I first read Gone with the Wind when I was 10, after I’d seen the film. And I’d seen the film because my mom had the brilliant idea that I should play Rhett and Scarlett in the fifth grade talent show. We watched the movie several times, adapted the the horse jail scene to my elementary school audience (no prostitution, for starters), and created a truly inventive homemade costume that allowed me to be half Rhett and half Scarlett, turning back and forth, one hundred and eighty degrees, to talk to myself. Now that I think about it, this may explain a lot.
By the time the talent show came and went (I got third place! I was robbed!), I was board-certified obsessed. I read the book (which, incidentally, was published on my birthday, June 30, in 1936), and was engrossed. Then I watched the film again. And again. And again. I read all the biographies of Vivien Leigh and Margaret Mitchell, and the books about the production of the movie, and, later, historical nonfiction about the Civil War.
The importance of Gone with the Wind to my early development cannot be overstated. It spawned a love of 1930s classic Hollywood that still urges me to stay up far too late watching TCM. This piece, by Karen Grigsby Bates, pretty well sums up my adult view of the GWTW cultural machine. Though flawed, Scarlett is a survivor. And, for the 1860s (and, indeed, the 1930s), the character displays a truly shocking sense of self, as well as the character trait that I perhaps admire most (probably because of Scarlett, and how she taught me to look for it): gumption.
But I’ve also become a lot more critical and empathetic, better read, and somewhat traveled, as well as cognizant of the role of privilege and entitlement in American society. Growing up in a small town in East Texas, in a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant family that hailed from Tennessee and Alabama and North Carolina and Virginia, it was easy for me to identify with the story’s white characters, and to romanticize the ridiculous picture of “the Old South” that Mitchell and Selznick painted. When I re-read the book in college, I was shocked by its endemic and insidious racism, which is much deeper than anything portrayed in the film—including the infamous “I ain’t birthin’ no babies” scene in which Scarlett slaps Prissy, her slave.
It had to be done.
I’m not sure why I went there first. I think because of a combined sense of mission and dread. I kind of wanted to get it over with, not sure about what I’d find. Pretty much immediately upon arriving in the Fifth Ward, I ditched my bags and headed off on food toward Peachtree Street, more than a mile and a half away.
As it turned out, the Mitchell House was pretty informative. And not a Confederate flag in sight.
There’s a small exhibit space with photographs and information about Margaret Mitchell’s life and the reception of Gone with the Wind. You can also take a tour of the exhibit and Apartment No. 1, where Mitchell lived with her husband John Marsh while writing GWTW. None of the furnishings in the apartment are original, but it has been restored to look as close as possible to how it did during Mitchell’s residency. It was interesting to be in the space and see the alcove window where Margaret typed. I’d pictured it so many times in my mind, and seeing the place, with its ordinariness, helped dispel the myth.
The Harry Ransom Center at UT is the home of theDavid O. Selznick Collection, a “vast archive documenting the life and career of legendary producer (Gone With The Wind, Rebecca, Duel in the Sun), his brother, Myron, the quintessential Hollywood agent, and their father, early film pioneer Lewis J. Selznick. The Selznick collections are supported by the papers of Jock Whitney, David Selznick’s friend and financial partner.” I must admit I am pretty thrilled about the upcoming exhibit, The Making of Gone With The Wind, which will be at the HRC from September 9, 2014 through January 4, 2015. It will feature the Ransom’s Center’s newly-restored, iconic GWTW costumes, on display together for the first time in more than 20 years. I have it on good authority that the exhibit presents GWTW, both the film and its related cultural phenomenon, in a wide, critical context. I’m really looking forward to it.
I feel like I’ve come full circle. Maybe it’s time to read Gone with the Wind again. Or, perhaps better yet, The Wind Done Gone.
Photos my own, taken at the Margaret Mitchell House, Atlanta, Georgia, October, 2012.
Adapted from an earlier post on StellaCooks.