Culture  /  Media Criticism

Yes, Gone With the Wind Is Another Neo-Confederate Monument

How the classic film helped promote a Reconstruction myth that was central to the maintenance of Jim Crow.

Yes, the author of Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, romanticized slavery and painted an indelible picture of the antebellum South as a sort of lost paradise for the white planter class to which most of the main white characters belonged. But the rather hard-to-miss point of the beloved book (as recently as 2014, the second-favorite book of Americans, trailing only the Bible) and of the massively successful movie (it won ten Oscars in 1940) was that the antebellum South and the society the Confederacy failed to preserve is gone with the wind. Indeed, it’s made reasonably clear by the sardonic prewar remarks of Rhett Butler that Mitchell thought secession was an act of folly. What GWTW really celebrates is the new society of white survivors — exemplified by Scarlett O’Hara — who not only had to dig themselves out of the destruction and poverty wrought by the Civil War itself, but had to overcome the Reconstruction that came in its wake.

Atlanta native Mitchell was certainly aware that her city’s symbol was the phoenix rising from the ashes (so designated in 1888, when Reconstruction had been finally vanquished and Jim Crow was being fully instituted). The end of the novel roughly coincides with the waning years of Reconstruction, and its final words from Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day,” is a faithful representation of white southern longing for redemption. Mitchell herself in a 1936 interview described O’Hara’s postwar life as encompassing “the terrible days of Reconstruction and the story carries her, and Atlanta, up to the time when the Carpetbaggers had been run out of Georgia and people could begin living their normal lives again.”

When Mitchell wrote the novel (an instant sensation that was snapped up quickly by Hollywood for a much-anticipated movie) in the 1930s, Jim Crow was firmly established, as was Atlanta’s self-promotion as the center of a “New South” that preserved the best of the past (e.g., white supremacy) while looking ever forward.