Gone With the Wind is better known as a movie than as a book. But on the principle that the book is usually better than the movie, I picked up the novel.
As big as the movie was, it seems that when the book arrived, it was even bigger. Some books take on an importance that's hard to explain after the fact. Uncle Tom's Cabin, as any student that's had to read it can attest, is not really great literature. But it resonated with the readers of its time in such a profound way that it changed history. I think Gone With the Wind was similarly recieved.
First of all, it's a pretty good book. The story is exciting, and the Scarlett is really an interesting hero. It fits nicely into the genre of historical romance. Mitchell pays careful attention to the historical timeline, and the battles and strategies portrayed are really accurate.
But it's not beautiful prose. For gorgeous writing about the civil war, I much prefer Cold Mountain. They were both made into movies. But Gone With the Wind got a Pulitzer and was a much bigger deal when it came out.
So, what's going on?
Mitchell published the book in 1936, seventy-one years after the Civil War ended. The Civil War has had an astonishing half-life. Mitchell knew that, but it took 15 years and another Southern author, Faulkner, to put it unforgettably:
I look at the story of this book from two perspectives. First, I see it through the eyes of the characters in it. Scarlett, her father Gerald, Ashley, Melanie, and Rhett — we meet all these people in the impossibly gorgeous plantation lifestyle in Georgia. Oh! The balls and the dresses!
I cannot help but think of those other ball-and-dresses books by Jane Austen. Austen lived in the time that these were the norm, and she cast her ironic eye at the whole proceeding. She wrote in the early 1800s, and Gone With the Wind begins in 1861. Although Scarlett is not a reader of literature, many others in the story are. In their balls, social conventions and obsession with propriety I see an America once again desperate to emulate Europe. The chaperoning, the marrying off for social advantage is all very well-known territory.
The desire to be like the Old County begins even before the start of the story. Gerald O'Hara came over from Ireland with a dream of becoming landed. He wanted to be like the landed nobility of his despised Ireland. The culture and aspirations of the fathers and the children were plucked and planted into this new world.
But it crumbled. The lifestyle of luxury could not be maintained after the Civil War. In the timeline of the novel, the culture falters almost immediately. All the eligible young men are off to war, and the rest of society is left to fend as best they can.
Fending gets harder and harder. But for the people caught in the nightmare, there is a sustaining thought: how very good they used to have it. The possibility of having it that good again fades further and further beyond reach. The Southern gentry are left without the gorgeous dresses. They salvage what they can. If they can't be rich and waited upon by scores of servants, at least they will maintain the morays and propriety.
Her friends and family cling to the memories. Scarlett, however, knows what she wants. Propriety was never that interesting to her; she wants the dresses back. She succeeds, but in the end discovers that her heartlessness has a cost.
Mitchell wrote about the origin of the customs of the South because she learned them growing up in Georgia. The customs were cherished and passed down with fondness. There is a romantic nostalgia for the plantation life that still lingers on for many. Mitchell learned from people who lived through the hard times of the war and the aftermath.
Now I come to my second perspective on the book: the times that the first readers were living through. Mitchell was born in 1900. She was in her 20s during the roaring 20s. When the Depression arrived, she felt all the lack of her former times. When Black Tuesday hit in 1929, all of America got a chance to feel the grinding hardship of survival. And pretty much everybody knew what it was like to be nostalgic for better times.