"Books of the Times"
New York Times ,
30 June 1936
Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (Macmillan $3) is an outsized novel of Civil War and Reconstruction days in Georgia. It is, in all probability, the biggest book of the year: 1,037 pages. I found it--well, it is best to delay the verdict for a few paragraphs. Only the most unnatural of reviewers, will give away his secret at the outset.
Scarlett O'Hara grows up on the family plantation, a magnificent place. In April, 1861, she and her sisters wear hooped dresses; their scores of Negro slaves are lovable and happy. Yams drip with butter; plates overflow with golden-brown fried chicken. Young men who come to call are furnished with mint-juleps, and bear such given names as Stuart and Brent and Ashley and Boyd. They wear riding boots; their faces are sunburned; their eyes are merry and arrogant. Fine horseflesh they talk of, and the threatening war. "Why, honey, of course there's going to be a war!" cries Stuart; "the Yankees may be scared of us, but after the way General Beauregard shelled them out of Fort Sumter day before yesterday, they'll have to fight or stand branded as cowards before the whole world."
Of course there is a war; Stuart and Brent and Ashley and Boyd rush off, and Scarlett weeps. The years go by, and as the Yankee blockade tightens, life on the O'Hara plantation loses much of its charm. When, toward the end, Sherman sweeps down on Atlanta, it seems as if things could never be any worse. But worse they are, once the war is over. The plantations are ruined, most of them, and the great planting families too. Scarlett must grub around for barely enough to keep her and the remaining O'Haras alive.
Then a fierce resolve comes over her, and while the Scallawags rule Georgia and Negroes sit in the Legislature, she violates all conventions of Southern womanhood. Green-eyed, unscrupulous and cruel, she goes into the lumber business, cheats, fights, drinks, with the Yankee overlords and marries Rhett Butler, a notorious Scalawag rascal. When five or six years have elapsed and we see her for the last time, Scarlett has become what she had resolved so fiercely to be--rich, secure and at the top of the heap. But she has not won happiness.
Gone With the Wind is a historical romance. The happy ante-bellum days an light-opera, in tone, packed with gallant and conventional dialog ("they'll have to fight or stand branded as cowards before the whole world") and conventional characters (darkies hummin', banjos strummin', hard-riding colonels, sallow, Yankee overseers). The years of actual fighting, followed from behind the lines, are more realistically described, and the Reconstruction period is portrayed in terms that seem, at first sight, to be definitely unromantic. But the whole is really not far removed from the moving picture called The Birth of a Nation .
This must be said despite the fact that Miss Mitchell becomes pretty outspoken at times. There is to her story a certain "vigor" and modernity; she allows her characters to vomit, utter oaths and allude to bodily functions. Scarlett, the heroine, is a vixen and a baggage; Rhett, the hero, is alternately a bounder and a gentleman. Such people are not commonly discovered in romantic stories. There in no happy ending, with the lovers, after repeated misunderstandings, reunited for ever and for aye. In certain portions of the dialogue the characters speak like realists; at one point, for instance, with Rhett explaining that outside countries will never help the Confederacy ("England never bets on the underdog . . . And as for France, that weak imitation of Napoleon is far too busy establishing the French in Mexico to be bothered with us") the reader, begins to feel that the author is about to get down to business. But a moment's consideration shows that Rhett was speaking not as a realist but with the benefit of twentieth century hindsight--which is hardly fair.
The historical background in the chief virtue of the book, and it Is the story of the times rather than the unconvincing and somewhat absurd plot that gives Miss Mitchell's work whatever importance may be attached to it. How accurate this history is is for the expert to tell, but no reader can come away without a sense of the tragedy that overcame the planting families in 1865 and without a better understanding of the background of present-day Southern life. True enough, the same understanding can be had from any of a half-dozen works of straight history (Claude Bowers's "The Tragic Era" for example), but that in neither here nor there.
Miss Mitchell writes from no particular point of view, although now and then there glitters a dull rage at the upset that ended much a beautiful civilization and allowed Negroes for a time to "live in leisure while their former masters struggled and starved." (Herself a Georgian, born and raised in Atlanta, Miss Mitchell could hardly react otherwise.) The writing Is always lively, and never distinguished. There are a good many questionable touches to the dialogue--the word "sissy" (implying an effeminate man) is put into the mouths of characters a whole generation too early, and such expressions as "on the make," "like a bat out of hell," "Götterdämmerung," and "survival of the fittest," sound very strange upon the tongues of Civil War Southerners.
But any kind of first novel of over 1,000 pages is an achievement, and for the research that was involved, and for the writing Itself, the author of Gone With the Wind deserves due recognition. I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to, say, 500 pages--but there speaks the harassed daily reviewer an well as the would-be judicious critic. Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject-matter.