First, we digress:
I have a confession to make. I, proud and also sometimes horrified daughter of the American South, read Gone with the Wind (GWTW) for the first time last year. My rite of passage — some might even say birthright — was finally complete. What followed next were grandiose plans to draft a Reading Words post about my multi-faceted experience, borne largely of increasing frustration with how the American South gets disproportionately crucified for the atrocities people everywhere still commit, centuries after Union white folk declared victory over Southern sin. If you’re trying to imagine what that post might’ve looked like, think less “Southern apologist” and more “look in the mirror, America” (see here also).
The issue is that I never quite got there. My anger at non-Southern elites was so strong that it blinded me. If we were such a backwards people, worthy of denigration after denigration after denigration, then why did folks who spun these tales also continue to buy our land and appropriate our culture, among other perplexing behaviors? The answer is that the behaviors aren’t really perplexing at all — they’re predatory, and the people who perpetrate them are monsters hiding in plain sight.
See how quickly this type of response digresses? Needless to say, I never published my impassioned early attempts. Why? Because I’d hit a critical impasse: myself. Like it or not, I wasn’t ready to produce the response I needed to share. Owning that was my first step towards maybe one day sharing it. That was easy. The hard part was not knowing when — if ever — I’d be strong enough or clear enough to take this work back on.
What a healer time can be! Today, a year (and really thirty-some) later, I’m finally ready. Though I’m still quieting my shaky knees (this is vulnerable work, y’all!), today I’m properly ready to commence the work I intended to begin last year. Starting today, I’m stepping fully into my calling, fully into my heritage, and beginning with a reckoning by way of Margaret Mitchell and her polarizing oeuvre, Gone with the Wind. Come with?
In the presence of greatness:
It’s always a little uncomfortable to read something where the author is held up as “a great.” You’re, by the magic of reading, connected to someone else, from another place or time, and that person just happens to be whoever they are, and you’re … well, you’re you. Does anyone else ever feel this way? No? That’s okay. The good and the bad of this particular situation is that, in ways that might surprise you, Mitchell’s greatness is qualified by another uncomfortable truth. That qualification makes her more relatable for some, sure, but we’ve got to stop and consider what else we’re doing when we put conditions on greatness in the first place.
Work with me here…
Not only is Margaret Mitchell the author of one of America’s defining pieces of literature, but she’s also a woman, and a woman who won the Pulitzer in the 1930s. As momentous as this might initially seem, paradoxically, by percent, more of these awards were given to women in that era than in today’s (at least for Novels/Fiction). Don’t believe me? Go ahead, look it up. In fact, by the time you read this, it will have been more than half a decade since a woman held that distinction. And that’s not okay. We cannot run from this fact.
Here’s where the nasty qualification comes in to play. When in the course of celebrating Mitchell’s achievements, we start to sound like this —
“Yes, isn’t it wonderful? A woman wrote something worth the Pulitzer in the THIRTIES! That must make her EXCEPTIONALLY good!!”
— we end up creating more problems than we do good. And it doesn’t just begin and end with giving Mitchell her dues. The trouble with this line of thinking, taken to its furthest end, is that it presupposes either that (1) women have become less capable of writing things worthy of such high praise, or (2) the publishing industry has become less capable of finding women with award-winning voices. Neither alternative is palatable, or frankly, true.
That said, not unlike popular but misinformed opinions about the South, these ideas carry weight, and that weight makes it harder for women to break through, at least in the ways our sisters did before us. That this month we read a Pulitzer Prize winner is indeed something notable. That we don’t read more of them is also. This is precisely why being in the presence of greatness — and all the qualifications that come with it — is uncomfortable. Somewhere deep down, we know there’s got to be more to the story.
Things get complicated:
Then we get to the real controversy. We need to acknowledge immediately that Mitchell’s perspective is controversial. By modern standards, eulogizing a way of life that we now find repugnant feels … off-putting at best. But that’s also why, all these years later, she remains an essential read.
For some people, that discomfort means we should #cancel Margaret Mitchell, move on, and replace her voice with others who “get it right.” Listen up, folks. I need you to hear me when I say that that line of thinking is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Make no mistake, we need to make room for more voices at the table, but removal of voices like Mitchell’s from the national discourse means we create opportunities to forget what it is we find unacceptable, and why it is we find it so in the first place. That task is hard enough in the modern world. We don’t need to make it harder by removing data from our set.
In today’s world, we cannot simply remove things we deem morally base, pretending like they never existed, in service of so-called cultural purity. Or at least, we cannot do this without also creating a dangerously muddy situation for present and future generations. Here’s why: it calls our own motives into question. Who owns the “cultural eraser” matters just as much as who owns the original “pencil,” my friends. And rarely if ever do people in power have the purity of intentions that we’d hope.
Just so we’re all clear, it is very possible to have “pure” motives and also do things that aren’t quite so clearly good. Anyone who tries to assuage you, saying things like, “questionable motives don’t apply to me or my party or my country (etc.),” is quite simply unaware, or aware and untrustworthy. Period. Both situations can be rectified by you becoming and remaining a strong critical thinker. I urge you, please do this now if you haven’t already. Let’s chat if you’re not sure where to start.
I say all this with love. Love and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’ve prized finger-pointing more than selfless and brave ownership of fault, and I’m afraid that’s because we’ve lost sight of what matters in the first place. (Hint: it’s not power.) If this country is to move forward in any constructive, united way, we must un-learn the bad habits we’ve picked up over the last… oh, forever… or else risk becoming a lot closer to the world Margaret Mitchell wrote about and a lot further from the one we’re supposedly building towards. Everyone, do yourselves a favor and spend a minute thinking about that idea. Things just got a lot more complicated, didn’t they?
Suddenly, it’s hard to know how to respond:
As a Southern woman, it’s easy to get caught in the crossfire of potential, competing responses to this text. In one version, I lift Mitchell up as the literary great she is and always will be, despite her greatest detractors’ efforts, and get labeled an apologist. In another, I take her to task, get accused of forgetting that the mores that governed her words and actions, and the words and actions of the characters she created (further back in history, still) were necessarily different from our own, and learn that I’ve been equally problematic.
In either scenario, or any middle-ground offshoot I try to strike, something critical gets lost. We must, must, must understand, Dear Readers, that understanding an issue fully means trying to understand it from multiple perspectives. This does not mean we must agree with these perspectives, but our disagreement does not magically excuse us from trying to understand — far from it, actually.
Allowing ourselves to have a singular read on something, whether by our own choice or by letting someone else prescribe that singular read for us, is dangerous. The minute we allow that is the minute we compromise our freedom. It’s possible to give that freedom away all at once, but it’s also possible to give it away incrementally, like sand particles getting swept away from the beachfront, so slowly that hardly anyone notices, until it’s too late. No matter the rate we give this freedom away, we are in grave danger. Protect that freedom, folks. Allow for multiple reads — of books and of life.
I don’t know about you, but with that critical awareness, I’ve started to question everything about my initial reaction to GWTW, and nearly as much about my life alongside it. Did anyone else have this reaction — maybe not right away, but after enough time had passed in these overlapping ruins, those we’ve read about and those we’ve lived through? I hope so, I really do. I hope we had the strength to allow for some level of uncertainty, to sit in the unique discomfort that comes from realizing we all live in glass houses, that none of us are sinless, and that every single one of us can still do something to make this vast, ruinous world just a little bit stronger for tomorrow, today.
Love, Scarlett in Ruins:
Somewhere in the middle of reading GWTW for the second time, this time with you, it hit me: that internal struggle I thought was the reason I couldn’t respond? It might in fact be the response — or maybe the first attempt at one. All I had to do was recognize that the fear I faced was a speed bump, not a stop sign.
Perhaps I knew this already. Perhaps I’m not giving myself enough credit. You see, in one of the earliest drafts of last year’s intended response, I included a notable piece of marginalia. It read: “OK, Scarlett, it’s time.” While I wish I’d listened a little earlier, I also know that it’s what we do with the messages we receive that ultimately defines our lives, not how long it takes for us to receive them. That’s the bridge between last year and today, the book and this life, what mattered to me and what really matters.
The world is considerably harsher today than it was during my first read of GWTW. In this time of immense uncertainty, I’d like to encourage us to remember the lesson of the speed bump — slow down, pay attention, and safely crest into what’s next. We have a unique opportunity before us, Dear Readers, and that is to lean in to the bump, to ask ourselves some gravely important questions in whatever slower moments we can find. There are a million ways to ask, but here’s one humble starter among them: As the world rages around us, what are we willing to stand for? And, if we do not stand, what do we forfeit by extension? (Yes, forfeit — we only lose things when we’ve stood and then fallen. We forfeit when fear of falling causes us to never even try.)
When I wrote to myself one year ago, I never would’ve dreamed that in my first moment of bravery, scribbling marginalia alongside a really crappy draft, that today we’d be here, in this absurd and historic space. Never would I have dreamed we’d be talking about anything more than regionalist b.s. Never would I have dreamed that we might instead be talking about the fate of our country — or indeed, the world. Yet here we are, for the foreseeable future, on the precipice of ruin or rebirth.
The good news is that none of us live through this alone. We have each other, which is to say that we have love. In this we are made wiser, heartier, capable of facing odds the likes of which we have never seen. The world could rage around us, but through love we are made worthy warriors — warriors who take nothing for granted, warriors who wait on no tomorrows, warriors who fight for others’ Taras as much as their own, warriors who know that no matter what else gets lost, the things that matter are never truly gone. Let the winds rage.
North by North Carolinian
Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle