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THE CIVIL WAR IN POPULAR FICTION

Gone With the Wind and After


 

 

It is a common critical assumption that once the War Between the States was over, the ideological conflict was carried on in fiction. Even as late as 1962, Richard Harwell pointed out that "a full-scale refighting of the war of 1861-1865 in books" was taking place.(1) Predominant in this verbal battle is of course Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, one of the most extraordinary phenomena of bestseller history. Still unflaggingly popular, especially after Alexandra Ripley's recent (commissioned) continuation of the novel, the impression could easily be created that the glorification of slavery, confederacy and racism are an integral part of the popular Civil War Novel. As I will show, however, despite the continued fame of Mitchell's novel, the South seems to finally be losing the propaganda war as well. Although the image of the antebellum South which dominates the American imagination still stems primarily from the flowing dresses and plantation houses of the movie version of GWTW,(2) the Southern Cause novel has become increasingly rare among those published in the last 35 years -- which also coincides with the growth of the Civil Rights Movement. Admittedly, the large majority of novels written about the Civil War are set in the South, but whether this means the Confederacy has won any battles of myths or ideology is another matter entirely. The pastoral image that the antebellum South occupies in the American imagination is much more suitable to the conventions of popular fiction, particularly romance, than the image of the industrialized North.

In order to examine the portrayal of the Civil War in contemporary fiction, I will be treating popular novels since the late fifties, with particular emphasis on novels written by Southern writers. My definition of popular fiction here is that it is popular -- in other words, that it sells well -- without making any distinction as to quality. Allan Girganus's novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, is recognized as being literary, but it was also on the New York Times bestseller list longer than any of the other novels that will be treated here other than Gone With the Wind itself. Popularity does not necessarily mean trash, and Adorno and Horkheimer are not gods. I'm not going to argue questions of literary merit, but it does appear to me that any work of fiction which is able to create such a lasting fascination as Mitchell's novel deserves a certain amount of serious consideration.

A more common academic attitude towards GWTW and Southern Civil War literature, however, is exemplified by Floyd C. Watkins in his article "Gone With the Wind as Vulgar Literature":

Southern readers--and foolish romantic readers everywhere--dream of an impossible past, expect more of the present than can be realized, ignore an authentic culture while praising a false culture that never existed, foolishly defend themselves against attacks from the North, use false defenses of illogic and rhetoric, become vulnerable to attacks that could be avoided, fall victim to false and pretentious characters in dreamers and political demagogues, ignore and condemn the yeomanry and the peasantry.(3)

Besides being patently ridiculous, this quote makes assumptions about popular Civil War novels that are not born out by the works themselves. In the novels selected, the portrayal of the South and the Civil War varies from superficial to excruciatingly accurate, and none of them glorifies the antebellum South to the extent that GWTW does.

But not even GWTW glorifies plantation society as much as many critics imply. When I reread the novel again this year after over 25 years, I was surprised at the amount of explicit criticism of women's role in Southern society the novel contained.(4) This is usually expressed in connection with Scarlett's rebellion against prescribed roles, but it is also an element in the characterization of Scarlett's mother Ellen, a perfect Southern lady:

Ellen's life was not easy, nor was it happy, but she did not expect life to be easy, and, if it was not happy, that was woman's lot. It was a man's world, and she accepted it as such. The man owned the property, and the woman managed it. The man took the credit for the management, and the woman praised his cleverness. The man roared like a bull when a splinter was in his finger, and the woman muffled the moans of childbirth, lest she disturb him. Men were rough of speech and often drunk. Women ignored the lapses of speech and put the drunkards to bed without bitter words. Men were rude and outspoken; women were always kind, gracious and forgiving.(5)

Nor does Mitchell portray Southern behavior as truly noble and chivalric, although she does imply that it is the best code of honor to be had. But as Leslie Fiedler points out, she undercuts the chivalric formula in several ways.(6) The role models of Southern chivalry are not heroes, they do not win, and they are not supposed to. When their code of honor demands action, it is often for the wrong reasons. Scarlett herself explicitly condemns the "Cause": "The Cause didn't seem sacred to her. The war didn't seem to be a holy affair, but a nuisance that killed men senselessly and cost money and made luxuries hard to get." (170, Ch. 9) While Scarlett's point of view certainly does not reflect that of the author,(7) her stance does indicate that GWTW is less simplistic in this respect than is at times implied.

In a short reassessment of the novel, Jane Tompkins takes exception to the criticism of reviewers such as Malcolm Cowley and Bernard De Voto, pointing out that not only does Gone With the Wind fail to replicate the plantation legend, it is not "sentimental" either:

My contention is that Gone With the Wind is a novel about what people will do in order to survive, and that millions of readers in this country responded to it, not because it was "false to human nature," but because it was true to what so many were thinking and feeling at that time. Scarlett's hunger, her vomiting, her infected toe, her murder of the Yankee soldier, his blood, and Melanie's nakedness are not "prudish" or "sentimental"...(8)

She goes on to blame Gone With the Wind's reception not on its lack of literary quality, but on the female authorship. Tompkins may well have a point that the academic community is incapable of recognizing the qualities of the novel, but despite all the possible misconceptions about it, there is one point of criticism that remains no matter how you look at it: even if this popular classic is perhaps informed by a feminist impulse, even if it is not as apologetic as it is made out to be, it is unremittingly and unforgivably racist. With the exception of Mammy, the personification of the earth mother, and Uncle Peter, the exemplary father figure, "darkies" are almost always children in need of a guiding hand or children gone wrong. Gone With the Wind may not simplistically recreate the moonlight and magnolia myth, but it does argue that Southern society, complete with slavery, would have been a fine institution if uncultured, ignorant Yankees hadn't come along and ruined it all. In no way does Mitchell admit slavery was wrong; instead blacks are portrayed as "creatures of small intelligence," as "monkeys or small children" (638, Ch. 37), and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as thoroughly justified.

This attitude is not reflected in more recent Southern Civil War novels, however. In 1959 in his novel Lorena, Frank G. Slaughter portrayed the South as "fallen" before it fell(9): the typical Southern gentleman is a totally amoral autocrat, violent and selfish: "Brad was the atavism, the destroyer of all he touched. Representing only an infinitesimal part of the South and its culture, he and his kind were the rotten apples that had ruined the barrel."(10) In his later novel, The Stonewall Brigade, first published in 1975 (which incidentally is dedicated to the memory of a grandfather who fought and a great-uncle who died for the confederacy), Slaughter points out among other things that the Confederate government was guilty of censorship and propaganda.(11) The hero David Preston only joins the Confederate army out of loyalty to his native state of Virginia, and the question of slavery is almost completely ignored. As regards battles and troop movements, however, the treatment of historical detail in both of Slaughter's novels is painfully accurate, and this is carried so far in The Stonewall Brigade that for long stretches it reads like a history book with a romance plot tacked on. This "novel" even includes maps of decisive battles.

The way in which the Civil War and the South are portrayed in women's fiction has also changed radically since Gone With The Wind first appeared. The setting of the Civil War has become a standard romance convention,(12) but the myth of Southern chivalry plays a relatively small role in the novels of the last twenty years. Contemporary romance writers do not even consider Gone With the Wind a romance (which Ripley's continuation, Scarlett (1991), in which Scarlett gives up a large portion of her bitchiness and racism and gets her man, presumably is).(13) Although many novels still make the female protagonist a Southern lady, the heroine does not completely approve of the life she grew up with.

One of the most well-known contemporary Civil War romances is Kathleen Woodiwiss's Ashes in the Wind, first published 1979. Despite the resemblance in the title to our prototypical Civil War "romance", Woodiwiss's novel is different in several important ways from GWTW. Kathleen Woodiwiss is credited with having invented the "bodice-ripper" -- the semi-pornographic form of women's fiction that has dominated the romance market since the mid-seventies.(14) In her novel, Woodiwiss, a native of Louisiana now living in Minnesota, creates as her main character a Confederate heroine who discovers that Northerners are not as bad as she originally thought. When the novel opens in 1863, the heroine Alaina has already fled the family plantation in Louisiana in the guise of a boy, and although she hates the Yankees for what they have done to her and her home, she eventually falls in love with a Yankee soldier. Instead of either North or South as the guilty party, the male antagonist is a carpetbagger, and the initial female antagonist, Roberta, is a flirtatious, insincere, dark-haired beauty who distinctly resembles Scarlett O'Hara. The progress of the war itself seems nearly incidental to the plot, disappearing entirely when the hero Cole Latimer is wounded and gives up his commission, leaving New Orleans for his home in the North and taking Alaina with him. The conflict between the states acts primarily as the necessary element keeping the hero and the heroine apart for several hundred pages.(15)

This kind of casual treatment of history, however, is not necessarily a characteristic of romance novels by women. Paula Moore's novel, Hearts Divided, published 1979, more resembles Slaughter's Stonewall Brigade in that the plot seems tacked on to the report of the historical events: the progress of the Civil War in the west and the battle of Shiloh.(16) On the other hand, the characters are plucked straight from the sexually liberated seventies, going to bed with each other at the drop of a hat with no strings attached. In all fairness, none of these novels could truly be deemed "historically accurate" in this respect, since all of them obviously reflect the time in which they were written, including GWTW, although Mitchell's novel does seem to convey the atmosphere of traditional Southern society better than many later novels.

In order to fulfill the requirements of political correctness before there even was such a term, Moore attempts the strange construction of simultaneously making the heroine Liberty Welles an abolitionist and a spy for the Confederacy. The protagonist's explanation of her contradictory attitude says more about the era in which the novel was written than about the divided loyalties of nation torn; a statement gleaned from history books rather than the expression of a character:

The Welles family is one of the oldest families in Mississippi. I feel a deep sense of loyalty to my state, and to the new nation it has joined. But I am very against slavery and always have been. Slavery isn't the central issue of this war, states' right are. Slavery has just been made so by the agitators up north. In fact, after the South has won her independence, we shall move to abolish the peculiar institution of slavery. (61)

The Southern abolitionist heroine of Patricia Potter's Rainbow is a more believable creation than Moore's Liberty Welles.(17) Rainbow is not strictly speaking a Civil War novel, since the action ends before the War Between the States begins, but it does carry on the war of words with its fictional indictment of slavery and the society that depended on it. Meredith Seaton is the daughter of a plantation owner, but at the age of eight her father sells her best friend, who also happens to be her half-sister. As an adult, Meredith becomes a member of the Underground Railroad and a sworn enemy of her own caste. Meredith's neighbor Gil MacIntosh is theoretically opposed to slavery, but with loans taken out on his slaves he can't afford to give them up. He is courting Meredith, and although she is attracted to him, she is determined never to marry a slave owner, no matter what his political leanings. In this novel, antebellum society is an amoral institution which corrupts those who participate. As such, Rainbow owes more ideologically to Uncle Tom's Cabin than to Gone With the Wind.

The Southern romance writer Heather Graham has probably treated the Civil War more extensively than any other contemporary romance writer. In her Civil War trilogy One Wore Blue, One Wore Gray and One Rode West, she examines the fates of three siblings who all have a different stance towards the conflict. In the first novel of the series, the protagonist Jesse Cameron is a Virginian who makes the opposite choice of Slaughter's hero, David Preston, and joins the Union army when conflict breaks out. It is his opposition to slavery which leads him to take this step, despite his love for his neighbor, Kiernan Mackay. Kiernan too has her doubts about slavery, but she is fiercely loyal to her state, and the lovers are inevitably torn apart and brought back together again. Once again, the war is used as a stand-in for internal conflict, keeping the lovers apart. As might be expected from an author who treats the subject repeatedly from different points of view, neither side in the war is portrayed as in the wrong, but neither does the myth of Southern chivalry play an appreciable role. As a child, Kiernan witnesses and is sickened by the punishment of a slave by a neighbor, and her stance as fiery Confederate is less than completely convincing.

Beyond the realms of romance, the Civil War is also being reexamined in other novels, such as Allan Gurganus's bestseller, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Confederate Widow not only takes on historical myth, it thematizes the making of historical myth(18):

History was daily being reshaped, even by the quiet ones. That's one thing about tale-telling and history both: It takes two. Listening is belief.... Seemed every soldier telling in the square believed the war'd been a wide bell -- and he hisself the sounding clapper that'd given it all sound and meaning. Men had long since titled that long squabble "The War for Southern Independence."(19)

If listening truly is believing, then the sales figures of Confederate Widow could be interpreted as just another indication that popular images of the South and the Civil War are slowly shifting. In Girganus's novel, there is little chivalry or glory and much guilt.

The narrator Lucy comes to understand the guilt her society is based on at an early age, when she attempts to write a report for school: the assignment is to interview a local person who lived through the war. She chooses as her witness Lady Marsden, the mother of the man she will later marry, but since Mrs. Marsden has lost her wits with the burning of her home, Lucy must collect her evidence from the ex-slaves:

Black = slave folks' faces and bodies. Plus Black stands for the scorched-earth policy about to happen right here. But blackest of all (I learned from Castalia, Evidence Anne, and other ex-slaves I quizzed), blackest of everything might be the white heart dark enough to try to own lock, stock, and barrel another human. Some nerve. (276)

Girganus portrays Lady Marsden as a "kind" slave owner who looked out for the welfare of her slaves, but this in no way mitigates her guilt as it does that of the slave owners in Gone With the Wind.(20) Instead, the well-treated slaves happily let Lady Marsden's silver burn with the house, and only reluctantly save Lady herself. Girganus's slaves are nearly as far removed from Mitchell's childish devoted darkies as less than fifty years can make them. This is not a distinction applicable exclusively to literary fiction, however; when the slave Lissa in Potter's Rainbow is offered her freedom she literally takes it and runs, despite the fact that she is in love with her master.

Although the plantation legend of the genteel antebellum South still retains a strong hold on the American imagination, it only rarely continues to be recreated full-fledged in fiction, and the Civil War as Southern Cause is practically unpublishable. The imprint of the racist classic Gone With the Wind can be felt in almost all the novels treated here, but several implicitly criticize the ideology of their predecessor, even when the authors are Southerners. The war of the words is not yet over, and the Southern partisan grip on historical myth is loosening.


 

The original version of this paper was given in Würzburg, May 1996, at the annual conference of the German Association of American Studies. An expanded version was published in War and Literature, Vol. II, 1996.

 
NOTES

1. "Gone With Miss Ravenel's Courage: or Bugles Blow So Red; A Note on the Civil War Novel," reprint in Gone With the Wind as Book and Film, Richard Harwell, ed. (New York: Paragon House Pub., 1983): 4.

2. Mitchell herself staunchly believed that this was not the image of the South that she had painted. See Darden Asbury Pyron, "Gone With the Wind and the Southern Cultural Awakening," The Virginia Quarterly Review, 62, 4 (1986): 577.

3. In Gone With the Wind as Book and Film: 205.

4. Dieter Meindl points out for example that Scarlett's conflict with the mores of her time is "the novel's impressively sustained motif": "A Reappraisal of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind," Mississippi Quarterly 34,4 (1981): 419.

5. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936, reprint London and Sydney: Pan, 1974): 59-60 (Ch. 3).

6. Leslie Fiedler, What Was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982): 206-207.

7. Mitchell actually intended Scarlett as a bad example and the insipid Melanie as the true heroine of the novel, but it is obviously a further case of the fictional creation bursting the bounds intended for her, as was the case of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. On Mitchell's intentions, see Marian J. Morton, "'My Dear, I Don't Give a Damn': Scarlett O'Hara and the Great Depression," Frontiers V (1981): 55.

8. "'All Alone, Little Lady?'" The Uses of Adversity: Failure and Accommodation in Reader Response, Ellen Spolsky, ed. (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell U.P., 1990): 195.

9. Of course, William Faulkner had already treated themes of racism and guilt in Absolom, Absolom, which came out in 1936, the same year as GWTW, but I am primarily concerned here with popular consciousness.

10. Frank G. Slaughter, Lorena (1959, reprint New York: Permabooks, 1960): 37.

11. Frank G. Slaughter, The Stonewall Brigade (1975, reprint New York: Pocket Books, 1976): 235.

12. On the other hand, while researching this paper I learned on an online bulletin board of the Romance Writers of America that romances set in the Civil War are nearly unpublishable at the moment. Apparently this is a result of the glut of Civil War romances published in the seventies and eighties, leading up to Ripley's Scarlett.

13. Janice Radway examines in detail what romance readers consider necessary ingredients in a romance, and Gone With the Wind would fail on most counts: see Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Pr., 1984): 64-78.

14. On this form of romance, see Carol Thurston, The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity (Urbana: U. of Illinois Pr., 1987).

15. Woodiwiss later returned to a pre-Civil War Southern setting in her novel Come Love a Stranger (New York: Avon Books, 1984). In this plantation romance the hero Ashton Wingate (note the resemblance to the name "Ashley") is the only planter in the region who has a black overseer, and the "bad girl," Marelda, disapproves (marking her as an antagonist).

16. Paula Moore, Hearts Divided (New York: Dell, 1979).

17. Patricia Potter, Rainbow (New York: Dell, 1991).

18. This, however, does not prevent Girganus from committing the kind of historical inaccuracies that genre writers are regularly blamed for: one of the main characters of the novel, the ex-slave Castalia, is born in Africa and shipped to America as a young child. When the Civil War starts, she is twelve. The import of slaves to the United States was forbidden in 1809.

19. Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (New York: Ballantine, 1984): 50.

20. Thomas Cripps identifies a "halting step toward more liberal racial politics" in Gone With the Wind, but I find this interpretation highly questionable. "Winds of Change: Gone with the Wind and Racism as a National Issue," Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture, Darden Asbury Pyron, ed. (Miami: U. Presses of Florida): 137.
 

 

Other pages of mine:

Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat
in Budapest
| The Aphra Behn Page | ECHO

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Ruth Nestvold, 2001.