, the massive novel itself, had an impact far beyond its literary merits. It climaxed a decade of Southern historical novels, beginning with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and going on with Stark Young’s So Red the Rose, Clifford Dowdy’s Bugles Blow No More, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Allen Tate’s The Fathers, and so on.

My classmates at the then small women’s college of the University of North Carolina read it and talked to grandmothers and great-grandmothers who had lived through “Mr. Sherman’s visits” and as youngsters saw his “calling cards,” the blackened chimneys still standing along the six hundred miles of Sherman’s track.

And over at tiny Atlantic Christian College in eastern North Carolina, Gone with the Wind was the only novel Ava Gardner ever read until she went to Hollywood and got “educated.”

Gone with the Wind meant that “we” had won. We could begin to rejoin the Union, a process that took thirty years, and that we could even enter the twentieth century. This is probably why I married a man born in 1899 and raised by two grandfathers who took part in the war. For him the “nasty business” at Cold Harbor was as real as the Tet Offensive. My own hero grandfather was a Union officer, but most of my kin was Southern and Confederate.

The universality of the book, as the country took first the novel, then the film to its heart, was attested to by a New England friend who said that even in school she had never really learned of the invasion and occupation of the South and its devastation until she had read and then reread Gone with the Wind . Ironically, my staunchly Yankee husband said the very night before he was stricken, “I thought I married Melanie, but perhaps I married Scarlett.” I said, “In every Southern woman there is a little of both.”

Because of its widespread appeal, Gone with the Wind actually helped make us one country again. For me that is the ultimate importance.

Margaret Coit Elwell, author, John C. Calhoun: American Portrait

No contest. Gone With the Wind, hands down. It was considered practically a religious document when I was growing up in Atlanta. And for a grubby little schoolboy, all that passion and bravery and adventure were electric! My own hometown! I decided then and there to live my life on a similarly grand scale. I haven’t done it so far, but God bless Margaret Mitchell for putting such ideas in my head.

Alfred Uhry, playwright, author, Driving Miss Daisy

Without question, my favorite American (or other) historical novel is, and will always be, Gone with the Wind—not so much for Margaret Mitchell’s deathless prose as for being a novel that became a motion picture I can never see often enough. And for containing, in Scarlett O’Hara, the perfect fictional heroine—manipulative, tough, brave, and spirited through all disaster. And incidentally, Mitchell was right: There should never have been a sequel.

Stephen Birmingham, author, Our Crowd and The Right People

For me, the historical novel has always been—will always be— Gone with the Wind. I read it when I was twelve and understood heaving long before I understood bosom. As I recall, I borrowed it from Moishe’s Stationery and Lending Library on Southern Boulevard in the East Bronx, where, for ten cents for three days (I never kept them longer), I could get some aged best sellers to complement the more serious ten books a trip I was allowed from the public library. I read Gone with the Wind in the allotted three days sitting on the windowsill of my room, my best spot. I was allowed to do this with the window open since it was the one with the “fire scape”—no falling out possible. It was spring; zephyrs blew over the few blocks from the Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Gardens, our Nature in the Raw. My mother, who smiled on reading, fixed me up for comfort with an old quilt folded across the sill. Beside me was a bag containing a quarter of a pound of sunflower seeds in the shell—a considerable amount, since they are very light—bought for occasions of heavy reading at Freilach’s Nut and Chocolate next door to Moishe’s. I can remember vividly the pile of empty, spitty shells that mounted during the burning of Atlanta—like seaside relics of some primeval clam-eating culture.

As luck would have it, we were studying American history in my seventh-grade class at that very time, and I was able to fake my way through most of the essay questions on the “Woah between the States” on the final exam. But that’s not why I still have a soft spot for Gone with the Wind. Nor is it the fact that it has mixed in my mind with the movie (which I finally saw when I was in high school), when I finally understood and longed for whatever it was that Rhett took Scarlett upstairs to do (and Tarzan did, in the trees, with Jane). No, not that kind of romance, although then, as now, I was given to falling in love with fictional characters. (I have since learned that most characters are fictional.) The real reason is that it was one of the last times I can remember reading like a child, with that utter absorption, that absolute comfort, that freedom from any concern with style, school, subject, that time when books were life and life was reading and all I asked is that the book be fat and the sunflower-seed supply not run out too soon.

Judith Dunford, coauthor, Cashing In

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