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  • Women and Dixie:The Feminization of Southern Women's History and Culture
  • Helen Taylor (bio)

In the early 1980s, when I spent some months raking through the Louisiana State and Tulane University archives reading unpublished materials by southern women writers about the Civil War, I was astonished by the weight of that material and the fact it had rarely been examined. As I completed my own research, Anne Goodwyn Jones published her path-breaking study, Tomorrow is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859–1936 (1981), which charted connections between southern women and began to demonstrate a lineage of their writings which burgeoned around that most significant war. I was also sharing an office with one of the researchers for the mammoth project focused on Mary Boykin Chesnut, led by C. Vann Woodward and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, which resulted in two major tomes, between 1981 and 1984, of her edited diaries and a biography of the writer. The recognition of the importance of Chesnut was a timely reminder of women's complex role in subsequent interpretations and understandings of the Civil War and its aftermath, opening scholarly doors to lesser known figures such as Belle Boyd, Sherwood Bonner, Augusta Evans, Frances Harper, and Mary Johnston, whose war writings (be they life histories, diaries, or fiction) were edited and reprinted for new markets. The recent vogue for life writings of all kinds, besides favoring slave and freedwomen's narratives, as well as conventional autobiographical writings by established writers such as Ellen Glasgow, has given particular prominence to the journals and diaries of white élite women who wrote their versions of wartime and Reconstruction experiences, probably with half an eye on wider audiences and later publication.

Jones's Tomorrow is Another Day took as its title one of the most quoted sayings of Scarlett O'Hara, and indeed, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936) stands resolutely at the heart of this body of work—for good or ill, the most globally known and [End Page 847] celebrated text about the War. Articles and books such as Drew Gilpin Faust et al.'s "Coming to Terms with Scarlett: A Southern Cultures Forum" (1999) and Laura F. Edwards's Scarlett Doesn't Live Here Any More: Southern Women in the Civil War Era (2000) serve to remind us of the cultural centrality of this book and film, its role as "culmination of a literary tradition," and its author's ability "to transform a southern story of the Civil War into a national story" (Gardner 250, 234). And not simply national—for this single work brought to a huge global audience one woman's passionate, conservative account of the Civil War and Reconstruction from the perspective of a defeated southern family and notably the spirited Scarlett. Gone With the Wind made the whole subject live throughout a century which—in the light of other great wars—might well have forgotten or marginalized it. The legacy and texts of slavery, Faulkner's and others' anguished versions of the War, and their impact on southern culture, have long preoccupied southern readers and students, but Mitchell (with a little help from film director David O. Selznick) ensured the South's dramatic history lived on to preoccupy and enchant—or in some cases to infuriate—international readers and audiences. Regardless of scholarly disdain, Gone With the Wind has survived to tell a partisan story of a violent and terrible period of the nation's history, and all other versions skulk in its shadow.

Yet Mitchell was following in many lively footsteps and owed her story, characters, and emotional thrust to female predecessors. She acknowledged some of the diarists and memoirists whose work inspired and informed her novel: Myrta Lockett Avary, Eliza Andrews, Eliza Ripley, and Mary Johnston (the latter a schoolmate of her mother's, and thus The Long Roll [1911] and Cease-Firing! [1912] were read to her as a child). While there were male role models, notably Thomas Dixon whose The Clansman (1905) was a great favorite, the film version of which (The Birth of a Nation, 1915) offers a simple reading of the War and Reconstruction that is closely followed by Mitchell, it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 847-860
Launched on MUSE
2006-12-07
Open Access
No
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