Well, I’m back sooner than I thought. I just finished reading the book Gone With The Wind last night, a book I hadn’t read in probably 60 years.
Obviously, like everyone else of my generation, I have seen the movie at least once a year ever since I first knew enough to know to watch it. It is a good movie, of course, but I had a slight memory of Scarlett having other children than just Bonnie Blue Butler. So I got the library to reserve a copy for me to read. I got it a little over a week ago, and got so engrossed in it that I managed to read all 959 pages of it in five days and nights (not steadily, but in bits and pieces of time).
It is a magnificent book, but I had no memory of all the politics in it. I knew there were a lot of people in the South who never got over losing the Civil War, but I did not realize how very much it had been passed down through the years. Margaret Mitchell wrote the book in 1936, it was copyrighted in 1938, and the movie came out in 1939. But I am totally shocked at how true the story is today, down in the Deep South, among those Conservatives. I understand a little more why they act the way they do today. They still don’t seem to have gotten over losing the Civil War.
This book is, of course, about the Georgians. The young men of that time were so gung-ho about going to war with the Union, and they were all about States’ Rights, and seceding from the Union. The war was about the land, and about slavery. While I hear often from people who have never really studied that period of time in US history that it was about economics, I think Margaret Mitchell got it right. It really was about the way of life of the plantations, and slavery. The Northern states had their own Negro populations, but they were free blacks, no slavery. One learns a great deal about that simply by watching the movie Glory, or reading any of the many books written about that event – Lay This Laurel is one of the best. As well, the underground railroad that existed at the time to save runaway slaves lay out the stories told by the Negroes who ran away from evil slave owners – those that did not treat their slaves well, or who sold individuals away from their own families. They were treated like animals, with no feelings. The Northerners did not believe life in the South was any other way.
Mitchell’s fictional families, like the O’Haras and the Wilkes’s and the families in Atlanta we meet after the war starts, were good to their slaves, and therefore, were more sympathetic to the readers. As I, in these more modern times, do not approve of owning people, or treating people like animals, I would have been against the Civil War then. But what if I had been born into one of those wealthy plantation owner families. Those genteel folk were just as confused as what was happening as anyone who went from riches to rags. But the real horrors of the aftermath of the Civil War were those Negroes who were freed, and then were turned loose to fend for themselves after the war. Many of them chose to stay with their white owners.
The aftermath of the Civil War gave the South the Carpetbaggers and the Scalawags – the Freed Men Association who made promises to the Negroes, but who did not give them instruction on how to live free. Far too many of those northerners made promises, but gave no jobs; told them they had right to what the plantations had, which seemed to give the ex-slaves rights to the white women and the luxuries, including burning down the mansions and stealing the land. This is why the Ku Klux Klan came about – as a protection for the people whose land was being taken, and who women were under attack. The organization originated in Tennessee. Of course, over time, the KKK was proven to be a terrorist organization, and within a few years, was outlawed. Today’s KKK is made up of men who want to return the KKK to the way it was then, without the same reasons it was originally established.
Reconstruction is what happened to the states until they took the oaths. Tennessee was readmitted in 1866; Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, and the two Carolinas were readmitted in 1868; Texas, Virginia, and Mississippi were not readmitted until 1870.
Reconstruction disenfranchised the Southern plantation owners and the men who fought for the Confederacy; they took the label of Democrats, and were forbidden to vote in their state elections. Those people of the North who put the Confederacy under military rule were called Republicans, and they would take the Negroes from precinct to precinct to vote in every election numerous times. This went on for years until the states were able to have governing bodies who could come up with a majority, but this still was not possible until Loyalty Oaths were taken, and Amendments adopted.
The book covers the years from 1861 until 1873. Scarlett went from age 16 to 28, and young women who were not married by the time they were 25 were considered spinsters. Of course, the flower of male youth was pretty much killed off during those years. And the genteel manners of the Old South kept most of those plantation families from changing their ways.
I found it quite educational to realize how we got from that time to modern times, and why the Old South now calls itself Republican, why they still hate the Negro, why the Civil Rights Act did not work as it should have (this is why government offices all over the South have so many black employees – the private white companies still would not hire them). I don’t know why they keep changing what we should call them to be politically correct. I think African American came about because the word Negro is the Spanish word for black – but while black is beautiful, I’m not sure many of them today like being called black. Or why so many of them call one another the n-word, but get infuriated and insulted if a white person uses the same word.
All in all, re-reading this book 60 years later, under the influence of what politics is doing now, especially in the Deep South, was very enlightening, and helps me understand a little more why the Conservatives are acting the way they are now. They just don’t accept that they lost the Civil War.
PS: There was another book I read about the Civil War all those long years ago called Taproots which, if I remember correctly, told the same basic story, but from a Mississippian’s point of view, but I do not remember the name of the author, and have never found the book listed under it’s name on the computer. It probably went out of print long ago.
PPS: One other fictional story about the Old South is the movie Raintree County. I don’t even know if it was a book, or just a screen story.
Carol Stepp, Austin, TX