Some label it as historical romance; while others argue that it doesn’t have all of the required elements, thus making it simply an historical novel- but all would agree that the 1936 work by Margaret Mitchell is one of the quintessential works of American literature.
Gone with the Wind garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937 and its 1939 film adaptation has entered legendary cinema status after winning eight competitive and two honorary awards in 1940.
However, as one has come to expect from instant and beloved classics, both the novel and its big-screen counterpart have been steeped in controversy from the start.
The film has been credited for triggering many of the changes to the way Blacks are depicted on film, but has also been accused of historical revisionism and criticized for glorification of slavery. Despite the criticism, and after several re-releases throughout the 20th century, the story has become rooted in popular culture where it has been heavily referenced, parodied, and analyzed. Adjusted for inflation, it is the most successful film in box-office history and, in 1989, was selected to be preserved by the National Film Registry.
The criticism of Gone with the Wind concerning its portrayal of Blacks in the 19th-century South is exemplified in how former field hands during the early days of Reconstruction were described in part 4, chapter 37, as “behaving as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild- either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.”
Mitchell also downplayed the violent role of the Ku Klux Klan.
Bestselling author Pat Conroy, in his preface for the novel, described Mitchell’s portrayal of the Klan as having “the same romanticized role it had in The Birth of a Nation and appears to be a benign combination of the Elks Club and a men’s equestrian society.”
However, historian Richard N. Current defends any historical inaccuracies when he pointed out that while Gone with the Wind perpetuates many myths about Reconstruction- particularly with respect to Blacks- Mitchell did not originate them and the young novelist could hardly be faulted for not knowing what the majority of professional historians didn’t know themselves until many years later.
Mitchell, herself, replied to a reader in 1937 that she had spent “ten years of reading thousands of books, documents, letters, diaries, old newspapers, and interviewing people who had lived through those terrible times” in preparation for writing her first draft.
This is supported in a very detailed 1991 biography of Mitchell (“Southern Daughter” by Darden Asbury Pyron). The author, a historian at Florida International University, wrote that, “She spent a vast amount of time verifying historical facts. The fear of missing something or getting something wrong drove her to distraction.”
One of the most infamous and judged scenes is what the law and society of today would define as “marital rape.” The scene begins with Scarlett and Rhett at the bottom of the staircase; he begins to kiss her, refusing to be told ‘no’ by the struggling Scarlett. Rhett overpowers her resistance and carries her up the stairs to the bedroom, where the audience is left with little doubt what happened next. The next scene shows Scarlett the following morning, aglow with barely-suppressed sexual satisfaction and Rhett apologizes for his behavior by blaming it on his drinking. The scene combines romance and rape in such a way that they are indistinguishable from each other and reinforces one of the most malicious myths about forced sex- that women secretly enjoy it, and that it is an acceptable way for a man to treat his wife.
Molly Haskell has argued that, nevertheless, women are mostly complacent of the scene and that it is consistent with what women have in mind when they fantasize about being raped- wherein their fantasies revolve around love and romance rather than forced sex. They assume that Scarlett was not an unwilling sexual partner and wanted Rhett to take such initiative.
So here we are with Gone with the Wind finding itself at number 26 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most-banned classics.
Some of the more notable incidents include when the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice objected to Scarlett being married more than once; the Watch and Ward society in Boston attempted to fan the flames of dissent, wanting to get people upset over the prominence of Belle Ward (a madam) in the novel, but book sellers were making way too much money to care what censors were saying.
The government of the former USSR banned Gone with the Wind for 65 years. A Russian translation, by Tatiana Kudriavtseva, was finally published in Russia in 2001. In a CNN interview, she says, “The whole thing happened in Russia…we were survivors of war, like Scarlett, and this novel was ringing a lot of bells for us. We saw the ravages, we saw the fires, we saw the pilloried villages, and we saw the poverty and the hunger… Gone with the Wind is considered in Russia as [the] American War and Peace.”
From its publication, many around the United States took issue with much of the language in the novel, especially the use of words such as “damn” and “whore.” Today, opposition has shifted from the profane to the social, with distain over the use of the word “nigger” in this and other classic novels.
Perhaps the most notorious incident regarding the language was when Rhett uttered that famous line in the movie, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Moviegoers staged a mass exodus at various screenings across the nation upon hearing the word, insulted by its use. Media censors responded by levying a fine against the studio for the incident; so it was surprising to many that it would win anything at the 13th Academy Awards, let alone Best Picture and Director.
It was banned from the Anaheim, California Union High School District’s English classrooms in 1978, according to the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association, for its depiction of the behavior of Scarlett O’Hara and the freed slaves in the novel.
It was also challenged in the Waukegan, Illinois School District in 1984 because of the novel’s above-mentioned use of the word “nigger.”
Again, here we are with a novel depicting a fictionalized set of people amid accurate historical events and the societal attitudes associated with not just the referenced period, but also the time in which it was written and published. Today’s views of profanity may have changed, but the shame of slavery coupled with current politically-correct ignorance are once more being dealt with not by mature discussion and knowledgeable discourse, but by banning books and burying heads in the sands of time.
There continues to be this pandemic of parents and other self-righteous individuals who believe that they- and they alone- must shelter everyone from the realities of history and have the absolute authority to do so.
The most important thing about history, though, is that it is a mirror of not only our past; but of our present and our future. We must understand the mistakes of the past if we are to have an enlightened and free society going forward. We have a duty and a need to know that such behavior and atrocity did occur so that we can learn what we have overcome and how far we have to go.
So when people, for any reason, want to throw out books that they disagree with or are offended by it leaves me with a very annoyed and defiant disposition. Their ignorance offends me, but that doesn’t mean I should attempt to ban their right to their opinion. I encourage them to explain in mature dialogue their reasoning.
To the book burners; to those who hide from the truth of history; to those who oppress out of ignorance and fear I can only say this: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/