- Gone with the Wind and the Trauma of Lost Sovereignty
Jeffrey Olick theorizes that once "memory of . . . personally traumatic experience is externalized and objective as narrative . . . it is no longer a purely individual psychological trauma" (345). This notion may explain the sometimes galvanizing role of history long after its participants are gone; collective experiences such as mass hunger become external narratives, no longer dependent on individual sensory perceptions but available within the culture as abstract frameworks for viewing individual experiences. This paper will argue that Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind demonstrates how individual losses of sovereignty by landowners in the American South during Reconstruction come to constitute a shared trauma of usurped sovereignty that remained legible in the collective memory of the Depression Era South and explore the ramifications of those re-engaged losses in the form of extralegal violence against African Americans.
The notion of "sovereignty" is useful to considering a text about Reconstruction due to its dual meanings, both of which implicate property and ownership. In one sense, according to Webster's Dictionary, sovereignty means "supreme power, especially over a body politic." The acquisition and loss of sovereignty by the Confederacy is, of course, the central legal event of the Civil War, and the exclusion, through disenfranchisement, [End Page 1] from the post-bellum political system of landed Confederates and officers constituted an exclusion from this sort of sovereignty. The word also has the broader, related definition of "freedom from eternal control," or "autonomy," which demonstrates the kinship between the losses of Reconstruction and those of the Great Depression. "Freedom from control" and "autonomy" are non-politically specific terms that can describe an individual's sufficiency and capacity for self-realization—precisely those qualities lost by so many Americans during the 1930s. Mitchell's text reanimates collective memories of lost political sovereignty for use by an audience threatened financially with a new sort of loss of "self-rule." In thinking about sovereignty, both in Reconstruction and during the 1930s, however, it is important to bear in mind its relationship to property. The ability to rule implies a territory over which to rule. The sovereignty of a nation extends only to its borders, and the sovereignty of an individual may relate to his parcel of land, his capacity to support himself with food and other necessaries, or the simple authority to exercise control over his own body. This paper will make use of the insight that, as legal scholar Cheryl Harris puts it, property is a "legal metaphor that [during the nineteenth century] inscribed and reflected racial and sexual power on the lives of Black and white women, in different, albeit related, ways" (319). The meaning of "lost property" becomes complicated against a backdrop in which certain individuals could be property, just as the lost political sovereignty Scarlett bemoans is complicated by the fact that she herself had been excluded as a legal matter from self-rule, except as incident to the political personhood of her father and husbands.
Setting these complications aside for the present, Gone with the Wind is, at an important level, a story of the breakdown of legal protections. Tara, the endlessly desired object, is a piece of land; one of the few preserved from the breakdown in property rights Mitchell describes as the effect of Confederate surrender. The text links the failure of legal protections of property to the failure of legal protections of feminine virtue; Scarlett's efforts to protect Tara put her in danger of violation by the poor whites and freed slaves against whom, the text repeatedly asserts, the Reconstruction government offers no legal redress.
This paper will discuss those anxieties over sovereignty as collective memories of Reconstruction reiterating in the historical moment of the text's publication, with a focus on two particular manifestations. First, the interplay in memory between the usurped property rights of Reconstruction and the public perceptions of failed government during the mass loss of property during the Depression. Second, the use of extralegal [End Page 2] violence against African Americans as reassertions of sovereignty against perceptions of threatened femininity. Situating the text in the context of extralegal violence at the time...