1936, Gone with the Wind is published June 30. Absalom Absalom is published October 24

Gone with the Wind

by Carolyn Porter

Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner

“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all,” says Shreve McCannon, opening a dialogue with his Harvard roommate, Quentin Compson, that will take up the last half of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! The notable absence of question marks here underscores the way in which these sentences register on the Southerner Quentin as part of a weary refrain he would like to escape but cannot. Shreve, on the other hand—so extreme a Northerner as to be Canadian—enjoys making fun of what Faulkner himself once called “a makebelieve region of swords and magnolias and mockingbirds which perhaps never existed anywhere” at the same time that he is intent upon understanding it, committed to getting at the truth beneath the legend. Between them, the two boys deliver up a radically revisionist version of the South. Yet no matter how passionately Quentin and Shreve demystify the South, the myth refuses to die. In the very process of telling the story of Thomas Sutpen, reshaping it in accord with both newly discovered information and the demands of their young male imaginations, Quentin and Shreve reinvigorate the idea of the South by feeding the apparently fathomless hunger for stories about it. Faulkner thus recognized, and indeed built into the very narrative structure of his novel, what his contemporary Margaret Mitchell had recently demonstrated with the explosive popularity of her novel Gone with the Wind, that Yankees and Southerners alike were readily seducible by an author who could “tell about the South.”

Lacking the millions of readers Mitchell would command, Faulkner simply situated Quentin and Shreve as readers of the Southern past inside the covers of his novel, thereby representing an audience he knew his novel would never have. Yet despite the vast difference in their commercial success (Absalom, Absalom! had a first printing of 6,000 copies, whereas 1,700,000 copies of Gone with the Wind sold within its first year), the two writers had in common a keen skepticism toward the mythical South. Mitchell would later write to a friend,

I have been embarrassed on many occasions by finding myself included among writers who pictured the south as a land of white-columned mansions whose wealthy owners had thousands of slaves and drank thousands of juleps. I have been surprised, too, for North Georgia certainly was no such country—if it ever existed anywhere—and I took great pains to describe North Georgia as it was. But people believe what they like to believe and the mythical Old South has too strong a hold on their imaginations to be altered by the mere reading of a 1,037 page book.

Such a claim may strike us as disingenuous, but there can be little doubt that Mitchell was sincere in her belief that she had written a book more likely to offend white Southern dowagers than Northern liberals. Before the book was officially published, Mitchell expressed concern about the misunderstandings to which the early press announcements “commending me for writing a book that put the South in its true light” were likely to lead: “I can never visit Macon after publication,” she said. Once the novel actually appeared, though, it became clear enough that any disapproval would come not from Southern readers, but from a few literary critics who saw the novel as stylistically simple-minded and substantively no more than another romance of the South.

Faulkner’s view of Gone with the Wind was relatively temperate. He remarked only that “no story takes 1,037 pages to tell.” But he seems to have taken a cue from Mitchell when it came to business matters. Knowing Hollywood as he did, he could not have failed to notice the $50,000 David Selznick paid Mitchell for the movie rights to Gone with the Wind. As Absalom, Absalom! neared publication, Faulkner announced that he wanted to sell its movie rights for $100,000. Within a month he reduced his price by half. Offering the proofs for a fellow screenwriter’s scrutiny, he said, “The price is $50,000. It’s about miscegenation.” Irony has almost conquered hope here, as Faulkner was bound to realize, finally, that his new novel would find little interest from Hollywood, much less bring the same price as Mitchell’s blockbuster.

Given what Hollywood did to and with Mitchell’s novel, Faulkner was probably lucky to find no buyers at any price for his. It remains important to understand, however, that Faulkner would have been glad to sell the novel to the movies; he seems to have cared little that Sanctuary (1931) was made into a perfectly awful film. Mitchell in fact referred to the deformations performed on that novel when she expressed her own worries about what Hollywood would do to Gone with the Wind. Refusing to have anything to do with the movie’s production, she wrote a friend, “I grieve to hear that Tara has columns.”

Mitchell may sound like she is speaking in bad faith, but she is not. The movie that appeared in 1939 heavily tilted the story of Ashley and Melanie, Scarlett and Rhett toward the nostalgic end of the spectrum, largely ignoring the constitutive ambivalence at work in the novel between the traditional legend of Southern ladies and courtiers and the reality of the capitalist entrepreneurial spirit that actually drives Scarlett, and with her the novel’s plot. In the novel, Tara appears without columns, and the Wilkes plantation has no grand double staircase, as in the movie. The grand Wilkes family of the novel is widely understood to be peculiar, exceptional in its habits of marrying cousins to each other, reading foreign books, and listening to classical music. The rest of the county is populated by a variety of nonaristocratic classes, both black and white, among them smaller landowners, yeomen from the hills who show up after the war trying to make a living, and hard-headed country women such as Grandma Coulter, who instructs Scarlett on the will to survive. The social spectrum is Balzacian.

More important, Scarlett’s family is a mere generation away from the scene of immigration: her father, we learn, had to run away from Ireland, having killed a man in the course of that country’s rebellious activities. True, his miraculous marriage to Ellen of Savannah aligns him with the old coastal culture of the genteel class, but his eldest daughter, Scarlett, is aligned with his more rugged and adventurous roots. Venerating her sainted mother, she emulates her boisterous father. In this context it is perhaps “fittin’,” to use Mammy’s favorite word, to observe that the novel’s opening line, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful,” is flatly and fulsomely contradicted by the movie’s opening scene, in which Vivian Leigh “abrupts,” to use a favorite term of Faulkner’s, upon the screen. The entire movie is thrown off course from the novel’s trajectory by the simple fact of Leigh’s stunning beauty.

It has long since become impossible to read the novel without the filter of the movie. Indeed, many of Gone with the Wind’s first readers were preemptively engaged in advising the studio on whom to cast in each role, and many of them read the novel with Clark Gable already playing Rhett Butler in their imaginations. But if one tries honestly to reread Gone with the Wind outside the frame retrospectively imposed on it by the film, one sees that Mitchell’s novel does issue a realistic rejoinder to the mythic South. Scarlett’s career defies the basic assumptions of the Old South; she is “no lady,” as Rhett instantly recognizes, and she has no scruples in her drive to beat the Yankees at their own game. Her attachment to the dream of Ashley Wilkes, the archetypal aristocratic Southerner, is finally exposed as an adolescent delusion, and she then realizes what the reader has known from early on: it has always been Rhett she loves, Rhett the defector from Wilkes’s aristocracy, who has made a fortune in the war and represents the essence of virile capitalist enterprise.

But just at the moment Scarlett sees through to the truth—to what Rhett has always insisted is their common bond, the capacity to see things clearly—Rhett himself defects. He turns into Ashley: longing for “the calm dignity life can have when it’s lived by gentle folks, the genial grace of days that are gone . . . the slow charm,” Rhett departs for Charleston. Unable to dissuade Rhett from leaving her, Scarlett is back where she began, in love with a man she cannot have. And what does she do? She determines to get him again. And how does she plan to accomplish this? By returning to Tara. So the dream is, after all, not dead. Hope resides in the land, the plantation, and of course in “Mammy,” who is out at Tara awaiting Scarlett’s return. The novel sutures over its radical ambivalence about the Old South by sending its heroine on a new quest. Scarlett turns her mind to Tara, hoping that by returning to its sacred soil she will be able to get Rhett back. Like him, she reverts to the past as the sole remaining source for any possible future. It is as if Mitchell had allowed herself to indulge, for hundreds of pages, in exposing the Old South legend as a reactionary and conservative tradition sustained by people who clung to a false sense of class superiority as an excuse for their economic failures, by dimwitted men who enshrined white women as goddesses but failed to realize their possible intelligence, and by ridiculous old women who guarded the gates of respectability with a vengeance matched only by their ignorance of the degree to which that respectability depended on wealth. But then, in the end, she would have us believe that what Scarlett and Rhett have in common is no longer their critical vision but their renewed devotion to the South, reborn in Rhett’s fantasies about Charleston and Scarlett’s fantasies about Tara.

Given the novel’s miraculous power to disrobe and then re-enshrine the South, it is not so surprising that it found millions of applauding readers. The novel enabled its readers to eat their cake and have it too: to see through the sham of the aristocratic legend but to see it miraculously revived at the same time. Thanks to Scarlett, the hypocrisies of the Old South were exposed, as when Scarlett upbraids Ashley for opposing her plan to hire prison labor: “You didn’t seem to have any objection to working slaves,” she tartly remarks. But also thanks to Scarlett, the deep conviction that determination, intelligence, and a heavy dose of savvy would pull the nation out of the Depression was renewed as the true story of the South. The South was, after all, not different from but the very essence of America in its individualistic ambition and determined striving.

A good part of what enabled this smoke-and- mirrors performance was the novel’s utterly faithful rendition of racist stereotypes. White Americans could agree on the beneficent quality of Negroes so long as they were kept under subjection. “You must realize that they are like children and must be guarded from themselves like children,” Scarlett remembers her mother saying. Although the novel’s treatment of race is more complex than the movie’s, incorporating, for example, a second Mammy figure in the person of Dilcey (who is part black and part Indian and therefore noble), it nevertheless adheres to well-seasoned racial clichés of the American imagination. Black critics noted the utter familiarity of such characters and remarked that the civilization called the South was by no means “gone with the wind” but persisted on its racist path.

If it was a shared racism that enabled the nation as a whole to unite around the irresistible story of Scarlett O’Hara, it was that same racism that Faulkner set out to excavate in Absalom, Absalom! While Mitchell enabled America to see itself in a new, revised version of the South That Rose Again, Faulkner revealed America as a united state of denial, secured by its refusal to face the racist oppression crouching at its heart. Absalom, Absalom! tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, a man who came from nowhere, arrived in Mississippi in the mid-1830s, and with no visible means built a plantation that would soon become the largest in sight. Sutpen embodies perhaps the most deeply embedded of all American myths, that of the self-made man. His career in itself gives the lie to the myth of the aristocratic Southern planter, and in gradually but relentlessly unveiling Sutpen’s story, the novel forces Quentin Compson into confronting the South as something other than an infinite historical reiteration of Jefferson’s Monticello. Sutpen, abandoning his Haitian wife and son solely because they are “black,” traveled to Mississippi to start over again. When that “black” son, Charles Bon, shows up twenty-five years later in Jefferson, Mississippi, Sutpen must put him aside once again, this time because he threatens to marry Sutpen’s daughter, Judith. His white son, Henry, serves as his agent in this endeavor, finally murdering his half-brother in order to save his sister from incest and, even worse, miscegenation.

What had not been faced prior to Absalom, Absalom! is the fact that at the source of the American Dream itself lies slavery. As the great historian Edmund Morgan was to demonstrate four decades later in American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), the political and economic freedom of the United States depended directly upon slave labor. But in his novel Faulkner had already addressed the social roots and consequences of this tragic history. In his long midnight conversation with Shreve, Quentin Compson is finally forced to confront the violent denial of humanity at the very source of not merely the South but the nation. Like Mitchell, Faulkner knew the South from the vantage point of the frontier, in his case an even rougher frontier than northern Georgia. But perhaps in part because of its roughness, northern Mississippi foregrounded for Faulkner the fundamental violence and inhumanity of slavery. There, whites had had only twenty-five or so years before the Civil War in which to turn frontier land into plantations, to import and rationalize slave labor. Faulkner himself had had a mammy, and he had fully ingested the whole Southern legend, but he was both chronologically and spiritually closer to the source of the horror than Mitchell. In Absalom, Absalom! he confronted that source head on. Whereas Mitchell’s popularity reflects how she turned her story of the South into an American romance, Faulkner’s novel turned the American success story of Sutpen into a racial tragedy that few foresaw in 1936 as a national dilemma.

Bibliography:

Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography (New York, 1974). William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936; New York, 1990); The Sound and the Fury (1929; New York, 1994). Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (New York, 1936). Darden Asbury Pyron, Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell (New York, 1991).