That Ugly Past

I was not going to post this. I wrote it and thought: “No.” But I have changed my mind.

This is understandably a sensitive subject. But historians have to tackle such all the time. We cannot shirk them.

This has come about now amidst the reaction to the police murder of George Floyd. We know already about the monuments issue. Some entertainment is now also getting a more critical look.

In that tweeted article above, we are told:

Long considered controversial for its depiction of Black people and its positive view of slavery, Gone With the Wind faced renewed scrutiny after an op-ed by 12 Years A Slave screenwriter John Ridley published in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. In the op-ed, Ridley called on HBO Max to “consider removing” Gone With the Wind from its platform as the film had its “own unique problem.” “It doesn’t just “fall short” with regard to representation. It is a film that glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color,” Ridley wrote.

He added: “It is a film that, as part of the narrative of the “Lost Cause,” romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the “right” to own, sell and buy human beings.”

HBO Max said Gone With the Wind will eventually return to the service with a “discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions” of Black people and slavery.

That 1939 film was adapted from the 1936 novel by then thirty-five year old Atlanta former reporter Margaret Mitchell. It took her approximately ten years to finish. (So she started it at only age 26.) According to Wikipedia:

Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone with the Wind in 1926 to pass the time while recovering from a slow-healing auto-crash injury. In April 1935, Harold Latham of Macmillan, an editor looking for new fiction, read her manuscript and saw that it could be a best-seller. After Latham agreed to publish the book, Mitchell worked for another six months checking the historical references and rewriting the opening chapter several times. Mitchell and her husband John Marsh, a copy editor by trade, edited the final version of the novel. Mitchell wrote the book’s final moments first and then wrote the events that led up to them. Gone with the Wind was published in June 1936.

She would be killed in 1949 when she was crossing an Atlanta street and was struck by a drunk driver.

She had produced some unpublished fiction since her teens. But Gone With the Wind is the only novel she published. If you have never read any of it but have only heard of it, Amazon has a free Kindle opening sample above.

Mitchell once said: “I made Tara up, just as I made up every character in the book. But nobody will believe me.” People might not have believed her because if you read of Mitchell’s upbringing and family background, and know the Gone With the Wind story reasonably well, some of her background is VERY familiar. She clearly mined bits of her own family and life, or that of others she knew, for at least aspects of the characters and the story.

There is also no question the novel is full of racism. For example, in what follows a black man enslaved because of his race is talking here to his white master. I apologize for certain words you see in this next photo:

[From Gone With the Wind (1936). Photo by me, 2020.]

That is in 1861 in Georgia. It was a time and a place that unapologetically practiced RACE-based SLAVERY of blacks. So why is anyone actually ever surprised today that the novel and the film are both full of racism?

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”

For what comes to mind suddenly is a famous line from 1942’s Casablanca, my favorite film. The French captain (Claude Rains) saying it knows damn well there is gambling occurring. What he is doing to “Rick” (Bogart) is using gambling as an excuse to close “Rick’s” cafe because the captain has been ordered to do so by the Nazi Gestapo major.

Casablanca also has this line that always makes me cringe: “Ilsa” (Ingrid Bergman) in another scene refers to “Rick’s” black and quite adult piano player “Sam” (Dooley Wilson) as “The boy playing the piano.” Casablanca’s primary screenwriters were what we would today call “screaming liberals” and one was eventually blacklisted as a communist. Thus evidence there of how belittling language towards African-Americans could be used across the political spectrum of white America in the 1930s-40s.

Although the main character in Gone With the Wind is not involved in that master-slave exchange above, overall the action revolves around a 16 year old rich southern white girl, “Scarlett O’Hara.” The tale focuses on HER life takeaways, on the war as it impacts HER, and on the war’s aftermath as it also impacts HER.

The novel is in my opinion more racist than is the film; and that it is would have been almost inevitable given the novel has much more background action described than does the film. While there is still lots in the film that is unsettling to see now, the screenwriters actually omitted a lot (they had to: it is a 1,000 page novel) and in doing so toned the book down considerably. Nevertheless both the book and the film also need to be read and watched with this in mind in terms of race and politics: the story is primarily about “Scarlett”:

[From Gone With the Wind (1936). Photo by me, 2020.]

Of course slavery is mostly presented blandly, distantly, and even often “warmly.” That is what a white girl of her age in a southern home like that generally indeed saw and experienced. For instance it is unsurprising “Scarlett” is attached to slaves closest to her, and particularly to the women; only trusted women slaves looked after the daughter(s) of the master, and she would have spent more time with those women than probably with her own mother. In that area the story is in fact historically accurate from HER perspective, which is (yet again) the perspective from which it is mostly being told.

Can anyone have possibly ever bought or watched for the first time Gone With the Wind expecting a sociological and historical-political tale that castigates rebellion, slavery, and racism? The harsh reality is writing a novel with that as the family position about a family like hers living in 1861 in Georgia would have been a REAL fantasy. Families of her social strata in that time and place were overwhelmingly in favor of secession and slavery… and, by extension, yes, they were certainly by our standards racists: they are WHY there was secession and a war after the election in November 1860 of the first U.S. president (Lincoln) who had campaigned on a platform, not of abolishing slavery or demanding equality for black Americans, but merely of keeping slavery as an institution out of new territories, soon likely to be new states, in the west.

What we have in that tale that “softens” that ugly wider world is it is coming at us from the narrow viewpoint supplied mostly from “Scarlett” as a well-to-do, pampered, white teen girl. She is not really interested in much of anything besides 21 year old “Ashley Wilkes.” THAT obsession of hers is what drives the story:

[“Scarlett” wants “Ashley.” From Gone With the Wind, on Kindle for iPhone/iPad.]

And that fact is probably the main reason why the book and the subsequent film have endured: it is a “coming of age” historical romance.

That is certainly helped by the film being well ahead of its time in terms of production values, and it even now still holds up while most others of that era come across as relics.

The novel itself is also generally well-written. Its biggest form fault (to me) is the “black-speak” vernacular put into the mouths of enslaved characters to the point they are often barely understandable and which is well beyond reasonably necessary to reproduce a speaking style; on the other hand, “Scarlett’s” extremely Irish father speaks mostly “the Queen’s English” sprinkled with the occasional – presumably to remind us he is Irish – “methinks” or “you’d be understanding” (interestingly not a far more Irish-accented-sounding “undurstandin'”) or “you’d not be knowing” (not “knowin'”) or “don’t be forgetting” (not “forgettin'”) or some such. Otherwise Mitchell sure as hell could write romance.

Given “Scarlett” and her family and their status, while Gone With the Wind is naturally “Confederate sympathetic,” importantly Mitchell does NOT attempt to pretend that southern whites and enslaved blacks are in any ways equals: that would have been utter historical nonsense. And if Mitchell’s slaves are too often seen as “happy,” at least she does not portray the men (especially) as perpetually sinister and menacing (particularly sexually) and always scheming at the first opportunity to surprise and slaughter white men in their beds and rape the white women, which was a common trope in postwar white southern literature. Recall in the scene in which “Scarlett” is apparently about to be sexually assaulted, the wannabe-assailant is not black, but a white Union deserter. (And that sort of thing unfortunately did happen in the real war. When he was commanding troops in a rebellious state, passing a farm Union General Ulysses S. Grant and some aides stumbled upon a Union straggler attacking a woman, and an irate Grant himself jumped from his horse, grabbed a musket and ran over and using it as a club beat the man over the head with it.)

If Gone With the Wind were just another half-literate vomit extolling white supremacy as God’s Will, slavery as the necessary lording it over of inferior blacks, and black men as all being potential white women rapists, as a novel it might have been published by some small (probably regional southern) press and bought mostly by a white southern readership convinced the war was not their fault and that the South had been screwed over by the oppressive money-hungry Yankee northerners. (That was all too common stuff in postwar white literature in the South, and Mitchell – like many others – was exposed to and read such bulls-it books while growing up.) But even if it were well-written it is hard to believe that even in 1935 that Macmillan would have gone anywhere near that type of a racist polemic masquerading as fiction, so such a novel would certainly NEVER have become a national bestseller, for few “Yankees” would have bought and read such claptrap. (Nearly 400,000 northerners had died in the war. Don’t think many northerners had forgotten that even in 1936.) Definitely it would not then have been adapted into the major Hollywood motion picture it became in 1939 to the point even Katharine Hepburn – and they did not get more Yankee-stereotype than Hepburn – was early on also one of the actors considered for the role of “Scarlett.”

[A 1787 Paris excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPhone or iPad. Click to expand.]

I believe the key to coping with historical reality is not to try to duck it. That above, for instance, is what main character and non-slave-owning New Yorker “Robert” encounters in Paris among slave-owning Virginians in one of my novels. What “Robert” thinks is based at least in part on what he sees and what he is told.

That is how novels and films tend to tell their tales. They do so mostly through the eyes of what a main character (or characters) sees. Just like ourselves in the real world, none of them ever see everything.

The existence of the institution of RACED-BASED SLAVERY makes it IMPOSSIBLE to write honestly about any broad notion of pre-1865 America and NOT find oneself having to confront that institution and the racism underlying it – and particularly if black Americans are present in the fiction. Not doing so is to make an attempt to ignore and even to FALSIFY history. It is simply wrong to attempt to portray America pre-1865 in fiction as in any way “equal” to black Americans when that was absolutely not the case.

[Sign at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Virginia estate. Photo by me, 2011.]

There have always been those troubled by slavery and by racism (the first petition to end slavery was offered to the brand new U.S. Congress by Quakers in 1790 and obviously went nowhere), but compared to now there is no question early America was a profoundly RACIST and white supremacist place. We have just come off eight years with a black president, and another one being elected at some point (even a woman) is entirely possible. That is something that would have been virtually UNIMAGINABLE to then living blacks, let alone to nearly all whites countrywide (not just in the South), when George Washington took the presidential first oath of office on April 30, 1789.

I thought that all needed to be said plainly.

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