The re-release of the movie "Gone With the Wind" this summer prompted a new round of criticism of the movie, of the novel it is based on and of its author, Margaret Mitchell. Those criticisms include the sort she most resented when her book was published in 1936. They probably have her spinning in her grave today.
For example, one journalist wrote of "GWTW" last June that it is "Southern myth." And continued, "Historians say fact is the loser." For another example, one of my favorite columnists got off one of his best cracks at her expense: "She probably learned her history by reading the back of an Aunt Jemima pancake box."
But all in all, her research was thorough and professional, and it paid off: According to many of the most prominent historians and writers of historical fiction of the day, she got things just right. Fact was the winner.
What were her research methods and skills? In a densely detailed 1991 biography of Mitchell ("Southern Daughter" by Darden Asbury Pyron), the author, a historian at Florida International University, wrote, "She spent a vast amount of time verifying historical facts. The fear of missing something or getting something wrong drove her to distraction."
That was after the novel was in manuscript form. She wrote a reader in 1937 that she had spent "ten years of reading thousands of books, documents, letters, diaries, old newspapers and interviewing people who had lived through those terrible times" in preparation for writing her first draft.
Many of those interviews were conducted while she was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday magazine, 1922-1926. She was good at reporting. Her editor, Angus Perkerson, is quoted in "Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind Letters," edited by the historian and archivist Richard Harwell, this way: "Even from the first she was one of the best reporters I've seen. She was accurate and she was thorough."
One of her favorite magazine assignments was the so-called Oldest Inhabitants Beat. Mitchell recalled those interviews in a 1936 letter in Harwell's 1976 book: "Most of the things I asked them had nothing to do with the story I wrote [for the magazine]. I was interested in how people felt during the siege of Atlanta, where casualty lists were posted, what they ate during the blockade, did boys kiss girls before they married them, and did nice ladies nurse in hospitals."
In her own view, her research began early in her childhood, when she sat at the knees of grown relatives and their friends as they recalled events that were then only 35 or 40 years past. (More pages of the novel and more frames of the movie are devoted to Reconstruction than to the Civil War years.)
Now, yes, I know that, as another Southern novelist, James Street, once wrote, "history learned at low joints" is not always that reliable. Nor is it comforting or reassuring today to read letters Mitchell wrote in the 1930s quoting "colored elevator operators, garage attendants, etc." approving her depiction of blacks during and after slavery.
Ellen Glasgow, the Virginia novelist, who was a generation older than Mitchell, called "GWTW" when it appeared "a fearless portrayal, romantic yet not sentimental, of a lost tradition and a way of life." Glasgow's fellow Richmonder, newspaper editor Virginius Dabney, complimented Mitchell for the novel's "realism" which he often found lacking in the movie version). Douglas Southall Freeman, the biographer of Robert E. Lee and George Washington, also endorsed her accuracy.
Two sons and a daughter of Old Virginny, of course, but also each a Pulitzer Prize winner, and they were not the only respected writers with good credentials who found her history ,, authentic.
J.D. Adams, the chief book critic of the New York Times, wrote that "GWTW" was "the best Civil War novel that has yet been written. It is an extraordinary blend of romantic and realistic treatment, as any recreation of those years should be." D.L. Mann wrote in the Boston Transcript, in the hub of Northern intellectualism, "In its historical background as well as in its treatment of characters this book is a very noteworthy achievement."
The most important affirmation of Mitchell's view of herself as a faithful chronicler came from Henry Steele Commager, the Columbia and Amherst historian whose many textbooks instructed (and still do) several generations of students and teachers in America's past. He reviewed "GWTW" in the New York Herald Tribune. He said it had "historical accuracy. And the story, told with such sincerity and passion, illuminated by such -- understanding, woven of the stuff of history and of disciplined imagination, is endlessly interesting."
Commager said the novel was "the prose to John Brown's Body," Stephen Vincent Benet's 1928 epic poem about the Civil War. Benet (another Pulitzer winner) reviewed "GWTW" for the Saturday Review of Literature. He said of it, "Miss Mitchell knows her period, her people and the red hill country of North Georgia. She knows the clothes and the codes and the little distinctions that make for authenticity. That was the way it was. Miss Mitchell has written a solidly and vividly interesting story of war and reconstruction, realistic in detail."
All of the above critics liked the novel. Not every reviewer did. For instance, another poet, John Peale Bishop, thought it neither "good nor very sound." Nonetheless he said in his 1936 review in the New Republic that "the historical background is handled well and with an extraordinary sense of detail."
Details, facts, don't always add up to truth, of course. In 1962, Edmund Wilson, in his book about Civil War literature, "Patriotic Gore," said the success of "GWTW" was "a curious counterpart to "'Uncle Tom's Cabin,'" implying it was propaganda. Floyd Watkins, a professor of Southern literature at Emory University, didn't imply that - he said it flatly (in "In Time and Place," a collection of essays on American novels): "When all the good soldiers belong on one side and all the bad soldiers on another, then the novel has become propaganda, particularly when the 100 percent good army is fighting for wrong and the 100 percent bad army is fighting against that wrong."
That Mitchell had a, er, traditional white Southern point of view is beyond dispute. David Donald, the historian, while he was at Hopkins in the 1960s, said in a review of a biography of Mitchell that her descriptions of Reconstruction were "biased."
But to get back to my point, even Watkins, who scoffed at some of the historical facts in "GWTW," conceded that for the most part such errors were "negligible." And even Donald conceded that her treatment of the war years was "fair."
The enduring popularity of "GWTW" is due to its story and its characters, especially Scarlett O'Hara. James Michener, in his introduction to Scribner's 60th anniversary edition of the novel, put her in the company of Becky Sharpe, Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. But, he continued, "The abiding merit of this novel is not that it has given us the portrait of a headstrong young woman, but that it has depicted with remarkable felicity the spiritual history of a region."
A "spiritual history" that was not well-rooted in actual history would not abide for long.
Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorialist who writes often about the South. He is the author of "The Squire of Warm Springs: FDR in Georgia 1924-1945." Paul McCardell of The Sun library assisted in the research for this article.
Pub Date: 8/09/98