Southern Cultures 11.3 (2005) 3-8
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Harry L. Watson
| Figure 1 |
In "Teaching Gone with the Wind in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam," Mart Stewart explores how Margaret Mitchell (here) authored a global phenomenon that has sold over thirty million copies and that has been issued in nearly two hundred editions in forty countries, including another nation once torn by civil war. Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center.
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Southerners, of all people, should know how hard it is to get over a civil war. The bloodshed and physical destruction have devastating material consequences, and the emotional and cultural damage can be just as severe. Destruction by an alien enemy is hard enough, but suffering inflicted by one's own countrymen, companions in the "imagined community" we call a nation, can inspire the utmost in rage, futility, and despair. Even when the results of a civil war are beneficial, as they obviously were for black southerners, the price paid in ongoing recrimination can be heavy indeed.
Remembering what General Sherman called "the hard hand of war," southerners [End Page 3] also know how recovery happens. Memory becomes selective. The beauties and virtues of the lost society become clearer and more lustrous than they ever were in life. The gallantry of the lost cause, the sanctifying agony of loss, the noble struggle to rebuild, all assume an aura of transcendence. In memory, all sides were valorous, all had worthy ideals, all were faithful Americans. With this much reassurance in their shared humanity, winners and losers can find some common ground and move on, even at the cost of suppressing the war's fundamental issues from the consciousness of a majority.
But as one generation fades into another, these soothing memories can become more powerful than the physical impact of war itself, until the memory takes on its own reality and becomes an obstacle to further recovery and redemption. Indeed, even the notion of "getting over" a civil war may be delusive. When one generation's coping strategy becomes another's stumbling block, what have we really gotten over? In southerners' experience, collective trauma keeps getting reworked, each generation's solutions becoming raw material for the next generation's angst, until the original pain shrinks away without entirely disappearing.
Gone with the Wind was one of the most remarkable cultural tools for dealing with civil war that the twentieth century produced. First as a novel, then as a movie, Margaret Mitchell's saga of Rhett and Scarlett and Ashley and Melanie, together with Mammy and Prissy and all the rest, swept America before it in the 1930s. GWTW worked on an extraordinary number of levels—as an epic love story, as a glorification of lost grandeur, as a triumph of will over suffering, as an exemplum of gender, and as a reassuring prop to white supremacy. Gone with the Wind has been so successful on all these fronts that it has become a target of struggle in itself, especially for earnest southern history teachers who must paddle against the flood of its seductive stereotypes with every new class on the realities of Civil War era society.
The power of Mitchell's blockbuster is an old story for South-watchers, but a lesser-known dimension of the GWTW phenomenon is the power of its appeal in other countries. Appearing in thirty million copies worldwide and almost two hundred foreign editions, the story of Rhett and Scarlett has conveyed something irresistible to readers almost everywhere, surely including many who couldn't tell Stone Mountain from Mount Rushmore. Isn't it time somebody asked why?
Our first essay in this issue is an opening gambit for this badly needed conversation. Drawing on experience teaching American literature in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Mart Stewart reports that GWTW works across the enormous cultural barriers between Southeast Asia and the Reconstruction South, and helps Vietnamese readers interpret their own war-ravaged experience. Did Scarlett and her family agonize over lost wealth and power? So have many Vietnamese. Did Scarlett have to choose...