A Mixed Response from an Old Favorite II

Another new aspect to my re-read of GWTW had to do with the depictions of the slave characters. Having seen the film version at least 3 or 4 times (including once on the big screen during a late 1990s re-release) I always had a feeling that the most developed of the slave characters was Mammy. Based on the film alone, that is still definitely the case. Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning performance gave facets to the character that I would argue are barely present in the book.

Margaret-Mitchell-Gone-With-the-Wind-1936The film version of Margaret Mitchell’s book naturally had to cut out many minor characters and subplots as would be expected when turning a 1037 page epic Pulitzer Prize winning novel into a screenplay. McDaniel’s film Mammy benefitted immensely from this. Many great, perceptive lines that came from minor characters like Will Benteen (a poor white Confederate amputee who marries Scarlett’s sister) and Archie (another poor white) are given to Mammy in the film, the other characters being absent. Also, Hattie McDaniel’s nuanced acting (where IS that Mo’nique biopic anyway?) and powerful screen presence conveyed the idea that Mammy was really the only person (aside from Rhett) who could see through Scarlett’s bullshit. That’s still in the novel, but the point-of-view is such that other characters occasionally, if not consistently, do the same.  Contrary to the way things ordinarily work, the novel’s Mammy seems diluted in comparison to the movie’s Mammy.

The African-American character I found most interesting this go-around was Uncle Peter. While obviously a slave character in a pro-Confederacy novel, he was the vehicle for a lot of interesting exchanges concerning race, class, and social mores of the mid-19th century American South.  His exact age is not given but I suspect Mitchell intends him to be slightly older than the white woman he serves: Melanie’s (and Scarlett’s by her first marriage) Aunt Pittypat Hamilton who is a never-married woman around age 60. The white characters using the patronizing slave-era “Uncle” also would denote an advanced age for Peter.

Again, although I enjoyed the re-read as a whole, last year’s project was really about assessing GWTW’s erroneous and harmful take on Reconstruction. During that half of the book the Uncle Peter bits seem to give me more to chew on than the other slave characters do. He refugees from Atlanta to Macon with his frightened owner, Pittypat, once Sherman begins shelling the city. Later in the novel, Scarlett and Melanie (and Mammy) are at Tara and Uncle Peter travels solo horseback to the farm and makes his first post-war appearance.  He has come to collect Scarlett and Melanie and bring them back to Atlanta since Pitty has returned to her home in the now defeated city. He berates them for not returning to Atlanta despite their maiden aunt’s pleading letters. Mammy scoffs at the idea:

“What’s wrong wid you, nigger?” inquired Mammy with a grin. “Is you gittin’ too ole ter perteck yo’ own Missus?”

Peter was outraged.

“Too ole! Me too ole! No ma’am! Ah kin perteck Miss Pity lak Ah allus done. Ain’ Ah perteck her down ter Macom when us refugeed? Ain’ Ah perteck her when de Yankees come ter Macom an’ she so sceered she faintin’ all de time? An’ ain’ Ah ‘quire disyere nag ter bring her back ter ‘Lanta an’ perteck her an’ her pa’s silver all de way?” Peter drew himself to his full height as he vindicated himself. “Ah ain’ talking’ about perteckin’. Ah’s talking ’bout how it look.”

“How who look?”

“Ah’m talking ’bout how it look ter folks, seein’ Miss Pity livin’ ‘lone. Folks talks scan’lous ’bout maiden ladies dat lives by deyself,” continued Peter, and it was obvious to his listeners that Pittypat, in his mind, was still a plump and charming miss of sixteen who must be sheltered against evil tongues.” (504)

This scene highlights the social absurdities and rules that the older generation are foolishly observing even though they are in the midst of America’s bloodiest war and greatest social upheaval.  60ish Pittypat Hamilton is an unmarried white woman living alone in a house with no relative or chaperone. Her only companion an unmarried African-American man she used to own. His biggest concern in life is what the neighbors think about her. This is funny, pathetic, sad, and surreal all at the same time in ways I doubt Mitchell fully intended.

Eddie Rochester Anderson as Uncle Peter in the film adaptation

Much later in the book, when Scarlett is back in Atlanta (having had to marry Frank Kennedy to save Tara) the racist and misleading asides on Reconstruction are (as I argued) the low-point of the book.  However, the flouting of class and gender conventions hits its apex as a pregnant Scarlett scandalously runs two sawmills and conducts lucrative business deals with the occupying Union officers and hated Carpetbagger businessmen. Uncle Peter is the one who drives Scarlett around as she profits from the rapid rebuilding of Atlanta and oversees her ventures:

While driving home with Uncle Peter one afternoon, she passed the house into which were crowded the families of three officers who were building their own homes with Scarlett’s lumber. The three wives were standing in the walk as she drove by and they waved to her to stop. Coming out to the carriage block they greeted her in accents that always made her feel that one could forgive Yankees almost anything except their voices.

“You are just the person I want to see, Mrs. Kennedy,” said a tall thin woman from Maine. “I want to get some information about this benighted town.”

Scarlett swallowed the insult to Atlanta with the contempt it deserved and smiled her best.

“And what can I tell you?”

“My nurse, my Bridget, has gone back North. She said she wouldn’t stay another day down here among the ‘naygurs’ as she calls them. And the children are just driving me distracted! Do tell me how to go about getting another nurse. I do not know where to apply.”

“That shouldn’t be difficult,” said Scarlett and laughed. “If you can find a darky just in from the country who hasn’t been spoiled by the Freedmen’s Bureau, you’ll have the best kind of servant possible. Just stand at your gate here and ask every darky woman who passes and I’m sure—”

The three women broke into indignant outcries.

“Do you think I’d trust my babies to a black nigger?” cried the Maine woman. “I want a good Irish girl.”

“I’m afraid you’ll find no Irish servants in Atlanta,” answered Scarlett, coolness in her voice. “Personally, I’ve never seen a white servant and I shouldn’t care to have one in my house. And,” she could not keep a slight note of sarcasm from her words, “I assure you that darkies aren’t Cannibals and are quite trustworthy.”

” Goodness, no! I wouldn’t have one in my house. The idea!”

“I wouldn’t trust them any farther than I could see them and as for letting them handle my babies . . .”

Scarlett thought of the kind, gnarled hands of Mammy worn rough in Ellen’s service and hers and Wade’s. What did these strangers know of black hands, how dear and comforting they could be, how unerringly they knew how to soothe, to pat, to fondle? She laughed shortly.

“It’s strange you should feel that way when it was you all who freed them.”

“Lor’! Not I, dearie,” laughed the Maine woman. “I never saw a nigger till I came South last month and I don’t care if I never see another. They give me the creeps. I wouldn’t trust one of them. . . .”

For some moments Scarlett had been conscious that Uncle Peter was breathing hard and sitting up very straight as he stared steadily at the horse’s ears. Her attention was called to him more forcibly when the Maine woman broke off suddenly with a laugh and pointed him out to her companions.

“Look at that old nigger swell up like a toad,” she giggled. “I’ll bet he’s an old pet of yours, isn’t he? You Southerners don’t know how to treat niggers. You spoil them to death.”

Peter sucked in his breath and his wrinkled brow showed deep furrows but he kept his eyes straight ahead. He had never had the term “nigger” applied to him by a white person in all his life. By other negroes, yes. But never by a white person. And to be called untrustworthy and an “old pet,” he, Peter, who had been the dignified mainstay of the Hamilton family for years!

Scarlett felt, rather than saw, the black chin begin to shake with hurt, pride, and a killing rage swept over her. She had listened with calm contempt while these women had underrated the Confederate Army, blackguarded Jeff Davis and accused Southerners of murder and torture of their slaves. If it were to her advantage she would have endured insults about her own virtue and honesty. But the knowledge that they had hurt the faithful old darky with their stupid remarks fired her like a match in gunpowder. For a moment she looked at the big horse pistol in Peter’s belt and her hands itched for the feel of it. They deserved killing, these insolent, ignorant, arrogant conquerors. But she bit down on her teeth until her jaw muscles stood out, reminding herself that the time had not yet come when she could tell the Yankees just what she thought of them. Some day, yes. My God, yes! But not yet.

“Uncle Peter is one of our family,” she said, her voice shaking. Good afternoon. Drive on, Peter.”

Peter laid the whip on the horse so suddenly that the startled animal jumped forward and as the buggy jounced off, Scarlett heard the Maine woman say with puzzled accents: “Her family? You don’t suppose she meant a relative? He’s exceedingly black.”

This whole exchange is fascinating and incredibly uncomfortable to read. Although my response is probably not the political takeaway Mitchell wanted (slavery = benevolent, Scarlett’s crack about the Freedman’s Bureau ruining rural ex-slaves is telling), I do think this “hiring the help” passage cuttingly highlights Northern racism 1868 vs. Southern racism 1868.  Not to mention the irony that in Maine the servant-class were poor Irish immigrants as the officers’ wives unwittingly insult Scarlett O’Hara-Kennedy. It also reveals Scarlett’s cut-throat business opportunism, the Union officers’ wives’ contempt for the freed slaves, and Mitchell’s underlying racism all in one scene. Oddly (or brilliantly) this exchange shows that, while greedily taking every dime she can earn from Union business, Scarlett still loathes them as deeply as her peers. The wounding of Uncle Peter’s pride is the closest she ever comes to publicly breaking her facade of collaboration. Throw in miscegenation (which Mitchell otherwise avoids), the usage of racist epitaphs, and I suspect I’ve analyzed this scene a good deal more than author ever intended.

A couple of pages later Uncle Peter refuses to chauffeur Scarlett any longer if she continues to do business with the Occupiers and Scarlett is forced to take on a (white) former convict as her driver. Uncle Peter’s first stand made as a free employee is to show his solidarity with the Old Guard of Atlanta society. Once again, Mitchell uses Uncle Peter to highlight white people’s dying social mores in chaotic times.


“Convention of Negroes Discussing Political Rights, Atlanta” engraving from 1869

2 responses to “A Mixed Response from an Old Favorite II

  1. Enjoyed your latest Mixed Response II.

    Sent from my Samsung Epic™ 4G TouchCaucuttCaucus wrote:

  2. More! More! I’m loving this insightful look at Reconstruction through GWTW.

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