Nearly 80 years after its publication, Gone With the Wind remains one of the most cherished stories in American culture. Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel won the Pulitzer Prize; the 1939 film adaptation won Best Picture and seven other Oscars, and if you adjust for inflation, it’s still the biggest box-office success in Hollywood history.
The acclaim for this story isn’t all in the past—far from it. A poll taken just last year revealed that even today, the Bible is the one and only book Americans love more than Gone With the Wind. If you download the 2000 Gone with the Wind audiobook, before the story even starts you’re greeted with a stentorian declaration that this “monumental epic of the South” is great beyond great: “Its achievements are unparalleled, and it remains the most revered American saga.”
It sure does—and it’s also a book that explicitly advocates slavery and defends the Ku Klux Klan. Why isn’t that mentioned in cover blurbs and audiobook introductions? Why isn’t that the first thing mentioned?
Indisputably, Mitchell had storytelling chops. The novel is a ripping historical yarn, setting an absorbing personal story and vivid characters against the backdrop of the Civil War and postwar Reconstruction. The love quadrangle of Scarlett, Rhett, Ashley, and Melanie is sustained with improbable tension over a thousand pages, with plenty of passionate embraces and unrequited yearning. The book is, in some ways, precisely observed in its back-home account of a war more often seen from the battlefield—an angle that would have felt especially unusual when the book debuted, before domestic history was something you could readily get tenure for studying.
At the center of the story is an iconic anti-heroine. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman who’s unpleasant but ahead of her time, sympathetic but frustrating. Scarlett’s lack of patriotism and detachment from her peers adds tension to Mitchell’s account: Scarlett and her beau Rhett are decried as traitors to the South, but of course Mitchell’s readers know that Scarlett and Rhett are entirely correct in their belief that “the Cause” is a lost one. Scarlett’s skeptical perspective keeps the book from fully exalting the Confederacy, and though her disinterest in the war is chalked up to selfishness, it’s also portrayed as shrewd.
Further, the Confederacy isn’t the only thing Scarlett doubts: she also gradually rejects the rules that govern women’s behavior in the extreme aristocracy of the pre-war South. Her strong will saves her family from starvation, and that willfulness attracts both Rhett and Ashley. If she anchored a different story, Scarlett might be embraced as a proto-feminist figure, instinctively rebelling against the traditions that restrict her.
This is Gone with the Wind, though, and Scarlett accepts the deeply racist stance that characterizes the novel as a whole. Black characters are portrayed as simple-minded, repeatedly likened to animals. Neither book nor movie acknowledges the physical and emotional abuse of slaves, let alone the fact that slavery by its very nature is inherently an abuse: In fact, the book argues explicitly that African-Americans were better off under slavery. The story’s chief villains are the Northerners who control the South after the war; the book’s central characters decry what they see as the hypocrisy of Yankees who abolish slavery only to manipulate the freed slaves into voting for carpetbaggers. When the Klan materializes, its members and supporters include many characters who Mitchell portrays as decent and moral.
The book’s defenders might argue that Mitchell’s novel is more nuanced than that. After all, both Rhett and Scarlett are critical of the Southern aristocracy and many of its traditions—and yet, their skepticism of the South never extends to the institution of slavery. (Rhett even ends up in jail for killing a black man, a murder that’s blithely shrugged off.) Fans could also argue that Scarlett’s position as a coddled plantation daughter would protect her from the knowledge of slave abuse, but that seems far-fetched — and though Margaret Mitchell’s narrative voice often breaks in to explain to readers that Scarlett doesn’t understand a particular idea or situation, Scarlett’s idealistic racism is never called into question. Instead, Mitchell goes on lengthy discursions about the Yankee abuses that, we’re informed, made the Klan a necessary bulwark.
One of the book’s most notorious scenes, which doesn’t appear in the movie, is telling. Shortly after the war, Scarlett encounters some Northern women who are frankly racist toward her carriage driver, a former slave. The women assume Scarlett’s family was physically violent with their slaves, an Uncle-Tom’s-Cabin-based expectation Scarlett finds insulting, but then the Northerners go on to demean her black driver to his face. They speak about him with disgust as if he can’t understand them, saying that black people give them “the creeps.” It could be seen as an illustration of presumptuous liberal hypocrisy—but it’s followed immediately by Scarlett lamenting that Yankees don’t realize “darkies” must be treated delicately, like children.
In Scarlett’s logic—which neither Mitchell’s narrator nor any characters ever question—slavery was a harmonious way for whites and blacks to co-exist peacefully, with slaveowners caring for their beloved slaves, who it’s repeatedly implied are inherently incapable of responsibly governing their own actions.
Several black characters are portrayed in a seemingly sympathetic fashion, depicted as members of their owners’ families and as the secret rulers of their households—but they’re still characterized as childlike and dependent on the white folks. Mammy is given some genuine humanity, and her dignity extends to the movie in a performance that won Hattie McDaniel an Oscar (though she and her guests were in segregated seating at the ceremony). Mammy, though, is unquestioningly loyal to her masters and contemptuous of the “trashy” former slaves who embrace freedom; when Mammy ultimately declares her own freedom, it’s not portrayed as a stirring epiphany but, rather, as just another punchline from a supporting character. Mitchell assumes that former slaves had no valid reason to truly want to be free.
One of the few other named slave characters, Prissy, is portrayed as weak and stupid, repeatedly saddled with epithets like “ninny” and “wench.” In the pivotal sequence where she and Scarlett deliver Melanie’s baby, Prissy’s ignorance and fear are played as comic relief; Malcolm X said Butterfly McQueen’s performance in the movie made him feel “like crawling under the rug.” Other slaves are allowed more dignity, but even so, Mitchell’s favorable judgment on their characters is wholly contingent on their ironclad loyalty to their former owners.
“Slavery in Gone with the Wind,” states Wikipedia dismissively, “is a backdrop to a story that is essentially about other things.” Is it, though? True, what most Gone with the Wind fans thrill to is the love story that spans the war and its aftermath—but this isn’t just a romance for any time. The story is directly concerned with the way these characters are affected by the collapse of the South as a civilization. When they mourn the way of life lost to the war, as happens repeatedly throughout the book, they’re romanticizing slavery and the plantation system.
The movie takes that romance even further with hyperbolic titles: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave.” Overall, though, the movie softens the book’s defense of slavery, which is one reason many people who haven’t recently read the book can be prone to characterize Gone with the Wind as a wonderful story that’s, well, just a little “dated.”
None of this is news. Black activists protested Gone With the Wind from the time of its release, and its pro-slavery sensibility is well-documented. So why, then, is this offensive tome still America’s favorite novel? How can publishers still brag about the book’s “unparalleled achievements” without recognizing the fact that it’s given generations of readers a view of American history that justifies the Confederacy and valorizes slavery?
It’s long past time for popular culture to stop sweeping the offensive aspects of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, and its film adaptation, under the rug. This isn’t just a book with a few racist characters, or with a couple of regrettable stereotypes: It’s an epic manifesto in favor of a society that was anchored by the profoundest evil to stain American history. Mitchell’s novel just doesn’t see it that way, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that this love story can be viewed apart from its author’s bias.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender that ended the Civil War and started Reconstruction. The worldview of Gone with the Wind is still a pervasive part of American life, and the story’s continued popularity is telling. You don’t have to open an 80-year-old novel to know that this is still a racist nation—but lest you think slavery is something we’ve long since buried, look no further than America’s favorite piece of fiction.