I watched the GPB special on Margaret Mitchell the other night. It’s the 75th anniversary of publication of Gone with the Wind this year, and I realized that though I have seen the movie an untold number of times and even own a special edition DVD, I never got around to reading the novel itself. So I downloaded a copy on my Kindle.
The Kindle version is based on a 1996 publication, and has a preface by Pat Conroy. I found it odd at first that what he wrote was designated a preface and not a foreword, as prefaces are generally written by the author of a book and forewords by someone else. But as soon as I’d finished Pat’s overlong and self-absorbed Scarlettine essay, I understood why. The wounds persist for both of us. There were many phrases that were almost ghostly in their similarity to things I’ve written as I’ve sought to reconcile the fragments of self with which many Southerners like me are afflicted, and try as he might, Pat hadn’t seemed to have succeeded in exorcising those demons 15 years ago.
You have to be truly Southern to understand. There is no way to adequately describe in words ancestral grief transferred through marrow, impotent rage denied its object and shared by those who were reared in the post-Civil War South. I’ve often wondered if the hawkishness of today’s Southern attitudes, if the eagerness with which we regularly choose war over compromise reflects the mitochondrial DNA of Scarlett O’Hara. At times it reminds me of the knight in Monty Python’s “Holy Grail,” who, though he has been deprived of his arms and legs and blood is spurting from every wound, continues to taunt his slayer. I am a fan of British humor, but I never found that scene particularly funny.
Don’t be mistaken. I speak from the heart of a girl who wanted to be Scarlett, to have a 17-inch-waist and draw men like magnets with grace and charm, but my body never cooperated and I never learned the art. And I speak, too, from the heart of a girl who sometimes despised the ground Scarlett walked upon.
I wish that I could claim total joy in the incredible beauty of the red clay of God’s creation, the culture of uniquely Southern art and music, the politeness of “Yes, M’am and No, Sir,” while simultaneously banishing the equally strong images of backs whipped, of nooses hung, of fire hoses wielded by the hands of those whose blood courses through my veins. I wish that I could think of the former without the other rising up from the depths, that I could save the latter to think about on a tomorrow that never comes.
But I can’t. It is the reason To Kill a Mockingbird, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, is my favorite of Southern books instead of Margaret Mitchell’s tome. Scarlett had the “gift” of denial. Scout, on the other hand, did not.
Therein lies the chasm between my Southern “selves”—a divide that I, like Pat Conroy, haven’t succeeded in bridging. If you’re a Southerner, you must publicly choose to be one or the other but not both—one cannot be Scarlett and Scout, Rhett and Atticus. And yet, in the end, I think we have to be both to be whole.
As an aspiring author, I used to wonder how a meeting between Peggy Mitchell Marsh and Nelle Harper Lee might have gone, what knowing glances and fireworks might have passed between them had they had a chance to stand in the same room—these two Southern women whose literary triumphs would be both their firsts and their lasts. We will never, of course, know the answer because of a speeding taxi on Peachtree Street in 1949. Funny, though. After watching the documentary, I eased up on Margaret Mitchell a bit. You can’t judge a woman if you haven’t even tried walking in her shoes, which is the very point Atticus Finch makes to his young daughter.
When all is said and done, I will always dream of what it must have been like to walk into a room like Scarlett and have every male head turn, but I will always dream, too, of reconciliation. And if I have to choose one…I know what it will be. In the meantime, I’m off to read Gone with the Wind on my Kindle. And with any luck, this time I’ll see between the lines the struggle of two parts of Margaret Mitchell, and, just as I did when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ll know I’m not alone.
So here’s to you, Gone with the Wind. Happy Anniversary!
PS. I wrote a novel, too, about a woman looking back 30 years at the events that would change her life forever. It’s different in that the time she looks back to is now, but you’ll find the details vaguely familiar.
Andrew’s Eyes is available on Kindle, coming soon to Nook.com, and may be ordered in print at www.andrewseyes.com.