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Late last summer I read the 1936 novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell with an intention to concentrate on the historical accuracy of the Reconstruction passages, since I’d already read the novel at least two other times. I ended up backtracking and re-reading it cover-to-cover and came away with so many new feelings about it this blog post has been began and aborted at least four or five times for failure to focus on one aspect to it. Coming off the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this month, Spielberg’s Lincoln (concentrating exclusively on the passage of the 13th Amendment no less!), Django Unchained, and the recent nasty attempts to revive Jim Crow voting laws in the South, I desperately needed to revisit this dormant 2012 project. Who knows, maybe Kenya Moore pushed me over the edge with her new song!
The Pulitzer Prize winner was an even better read than I remembered. Especially as an engrossing story of people, manners, relationships and social mores of an era. I feel it actually deserves to be grouped closer (higher?) with other American novels in that vein (Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street come to mind). Yes, GWTW is at times an apologia for slavery. Yet, I feel that backdrop is so well known due to the continued popularity of both the book and the film I really don’t have anything to say about that which hasn’t been said a million times before. In fact, I daresay most people today who pick up a copy of the book or instant-stream the film on Netflix do so knowing full well they are going to get a hackneyed version of slavery. This is still problematic, but I feel most readers today come prepared for what they are in for: benevolent fictional slave-owners.
Yet for all its fiction Mitchell has an interesting technique throughout the book where she narrates the history of the time frame as an aside: and she does it quite well. This is how the reader gets information about the battles and military maneuvers and background politics that are happening around our main characters during the Civil War. It is useful because you certainly wouldn’t get that from Scarlett’s self-centered, decidedly non-analytical worldview. So these omniscient historical narratives do actually give the book a historical heft it might not have had otherwise:
“Johnson fought desperately at Resaca and repulsed the Yankees again, but Sherman, employing the same flanking movement, swung his vast army in another semicircle, crossed the Oostanaula River and again stuck at the railroad in the Confederate rear. Again the gray lines were summoned swiftly from their red ditches to defend the railroad, and, weary for sleep, exhausted from marching and fighting, and hungry, always hungry, they made another rapid march down the valley. They reached the little town of Calhoun, six miles below Resaca, ahead of the Yankees, entrenched and were again ready for the attack when the Yankees came up. The attack came, there was fierce skirmishing and the Yankees were beaten back.”
Mitchell’s book is probably the first place I read about the Battle of Peachtree Creek, Dacatur, Ezra Church and other skirmishes outside of Atlanta. The descriptions of these maneuvers, like above, are engagingly written but pretty straightforward. Here Mitchell describes some of the internal domestic politics within the Confederacy:
“…a vague distrust of those in high places had begun to creep over the civilian population. Many newspapers were out-spoken in their denunciation of President Davis himself and the manner in which he prosecuted the war. There were dissensions within the Confederate cabinet, disagreements between President Davis and his generals. The currency was falling rapidly. Shoes and clothing for the army were scare, ordnance supplies and drugs were scarcer. The railroads needed new cars to take the place of the old ones and the new iron rails to replace those torn up by the Yankees. The generals in the field were crying out for fresh troops to be had. Worst of all, some of the state governors, Governor Brown of Georgia among them, were refusing to sent state militia troops and arms out of their borders. There were thousands of able-bodied men in the state troops for who the army was frantic, but the government pleaded for them in vain.
With the fall of the currency, prices soared again. Beef, pork, and butter cost thirty-five dollars a pound, flour fourteen hundred dollars a barrel, soda one hundred dollars a pound, tea five hundred dollars a pound. Warm clothing, when it was obtainable at all, had risen to such prohibitive prices that Atlanta ladies were lining their old dresses with rags and reinforcing them with newspapers to keep out the wind. Shoes cost from two hundred to eight hundred dollars a pair, depending on whether they were made of cardboard or real leather. Ladies now wore gaiters made of their old wool shawls and cut-up carpets. The soles were made of wood.”
Passages like this describing the rampant inflation during the War obviously involved a considerable degree of research by Mitchell, and I’ve been unable to find any historians attacking these passages as inaccurate. In interviews after publication she would often dismiss her historic diligence as mere curious childhood and good listening on the laps of elderly relatives telling war stories. Yet, in other interviews, she admits that when it came to small details like the weather on a certain day of battle or a certain hairstyle of the time she consulted newspapers, magazines and other public records ever worried an elderly veteran or octogenarian Atlanta war widow would catch an error.
Then comes Reconstruction: the undeniable low-point of the novel in terms of historical accuracy. Mitchell becomes either exceedingly lazy or racist, probably a bit of both. Here, the formerly reliable omniscient voice is completely untrustworthy, repeating broad Carpetbagger clichés and outright lies about the lawmakers during the period of roughly 1865-1877. Mitchell describes Georgia’s situation with the newly freed slaves circa 1865:
“Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedman’s Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild–either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance. (634)
On the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan:
“It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Klan to spring up overnight. And it was against this nocturnal organization that the newspapers of the North cried out most loudly, never realizing the tragic necessity that brought it into being. The North wanted every member of the Ku Klux Klan hunted down and hanged, because they had dared take the punishment of crime into their own hands at a time when the ordinary processes of law and order had been overthrown by the invaders.
Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. The vote must be given to them but it must be denied to most of their former owners. The South must be kept down and disenfranchisement of the whites was one way to keep the South down. (656)
This passage rightly causes discomfort both now and in 1936. The thing is, had this tirade about martial law and Reconstruction come from the point of view of one of the characters it would be less disturbing. GWTW is a pro-Confederacy novel and the characters are mainly all white Southerners possessing some degree of racist paternalism (and I’m being generous here–others ride with the KKK). I could more easily stomach this passage coming from the mouth or thought-process of, say, Tony Fontaine or one of the other white Southern characters with an obvious bias. Yet here Mitchell employs that very same detached historical-narrator technique that she used so effectively to detail wartime specifics to irresponsibly spout trite racist garbage straight out of The Birth of a Nation.
Mitchell is ignorant of–or chooses to ignore–the reality that most African-Americans serving in Reconstruction governments were far from ignorant field hands. Most came from the educated class of Free African-Americans or ex-slaves who had gone North and become involved in politics. Others had served in the Union Army. A majority were mixed-race, hardly “a generation away” from Africa. I know of not one Reconstruction politician who was illiterate. Mitchell willfully ignores the reality of African-American congressmen like Hiram Revels, P.B.S Pinchback, Robert Brown Elliot, and Robert Smalls. African-American congressmen, representing Southern districts, managed to cling to a few seats in the House of Representatives until George Henry White’s term expired in 1901. This was the year after Margaret Mitchell was born, and she wrote the bulk of her novel during the late 1920s: the heyday of the erasing from history all racial gains of Reconstruction, the height of Dunning School and the mis-education of Reconstruction as a tragic era and not the unique American attempt in multi-racial democracy it was. The GWTW passages on Reconstruction say far more about the racial attitudes of the 1920s than the reality of the 1860s and 1870s, sadly.
When Mitchell weaves in detailed political events of the time from the characters’ point of view, I’m less bothered. This passage on pages 756-7 I hadn’t caught in my previous readings and concerns the Georgia State Legislature refusing to ratify the 15th Amendment (which nationalized the franchise to the freed slaves):
“Something’s right and something’s wrong,” barked Uncle Henry. “Depends of how you look at it. The way I figure is the legislature couldn’t have done different.”
The legislature? thought Scarlett in relief. She had little interest in the legislature, feeling that its doings could hardly affect her. It was the prospect of the Yankee soldiers on a rampage that frightened her.
“What’s the legislature been up to now?”
“They’ve flatly reused the ratify the amendment,” said Grandpa Merriwether and there was pride in his voice. “That’ll show the Yankees.”
“And there’ll be hell to pay for it–I beg your pardon, Scarlett,” said Ashley.
“Oh the amendment?” questioned Scarlett trying to look intelligent.
Politics were beyond her and she seldom wasted time thinking about them. There had been a Thirteeth Amendment ratified sometime before or maybe it had been the Sixteenth Amendment but what ratification meant she had no idea. Men were always getting excited about such things. Something of her lack of comprehension showed in her face and Ashley smiled.
“It’s the amendment letting the darkies vote, you know.” he explained. “It was submitted to the legislature and they refused to ratify it.”
“How silly of them! You know the Yankees are going to force it down our throats anyway!”
“That’s what I meant by saying there’d be hell to pay,” said Ashley.
“I’m proud of the legislature, proud of their gumption!” shouted Uncle Henry. “The Yankees can’t force it down our throats if we won’t have it.”
“They can and they will.” Ashley’s voice was calm but there was worry in his eyes. “And it’ll make things just that much harder for us.”
“Oh, Ashley, surely not! Things couldn’t be any harder than they are now!”
“Yes, things can get worse, even worse than they are now. Suppose we have a darky legislature? A darky governor? Suppose we have a worse military rule than we now have?”
These moments are less bothersome because the historical nuggets are coming from the characters and actions of the story itself. This passage is fascinating, for not only does it have an 1866 historical detail I hadn’t thought about (the Georgia legislature attempting to fight back against Reconstruction) but you get insight into the racial politics (or lack thereof in Scarlett’s case) of characters you are very familiar with after 700-odd pages. Interestingly, although an African-American President sits in the White House, Ashley’s concern about an eminent black governor of Georgia has still not happened in the following 150 years. Later, Rhett and Scarlett endure the ire of their neighbors for associating with governor Rufus Brown Bullock, a Southern-raised politician who collaborated with Reconstruction and was ousted as Georgia governor mid-term. These moments still reveal Mitchell’s Lost Cause attitudes, of course (it’s ambiguous whether our sympathies are supposed to be more with suffer-nobly-in-poverty Atlanta society or more with survivalist, only-dollars-matter Scarlett) but at least we are spared that outside historical-aside voice that makes the Reconstruction political portions of the novel so unreliable (and the rest so good).
The Civil War itself and the preceding antebellum slavery period gets used and reused as a setting or backdrop in various pieces, from various perspectives and degrees of accuracy, with each passing decade: Mandingo, Roots, Glory, Amistad, Cold Mountain, Django, Lincoln. You can’t really say the same about Reconstruction. Seventy-five years after its publication Gone With the Wind is, very unfortunately, still the primary vehicle to which countless people are introduced to that period in US history.