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Revisiting Classic Civil War Books: “Why Gone with the Wind Still Matters; or, Why I Still Love Gone with the Wind”

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 93-98 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0019

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I first encountered Gone with the Wind in my eighth-grade history class. We watched the 1939 movie as part of our unit on the American Civil War, and I was entranced. The epic scope, the romance and drama, and the lavish costumes all seemed tailor-made to sweep a thirteen-year-old girl off her feet. The following summer, I tackled Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 book. At around a thousand pages, it was the longest book I had ever read. And, again, I was enthralled. The book was full of subplots and secondary characters—a fully imagined world in which to immerse myself. This was the first time I realized that a book could be better than the movie.

I wish I could say I became a Civil War historian because of Gone with the Wind, but it’s not true. The Civil War was only incidental to my early love for the book. Later, as I came to learn more about the war and Reconstruction, and particularly the ways African Americans were treated and mistreated, I found it difficult to muster up much affection for the movie when I watched it on television. Not that I would consider missing it—I just felt bad, and slightly ashamed, about enjoying it. And I suppose it didn’t help that so many of my fellow historians (especially the male ones) scoffed and rolled their eyes whenever the subject came up.

Perhaps it was fated that I would work on a project about the ways Americans have remembered Sherman’s March, for it would finally force me to confront GWTW and grapple with my complicated feelings about it. A few years ago, while researching my forthcoming book, I picked up a copy of the book at the library and sat down with it. I thought I’d skim quickly through it after dinner, pulling out the few references to Sherman and quickly putting it aside. I was wrong. By the time I looked up, it was two in the morning. I had been seduced again, but this time I saw past the plot and characters and into the history. And I realized that GWTW was richer than I had remembered. Larded throughout the melodrama is the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction, albeit from a very specific, early-twentieth-century perspective.

Part of the power of Gone with the Wind lies in its self-conscious presentation as accurate history. Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta in 1900, went north to attend Smith College, and then returned to her home city after her mother’s death in 1919. She worked for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine for a few years but was forced to resign in 1926 due to ill health. To occupy her time, she began writing—first short stories, which she was unable to sell, and eventually the novel that would become Gone with the Wind. The novel was published in 1936 and became an immediate and consistent best-seller.1

Consciously or not, Mitchell incorporated early milestones of historiography. In the sympathetic and honorable poor white veteran Will Benteen, we see elements of the works of the Nashville Agrarians, while her hostile assessment of Reconstruction as a corrupt attack on white southern honor is one of the best illustrations of the Dunning School I have ever read.2 And her laudatory portrait of the Ku Klux Klan echoes that of Thomas W. Dixon’s novel The Clansman and its film version, Birth of a Nation. In all of this, Mitchell reflected the dominant interpretations of her time, both scholarly and popular. It seems unlikely that she would have looked to W. E. B. Du Bois’s magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, which would have given a much different perspective.

Margaret Mitchell was deeply concerned about the accuracy of her story, and she drew on her own family history to write it. Her mother’s parents had remained in Atlanta while it was under siege by the Union army in the summer of 1864; her father’s family had lived south of the city, in Jonesboro, Clayton County, the site of a July 1864 battle. Mitchell’s grandmother’s...

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