Believe it or not, a book written by an author with no previous publishing experience stands as America’s second-favorite book, right behind the Bible, according to a 2014 poll. Even odder, this author was only published once in her lifetime. So what is this literary one-hit wonder that beat out the likes of The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Catcher in the Rye?
None other than Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), a sprawling (1,000+ pages) historical romance that captured the American public’s attention when it hit stands in the middle of the Great Depression and, somehow, still hasn’t let go, despite its racism and disturbing politics.
The popularity of Gone with the Wind doesn’t surprise me, though. For as long as I can remember, my mom would talk about it in reverential tones, and I looked forward to reading the novel as almost a rite of passage to satisfy my curiosity as to what made this not just a great read but, at least in my mom’s view and the view of many others, the greatest read. If, by chance, you haven’t read Mitchell’s lone novel before, or if you read it years back like I did and are reconsidering a re-read to see if you missed anything, then consider this post as a useful preview (with commentary!) before you dive into the vast ocean of, well, words that is Gone with the Wind.
Scarlett O’Hara is a definitive “Southern belle” with a far more complicated and darker persona than what she allows to bubble through to the surface. She’s a spoiled young woman living in a luxurious Georgia plantation, called Tara, just as the U.S. Civil War is about to erupt. Mitchell’s famous opening lines declare that O’Hara “was not beautiful.” Her wit and guile, not to mention her scheming, more than compensate, though. While everyone else around her seems to focus on the impending war with the North, O’Hara has her sights on romance: specifically, with a gentleman named Ashley Wilkes, who is set to marry his cousin Melanie instead. (Yes, you read that right: his cousin.)
It seems like such a simple love triangle that, in a lesser book, would neatly resolve itself. Instead, a roguish and mysterious man named Rhett Butler enters the mix, Ashley refuses to show romantic interest in Scarlett, and Melanie ends up being about the nicest person you will ever come across in literature, harboring no ill-will toward Scarlett despite Scarlett’s obvious designs on Ashley.
All the while, a devastating war rips the nation apart, killing hundreds of thousands of men. The 1864 Battle of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea provide the perfect backdrop for some of the novel’s most memorable scenes, as Scarlett (spoiler alert!) loses both her parents and has to be her family’s breadwinner.
Depending on your attention span and your view of Scarlett, this is probably the point where where you’ll want to keep turning the pages or put the book down–because, remember, you don’t have to finish every book you read.
Mitchell devotes the second half of Gone with the Wind to Scarlett’s and Rhett Butler’s relationship, one of the most complicated and curious to ever grace literature. Scarlett has already gone through two essentially sham marriages before she weds Rhett in what seems like a parade of men she’s trying to substitute for Ashley. By the time she realizes that maybe, just maybe, she’s been wrong about her affections, it’s practically too late, as Rhett walks out on her with the unforgettable line, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”
If anything, Gone with the Wind brings new meaning to “spectacular.” It reminds me of Tolstoy’s work, and I’ve heard it frequently referred to as “the American version of War and Peace.” Rather than feeling exhausted by the time I reached the ending, though, I felt exhilarated. I dare say I even found myself hoping Scarlett would be able to win back Rhett, no matter how frayed their relationship was. Finally, I found myself realizing why my mom and so many others adore this novel as the Great American Novel.
Which isn’t to say that Gone with the Wind is flawless. There are some passages–a description of a slave named Big Sam especially comes to my mind–that are the definition of racist. Mitchell’s version of the Antebellum South–with cheerful slaves happy to toil away for their owners–completely ignores historical fact, and she attempts to present the terrorizing Ku Klux Klan as an almost benign organization. This explains why Gone With the Wind has been controversial for decades–when I read it in 2015, I remember calls to have it (or at least the film version) banned after a white supremacist attacked an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Like America, Gone with the Wind is vast, messy, melodramatic, full of power struggles, and–in the case of Scarlett–always, always, hopeful (“Tomorrow is another day!”). Scarlett is the rare character whom we root for and against at the same time. So despite of its numerous flaws, Gone With the Wind has earned my respect, and I suspect it will endure as an American favorite well into the 21st Century.
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