Spend time talking with enough white American Southerners and you will soon hear that yes, slavery was regrettable, but the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery; it was about states’ rights and preserving a way of life. After all, did you know that many black troops fought for the South?
Travel through the former Confederacy and you will find restored plantation mansions – usually museums or resorts now – their magnolias, ballrooms, and white-pillared porticos conjuring up gracious women in long dresses and gallant men on horseback, peaceful stewards of a gentle, pastoral, now-vanished world. Republican politicians also speak of the old South in these terms. The former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, now a presidential or vice-presidential hopeful, has declared that before white supremacists “hijacked” it, the Confederate flag was a noble symbol of “service, and sacrifice and heritage”.
The classic thousand-page expression of that imagined heritage is Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. According to a new study by the cultural historian Sarah Churchwell, it is the bestselling American novel of all time: more than 30 million copies in print, with 300,000 more still pouring out each year in many languages. The film adaptation has reached even more people, and, taking inflation into account, is the highest-grossing movie of all time. At its 1939 premiere in Atlanta, the state of Georgia declared a holiday and 300,000 people watched the cast and crew – minus black members – parade down Peachtree Street.
“If Gone with the Wind is one of the most popular stories America has ever told about itself,” Churchwell writes, “then it matters that it is profoundly anti-democratic, and a moral horror show.” For her, the novel “provides a kind of skeleton key, unlocking America’s illusions”. The society whose destruction the story chronicles was, of course, based on slavery. At the novel’s end, the dream of its heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, to restore her plantation to its former grandeur certainly does not include sharing its ownership with the former slaves, who are still presumably needed to till the fields. “Ah done had nuff freedom,” one of them tells her. “Ah wants somebody ter feed me good vittles reg’lar, and tell me whut ter do an’ whut not ter do, an’ look affer me w’en Ah gits sick.”
Churchwell’s book-length prosecutorial brief against a novel more than 80 years old sometimes seems like a matter of beating a dead horse. But, she reminds us, the horse is not so dead, for a deep sense of white grievance is a driving force in the nation’s politics today. The battle over taking down statues of Confederate heroes during the last few years has been a bitter one. Many such memorials are still in place, and one of the invaders of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 paraded a Confederate flag through the building.