The night before Gone with the Wind’s Atlanta premiere in 1939, there was a ball at a plantation. Dressed as slaves, the children of the black Ebenezer Baptist Church choir performed for an all-white audience. They sang ‘There’s Plenty of Good Room in Heaven’; the actress playing Belle Watling, Rhett Butler’s tart with a heart, wept. The scene is already striking: a painfully literal example of the mythologising of the South for white consumption, redefining slavery as harmless and the slaves themselves as grateful. Yet Sarah Churchwell finds a jaw-dropping detail: ‘One of the little Black children dressed as a slave and bringing a sentimental tear to white America’s eye was a ten-year-old boy named Martin Luther King, Jr, who would be dead in thirty years for daring to dream of racial equality in America.’
Churchwell has written about American mythology before, notably in Behold America: A History of America First and the American Dream, as well as in works on Marilyn Monroe and The Great Gatsby. This time it feels like she has hit the motherlode: ‘The heart of the [American] myth, as well as its mind and its nervous system, most of its arguments and beliefs, its loves and hates, its lies and confusions and defence mechanisms and wish fulfilments, are all captured (for the most part inadvertently) in America’s most famous epic romance.’ For Churchwell, ‘Gone with the Wind provides a kind of skeleton key, unlocking America’s illusions about itself.’
This is a bold claim – but Gone with the Wind was, and remains, a phenomenon like no other. Published in June 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s novel sold a million copies before the end of that year, won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and became the bestselling American novel of all time. Even now, it shifts 300,000 copies annually. In 1939, a film version was released, starring Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Adjusted for inflation, it is the highest-grossing film of all time, ahead of Avatar and Titanic. In 2020, when the South Korean film Parasite – a biting satire on capitalism – won the Academy Award for Best Picture, President Donald Trump expressed his displeasure: ‘What the hell was that all about?’ he asked a rally in Colorado. ‘Can we get like Gone with the Wind back please?’ As usual, his audience understood exactly what he meant.
If the idea that one book and film can be the skeleton key to a whole culture seems simplistic, Churchwell swiftly begins to pile up startling evidence in short, pithy chapters. Race, gender, the Lost Cause, the American Dream, blood-and-soil fascism, the prison-industrial complex, a Trumpist mob storming the Capitol in 2021: it’s all here, and it’s all bound up with the themes of Gone with the Wind. Mythmaking is not just the building of fantasies but also the erasure of truth. The genocide of native peoples, for instance, is not in the book or film, but it was taking place at just the time that Gerald O’Hara would have been acquiring land in Georgia: ‘Scarlett’s beloved Tara is built upon land that was stolen from indigenous Americans a mere decade before her birth.’ Churchwell cuts through these thorny subjects with a propulsive assurance. Her writing is an extraordinary blend of wit, intellectual agility and forcefulness: it’s like being swept along by an extremely smart bulldozer.
Churchwell doesn’t flinch from the horrors that Gone with the Wind belies. The book and film propagate the Lost Cause myth, portraying the South as a place of chivalry, slavery as benevolent and the members of the Ku Klux Klan as honourable men stepping up as the world around them collapses. Churchwell shows us how these myths were constructed from the end of the Civil War onwards, and congealed seventy years later into Gone with the Wind. The reality of the reassertion of white supremacy during and after Reconstruction was, as Churchwell shows, horrific: there is some deeply upsetting material here on the terrorisation of both black people and those whites who did not comply with supremacist social codes. Lynchings were advertised in advance in local newspapers, ‘just as a fun fair or circus might have been’. A typical headline from 1905: ‘Will Burn Negro: Officers Will Probably Not Interfere in Texas’. Eight people were lynched in the year of Gone with the Wind’s publication.
‘Most defences of Gone with the Wind hold that while the novel’s racism is objectionable, it is of its time and in the background, of secondary importance to Scarlett’s appealing psychological strength,’ Churchwell writes. ‘But that defence replicates the novel’s politics, in which white women’s power is preserved at the cost of Black people’s equality.’ When Scarlett and Rhett have sex in the novel, after much emphasis of her whiteness, this is how Mitchell describes it: ‘She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her.’ Churchwell zooms straight in: ‘Darkness, with all its racial connotations, is where moral, social, and erotic disorder collide: the terror and thrill of raw power unleashed.’
Mitchell herself, of course, was a white Southern woman. Churchwell refers to Mitchell’s ‘internalization of white victimhood’: she believed that the oppressed people in her story were white Southerners forced to accept racial equality. Mitchell originally titled her book ‘Tote the Weary Load’, appropriating the title of a slave spiritual, ‘transforming Black suffering into white martyrdom: the people toting weary loads in her novel are always the white plantation class, never the Black enslaved’. Mitchell used some of her wealth to fund scholarships at Morehouse College, a historically black university, yet when she herself had encountered a black student in her history classroom at Smith College, she had thrown a tantrum and demanded to be moved to another class, ‘where she was safe from having to consider either the historical, or actual, existence of Black people’.
The screen version of Gone with the Wind could not entirely ignore the existence of black people, so it toned down the book’s racist language as well as some of its racial violence. There is a degree of irony in Scarlett, whose ‘magnolia skin’ is heavily fetishised, being played by Vivien Leigh, who probably had Indian ancestry. The producer, David Selznick, and Leslie Howard, who played Scarlett’s first love, Ashley Wilkes, were both of Jewish origin. Howard, says Churchwell, ‘categorically refused to read Gone with the Wind’. Most notably, though, the film’s black cast had to be persuaded to work on a white supremacist project. Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her performance as Scarlett’s maid, Mammy, was born to parents who had both once been enslaved. Her father was a veteran of the Union Army who had fought in the Civil War. McDaniel insisted she had taken the role for the money: ‘she had chosen between $700 a week to play a maid, or $7 a week to be a maid.’ Yet she and Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, must have cared a bit about what they were doing. Both lobbied to have one of the novel’s most-used words – rendered by Churchwell as ‘nxxxxr’ – excised completely from the screenplay. Eventually it was, though only after Selznick struck a deal with the censors to eliminate it in return for being allowed to keep Rhett Butler’s final ‘damn’.
The film may have softened the book’s language and violence; it may have presented the Ku Klux Klan as a ‘social club’ without using its name. Yet it could not change the meaning and the message of the book, because, as Churchwell shows, they are embedded in every character, every action, every twist and turn of the story. Some argued that the film made the Lost Cause myth more palatable to a wider audience: the black-run New York Age described it as a ‘$4,000,000 sugar-coating of Southern mythology’. Churchwell suggests that the elimination of that one objectionable word ‘had the unfortunate effect of persuading many white audiences that nothing objectionable had happened in the first place’.
How might modern Americans begin to unpick this carefully woven myth? In the first place, they would have to want to – and it’s clear from the last few years that many would rather keep it intact. Churchwell’s excoriating analysis is energising, but she does not provide a revelation. I ended the book thinking of Scarlett’s last line in the movie, which is banal but hints at the possibility of change: ‘After all, tomorrow is another day.’ Perhaps, one day, the change will go against her.