I only read six books the entire month of July. The reason is that Gone With The Wind consumed half the month. This is one big ass book. My paperback copy runs to 1,448 pages.
It's not difficult to read. Mitchell has a comfortable style that invites the reader in, but there's just so much ground to cover. The novel ranges from the halcyon days prior to the war, to the war (still known in these parts as the War of Northern Aggression) and finally to the post-war Reconstruction.
It is not THE great American novel, but it is a great American novel that warrants a place alongside such classics as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. Interesting, isn't it, how many of the books we view as American classics are about race and class.
Gone With The Wind is a flawed book. (I'm not certain there are any books I'd consider flawless.) I'll tackle Mitchell's missteps first.
The book is wildly overwritten. Mitchell would have benefited from an editor who would have trimmed this book by several hundred pages. Another alternative would have been to split it into three books. It's structure lends itself easily to a trilogy.
A better editor could have trimmed the purple prose, too. Mitchell's prose style can be too ornate, too flowery, too to much. Many of the love scenes, whether it's Scarlett and Rhett or Scarlett and Ashley are far too over-heated to be effective.
And, yes, the novel is racist. But I wouldn't change that. I think to eliminate the backward racial attitudes of the Southern planters would be to excise the heart of this novel. How else would we understand how demeaning racism is -- for the racist and the subject of his contempt -- if these passages were not left to stand.
I understand that it is offensive and hurtful, but seems an accurate portrayal of the way of thinking once widely prevalent throughout the South. Scarlet and her peers think nothing of the stereotypes that they impose on blacks -- who are perceived as lazy, as children, as witless apes, as nothing more than an accumulation of base desires. Yet they have an affection for the blacks who live among them; affection expressed, unfortunately, through paternalism and condescension.
Gone With The Wind, published in 1936, was only a generation or two removed from the Civil War. The attitudes and beliefs that fostered the outbreak of war had not vanished by the time of the book's publication -- sadly, many of those attitudes and beliefs still exist today.
It shocking to find the Ku Klux Klan -- an evil blight on our country's history -- portrayed as a noble band of husbands merely seeking to protect the honor of Southern (white) women. We know them today as a bunch of violent, cruel men, threatened by the cultural upheavals brought about by the end of slavery, who calmed their fears by wreaking vengeance on the most vulnerable segment of Southern society -- the free black.
Yet, set against Mitchell's defense of the Klan is her all too accurate indictment of Reconstruction. One can't help but wonder how difference the post-war South might have been had Lincoln lived. He was not their worst enemy, but their best friend. Under Lincoln's leadership the South would have been invited to return to the Union with leniency and forbearance.
The most brilliant aspect of Gone With The Wind is how Mitchell uses Scarlett and Melanie to embody the South's two difference responses to Reconstruction. For Mitchell, Melanie represented the old South -- proud, noble and sacrificial. Scarlett is the new South. Driven by fears she does not understand, Scarlett will lie and cheat and willingly make unwise alliances. She may hate Northerners of every stripe, despise Carpetbaggers and Scallywags, but she never hesitates to do business with them.
It is the relationship between Scarlett and Melanie -- not between Scarlett and Rhett or Scarlett and Ashley -- that is at the heart of Mitchell's novel. It is the love between these two women -- a love Scarlett never truly recognizes until its lost -- that establishes Gone With The Wind as a great American novel.
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A quick update on one of my 2011 reading challenges: With the completion of Gone With The Wind I have only five of 12 books remaining in the challenge issued by The Roof Beam Reader.
The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. The challenge began in February, so I am in good position with several months remaining.
This is where I stand:
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson
Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich