Should We Change How We Talk & Write About The Civil War?

Gone with the Wind CoverPublished 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.”

Harris Interactive.

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.

 

24 thoughts on “Should We Change How We Talk & Write About The Civil War?

  1. Pingback: “Lost Cause” Children’s Literature: What Can We Do About It? – The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. Pingback: Mr. AMB on Gone With the Wind (& Looking for the Past in the Future) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. Pingback: How Young is Too Young to Read Gone With The Wind? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  4. I read GWTW as a teenager, when our friend group decided we’d all read it and then watch the movie together. Great characters, and I’m glad I read it because of all the cultural references to it. But when my husband & I realized that our daughters had missed some key cultural works (such as Wizard of Oz, which they found too scary to watch as young children), and should get caught up, we decided they could skip GWTW. They haven’t found any reason to catch up with it yet; they just don’t hear references to it. So perhaps it will fade as antiquated, at some point. (Then again, we’re Yankees.)

  5. I’ve never had an interest in reading Gone with the Wind, but not because of its more controversial issues. I just have no interest in it at all.

    Language is ever evolving, and it seems only natural that words once used or accepted may not be acceptable now. I’m thinking of words like “retarded” and “lunatic” and other similiar words, which once were commonly used but now have such negative connotations. I am not a fan of changing literature though from it’s original (except in translation). I think a piece of history is lost when that happens.

    1. “Language is ever evolving, and it seems only natural that words once used or accepted may not be acceptable now.”

      Exactly! I also agree that Gone with the Wind shouldn’t be revised. It’s not “Little Black Sambo,” a book for children too young to understand the racist themes. It’s for adults who should be able to understand the historical context in which it was written.

  6. Jaclyn

    Excellent post (as usual). I like the idea of replacing “Union” with “United States” in particular.

    I read GWTW many times as a young adult; the first time I read it I was actually a child – nine years old – and I tore through it in a weekend. I loved the book then for the drama and the family saga, and for Melanie Wilkes and her quiet strength. But I haven’t read it in years and I’m afraid to pick it up these days. Now that my understanding of history and my social consciousness is more mature I think I would find it much more disturbing. I’m not sure I will ever read it again. (There’s a good post on this topic on Book Riot, actually.)

    Like you I also wonder how many of the people claiming GWTW is their second favorite book have really read it – as opposed to skimmed, seen the movie (or maybe even outright lied). I’d also suspect that many people haven’t read it in some years. But I’m a bit cynical.

    1. pcadams825@yahoo.com

      Do no apologize for enjoying a book written for entertainment. Consider your self-awareness as growth within yourself. War and History is never a cut and dried scenario even in history books; BWTW is not history.

    2. pcadams825@yahoo.com

      As I have said before, you can’t rewrite history and words used at the time of the occurrence are more appropriate than trying to change them to current day terminology….politically correct has gone way to far, in my opinion. I have experienced most surveys are 50% to 75% lies anyway, from the public and the one trying to prove a point. Actually, why does it matter who did and did not read GWTW? GWTW is Entertainment not a history book. Professor Lands suggesting changing slave-owner to enslaved does not say the same thing. “Slave owner shows, you are not a person who owns your self” whereas enslaved ” does not indicate you are owned by another.” I feel the words fit the ‘crime’ of the time. Don’t rewrite history!

      1. Pcadams, thank you for sharing your perspective. I appreciate this type of discussion. In my opinion, there isn’t anything radical about changing the language we use to describe the Civil War. Our language changes all the time (as others have said in these comments). Gone with the Wind is fiction based on a mythological history of the Old South–one that romanticized a world built on a brutal system of human labor. That said, I enjoyed the book. It deserves its place as a classic, and I would never advocate changing its text or any of Mitchell’s writing.

  7. I’ve read Gone With the Wind several times. I love the characterizations of Scarlet, Melanie, Rhett and Ashley. Scarlet in particular amazes me; the author was expert at making readers see these characters as real people. She wasn’t afraid to make Scarlet selfish and petty and something of a liar. The book is an incredible fictional feat, and I’m pretty sure Southerners of the Old South very much saw themselves as Mitchell painted them. But it is fiction, and I enjoy it on that level.

    But how does anyone choose a favorite book? I find that impossible.

    1. The characters are so compelling. I liked Gone with the Wind much more than I thought I would, though it was hard to look beyond the racist themes and the false history of the South.

  8. I loved it when I read it in my teens, but I also loved Exodus and a number of other “valiant” stories that portrayed one-sided history. That’s really the problem, isn’t it? Some very good books (including Shakespeare’s plays) told the tale from the side of the victor and made them the good guys. It leads to warped history, and warped sensibilities when one is glorifying war over the alternative. The problem with Gone with the Wind is the problem with civil war reenactments that feature the southerners’ cause as on e supporting an economic system. Oh, really? That’s a great euphemism for using slave labor.

    Words matter. The Confederate flag represents the war in which one side fought on the side of justice for all, while the others fought for an economic system built on the backs of human slaves. The fact that the vast majority of those slaves were black is not insignificant. Words and symbols matter.

    1. pcadams825@yahoo.com

      GWTW is a fictional story for entertainment….as well as others you mentioned. I think ‘words from the time period should be left as is. ‘You can’t rewrite history and all it’s good and bad elements.’ T.S. Elliott once praised the Old South as the last bastion of European style, and old world civilization stating, “I’m not saying dismiss slavery’s existence . . . [but still] there is no excuse to dismiss everything else [in the South!”]

    2. History is always dictated by the winner. The word terrorist means a person or group who causes terror in a population. If history comes down on their side, they are “freedom fighters”. It’s just how it goes.

      The color of the slaves don’t matter. The words recommended to be more accurate actually take away from the history of the subject. If you’re a slave-owner, it’s only natural to assume that the other people are enslaved — no reason to change that. and plantation does have some positive feel to it, is it was a place where things were grown, large lumps of land owned by wealthy folks who utilized slavery for production. That’s what a plantation is; changing it to a work-camp does nothing to help history, instead the proposal feels like it’s trying to compare US history to that of Nazi Germany. Work-camps were what was used in the Holocaust; slavery on a plantation is what America used before the Civil War. It’s two different histories, of two different countries, on two different continents. By changing the words, you’re not doing justice to the time/place, you’re just changing it to words that became more popular 10 years after the book was published. It’s a version of censorship. Changing the words to better fit historical victories does not truly change the history, it just changes the words used, omitting the previously accepted terminology and replacing it with harsher terms, therefore censoring the original feel of a story/book.

      Words have meaning, and the words used in the book/movie are the appropriate words for the time and place. It is a book/movie based on the Southerner’s opinions of the war, not the Northern opinions. Changing it, does little to benefit society as a whole, and just mars an otherwise perfect example of American Literature.

      We won. Plantations broke apart. Slaves were freed. History is changed. For the better. The language used back then does not detract from our victory, but rather, best explains what the two sides were fighting for and why. By changing the vocabulary, you’re changing the history.

    3. Yes, words and symbols matter, and it makes sense to change our language to better reflect what really happened in our past.

      I ended up liking Gone with the Wind much more than I thought I would. The characters are so compelling. However, it is hard to look beyond the racist themes and false history of slavery and the Old South.

    1. It’s one of those books that people either love or hate, though I’m not quite sure which camp I’m in. I would say that I “loved” it–much to my surprise–but it is hard to look beyond the racist themes and false history of the South.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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