By Emily Nichols
Here is a second post from our guest blogger Emily from Sheffield Hallam University. Emily took part in our Ideas into Action project with the university. Here she is writing about Gone with the Wind, a very popular novel in the mid-20th century, but viewed very differently today.
Before reading Gone with the Wind I did have many preconceptions regarding the novel and its storyline. I watched and enjoyed the film two years ago and bought a copy of the novel intending to read it eventually. This ease of access was part of why I chose to write about this text. Prior to reading the novel, I flicked through and read a few paragraphs to get a feel of the author’s writing style. I found the most racist sentiments I had yet seen in print, finding separately a black man’s ‘joyful contortions…as ludicrous as those of a mastiff’ (Mitchell, M. 1936. pp.742) to see one of his former owners again, and Scarlett thinking that she could not feel like a lady again ‘until black hands and not white took the cotton from Tara.’ (Mitchell, 1936. pp.578) Racism permeates the novel and is a main cause of modern criticism. One of my lasting impressions of the film is that the three black ‘servants’ featured had names you would expect of pets rather than people.
While writing, I will refer to the famous film which was adapted from Mitchell’s novel in 1939, only three years after the book was published and a reflection of its bestseller status – as you must know, even now a bestselling novel can expect to be adapted for cinema soon after publication. While these novels and adaptations are often forgotten, this has been far from the case for Gone with the Wind, the title is familiar to most in Western society, even without reading or watching the source media. The movie is considered a classic part of American culture.
The novel was very well received in its time, it was a bestseller, and won the Pulitzer Prize (“1937 Pulitzer Prizes”, 2021). Contemporary newspapers called it a ‘remarkable first novel’ (Adams, J.D. 1936). Most information on reception of the story by the public focusses on the film, and how it was received in America. Of course Gone with the Wind would be appreciated differently in America, in a time when the Civil War it is centred around had not left living memory and the children of former slaves were commonplace. The glorification of the antebellum South would be attractive to those who still held grudges against the North.
The African-American community protested the film and its treatment of slavery (Haskell M. 2010. pp. 213-214), which remains highly controversial, so it is reasonable to assume that their reaction to the book was similar. Ideally, I wanted to find how the Black British community of the 1930s responded to the book and film but information about either in 1930s Britain, and indeed the Black community in 1930s Britain, are both very difficult to find. I must assume that the novel was read somewhat widely in the UK, and that any Black readers had similar reactions to their counterparts in the USA, perhaps missing the personal family recollections of the truth of slavery whitewashed in the text.
Because finding information regarding the book in the contemporary UK was challenging, I went through the interviews on the Reading Sheffield website, searching the pages for Gone with the Wind, I found that several of the interviewees, mostly women, had read and enjoyed the novel. One stating ‘we all read that’ (Witten, R. 2012) and another ‘absolutely [adores]’ the film, ‘[watching] it every time it comes on television’ (Grover, M. 2012). Gone with the Wind was usually referred to by both interviewers and interviewees as a romance, and compared to Mills and Boon novels but this comparison was rejected by interviewees. It appeared to me that interviewees had read Gone with the Wind due to its popularity, receiving it as presents or from libraries. Some said that the novel had been referred to as rubbish and disapproved of by older adults. I could also conclude, from the repeated trajectory of the interviews regarding the novel, that Gone with the Wind was on the list of questions provided to interviewers, showing modern perception of its contemporary popularity.
Since its publication, Gone with the Wind has retained its place in popular culture, the novel sells well and screenings of the film are common. However, the racism so prevalent in the text has proven to turn many people away from the story. The worldwide resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has caused the film to be distributed with a disclaimer concerning its portrayals of black people and slavery (Cranz, A. 2020). It is impossible to say that the story is not racist, with the painfully written dialect of black characters and white characters’ dialogue in plain English, persistently othering non-white individuals. Not to mention some passages from the third person narrator that could be published in KKK recruitment leaflets. The novel and film of Gone with the Wind are still very popular – according to the Great American Read, Gone with the Wind comes sixth in a list of America’s one hundred best loved novels (“Results | The Great American Read | PBS”, 2021). I could not find information concerning its readership within the modern black community. This lack of data to me suggesting a lack of popularity.
Having finished the novel, I can state unequivocally that I did not enjoy the book. Hardly any of the characters are likeable and those that are lost this quality for me when their horrific racism was remembered. The story is a well-constructed and compelling narrative, and I can understand why for many people it is so revered. To me it was overlong with the main romance between Scarlett and Rhett Butler at times disturbing. Mitchell makes some astute observations on the role of women in Southern society, how their only way to gain power and security is through marriage in a manner reminiscent of Jane Austen. To me, it is the racism and unlikeable, immature stupidity of the characters that made me so dislike this novel. Scarlett is obsessively in love with Ashley since she is a teenager, continuing until she is a sequentially married woman with multiple children. She does not realise her mistake until she has lost everything to her selfishness and to me this is hardly the tragedy it is often regarded as, more of a deserved comeuppance.
1937 Pulitzer Prizes. (2021). Retrieved 12 February 2021, from 1937 Pulitzer Prize Winners & Finalists – The Pulitzer Prizes
Adams, J.D. (1936, July 5th). A Fine Novel of the Civil War. The New York Times, pp. 1.
Cranz, A. (2020). After 84 Years, Gone with the Wind Finally Acknowledged as Racist as Shit. Retrieved 12 February 2021.
Grover, M. (2012, May 3). Gillian Applegate. In Readers’ Voices. Reading Sheffield. https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/readers-stories-2/gillian-applegate/
Haskell, M. (2010). Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited. Yale University Press: London.
Mitchell, M. (1936), Gone with the Wind. Macmillan: London
Results | The Great American Read | PBS. (2021). Retrieved 12 February 2021, from https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/results/
Selznick, D. (Producer), & Fleming, V. (Director). (1939). Gone with the Wind [Motion Picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Taylor, H. (1989), Scarlett’s Women: Gone with the Wind and its Female Fans. Virago Press: London.
Witten, R. (2012, July 25). Edna B. In Readers’ Voices. Reading Sheffield. https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/readers-stories-2/edna-b/