Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book 45: On Racism and History.

Well. To say that I am flying through this behemoth of a book would be an understatement. We could say that I am devouring it as I do ice cream, or that I am inhaling it as if I were at the top of Mt. Everest lacking air.

Yes, I am flying through this. I was worried before I began it that this book was going to irritate me. I thought that the author would take liberties with her history, and as someone who has a history degree and knows a lot more than the average person about the Civil War, well, I was worried. But, I am surprised to see that Mitchell does a fair job of keeping things fairly accurate, while giving a great, fictionalized account of the South during the Civil War.

I can see now why many in the South saw this book as their response to Uncle Tom's Cabin (which I read back in college and I am looking forward to reading again). It gives a different view of plantation life and the stance of blacks who were slaves.

The fact that Mitchell makes it clear that there were some plantation owners who treated their slaves more fairly and equally is admirable. But those plantations owners were few and far between. A very, very large majority of slave owners in the South were abusive and not at all like the O'Haras and some of their wealthy neighbors.

You also have to love the fashion descriptions. I mean, I would LOVE to wear those big elegant dresses, corsets and all, if they came back in fashion. And I know I am not the only one.

As for the war events and the plight of those left behind on the farms and plantations in the south when the men went off to fight, well, that's fairly accurate as well. The fact is, with no men left behind, the women and children (and slaves) had to do what they could to survive. When Scarlett crouches in a field and declares that she'll "never go hungry again," there is a lot of power in those words. The few farms and plantations that escaped Sherman's March to the Sea were in control of the Southern, or Northern army. There was NO food for the families left behind. The blockades prevented any food from being imported.

There is also a lot of accuracy when all of the young men around Scarlett's age die in battle. Where the North had a large population of young growing families, the South was smaller in population, and when their men died, they couldn't be replaced.

With all of that being said, Mitchell did a fine job of describing the conditions of those in the South in a believable way. I'm impressed, and of course, eating it all up.

Of course, there is one issue in the book and it is the one thing that a lot of readers find wrong with it. The book is blatantly racist. Now, whether Mitchell was a racist person and believed the things she wrote...well, I don't have the answer to that. And it is hard to say that the book would be better without the racist and degrading statements. If we were to correct it to make it politically correct by today's standards it would ruin all value and power of Mitchell's work in capturing the South as it was during the Civil War.

I don't condone racism, so take all of this that way. But personally, when I read a book such as this, where racism is used as a sign of the times in which the book was written, or as a way of capturing the time period, I have to let it go. Much like Mark Twain's the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the racism that is present in the book is what makes it so powerful to us, in this time period. I have to accept the book, and its racism, as a sign of the times in which it was written. And I have to keep in mind that it is clear the times have changed in that we don't find that kind of language acceptable today. I also know that these kinds of novels and writings have helped us capture history in a way that boring articles cannot convey.

For that, I have to love the novel as it is, racism or no. It adds to the depth and power of the book and without that element, it would be a far different book.

Anyway, I think I have rambled long enough on this topic, but be prepared for a long discussion of Miss Scarlett, of which I have a LOT to say.

But, before I leave, here is a question for you: Would you completely dismiss a novel or piece of writing just for its racist leanings? I'm curious!


  1. Gone With the Wind is on my list of 100 Books, & I had to admit that, before reading this, I knew nothing about the book. You've made me interested in reading it, because I particularly like books which are historically accurate.

    As for the racism, it doesn't really bother me. Most of the time I raise an eyebrow incredulously, roll my eyes and move on. It is, like you said, a product of that time and it also means we can learn from it. Besides a good majority of the classics are ridiculously sexist as well, and no one bats an eyelash.

  2. AAAAHHH!! I so need to read this book - I keep meaning to, and everyone keeps telling me to, your review has given me the kick up the butt I sorely needed!

    In regards to your question about racism, I think that I wouldn't mind if a story had racism in it - its more historically accurate that way. No one has ever agreed with everything written in stories, have they? There are stories from the point of view of murderers and rapists, for example, we still read them and sometimes really appreciate the book - without having to like murder and rape.

    I'm sure fundamentalist christians feel that harry potter should not be read because of the witch connotations, but we still read em, and enjoy them despite of these elements! So don't feel guilty.

  3. This is in my top 5 favourites book without a doubr. AMazing stuff. I wouldn't dismiss a book because of its rascism depending on the circumstances. I think with Gone with the Wind it is necessary - because that it is an integral part of that era. You couldn't write that story faithfully without being rascist.

  4. I love Gone With the Wind so, so much. Both the movie & the book. I remember being puzzled though as I read it, because Mitchell seemed to describe slavery as something okay, when it's obviously not. But like you said, it's an important for documenting the attitudes of the time period. If Mitchell had made the southern main characters take an anti-slavery stance, it wouldn't be very accurate.

    I've never quite *got* the fuss about slavery in Huck Finn, either. I think Twain makes it quite clear that slavery is a bad thing, and the fact that Jim is the nicest character out of everyone should count for saying something. Plus, it's far from a favorable portrayal of white society.

    *sigh* I just get sad when I hear about books getting banned.

  5. It makes me cringe whenever I read the N word in novels but as Ive only read this word in context I have to let it go. Harper Lee had to use that word in To kill a mockingbird for example in order to help portray that area at that time.

    Its not just racism I come across in old books though I also come across some terrible attitudes towards women, again its a product of the time and I just have to let it go while reading that book.

  6. OMG!
    I want to read this one since I saw the movie 4 years ago but I haven't got a copy! :'(

    I loved your post and, as an answer to your question, I wouldn't dismiss a novel or piece of writing just for its racist leanings, it is part of the whole background! Besides, I got my own ideas about humanity and no-one is going to change them.

  7. In older works of fiction it is understandable to run into racism or sexism, because they are a product of their times. It kind of depends on the book and the extent to which the racism pervades the story for me. And in a review I would definitely discuss the racism to be found in the book. On the other hand, it would be extremely hard to forgive a recent work of fiction with racist attitudes, though, because times have changed (and an author/publisher should know better).

    I've run into a similar dilemma in reading Around the World in 80 Days--Verne has a pretty Eurocentric POV that results in Papuans being called "savages", Asia being considered "less civilized", and most everyone being portrayed in stereotypes. I can appreciate the adventure, but not so much the commentary on the degree of "civilization" of each society the travelers come across. It affects my enjoyment, so it will affect my final review.

  8. Okay, I'm definitely going to read this book next weekend. So excited! I don't think I would dismiss a book because of racist leanings, although I think it's probably dependent on when the book was written as well. I guess the way I look at it is just because I read the book doesn't mean I have to agree with everything in it.

  9. I just read this book for the first time this year and having grown up watching the movie I expected to be bored, so I was surprised by how much I LOVED it. LOVED it. Not just for the history but for the characterization as well, it's just a great story.

    I was also bothered by the racism, but no I don't think I would dismiss a book totally for being racist, especially an older book. I might feel differently about one published now, though.

  10. I don't think I'd dismiss a book just for being racist, I'd have to consider the cultural context. But I do dislike books that have a message of racism or whatnot (i.e., what is the basis thesis? What is is saying about the racism?). Huck Finn, for example, doesn't seem to say it's a good thing.

    I haven't read this one yet but I'm glad the racism isn't a hang up for you since that's what I was worried about.

  11. I loved this one when I read it too. The racism doesn't ruin the book for me. I don't like it, but I agree that it represents the time period it was written in. That's just how it was. Which is awful and I'm so glad it's not like that anymore, but you can't ignore all of the books that have sexism or racism in them because of when they were written.

    p.s. The movie is fantastic too! Though I was surprised by some of the major plot differences.

  12. I often struggle with things like this, how to react to racism in a book in which nobody thought of those things as racist or wrong? I cannot judge them because of it, but I still struggle to keep an open mind and appreciate the book when I read it.

  13. Margaret Mitchell was not racist: she was only writing from history, based upon accounts by Confederate survivors still living when she was a child. (Her grandfathers, grandmothers, etc.)

    Her father was a serious historian in Atlanta; she was careful to be exceedingly accurate about her history, partially because her father was so meticulous. She even went temporarily blind scouring newspapers to be sure she didn't use any real Atlanta Confederate/Yankee names.

    I think she'd have done history a disservice to write the book without being straightforward about the prejudices of the era.

    Only my thoughts.

    - Corra

    The Victorian Heroine