Today is the birthday (1900) of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind. As always I will be honest and say up front that I dislike the book and the film, but I think it’s worth celebrating her life. She did make an impact. When I say I “dislike” the book and the film, I need to be a little nuanced. I’ve tried to watch the film three times and just can’t keep watching it. The book is typical of the endless 19th-century novel that once I put down I can’t pick up again. It is important to realize, however, that the book and the film are completely different animals. The film is vastly simplified and, if possible, overly romanticized. Lots of people adore both, however. I’m not sure why. They both represent visions of the Old South I find repellent.
Mitchell was a Southerner and a lifelong resident and native of Atlanta, Georgia. She was born into a wealthy and politically prominent family. Her father, Eugene Muse Mitchell, was an attorney, and her mother, Mary Isabel “May Belle” (or “Maybelle”) Stephens, was a suffragist. She had two brothers, Russell Stephens Mitchell, who died in infancy in 1894, and Alexander Stephens Mitchell, born in 1896. Mitchell spent her early childhood on Jackson Hill, east of downtown Atlanta. Her family lived near her grandmother, Annie Stephens who had been a widow for several years prior to Margaret’s birth; Captain John Stephens died in 1896. After his death, she inherited property on Jackson Street where Margaret’s family lived. Mitchell’s relationship with her grandmother would become quarrelsome in later years as she entered adulthood. However, for Mitchell, her grandmother was a great source of “eye-witness information” about the Civil War and Reconstruction in Atlanta.
You’d have to say that Mitchell’s image of the South and, especially, the Old South was deeply influenced by her own childhood and the people she spoke to. As my old professor of Southern History said, there are “many Souths.” Privileged white Atlanta is one of many. One important image of “the South” was fixed in Mitchell’s imagination when at six years old her mother took her on a buggy tour through ruined plantations and “Sherman’s sentinels,” the brick and stone chimneys that remained after Sherman’s “march and torch” through Georgia. Mitchell would later recall what her mother had said to her:
She talked about the world those people had lived in, such a secure world, and how it had exploded beneath them. And she told me that my world was going to explode under me, someday, and God help me if I didn’t have some weapon to meet the new world.
Mitchell said she heard Civil War stories from her relatives when she was growing up:
On Sunday afternoons when we went calling on the older generation of relatives, those who had been active in the Sixties, I sat on the bony knees of veterans and the fat slippery laps of great aunts and heard them talk.
On summer vacations, she visited her maternal great-aunts, Mary Ellen (“Mamie”) Fitzgerald and Sarah (“Sis”) Fitzgerald, who still lived at her great-grandparents’ plantation home in Jonesboro. Mamie had been twenty-one years old and Sis was thirteen when the Civil War began.
Gone with the Wind was first published in 1936. The story is set in Clayton County, Georgia, and Atlanta during the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. It depicts the struggles of young Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do plantation owner, who must use every means at her disposal to claw her way out of the poverty she finds herself in after Sherman’s March to the Sea. The story is a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, with the title taken from a poem about lost love written by Ernest Dowson.
Gone With The Wind was popular with U.S. readers from the outset and was the top U.S. fiction bestseller in the year it was published and in 1937. As of 2014, a Harris poll found it to be the second favorite book of U.S. readers, just behind the Bible. More than 30 million copies have been printed worldwide.
Gone With The Wind is Southern plantation fiction of a certain type that I despise. Its portrayal of slavery and African-Americans is abominable, as well as its use of a racial stereotypes and ethnic slurs. Slavery in Gone With The Wind is a backdrop to a story that is essentially about other things. Southern plantation fiction (also known as Anti-Tom literature) from the early 19th century culminating in Gone With The Wind is written from the perspective and values of the slaveholder and tends to present slaves as docile and happy.
The characters in the novel are organized into two basic groups along class lines: the white planter class, such as Scarlett, and the black house servant class. The slaves depicted in Gone With The Wind are primarily loyal house servants, such as Mammy, Pork, Prissy, and Uncle Peter. House servants are the highest “caste” in Mitchell’s caste system of the slaves. They stay on with their masters even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and subsequent Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 sets them free. Of the servants that stayed on at Tara, Scarlett thinks to herself, “There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy.” This may be superficially endearing, but condescending at heart.
The field slaves make up the lower class in Mitchell’s caste system. The field slaves from the Tara plantation and the foreman, Big Sam, are taken away by Confederate soldiers to dig ditches and apparently never return to the plantation. There were yet other field slaves, Mitchell wrote, who were “loyal” and “refused to avail themselves of the new freedom,” but there are no field slave characters in the novel that stay on the plantation after they have been emancipated. This “loyalty” or lack thereof, is true slaveholder wishful thinking. What field hand would want to be loyal to a master who beat him, raped his wife, and sold his children?
The crude stereotypes in Gone With The Wind – southern belle, rascally but brave and lovable scoundrel, loving mammy etc. etc. – continue to be perpetuated in modern consciousness in the South, not least because of this novel which portrays a world that never existed, but which some people believe in and wish could be restored. I can’t believe the nonsense spewed by contemporary southern politicians who argue that slavery was essentially a good thing. My blood simply boils. That Mitchell encourages this mindset is horrifying to me.
Let me not pass over the inherent sexism in the novel either. Marriage was the goal of all southern belles, and all social and educational pursuits were directed towards it. Regardless of war and the loss of eligible men, young women were still subjected to the pressure to marry. By law and Southern social convention, household heads were adult, white propertied males, and all white women (and all African Americans) were thought to require protection and guidance because they lacked the capacity for reason and self-control. Scarlett’s Reconstruction-era pursuits belie the facts. A woman of the period could not have run a sawmill. If women worked outside the home at all, which was looked down upon, it was as teachers or nurses, under the control and guidance of men.
All right, enough said.
Southern fried chicken seems like a suitably stereotypical recipe to complement Gone With The Wind. I’ve never made it because that was the province of my wife and her mother’s family – all from the Kentucky mountains. My mother-in-law’s fried chicken was masterful, and we always asked her to make it when we visited from New York. You can find recipes galore, but they won’t help you to make the “real thing.” It’s the lifelong experience and family tradition that makes it. It’s very hard to explain. I mean, I can tell you what to do, but without that family history, you are not going to get it right.
The basics are that you cut a frying chicken into 8 pieces – drumsticks, thighs, wings, and breast. Soak the pieces in buttermilk overnight. (I don’t know why this bit works, but it does). Heat lard or vegetable shortening in a cast-iron skillet to about 325°F. The fat should about half fill the skillet. Good cooks just know when it reaches the right temperature – amateurs use a thermometer. Drain the chicken pieces and dredge them in flour seasoned with pepper and salt. Fry until golden on all sides, then drain on wire racks. Paper towels will only keep the chicken greasy. You are looking for a crispy outside and a tender, juicy inside. Maybe after 3 or 4 generations you’ll get it right. Serve with corn on the cob, cole slaw, potato salad, and cornbread.