Gone With The Wind
By Margaret Mitchel
Paperback, 960 pages
List Price: $18
I owe a personal debt to this novel that I find almost beyond reckoning. I became a novelist because of Gone With the Wind, or more precisely, my mother raised me up to be a "Southern" novelist, with a strong emphasis on the word "Southern," because Gone With the Wind set my mother's imagination ablaze when she was a young girl growing up in Atlanta, and it was the one fire of her bruised, fragmented youth that never went out. I still wonder how my relationship with the language might be different had she spoon-fed me Faulkner or Proust or Joyce, but my mother was a country girl new to the city, one generation removed from the harsh reality of subsistence farming, and her passion for reading received its shaping thrust when Gone With the Wind moved its heavy artillery into Atlanta to fight its rearguard action against the judgment of history itself.
When my mother described the reaction of the city to the publication of this book, it was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world. It certainly changed my mother and the life she was meant to lead forever. She read the novel aloud to me when I was five years old, and it is from this introductory reading that I absorbed my first lessons in the authority of fiction. There is not a sentence in this book unfamiliar to me since my mother made a fetish of rereading it each year, and the lines of Gone With the Wind remain illustrated in gold leaf in whatever disfigured Book of Kells I carry around with me from my childhood. I can close my eyes today and still hear my mother's recitation of it in the same reverential voice she used when she read to me from the Story of Genesis. When she drove me to Sacred Heart School, she could point out areas where the two armies of the Americas clashed as we moved South along Peachtree Street. She would take me to the spot outside the Loew's Grand theater and show me where she was standing in the crowd on the night that the movie premiered in Atlanta and she saw Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh and Margaret Mitchell enter the theater to great applause. Though she could not afford a ticket, she thought she owed the book the courtesy of standing among the crowd that night. Together, we visited the grave of Margaret Mitchell at Oakland Cemetery and my mother would say a decade of the rosary over her tombstone, then remark proudly that the novelist had been a Roman Catholic of Irish descent. On weekends, she would drive me to Stone Mountain to view the half-finished effigies of Southern Generals on horseback carved into the center of that massive granite outcropping, then off to Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek where she taught me the battle of Atlanta according to the gospel of Margaret Mitchell. My mother, during these visitations, taught me to hate William Tecumseh Sherman with my whole body and soul, and I did so with all the strength I could bring to the task of malice. He was the Northern General, presented as the embodiment of evil, who had burned the pretty city where I was born. My mother would drive me near the spot where Margaret Mitchell was struck down by a taxicab in 1949 and look toward the skyline at Five Points saying, "Could you imagine how beautiful Atlanta would be if Sherman had never been born?"
But the story of this novel and my mother goes deeper than mere literary rapport. I think that my mother, Frances Dorothy Peck, modeled her whole life on that of Scarlett O'Hara. I think that fiction itself became such a comfortable country for me because my mother treated the book as though it were a manual of etiquette whose dramatis personae she presented as blood relations and kissing cousins rather than as creations of one artist's imagination. She could set our whole world against this fictional backdrop with alarming ease. My mother, the willful, emotional beauty with just the right touch of treachery and flirtation, was Miss Scarlett herself. My father, the Marine Corps fighter pilot, flying off the deck of his aircraft carrier, dropping napalm on the enemy North Koreans an entire world away, played the role of the flashy, contemptuous Rhett Butler. My Aunt Helen was the spitting image of Melanie Wilkes, my mother would inform me as she prepared our evening meal, and my Aunt Evelyn acted just like Sue Ellen. My Uncle James could play the walk-in part for Charles Hamilton, and my Uncle Russ could be the stand-in for Frank Kennedy. My mother could align our small universe precisely with that of Gone With the Wind and she could do it effortlessly while stirring the creamed corn. Once she had read the novel, it lived inside her the rest of her life, like a bright lamp she could always trust in the darkness.
Even my young and tenuous manhood was informed by lessons of instruction from her interpretation of the novel and she would fight about it with my father. "No matter what girls say," my mother would tell me, and this was a recurrent theme broached upon often, "they'd much rather marry a man like Ashley Wilkes than Rhett Butler."
"I hate Ashley Wilkes," my father would say. Literary criticism was not an art form conducted at a high level in my family, and I still do not believe my father ever read my mother's sacred text. "That guy's a pansy if I've ever seen one. Of course, Rhett Butler's a pansy compared to me."
My mother would sniff and say, "Your father's from Chicago. He doesn't even know what we're talking about."
Excerpted from Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, preface by Pat Conroy, with permission from Scribner.