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The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 41-63

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"What Else Could a Southern Gentleman Do?":
Quentin Compson, Rhett Butler, and Miscegenation

Ben Railton

Nineteen thirty-six was a banner year for both the historical and the southern novel. It witnessed the publication of Gone with the Wind, the most successful novel ever written in either genre in America, and Absalom, Absalom!, the most complex and important work of historical fiction of the South's most enduring and talented novelist. The coincidental timing of these two novels, 1 while not necessary to ensure the importance of either, does provide an ideal starting point for a comparison between the two. And such a comparison goes far deeper than merely timing or genre, 2 as the two novels, and particularly the development of two of their central figures, epitomize two key strains of southern thought about the past and about the issue of race in that past, two interpretations of history which were coming into conflict at precisely the moment of this coincidental joint publication.

Quentin Compson's development, from obedient southern boy to questioning Harvard student to tormented old soul, is paralleled by the development of his understanding of the central role of miscegenation in southern culture and of the guilt of the white South in denying its existence. Similarly, Rhett Butler's growth from cynical, self-absorbed critic of the Old South to nostalgic southern gentleman is directly caused by his deepened sense of the possibility and consequently the dangers of miscegenation in the Reconstruction South. Mitchell's view reflected—or, [End Page 41] more exactly, projected to millions of Americans—the standard historical interpretation of Reconstruction in the first three decades of the twentieth century, while Faulkner's analysis resembled the revisionist interpretations of contemporary historians such as W. E. B. DuBois and W. J. Cash. In this essay, I will give most of my attention to the two novels, and particularly to the development of those two characters; however, in the conclusion I will examine the way in which the novels fit into, critique, and interact with the broader context of southern historical thought in the mid-1930s.

The use of African American characters and themes to develop and enrich characterizations of whites is hardly unique to these two novels, of course. As novelist and critic Toni Morrison persuasively argues in her short but brilliant work, Playing in the Dark, white American novelists have used African Americans for that purpose for as long as there has been an America. However, Morrison is most interested in the whiteness to which those novelists turn as a response to the blackness they portray, what she calls "the impenetrable whiteness that surfaces in American literature whenever an Africanist presence is engaged" (32). Because of that focus, and because she sees the African American characters as "sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked" (17), Morrison does not delve deeply enough into the statements—conscious or subconscious—about interracial relations that can be found in many of those novels.

A similar focus can be found in a very different recent work, Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940. Like Morrison, Hale sees the southern construction of whiteness as largely based on a parallel construction of blackness. Her striking first sentence, "To be American is to be both black and white" (3), suggests that her analysis, unlike Morrison's, will focus on the interconnectedness of the two races, and thus give equal time to each. Yet this is not the case, and Hale's largely one-sided focus is most evident in her misreading of the importance of race in Gone with the Wind. Writing about that novel's Ku Klux Klan ride, Hale argues that it "serves no racial role in the novel because Mitchell constructs no racial drama" (263). It is, however, precisely a racial drama that drives much of the action of the novel's second half, a drama that leads to the drastic changes in Rhett Butler's...


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