Gone With the Wind: Historical Fiction

Gone With the Wind

In a previous post on Gone With the Wind I wrote that I had learned a lot about the American Civil War and Reconstruction, about slavery (very different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and a lot about Georgia and Atlanta. In the comments Jane pointed out, quite correctly, that the book ‘shouldn’t be taken as history, but as reflective of a very strong point-of-view of American history, circa 1930.’

I hadn’t meant that I was taking GWTW as historical fact, but that it had led me to wanting to know more about the period and in that respect it had opened up new areas for me. For example, I’d never heard of ‘Reconstruction’ before in the sense of what happened to the southern states following the Civil War and I knew next to nothing about the causes of the war, other than the fact that the southern states wanted to leave the Union, that they wanted to be an independent nation. I was in no doubt, however, that the book is a novel – historical fiction, not historical fact.

All written history is a selection of facts and involves to a greater or lesser extent an interpretation of those facts. Its accuracy depends on the sources used, and in turn those sources inevitably are subject to perspective and bias. Similarly, historical fiction can throw light on the past; it can flesh out the facts, bringing the past to life – and it can be subject to the bias and opinions of the author.

I was fascinated to read that Margaret Mitchell, who was born in Atlanta in 1900 grew up listening to the war stories of Confederate veterans and yet she didn’t know until she was ten years old that the South had lost the war!

Margaret Mitchell was writing from a Southerner’s perspective, but that does not mean that her book is any the less invalid. She presents the Civil War period and its aftermath as seen through southern eyes and basically it is the story as seen through the women’s eyes. There is little about the actual battles, but this is still a war novel, even though it’s set mostly in the homes of the characters – in Tara, and in Atlanta. It depicts the hardships and suffering of the civilian population as well as the wounded soldiers, their grief and desolation and the devastating effect on the land and townships. You can see Atlanta going up in flames, the devastation of the countryside as the railroads and plantations were destroyed, and feel the hunger as the people starved.

Then there is the question of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, both essential elements in the novel. The depiction of slaves divides them into two categories – house slaves and field hands, raising racial issues and the different attitudes between the North and the South towards the slaves. The plantation owners are portrayed as viewing their slaves, in particular the house slaves, as part of their family, protecting them and caring for them, treating them as children and of lower intelligence, and the slaves responded with loyalty to their owners. Again this is one perspective on the past, one that is at variance that of the northern states – clearly indicated in the novel. There are several references in Gone With the Wind to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Margaret Mitchell contradicts Harriet Beecher Stowe’s scene of bloodhounds chasing runaway slaves. Similarly the view she gives of the Ku Klux Clan is not what I expected. This led me to want to know more about the history of slavery in America and I turned to the one book I own, specifically on American history – Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America by Carl N Degler to find out more.

This is one of the things  I like about reading historical fiction – as well as giving me a glimpse into the past, showing me areas of history I know little or nothing about, bearing in mind that there is always more than one side to a story. And I really need to do more research into these matters.

10 thoughts on “Gone With the Wind: Historical Fiction

  1. What an interesting post. I seem to have read three books this year dealing with experiences of the southern black population this century, citing how slavery might have been abolished but for many decades not much changed. What I haven’t read recently is anything actually about the slavery years. I must do that. I have read Gone With the Wind of course and Uncle Tom’s Cabin but so long ago not much has been retained in my head. I too love the way a work of fiction can lead you to want to know more about a subject. I think it’s a wonderful thing to be honest and am enjoying hearing your thoughts about the book and thoughts too about where to go next with this subject.


  2. Thanks Cath for your comment. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin many years ago and yes, I can’t remember much about it either. I have it on Kindle (I think it was a free copy!) and an old hardback book somewhere in the house. I keep thinking I should read it again.


    • Yes, I’m fairly sure I too put Uncle Tom’s Cabin onto my Kindle for nothing. So I have no excuse not to read it next year. I definitely want to continue learning about this subject. On my tbr pile I have Cane River by Lalita Tademy. I’m not sure where I saw it, most likely Pinterest, but it was an Oprah Book Club book and tells the story of four generations of black women, starting with slavery in Louisiana, going through the civil war and right up to the civil rights movement in the south. I think it might be perfect for what I have in mind and will of course be a book for my Mount TBR challenge.


  3. Margaret – That’s the thing about great historical fiction. It does get one curious and inspires one to learn more. And I agree with you that it’s salient that Mitchell presents one point of view while acknowledging that there are others. That’s not easy to do while still telling a great story.


  4. Excellent post–I love reading historical fiction and then reading up on the history of the time period as well. While I mentioned that GWTW is fiction and not fact, your comments about her perspective do make it valid as a story. I loved GWTW as a teenager and read it several times in the space of a few years. I read a lot about Mitchell and have learned that she actually depicts the progress of the war and conditions in the South extremely accurately.

    When I was in 11th grade U.S. history, I remember getting 105% on a test on the Civil War because the teacher had been mistaken about one of the battles around Atlanta near the end of the war, and I wrote in the correct answer (based on knowledge remembered from GWTW) and he gave me extra credit for correcting him!

    With regards to slavery, regardless of how you portray it–even if MM is right and some owners did treat their slaves as “family members”–it will always be an evil institution. As Mammy says, you can dress up “mules in horse harness” but that won’t make the mules into racehorses.


    • That is priceless, Jane – teachers are not always right! It’s good to know that Mitchell depicted the progress of the war and conditions in the South extremely accurately.

      And I do agree, Jane, nothing can justify slavery!


  5. {Hi Margaret! PS I LOVE YOUR NAME. I see you pretty much say the following in your post above, but I feel like making a speech. This isn’t directed at you specifically. It’s just a few thoughts branching off the topic of “what is history” for whomever it may concern.}

    Commence speech! So, my feeling is that history, as we know it, is a matter of cobbling together the different versions of life people believe & recall, & trying to reach a universal narrative, which we will never fully access because we were never fully there, because different perspectives make different truths. I agree that Mitchell’s novel isn’t history as a whole, but it is a window on history, if that makes sense.

    History is just a story — it is lies and bias and emotion and prejudice and the victor and the defeated and the rationalization that comes of wanting to believe we are more than we are or that what we did was valuable or honorable or RIGHT. We rationalize our past to make it more than it was, or to make it seem better so we can live with it, or so that the deaths in war have more meaning, or so that our family tale is made more meaningful. What we have in history books is someone’s version of what happened after the fact. The version they choose to capture.

    I believe this is something we collectively do, & that what Mitchell offers is sort of a window on THAT truth. As Americans or people familiar with popular American history, we remember what we have chosen to remember, & what people have written and preserved. Was the American Civil War a lot of heroic Northerners in blue flying to the South to abolish slavery? No. It was some of that. It was also people with no particular interest in abolishing slavery wandering off to fight for glory, or cash, or just to kill Southerners. But the North tends to remember it as a collective blue-coated journey to transform America into what it is today. In truth?
    No one back then could have conceived of the America we know today, and A LOT of Northerners were racists. Abolitionists were considered radicals. The average Northerner didn’t like slavery, but wanted to keep their jobs and the status quo, so in concept they wanted slavery to end, but in reality they were pretty apathetic about it. That’s not the tale you hear in the North today. You hear (at the basic level) that the Northerners were the good guys, & the Southerners the bad guys. Which isn’t to say that the Northerners weren’t good guys. I’m sure some were! So were some Southerners. At the larger level, the war was very much about slavery. But at the human level — at the individual level — it was often just about staying alive, protecting one’s home, peer pressure, the idea of honor. Most Southerners didn’t own slaves. Many would have seen to top pier of slave-owning planters as more evil (and closer to home) than Yankee invaders. Which isn’t to say most weren’t racists. I’m thinking they were. So were many Northerners of the time. Reconstruction proves this. (It wasn’t long before the North, who supposedly “freed” the enslaved, put them right back into slavery as sharecroppers.)

    None of this is to defend Mitchell’s version of history. My point is that I don’t think she meant to suggest her version was real. Rather, that her version was real for Southerners. She shows readers how her version was crafted, and interrogates the making of Southern legend through the character of Rhett Butler.

    History is fiction — made up of what people with power have decided to preserve. Mitchell is showing us a window on what the Confederates chose to remember — how they fashioned a sad tale of chivalry & sacrifice to make something heinous into something they were able to believe was honorable. She shows that women like Melanie fashioned this tale: good women who had to process the loss of brothers, sons, fathers, to a war that devoured them and left the stunned women behind. I think Mitchell’s point is that the psychology of that created a white Southern narrative that, right or wrong, is still living today.

    That is history: the mess that we choose to remember. So if you look at history that way, Gone with the Wind is truth. Not truth as it happened, perhaps, but one fraction of truth as it was remembered, by a great many people who were drawn back into America after the war, and integrated, with all their warped history, into the America we know today. That is history. That is what was born out of the war. And what you get in Gone with the Wind is a narrative of how history is crafted. She dramatize the psychology of the war which gave birth to the idea that enslaved people didn’t mind being enslaved, & the intrusion by Northerners was all very unfair and even world shattering.

    BUT — she also dramatizes, through Scarlett, the way war punched a giant whole in the myth Southern men had created about Southern women — that they are helpless, silly, foolish creatures who cannot survive without men, & proves that the Southern world of the nineteenth century SERIOUSLY crippled female agency, & that once freed from it, gave birth to the startling awareness among women that it was possible to live in the world without men. As in, possibly romance and helplessness weren’t all there was for women. So Mitchell is basically showing readers the fiction the South created, & interrogating it not only through Rhett, but through Scarlett’s own dawning awareness that she has been blind all along. She never saw Melanie, and in the closing pages of the novel, appears to begin to realize she never even saw Mammy.

    HISTORY. She’s cracking a big giant whole in it & calling Southern men’s bluffs. And women’s too! She’s basically saying — my goodness, you people have fashioned quite a story, & look how it has crippled Scarlett. Though she never comes out & argues against slavery, the implication is that that, too, was a ridiculous, terrible myth. The Southern system suffocated Scarlett, who in the early pages of the novel is laid directly alongside Prissy as if they are twins. I don’t think, in the Jim Crow South, she could come out and directly criticize Southern history, but she dramatizes a critique of it extremely well, basically calling the Southerner’s a lot of romantic fools who destroyed generations of people, while simultaneously acknowledging the humanity of her Southern comrades. Piping good history, I say.

    (Sorry to go on so long! I find the words fly of their own accord when I talk about Gone with the Wind) 🙂

    Also, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is on my new club list. 🙂


  6. Pingback: My current remarks on the esteemed novel Gone with the Wind. – In Her Books

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