'In Character' Conversation

Coming to Grips with Scarlett Fever

Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) laces up the stays of Scarlett O'Hara's (Vivien Leigh's) corset

hide captionLabor action: Mammy (Hattie McDaniel, right, with Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara) may be devoted to her "lamb," but other accounts of slave life paint a less cozy picture.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Growing up, there was plenty to read on the shelves in our house. In addition to James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, there were Jane Austen, Truman Capote and Louisa May Alcott — but there was no Gone With The Wind. My mother was raised in segregated Charlotte, N.C., and she had short patience with romantic notions about a Southern glory that had been built on the backs of slave labor. Some of them had been our ancestors.

I stumbled across Scarlett on my own at almost 16 — the same age Scarlett is when the book opens. In the years since, I've encountered several black women who share my fondness for Margaret Mitchell's vain, willful and, let's face it, emotionally clueless heroine. Like me, they think Scarlett Fever is a complicated business.

"I love the little hussy," writer Terry McMillan e-mailed me as she was frantically trying to finish her about-to-be-published novel. "But you know, for u there is a whole lot of mess attached to that girl! Good luck trying to explain it!"

I don't know that anyone could explain it in the approximately 6 minutes I was allowed on-air, but I guess for me, the bottom line is this: GWTW remains an engaging piece of fiction. And fiction is supposed to allow you to see the point of view of The Other.

Margaret Mitchell did a good job describing the life of Southern gentry. But her black people are largely two-dimensional. It was the great Hattie McDaniel, in the movie, who finally brought Mammy to life.

If you're curious about what Prissy, Mammy and Pork really thought about life at Tara, find yourself a copy of Margaret Walker's Jubilee. Written in 1966, almost exactly 100 years after the Civil War ended, it's the story of Walker's great-grandmother Vyry. Jubilee is an unblinking look at plantation life from the point of view of those who did the work, and it's well worth the search.

—Karen Grigsby Bates

Editor's note: Before we told you Karen's essay was in the works, many of you nominated Scarlett as an In Character essential. We posted Sabrina Stevens' essay on the blog earlier, and there's more Scarlett conversation in the comments there.

Comments

 

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It seems you found something in the character that was interesting or worthwhile despite the many other flaws. It made me think of another writer. A slaveowner by the name of Thomas Jefferson who wrote memorable and much recited words for the Declaration of Independence.

I have never read nor seen GWTW, but if there was an aspect of the character that was appealing while recognizing the faults then good for you. Nonetheless I will be more inclined to read your suggested book, Jubilee.

Sent by andy gryska | 8:53 PM | 1-28-2008

Okay, I go way back with Scarlett. My mother, born 1924, decided I was old enough (12 in 1956) to be introduced to GWTW. It was a ritual initiation into adulthood, with a great lunch at a fancy hotel to follow, with creme de menthe sundae for dessert.
Wow. I immediately found the book in the library and graduated to adult books thereafter.

Fast forward, 1984, and I tell my friend Selma that my daughter and I are reading GWTW to each other under kerosene lantern light in our remote cabin in the middle of the Northwest woods.

"That's a racist book," she snaps.

"Of course it is, it's 50 years old," I say.

A long silence follows.

I knew when I was six years old that racism was wrong. It meant that my best friend, Diane G, could not come to my birthday party, and that I could not go to hers. (Diane, where are you now? I thought I saw you on a city bus once.)

I can understand and empathize with women who see Scarlett as the epitome of white racism. But for white girls like me in the 50s, she was about the only role model for independent, self-sufficient womanhood. She was selfish, pampered and misunderstood, just like us. She did terrible things and never thought twice about it.

But she survived. And so did we. Maybe partly because of her.

Sent by Julie McCormick | 8:54 PM | 1-28-2008

The new president of Harvard, an historian by profession, Drew Gilpin Faust, is the author of a book, "Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War." In it she argues that Southern white women traditionally had handed over their social and political independence to Southern white men in return for social position and financial security. During the war years, however, they realized their men no longer protected them in their daily lives, and they found that they were completely unprepared to manage businesses or do heavy household work at home. This brought about a fundamental change in their view of the world. Scarlett reflects some of this in Margaret Mitchell's book. "Mothers of Invention" is a good book, out in paperback. Read it.

Sent by M.M. Jones | 8:20 AM | 1-29-2008

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