Published in 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind remains an American favorite, despite (or perhaps because of) its antiquated and controversial portrayal of the American South on the eve of, during, and after the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937 and became a film in 1939. Polls in 2014 listed the film adaptation as our favorite movie and the novel as our second most popular book (behind the Bible).
However, Gone with the Wind’s popularity differs based on readers’ gender, generation, and whether they identify with those who lost the Civil War 150 years ago:
“Men go to fantasy, with The Lord of the Rings series being their second favorite, while for women it’s all about the Southern charm in Gone with the Wind. There is also a generational difference, with Millennials’ second favorite being the Harry Potter series while for Gen Xers it’s The Lord of the Rings series. Both Baby Boomers’ and Matures’ second favorite is Gone with the Wind.
There is also a race/ethnicity difference. For Whites, Gone with the Wind is their second favorite book while for Blacks it is Moby Dick and for Hispanics The Great Gatsby is their second favorite book. Regionally, Gone with the Wind is both Southerners’ and Midwesterners’ their second favorite book, but there is a battle between wizards on the coasts. In the East, The Lord of the Rings series is the second favorite while in the West it is the Harry Potter series.”
It’s interesting that Gone with the Wind would be such a favorite considering that it’s more than 1,000 pages long. That’s quite a commitment, particularly for the average American reader. In 2013, the “typical” American read only five books, and one in four read none.
Sure, of those Americans who claim it among their favorite books of all time, maybe they only skimmed parts of it or have only seen the movie. However, Gone with the Wind is the type of page-turner that might appeal to someone who usually prefers soap operas to the written word. The novel’s protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, is a beautiful and cunning woman who knows how to please and excite men, a skill she uses to survive the ravages and aftermath of war.
Gone with the Wind is an engrossing historical romance, but it is also a very disturbing fictional take on our history.
Full of racial slurs and stereotypes, the novel perpetuates myths about the South. In Margaret Mitchell’s fictional version of her homeland, the planters were charming aristocrats, the slaves were stupid and submissive laborers, and the ruthless “Yankee invaders” ruined everything:
“It was all over, the bright beautiful dream they had loved and hoped for, the Cause which had taken their friends, lovers, husbands and beggared their families. The Cause they had thought could never fall had fallen forever.” Chapter 29.
Gone with the Wind espouses romantic notions of the Old South that hide the brutal truth about slavery and those who wanted to maintain it.
These myths can also be found in the very words we use to describe this deeply troubling part of our past.
These days, the most common name for the war is “The Civil War.” However, in some places, the war has also been known by names that frame the South’s struggle as an honorable one: “The War for Southern Independence,” “The War of Northern Aggression,” and “The War Between the States.”
My husband, who grew up in Mississippi in the 1980s and 1990s, sometimes heard people say “The War Between the States,” but “Civil War” was the term he heard the most often.
Just as the name for the Civil War has changed, maybe it’s time for other terms associated with that time in our past to change too. That’s exactly what some scholars have proposed.
In an article reprinted in Smithsonian.com, historian Michael Landis recounts arguments that “slave-owners” should be replaced by “enslavers” and “plantation” should be changed to “labor camp.” Using the term “plantation” causes anyone who hears or reads the term to focus on the physical property itself — and to likely picture a charming bucolic scene like Gone With the Wind’s Tara or Twelve Oaks — whereas “labor camp” puts the focus on the odious conduct that occurred there.
Professor Landis further proposes that “Union” should be replaced with “United States,” saying that the “United States never ceased to exist” as it responded to “a massive, murderous rebellion.”
Whatever you may think of this proposal, it serves as a good reminder of the significance of word choice, and how different descriptions convey different judgments. We must be careful to consider what messages we’re implicitly sending when we use certain terms over others.