MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Now, we're going to spend a moment talking "Gone With The Wind." From the first moment that you meet Scarlett O'Hara, the pretty, privileged and self-centered heroine of the book, she's impossible to forget. She's the Southern belle we love and love to hate.
(Soundbite of movie, "Gone With The Wind")
Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH (Actress): (as Scarlett O'Hara) You do waltz divinely, Captain Butler.
Mr. CLARK GABLE (Actor): (as Rhett Butler) Don't start flirting with me. I'm not one of your plantation beaux. I want more than flirting from you.
Ms. LEIGH: (as Scarlett O'Hara) What do you want?
Mr. GABLE: (as Rhett Butler) I'll tell you, Scarlett O'Hara, if you'll take that Southern belle simper off your face. Some day, I want you to say to me the words I heard you say to Ashley Wilkes: I love you.
Ms. LEIGH: (as Scarlett O'Hara) That's something you'll never hear from me, Captain Butler, as long as you live.
KELLY: Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable playing two of the most famous lovers in cinema history, but it was the writer Margaret Mitchell who first breathed the life into those characters.
"Gone With The Wind" won the Pulitzer Prize. It remains one of the most commercially successful novels ever published. Over the last 75 years, it has captured the hearts of millions of readers, especially those who grew up in the South, and as writer Pat Conroy points out in his preface to the 75th commemorative publishing of the book, "Gone With The Wind" has also been as controversial as it has been widely read.
Pat Conroy, of course, a best-selling novelist in his own right, points out that Margaret Mitchell wrote about the Confederacy as a kind of paradise. As he puts it, a ruined garden, looked back upon by a stricken and exiled Eve.
Conroy also says that more than any other book, "Gone With The Wind" shaped him as a writer and as a Southerner.
Well, if you read "Gone With The Wind," what did the novel teach you about the South? 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now from his home in Fripp Island, South Carolina, is Pat Conroy. He's author of the new book "My Reading Life," which is part memoir, part booking list, and in honor of the 75th anniversary of "Gone With The Wind," Pat Conroy wrote the introduction to the new paperback.
Welcome to the program.
Hello, Pat Conroy. Are you with us?
Mr. PAT CONROY (Author, "My Reading Life"): Hello.
KELLY: Hi. How are you?
Mr. CONROY: How are you doing?
KELLY: I'm great. Thank you. And I really enjoyed reading this preface. I want to hear from you. Talk to us a little bit about when you first read "Gone With The Wind," or in your case, I guess, had it read to you.
Mr. CONROY: When I was 5 years old, my mother read me "Gone With The Wind" at night before I went to bed, and I remember her reading almost all year that night. And what my mother did is she read the book, she associated it with characters in our own lives, and she would say, now son, when you hear about Ms. Scarlett when she takes the stage, you think of your own mama. And that Scarlett is a sassy, pretty girl like your mama.
And your fighter pilot father, Don Conroy, who's flying against the nation's enemy overseas, he'll remind of you of Rhett Butler.
And she then will go on and say Aunt Helen is - and she would -everybody in my family, my mother put in that book, and it was the first time I ever realized that there was a relationship - and I didn't realize it then certainly - but it put the seed in that there's a relationship between art and life. And that book - because it was my mother's favorite book - it was my mother's - it was almost a Biblical text to my mother.
KELLY: You write in fact that in your house on the coffee table, there were two books, "Gone With The Wind" and the Bible. It sounds like they were both taking...
Mr. CONROY: "Gone With The Wind," I don't know which one she considered more important.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CONROY: But in her life, she was born a poor Southern girl, up in the mountains, and certainly, Scarlett O'Hara gave my mother an example of somebody who could be starving at one part of the book and then somebody who could excite the whole world if, you know, things went right, and you were cunning enough, if you were clever enough, if you were woody enough, and if you were pretty enough. And my mother was so affected by this, she changed her middle name to Margaret.
KELLY: Is that right?
Mr. CONROY: Peggy Mitchell changed my mother's name and mom's is Peggy Conroy her entire life.
KELLY: And it sounds like she, obviously, identified very closely with the characters. It sounds also that, as with many Southerners of her generation, this book really captured a moment. You write, in the preface to this new edition of the book, to Southerners like my mother, "Gone with the Wind" was not just a book. It was answer, a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance.
Mr. CONROY: And those girls, after the Civil War, were absolutely humiliated and (unintelligible).
KELLY: The women who were left behind? Mm-hmm.
Mr. CONROY: (Unintelligible) is only part of our country that has ever been a defeated country and an occupied country. And I think the whole South was formed and framed by that particular fact. And "Gone with the Wind" was one of the girls growing up to write about the stories they all heard when they were kids. And, of course, it became romanticized. It became what the South wanted it to be. And it certainly did not reflect - I mean, I've never met a black person who likes this book in my life.
KELLY: Well, I was going to ask you. You're obviously approaching this from the point of view of a white male.
Mr. CONROY: Yes, that's exactly right.
KELLY: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. CONROY: The most horrible to be in America today, a white male, it certainly is true. And, you know, that is a hard thing to - but when I read the book again when I was 50 years old, I found it brilliant. I found it magnificent. And until, you know - and it was my love of reading, that was charged up and fired it up.
KELLY: It sounds like...
Mr. CONROY: I'm passionate about - it's such a well-written novel.
KELLY: You write about how your mom read it to you, not only that time when you were five years old, but every year since. This is a book whose sentences must be really ingrained on your brain as a writer.
Mr. CONROY: Yes. She read the book every year. She saw - every time the film was released, and I used to sit watch my mother in the theater. And, you know, my mother knew every line of every character in that movie. And she - as the movie was playing, I'd see my mother's lips move as she said the words along with the characters. And, you know, it's a -and it represented the power of art to me.
KELLY: Let me a draw a caller in to the conversation that we're having here with writer, Pat Conroy. This is Cathy(ph) on the line from Strasburg, Virginia. Hi, Cathy.
CATHY (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?
KELLY: Fine. Thanks.
CATHY: This is exciting. This is like, you know, "Gone with the Wind." I have a shrine built to "Gone with the Wind."
KELLY: Oh. What's it look like?
CATHY: I first read the story when - between junior high school and high school. I was like 14. And, of course, romanticized it and everything. And it taught me how to be a lady.
KELLY: How to be a lady. And was it Scarlett...
KELLY: ...or Melanie who was your icon?
KELLY: I'm curious.
CATHY: It was Scarlett's mother...
CATHY: ...you know, because she was - so Scarlett would say, oh, my mother would die if she knew I was doing this or, you know, my mother wouldn't approve of that or my mother wouldn't - you know, so it's the things that her - that she said about her mother, whether or not she'd approving or not. Then, of course, as I grew older, the next time I read it, I read about, you know, what was going on in the battles and stuff and went to Atlanta. So as I was in Atlanta, I was like, oh, Scarlett was doing this at this place. It's got, you know - so it's like, all the time I was in Atlanta, it was like "Gone with the Wind." And then, finally my final time - and, of course, I've been a Democrat ever since I read "Gone with the Wind."
KELLY: A Democrat.
CATHY: A Democrat, you know, and because, you know, Melanie had fits when Scarlett would let Republicans into her house. But luckily for me, the Democrats have rode(ph) into my beliefs.
KELLY: Pat Conroy, let me let you respond to the Cathy. This is a woman who has a shrine of Scarlett O'Hara, who has - it sounds like, you know, a little bit like your mother, taken similar tips on what it means to be a lady, what it means in American politics today from this book that is now 75 years old. Pat Conroy?
Mr. CONROY: Ok. You know, I did not hear that.
KELLY: Let me make sure that you can hear our caller. This is Cathy, who's speaking to us from Strasburg, Virginia, talking - making several points. Among them, that when she first read the book as a teenager, what she took away from it was what it means to be a lady.
Mr. CONROY: Is what it means to be - pardon me?
Mr. CONROY: To be a lady.
Mr. CONROY: A lady.
Mr. CONROY: You know, that's - my mother took that same - exact same thing away from the book. My mother loved that Margaret Mitchell was a Roman Catholic. She loved that I was baptized at the same baptismal font that Margaret Mitchell was. She took me to Margaret Mitchell's grave in Oakland Cemetery and we said the rosary there. And it was simply part of my mother's identity after she read that book. And the sheer power of storytelling, the power of art, was something my mother got across to me with that book.
KELLY: I wonder, Pat Conroy, whether - this may be hard to put your finger on - but whether "Gone with the Wind," do you think, will have staying power, whether, you know, another generation away from now we'll still be talking about it, whether - or it'll touch people in the same way as we move another generation, decades and decades farther away from the Civil War.
Mr. CONROY: You know, I don't think the sequels, you know - you know, first of all, I think they were a bad idea, and it puts too much pressure on his writers. And, you know, when they asked me to do the sequel, I was excited, because I wanted to make it a work of art. I wanted to make it a work of equal power - if I could - and my talent may have failed me. But that was my intent. But I don't think the sequels are going to be - I do think "Gone with the Wind" itself is one of the lasting pillars of American literature.
KELLY: We've got lots of emails coming in. Let me read these, and we'll keep talking here. We're speaking with writer Pat Conroy. And let me read a couple of these emails.
This is from Deborah in Minnesota. She writes: The first time I read this book I was 25 and was overwhelmed by how engrossed I became. It took every spare moment I had for three weeks. Just a fantastic read, and taught me that my Southern cousin was a clone of Scarlett, and I appreciated her a little bit more.
One more email. This is from Jeff in East Lansing, Michigan. He writes: I read "Gone with the Wind" and teach the film as part of black cinema classes. I'm one generation removed from the South and African-American. "Gone with the Wind" is an important book, but it is a fantasy for the white South. Remember, Southerners also come in black.
And we're here talking with Pat Conroy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Pat Conroy, let me let you respond to that last email, from Jeff in East Lansing, Michigan, writing about the experience of reading "Gone with the Wind" as an African-American. And he ended, remember, Southerners also come in black. Very different perception, depending, as with any book, on what you bring to it.
Mr. CONROY: You know, it's - as I said, I've never met a black person who read that book that likes it at all. Although I heard a black writer named Pearl Cleage in Atlanta, read the book when she was a girl. And it surprised me to hear she loved it.
And when the interviewer asked her who did she love in the book, she said - who did she identify with in the book, she said, oh, I identify with Scarlet. And, you know, this - and I think, you know, there's a reason for this. When you're a young girl, you're reading - you identify with a pretty young girl.
And - but the whole shadow of slavery, which over is all through that book - it runs through that book, I don't think it'll be read by many black people on Earth again. I don't many who have read it. But I think they would find the book has immense power, even though they disagree with the romanticized version of slavery that Margaret Mitchell probably believed in.
KELLY: Let me bring another caller into our conversation. This is Beau, calling from the hearth of Margaret Mitchell land, Atlanta, Georgia. Hi, Beau, you're on the air.
BEAU (Caller): Hi. I'm actually - I was born and raised in Jonesboro, Georgia, Tara itself. And I am from a family of 10 who have all been named from characters from Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind."
KELLY: Really? You got to tick this off for us. What are the 10?
BEAU: Rhett, Ashley, Brent, Stuart Hamilton, Rene Alex Charlton, Jake, Scarlett, Beau and Careen(ph).
BEAU: Yes. But it was interesting, I'm 26 years old. I've got siblings much older than I am. But when I first read "Gone with the Wind," it was interesting because it felt like a very antiquated representation of the place that I had been born and raised, and the things I saw going on around me in the South, especially with Scarlett, you know? She embodied these ideas of a strong Southern woman, but also as an almost kind of shrewish tease that turn people away from her.
And as far as the men go, Ashley wrote from the book read in a way that didn't embody any of those kind of austere Southern qualities. He was kind of a coward, and a dope. And it was one of the things where my father would say, you'll never turn out to be an Ashley Wilkes. I don't like that Rhett Butler, but I'd like for you to have a few more of his qualities.
KELLY: Pat Conroy, it sounds like your dad had a similar reaction to Beau's daddy. You write that he always thought Ashley Wilkes was a pansy, was that his word?
Mr. CONROY: I can't hear you. Again.
KELLY: Let me repeat. We have Beau, a caller, on the line from Atlanta, talking about the reaction, in his family, to some of the characters. And specifically, we were - I just was asking about Ashley Wilkes, who his dad always felt was a bit of a coward and a wimp. It sounds like your dad felt the same thing. Can you hear me?
Mr. CONROY: I still can't, I'm sorry.
KELLY: Still can't. Let me see if we can get one more caller on the air, make sure you can hear that one and we'll keep going. We're going to go Sue Ellen(ph), Sue Ellen is calling in from Norman, Oklahoma.
SUE ELLEN (Caller): Hello.
SUE ELLEN: And thank you for taking my call.
KELLY: Hi. What's your question?
SUE ELLEN: Well, I just had an observation. I come from very formal Yankee upbringing, but I was an avid fan of Margaret Mitchell, and named for Scarlett's sister Sue Ellen. And part of that is that we are Irish, and we - and Sue Ellen and Scarlett are Irish names.
KELLY: Pat Conroy, it sounds like a - this is more common than I realized, being named for a character in "Gone with the Wind."
SUE ELLEN: Yes. And as an adult, one the things that when I re-read the book and saw the movie was to see that there weren't many more similarities in our upbringing than there were differences.
KELLY: There you go. Pat Conroy, I want to - thank you so much for that call, Sue Ellen. We appreciate it.
SUE ELLEN: Thank you.
KELLY: Pat Conroy, parting thoughts. Are you going to read "Gone with the Wind" one more time?
Mr. CONROY: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear that either. I'm sorry.
KELLY: That's all right. I just - we've just got a moment, but I wanted to ask, it sounds like you've got maybe a dozen readings under your belt. Are you going to give "Gone with the Wind" one more read?
And we're having trouble with our phone line here, so we're going to have to say good-bye. Thank you so much, Pat Conroy for being with us. That is Pat Conroy, joining us from his home in Flip Island, South Carolina. His new book, his latest, is called "My Reading Life." Coming up, this will be - coming up tomorrow, Neal Conan will be back. Right now, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Washington.
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