Tuesday, July 5, 2011


"I wrote about people who had gumption, and people who didn't," Margaret Mitchell mused when speaking about her only novel. That comment by Mitchell reminded me of one particular Christmas holiday. In my junior year of college I read Anna Karenina followed immediately by Gone With The Wind - both for the first time. I checked them out of the St. Teresa library and carried them home on the train, reading along the way. It was a serendipitous approach; if I had planned it, I could not have picked two books in which the heroines were so opposite in nature. Simply stated, one heroine had gumption and one did not.

Gone With The Wind turned 75 this summer, and many Georgians are making a pretty big deal about it. It was here, after all, where the novel was born and where almost all of its action takes place. My personal celebration involves re-reading it on my Kindle. Although Savannahians consider Flannery O'Connor and Conrad Aiken home-grown literary heroes, we have a soft spot for Mitchell and her (many would argue) masterpiece as well. Certainly, Savannah is given more than just a passing nod in the book, although it doesn't receive much attention in the movie, and I find myself re-reading the descriptions Mitchell gives of my adopted city. She describes very deftly the soft and luxuriant accents of its inhabitants (not the twang one hears in the southern states to the north of us, nor the drawl of the southern states to the west).

As its backdrop, Gone With The Wind juxtaposes the elaborately rich plantation system made possible by slavery, and the bloodiest war in American history which ended it. Nevertheless, this is Scarlett O'Hara's book from first page to last. I can think of no other heroine with enough muscle to hold her own and demand top billing over such dramatic surroundings. (The anniversary of GWTW has also re-opened the debate over the obvious racism exhibited by Mitchell's novel, some of which is painful to read. Nevertheless, slavery is a dark part of our history that doesn't go away simply by ignoring it existed.)

One of my first mentors was a venerable old attorney who practiced in the low country of South Carolina. Imagine Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, and you've got a very good picture of my friend. He looked like him, he spoke like him, and he had all the noble attributes of Finch himself. He lived in the same antebellum mansion his family had occupied for over 200 years. I would have given just about anything to have spent a weekend exploring the attic. Around the corner from his house stands another antebellum mansion, built in the same era, by a several-times-over-great-uncle, with the initials B.B.S. Before the Civil War, the family acquired an island off the South Carolina coast ( long since made into a golf resort) on which one of their plantations was built. There they grew cotton and indigo and experimented with citrus trees. Today, one can still see the ruins of the "big house," the smoke house built of tabby, a few hints here and there of other out buildings...and the family cemetery - lovingly preserved. Decades ago, my friend took me to the island and pointed out the gravestone of his several-times-over uncle. The ancestor's portrait hangs in the clubhouse dining room, and he took me to see that as well. I looked into the face of one of the handsomest young men I have ever seen, peering down from a gilt frame (my friend later gave me a copy of that portrait) and fell in love - with B.B.S., surely. But I also fell in love with the low country and coastal Georgia. After the Civil War, the island property was lost for failure to pay the taxes - something Scarlett would never have suffered without a fight - since Confederate money wasn't good for much...other than using it to light one's pipe. A few years after it was lost, word came to B.B.S. that the island was on fire and the house was destroyed. "Thank God," he is alleged to have replied. Better it be "gone with the wind" than in the hands of the Yankees. My friend said that according to family legend, the mistress of the plantation had her finest china buried on the property when word arrived that the war had been lost, planning one day to return and retrieve it. If the story is true, it remains buried somewhere along the dirt road that leads to the ruins.

Nothing good can be said of a system that relied upon slavery for its survival. And yet, there is something undeniably romantic about it as well. Margaret Mitchell captured all the romance of the Old South without ever addressing the moral and social disgrace that accompanied it. It was startling to me that the Civil War, just ancient history to those of us raised in the North, was constantly debated and discussed in the South - even to this day - and kept alive with family stories and wounds which are kept open. This reverence isn't very hard to understand when one remembers that most of the fighting and dying happened here, on southern soil, and that brick and mortar and stone reminders still stand as tangible reflections of a lost cause.

I can't remember if, during that winter long ago, I noticed the stark contrast between Scarlett O'Hara and Anna Karenina, a tragic heroine totally devoid of gumption. I can't help but believe that if Scarlett was to stand in front of a moving train, it would be her intention to overthrow the Engineer and commandeer the locomotive - not fall under it in despair. Doubtless, she would have declared Anna silly and mealy-mouthed - but she may also have grabbed her by the shoulders and given her a good shake - demanding she snap out of it...advising Anna that she should wait and think about it tomorrow. There's always hope if you just wait until tomorrow.