Is America still living the ‘Gone with the Wind’ lie?

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‘A skeleton key that unlocks America’s illusions about itself’: Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) tends to wounded soldiers in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind - Getty
‘A skeleton key that unlocks America’s illusions about itself’: Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) tends to wounded soldiers in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind - Getty

If you use Amazon to rent the 1939 film that, adjusted for inflation, remains the highest-grossing ever, you are greeted with a stern warning. “Gone with the Wind,” it reads, “depicts racial and ethnic prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.” On the other hand: “To create a more just, equitable, and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.”

Now Sarah Churchwell amplifies Amazon’s message into a 464-page book – and, sad to say for Gone with the Wind fans, it is mostly very persuasive. She makes an overwhelmingly strong case for the film’s racism and a completely unanswerable one for that of Margaret Mitchell’s original 1936 novel: America’s best-selling of the 20th century. She also argues convincingly that Gone with the Wind is “the skeleton key” that unlocks “America’s illusions about itself” – and with them, much of its history since 1861.

That year, of course, saw the outbreak of the American Civil War: the setting for the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler and the Tara plantation in Georgia. Or rather, the setting for the first part of it – because for both Scarlett and Mitchell, the real tragedy for the American South came with the post-war era of Reconstruction, when the North imposed such injustices as abolishing slavery and allowing black people to vote.

Not that the South took this lying down. Soon after the war ended, the Ku Klux Klan – praised in the book; unmentioned in the film – was formed to keep “uppity” blacks in their place, largely by murdering them. In the novel, Rhett kills “a n-----” for being “uppity to a lady”, as he puts it, adding: “What else could a Southern gentleman do?”

At the same time, the South went about an impressively swift rewriting of history by creating the idea of the Lost Cause. This relied on what Churchwell accurately calls “two staggeringly shameless denials”: that slavery was neither a cause of the war nor the brutal system depicted in Yankee propaganda. Instead, it was a fundamentally benevolent arrangement that suited black and white alike.

Vivien Leigh with Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind - Getty
Vivien Leigh with Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind - Getty

As Churchwell comprehensively demonstrates, the Lost Cause is central to the film and particularly the novel of Gone with the Wind. Before the war, Mitchell has Scarlett’s saintly mother remind her that “you are responsible for the moral as well as the physical welfare of the darkies God has entrusted to your care. You must realize that they are like children.” After it, we are told “the negroes were far better off under slavery”.

So how could this stuff still be present in mainstream works of the 1930s? Because, as Churchwell also demonstrates, the notion of the Lost Cause had become mainstream. Unlike slavery, this narrative really was an arrangement that suited both sides, with the South able to avoid any sense of shame and the North accepting it in order to ensure/pretend the country was united again.

That same Northern desire for unity is why Reconstruction was abandoned as early as 1877, leaving the South free to enforce Segregation and disenfranchise black voters in a series of laws that the federal government didn’t repeal until 1965. These laws, naturally, had Mitchell’s enthusiastic approval. They also explain why, when the film premiered in her hometown of Atlanta, the cast members who had played all those contented slaves weren’t invited. Meanwhile, as Churchwell unsparingly relates, lynching continued well into the 1930s and beyond, proving a popular spectator event with white women and children.

Churchwell’s undisguised anger does make her discussion of the novel quite repetitive, as she pounds away at pretty much every scene to reach the same conclusions – including that Scarlett and Rhett are “homicidal white supremacists with profoundly fascistic views”. For all their power, her history sections sometimes have a tendency to knee-jerk Left-wingery, such as referring to the South’s “white male” oppression, even though her own book makes it perfectly clear that women – not least Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara – played their full part in keeping black people down.

When Churchwell discusses the 21st century this tendency becomes properly intrusive and a bit weird. At one point, for example, she writes that “Republicans no longer oppose Democrats politically; they are opposing them existentially, as an enemy within”, without appearing to notice that the same applies the other way round – as that very sentence shows.

Pro-Trump activists storm the Capitol in 2021 - Shutterstock
Pro-Trump activists storm the Capitol in 2021 - Shutterstock

At another, she claims with an almost comic lack of self-awareness that the conflict in present-day America is between “those fighting to keep power limited to people like them” (guess who?) and those who want “to share power across a plural democracy” – although obviously not with anybody so unlike them as to vote for Donald Trump.

Churchwell, in fact, sees America’s entire history of denying its own divisions as culminating in Trump and, especially, in the 2021 storming of the Capitol, which she takes as evidence that a fascist coup might not be far away. Yet as repulsive and anti-democratic as the rioters undoubtedly were, I wonder if the idea that such people represent a genuine threat to America is another arrangement that, in its peculiar way, suits both sides: a rabble of mad fantasists and understandably aghast liberals driven slightly mad themselves by Trump’s victory flatteringly turn each other into historically all-important warriors in an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. (As the title indicates, Churchwell’s book is shot through with a strange yearning for apocalypse, with her half-fearing, half-hoping that “a reckoning looms, at a scale we can’t assimilate”.)

The Wrath to Come is packed with fascinating, well-researched and often jaw-dropping history. There’s no denying, either, that it achieves its aim of proving just how unhinged and overwrought American politics can be – and why. The only trouble is that some of its proofs feel distinctly inadvertent, with Churchwell partly embodying the problem that she seeks merely to describe.

The Wrath to Come by Sarah Churchwell is published by Apollo at £27.99. To order your copy for £24.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books