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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....
Monday, February 28, 2022
Book Review : Gone with the Wind (飘)
List of reasons for admisson to the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane between 1864 and 1889.
I don’t like novels. They’re made up, and when I read them I am constantly second guessing the author. “This would probably never happen,” is my constant mental rejoinder to the events and conversations.
But there is one kind of novel that I do read from time to time. Historical novels are novels that are set within the context of a momentous historical event. Lots of historical novels center around war, because it is so much a part of life in a sinful world, and because it affects lives so profoundly. The expression, “All’s fair in love and war,” (which isn’t true at all) comes from the way war complicates, interrupts, and or destroys relationships.
And sometimes war proves relationships, enriches relationships, or forges new relationships. That tells us why historical novels tend to focus around or be somehow connected with war. But that does not explain why they are important.
The reason historical novels are important is because they give an idea what life was like for real people in a time of war. Historians write largely about facts. Historical novels are very much about feeling, although they would not be very useful if they were not also factual. This is why good historical novels are hard to find. Novelists tend to compromise history for the sake of the story, or to push some political point. Film director Oliver Stone is an example of this in recent American history.
Churchill was an historian. He wrote a four volume series called History of the English Speaking People. I bought an abbreviated version in one volume at a used bookstore years ago. It was very useful to me when I was teaching British and American Culture at the China Youth University in Beijing. But straight history like that is missing one very important ingredient: the human element. Historical novels give us a feel for what life was like for average people. But the thing is, it’s really not easy to do that. It is something the Russian writers excelled at. All of Solzhenitsyn’s great works were historical novels. Dostoyevsky was a novelist. Read House of the Dead, by Dostoyevsky. And of course, War and Peace by Tolstoy is an historical novel.
One time I got a copy of a book called Kite Runner. I read about half way through it, I guess, but I gave it up because it was very short on history. I just figured the author of that book was not very good at portraying historical events with a novel. I’m talking about the usefulness of the book for the study of history. I do not pretend to be qualified to judge its value as a novel. I finally gave up. But later, someone handed me a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is also about Afghanistan. That book was loaded with history. I was surprised to discover that it was by the same author as Kite Runner. I have no explanation for that.
Later, whcn I read Peter Tomsen’s The Wars of Afghanistan, which is straight history, I was better prepared for it because I had read A Thousand Splendid Suns. I am referring to the period between when the Soviets pulled out and the Americans came in (looking for bin Laden). Three million Afghans killed each other during that period. A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a lot of information about how common people were affected by the seemingly endless civil war that eventually led to the Taliban takeover. I didn’t get that much from Kite Runner—but maybe I didn’t read enough of it, I don’t know. I should say that I do give Kite Runner credit for making me aware of the Hazaras, a minority in Afghanistan descended from the Mongols. I had never heard of them before that. But A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me much more of a feel for what life was like for common people during the time that Peter Tomsen the historian writes about in Wars of Afghanistan.
During the eighties and nineties, I did about a ten-year study of the American Civil War. I tried to read one book a month. But the vast majority of the books I read were written by historians. I don’t want to give you the impression that historians don’t care about the emotional side of life. No, I don’t say that. But they do spend a lot less time talking about it because they are busy with the facts of war. I did read one historical novel during that period. It was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I read that book not so much because it showed the influence of war, but because that book itself had a huge influence on the war. In fact, many feel that it was the catalyst that brought the war about. I know one thing: It had a huge impact on how the Brits saw the American Civil War, and completely ruined the South’s chances of convincing the British to side with them in the civil conflict. Southerners had assumed that the Brits would take the Confederate side because of their need for King Cotton. Britain imported a lot of cotton at that time, and much of it came from Dixie.
But the other classic novel of the American Civil War is Gone with the Wind. I never got around to reading it during that period in the eighties and nineties when I was studying the Civil War. I guess maybe it was because I did see much of the movie and was not that impressed. So I made excuses for not reading the book.
Four years ago I was in Kunming for the summer, and I happened to walk into a bookstore. Many bookstores in China have an English section, because English majors have a reading list of English literature that they have to get through in their college years.
The English section in this small bookstore was very small. Just a few books on a shelf. So I was looking through them, and I saw something I really did not want to see: Gone with the Wind. I turned away quickly.
“Oh, man. Do I really need to get that book?”
“Yes, you do.”
I thought of every excuse, but to no avail. So finally, I thought, okay, I’ll get it and put it on my bookshelf so I can take a look through it sometime. I took it back to the hostel where I was staying. Later I was writing at my desk in the hostel, and I stupidly spilled some water on my keyboard. My screen went blank, but my computer was not completely dead. I grabbed my laptop and held it up to the light to dry it out.
Yeah, I know. That was stupid. The water sloshed around and now my computer was really gone.
OK, well, you know, I’ve always wanted to read Gone With the Wind (lie).
Whenever I take on a task like that—I mean, reading a mammoth novel like the subject of this discourse, I put everything aside and go like gangbusters until I reach the half-way point. Then I can slack off and finish the rest of it at a regular pace. So I spent the summer reading Gone With the Wind. I didn’t quite finish it, but continued apace after I got back to Beijing. It took me a year to finish the second half, and another year or so to finish putting the notations in my database. Part of the reason for that is that I have so many other irons in the fire. And part of it is that I am not the world’s fastest reader. I remember when I was in high school I went to a meeting about speed reading. We were supposed to sign up for this speed reading course. I was thinking through the whole presentation how nice it would be to be able to read that fast. But you know, after thinking about it, I made a decision that has affected the rest of my life, but which I have never regretted. I decided I just didn’t want to live that way. I like reading. I always have. And I figured that making myself rush all the time would take all the fun out of it.
So I’m stuck with slow. Not real slow, but, you know, not fast. Going at my own pace. All 1400 pages. But I was determined to get through with it, even though I didn’t know why God was making me read this book about the Civil War in 2018, more than twenty years after I more or less left the study of the Civil War behind me and turned to reading thousands of pages of technical books in preparation for becoming a technical trainer. But the summer of 2020 it all started to make sense to me. I would not have wanted to face the issues that are tearing America apart without the benefit of that epic novel.
Okay, so Literature 101—the three things you need to look for are plot, characterization and theme.
Plot. To be honest, in my study of this book, I wasn’t interested in the plot. I have studied the Civil War. I know how it ended. Of course, historical novels are fiction, and they have a plot of their own that involves the characters in the story. But I wasn’t really that interested. But in fact, the plot of this story involving this one southern family is important, because it is entwined with the plot of the war. So it must be examined.
The defining word that comes to my mind is “futility.” Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. When I picked up this book, I expected to read about southern people fighting bravely for (what they thought was) a noble cause, and of course, I expected to see horrible things about the hated Yankees and what they did to the South. There is some of both in this book. But hovering over them is a story about people, some of them noble, some of them vile, but all sinking in the mire of what was from the very beginning a futile cause, and I watched as the quicksand of that futile effort swallowed them one by one. This was a painful book to read. The preface by Pat Conroy shares the beginnings of that futility:
The Tara invoked in the early chapters of this book is a mirror image of a Southern Utopia, a party at Twelve Oaks that might have gone on forever if the hot-blooded boys of the South could have stemmed the passions of secession and held their fire at Fort Sumpter.It is evident from the way Margaret Mitchell tells this story, that she believed the southerners would have been much better off if they had managed to restrain their tempers. She was probably right, at least for the foreseeable future. The main reason Frederick Douglass did not like Lincoln at first was because Lincoln was not an abolitionist as such. He was not committed to making the southerners give up their slaves. In fact, he had promised not to do so. Douglass was basically right about that detail, but his assessment of Lincoln failed to appreciate Lincoln’s contempt for slavery. Lincoln was not neutral on the subject of slavery. Far from it. But Lincoln was conflicted. As a conservative, he did not believe any government had a right to confiscate the people’s property, and the slaves were, after all, property. So he stated unequivocally that slavery would not be allowed in any of the new territories as they became states, but also, that states that were already practicing slavery would be allowed to continue to do so. Lincoln had strong sense of fairness, and he did not believe it was fair for the government to take people’s slaves away by force. In fact, Lincoln was actually willing to buy the freedom of the slaves at market value from their southern owners. It probably would have been cheaper than the war.
The war changed Lincoln. I will not detail that change here, and how he came to believe that the slaves (even in the Old South) must be freed, because I have explained it in my lecture on the War, and because it is not the focus of this book, so Margaret Mitchell does not address it. This book is not about Lincoln, and he is seldom mentioned
So Pat Conroy’s assessment above is accurate, except for one word: “forever.” Gone on forever? No. The hot-blooded southern White boys were right in their fear that prohibiting new states from having slaves would mean the eventual demise of slavery everywhere. Of course, Lincoln believed this too, and that is why he could not deny it. In fact, he said it very clearly. But since the war was a lost cause for the South from the very beginning, it would have been much better for the folks at Tara if the southerners had held their tempers and lived it out. Their southern lifestyle would have gone on, not forever, but a lot longer, and perhaps have enabled a smoother transition to the future inevitable end of slavery as an institution in American society. It would have been better for them and it would have been better for the Negro (and no, "Negro" is not the N-word any more than "Norwegian" is the N-word. They are both proper names of noble ethnicities) slaves, and for their descendents, the American Blacks who have seen so much pain as a result of the way they were enslaved for so long and then liberated in such a devastating way.
So basically the plot includes the lead up to the war, the war itself, and the days after the war—occupation and then reconstruction.
The lead up to the war is a combination of patriotic fervor, and cynicism about the futility of the effort. Here’s Rhett Butler:
"The trouble with most of us Southerners," continued Rhett Butler, "is that we either don't travel enough, or we don't profit enough by our travels. Now, of course, all you gentlemen are well traveled. But what have you seen? Europe and New York and Philadelphia and, of course, the ladies have been to Saratoga" (he bowed slightly to the group under the arbor). "You've seen the hotels and the museums and the balls and the gambling houses. And you've come home believing that there's no place like the South. As for me, I was Charleston born, but I have spent the last few years in the North." His white teeth showed in a grin, as though he realized that everyone present knew just why he no longer lived in Charleston, and cared not at all if they did know. "I have seen many things that you all have not seen. The thousands of immigrants who'd be glad to fight for the Yankees for food and a few dollars, the factories, the foundries, the shipyards, the iron and coal mines—all the things we haven't got. Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance. They'd lick us in a month."Reading these words, I can almost hear Margaret Mitchell sayng, “No, you guys, really don’t do this.” I have often wondered what would have happened if the Southerners around Fort Sumter had treated the Union soldiers kindly, brought them food, and told them very politely that “while we are a separate country now, you are free to stay here or leave.” Southern hospitality, you know. I think Lincoln would have been fit to be tied. What could he have done? He would have had very few options, and the South may have slowly drifted into independence. But it was not to be so. The hotheads that Mitchell’s Rhett Butler warned did not listen, and when news spread through the North that Sumter had been fired upon, I can almost hear Lincoln in the White House shouting, “Hallelujah!” They gave him just the excuse he needed to attack the South.
So the war came. On Friday, April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter, firing for 34 straight hours. One hundred years later, Dad took John and I down to Woolworth’s in Williston to get our caps. I got a blue cap and Johnny got a grey cap. I was a Yankee. I don’t know why I was a Yankee—how much does a six or seven-year-old kid playing Civil War in the streets of a North Dakota town know about war? I don't know. But there was no question in my mind. I knew what I had to be.
Sometimes I think that the soldier boys of the North and the South were not much more informed about the reasons for what they were fighting for than John and I were about the sides we had chosen. You could argue that it was different for them because for us it was a game, but for them, it was…well, a defense of their very homes and families. But that doesn’t work. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to count the number of families who sat around the dinner table with brothers from both sides in the conflict. War is so far beyond my comprehension! How can I even pretend to write about it?
It should be noted that both sides thought the war would be over quickly. This line from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. –Lincoln March 4, 1865
Much of the trauma of the war—and especially in the South—came from the fact that most people assumed that the war would last a few months and they were just not prepared for a protracted conflict. This is where the North had an advantage, and Mitchell mentions this in several places in several ways. Toward the end of the war, we see soldiers coming back from the battlefield talking about Union soldiers who could barely speak English. The North had foreign troops to draw from. Mercenaries. During the ten years that I was studying the American Civil War, I read many books, but I seem to have completely missed this important part of Civil War history. I knew of a case here and there. Sometimes the same soldier would hire out to both sides at different times, such as Henry M. Stanley, the journalist who found David Livingston. So I was aware of the presence of adventurers from other countries who got involved in the Civil War, but I had no idea the extent of this phenomenon. I don’t know…I guess it’s because historians would not be inclined to focus on foreigners as having saved the day. Maybe that’s why they talk so little about it.
Margaret Mitchell does not mention that the Confederacy also had foreign soldiers, but maybe she did not need to, because the numbers were not comparable. There were, indeed, thousands of soldiers born on foreign soil who fought for the South, but in the Union army they numbered over half a million. This may not have been as big a factor in a short war of a few months, but in a protracted conflict it made a lot of difference—much more than history has given it credit for. Some have said that the war could not have been won without them. I don’t know if that’s true, but it could be true, because the numbers are very significant. Of the two million Union soldiers, close to a third were foreigners. Some of these may have been, as I said “soldiers of fortune,” but some were people who came from Europe and actually felt strongly about the cause of freedom. It will not be known until eternity the influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, but many Europeans felt that they had been enslaved by the forces of empire, and wanted to do their part to bring freedom to those who had been enslaved on the American continent. Whatever the case, the presence of such a large supply of fresh troops meant that the North could fight a war of attrition and just gradually wear out the South. It was very demoralizing.
In addition to this was the industrialization of the North. Years ago, when I was in the trucking industry, I used to haul flatbed loads of aluminum out of the Reynolds plant in McCook, Illinois. It was an old World War II airplane factory. Huge place. You see, it takes a lot of industry to build the materiel of war. Now, the Civil War had no air battles, so they did not need aircraft factories. But guns and artillery have to be manufactured. The North had a huge advantage in this respect.
We always say that the North was industrial and the South was agrarian. But the North had farms too. They did not grow cotton like the South, but they did grow food. It just seemed like the Northern troops always had plenty of food to eat.
But the single event that broke the back of the Southern war effort was Sherman’s march to the sea. I don’t want to go into the logistics of it too much, because I detailed that in my lecture on the American Civil War. In the slides for that lecture you can see how Sherman cut the South in half and demoralized the populace, as well as the soldiers. It’s not easy to be fighting an enemy in front of you for the defense of your family, and then get letters from home telling you that your farm and community are being torn apart by the very troops you thought you were protecting them from.
So that’s all I want to say about that part. But I want to talk about the ethics of it. You see, historically, defenders have always maintained that Sherman didn’t hurt people, he just destroyed their ability to make war. Now in the movie, there is one scene I seem to remember where a Union soldier is coming against a southern woman. But the book is different. The book does give an incident where Scarlett kills a Union soldier, but it is not clear whether or not she would have had to…I guess Margaret Mitchell wants to sorta leave hanging the question of whether that was an act of self-defense or murder.
So, you know, I was not sure what to expect when I started reading this book. In the actual history, I have not read of a single incident of a Union soldier attacking a southern woman. So I was just waiting for Margaret Mitchell to weave such “me too” moments into the fabric of her story. It would have given me just the excuse I needed to throw the book aside in disgust. “Novels!”
But Mitchell doesn’t do that. Not that she avoids the issue. She faces it head on. Here’s Scarlett (in her thoughts):
The Yankees raped women and ran bayonets through children's stomachs and burned houses over the heads of old people. Everyone knew these things were true even if they didn't shout them on the street corners. And if Rhett had any decency he would realize they were true. And not talk about them. And it wasn't any laughing matter, either.But Scarlett’s musing is set in the context of a conversation with Rhett where he is dismissing such thoughts:
My dear girl, the Yankees aren’t fiends. They haven’t horns and hoofs as you seem to think. They’re pretty much like Southerners—except with worse manners, of course, and terrible accents.I won’t rehearse the entire conversation—you’ll come across it when you read the book. But it is telling, because it represents Margaret Mitchell’s rejection of prevailing prejudices as a too simplistic way of dealing with the issue. If you read the entire conversation you will see, I think, that Scarlett represents the fears of uneducated uninformed Southerners, and Rhett represents Margaret Mitchell’s more mature (according to her) and less culturally challenged perspective.
So Margaret Mitchell resists the temptation to take the easy way out and portray the Union soldiers as violent rapists in order to make it easier for you to hate them. But what she does is to show us the other stuff they did that nobody denies or has ever denied. What she seems to be saying is, “Okay, you say the Union soldiers did not do violence to people? They just destroyed property? Then let me show you how it feels to have your crops burned and your food stores destroyed so that you have nothing to eat.”
“Pork, I’m starving. Is there anything to eat?”So instead of chucking the book in righteous indignation and going on with my life, I am squirming and feeling really uncomfortable and I can’t put it down. Mitchell has a way of hitting you between the eyes with her portrayal of the human effect of “acts of war” that you have always justified as, well, okay, unfortunate, but nevertheless unavoidable. War is war after all. She forces us to rethink Sherman in ways that we never thought we would have to.
“No’m. Dey tuck it all.”
“But the garden?”
“Dey tuhned dey hawses loose in it.”
“Even the sweet potato hills?”
Something almost like a pleased smile broke over his thick lips.
“Miss Scarlett, Ah done forgit de yams. Ah specs dey’s right dar. Dem Yankee folks ain’ never seed no yams an’ dey thinks dey’s just roots an’—”
“The moon will be up soon. You go out and dig us some and roast them. There’s no corn meal? No dried peas? No chickens?”
“No’m. No’m. Whut chickens dey din’ eat right hyah dey cah’ied off ‘cross dey saddles.”
They— They— They— Was there no end to what “They” had done? Was it not enough to burn and kill? Must they also leave women and children and helpless negroes to starve in a country which they had desolated?
This book is not about Sherman, and Mitchell says very little about him, but I have to give him a brief mention here, because he was clearly the brains and heart behind the scorched earth policy employed by the North in breaking the back of the Southern will to fight. In the summer of 1988, I took my daughters on a trip around the United States and Canada. We headed up through the Peace Garden, worked our way east across Canada to Quebec City, then dropped down into Maine. We skipped Boston, but stopped in both New York City and Philadelphia, then headed out across Pennsylvania and Ohio. Unfortunately, we got to Sherman’s birthplace in Lancaster, Ohio after the museum had closed, so I hoisted Melissa up on my shoulders, and walked with Heather and Juliana up the hill to the home of Thomas Ewing at the end of the block. It was the same short journey a nine-year-old boy had taken back in 1829, after his dad had died and his heartbroken and penniless mother had farmed her kids out to friends who would take them. It was a gut-wrenching tragedy, but it was the best thing that ever happened to him, because Thomas Ewing, a local Whig politician, was a kind man with a lot of influence.
I knocked on the door and a lady answered. Turned out the old Ewing mansion was not a museum. It was a private home. Kinda embarrassing. We took our leave. When little Billy Sherman had knocked on the door of that same mansion more than a hundred and fifty years earlier, the door had opened to a world of opportunity. Ewing got Sherman into West Point, the school where Mexican War and Civil War officers got their training. Sherman also married Ewing’s daughter.
When the Civil War started, Sherman was superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy (now Louisiana State University).
When he heard that South Carolina had seceded, one of his colleagues reported that Sherman burst into tears:
You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it... Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.This is something that is often misunderstood about Sherman. Many of the Union officers fell into the trap of thinking of the South as the enemy of the North. Sherman did not see the South as the enemy. Sherman loved the South, but he hated the Confederacy. He saw the Confederacy as not only the enemy of the North, but also of the South, and perhaps even more so. He hated what the Confederacy was doing to the South and what he knew they were eventually going to do to it. This more than anything else explains his rage. He loved the South but carried a bitter contempt for the rebellion.
But again, those are things I learned about Sherman from studying the Civil War many years before I read this book. Mitchell mentions Sherman, but doesn't say that much about him. One of the officers that she does talk about is Joseph E. Johnston. The story of the loss of the war as felt by the people of the South is powerfully told in this book. And the one officer that Mitchell does talk about is Joseph E. Johnston, because he was charged with defending Atlanta, the big city at the center of this novel, from Sherman’s attacks toward the end of the war. I have often felt that Johnston got a bum rap. He was removed from his position by Jefferson Davis apparently because Davis had lost confidence in him. But Johnston was really overwhelmed. Both Grant and Sherman respected him highly and the three became good friends after the war.
Defeat is not an easy thing to write about. How do you present it with honor? How do you talk about losers in a way that makes people look up to them? And there was so much else. The fate of the freed Negroes, the actions of northern carpetbaggers, the fear of “uncivilized” Northern troops and the poverty of the common people trying to get by in a land torn apart by war. These are the elements that comprise the last half of the book. That and the stormy, ill-fated relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. The last part of the book is needful, but too long, I think. As the book wore on, I almost got the feeling that Margaret Mitchell was torn between figuring out how to end the thing, and maybe not wanting to let go of it. The war ends before the book is half over. As I said, the aftermath of the war certainly has to be part of the story. But it just got to be too much.
Characterization. You may wonder why I have listed Melanie first in the grouping below. Clearly the intended heroine of this book is Scarlett. But Melanie is important, because this book is so full of inhumanity that it would be hard to see much redeeming value in it if it were not for Melanie. She is the thread of virtue woven through the twists and turns of the book. Just when you begin to feel overwhelmed, not by the badness of war, but by the badness of people as they are confronted by war, Melanie appears to remind you that there really are decent people in this world, and if you are privileged to know a few, your life can have a brightness to it that transcends the despair of the circumstances with which you are confronted. But I have structured this so that you can start with the character of your choice and proceed in any order you like.
Scarlett giggled as she saw three men dragged out of the line of her charms to investigate landmarks familiar to the girls from childhood, and cut her eye sharply to see if Ashley had taken note. But he was playing with the ends of Melanie's sash and smiling up at her. Pain twisted Scarlett's heart. She felt that she could claw Melanie's ivory skin until the blood ran and take pleasure in doing it.One never imagines, when reading this, that Scarlett and Melanie will eventually become close friends, not because of Scarlett’s magnanimity toward her friend’s fiancé, but because of Melanie’s prevailing goodness, which endures through even the most trying circumstances and challenges when a lesser person might have been inclined to at least back off if not join with the accusers of Scarlett. Did they have a point? Sorta depends on who you believe about the kind of person Scarlett was. It seems to me that the author of this book is trying to use Scarlett to show the world the triviality of traditional Southern condemnation of an independent lady like Scarlett who steps out of the normal role that Southern women were expected to fulfill. But there is much more to Melanie than that. Throughout this book, she represents frail goodness in the face of enormous obstacles. Scarlett faces those obstacles and conquers them by being tough. Melanie conquers them by being good. But is goodness enough? Don’t you have to be tough to conquer such obstacles? Yes, and that, I believe, is why Melanie is so loyal to Scarlett. Scarlett was her protector, particularly when Ashley (Melanie’s husband) was away at war.
We don’t see it directly. But if you try to put yourself inside of Melanie’s head and look at the life they lived and the obstacles they had to face from the perspective of Melanie with all of her weakness and frailty, you can imagine that she really appreciated Scarlett, and Scarlett’s strength in crisis.
I think this is why Melanie is so loyal to Scarlett at the end of the war, and determines to be her friend, even when others are shunning her.
Melanie took her calling with her on formal afternoons, gently forcing her into parlors in which Scarlett had not sat for more than two years. And Melanie, with a fierce "love-me-love-my-dog" look on her face, made converse with astounded hostesses.But it isn’t just Scarlett. Melanie’s kindness is rooted in a deeply ingrained Southern culture of hospitality. This is why slavery was so wrong. It stood in such contrast to the polite nature of Southern values. A man could talk about how he believed that all men should be treated equally, and not even think about the fact that his slaves were not being treated equally. Does that not suggest that many Southerners did not really see the Blacks as humans? But that was not an issue for Melanie, because she treated everyone with kindness according to the values that had been inculcated in the deepest roots of her beijing:
What Melanie did was no more than all Southern girls were taught to do--to make those about them feel at ease and pleased with themselves. It was this happy feminine conspiracy which made Southern society so pleasant. Women knew that a land where men were contented, uncontradicted and safe in possession of unpunctured vanity was likely to be a very pleasant place for women to live. So, from the cradle to the grave, women strove to make men pleased with themselves, and the satisfied men repaid lavishly with gallantry and adoration.This sounds a little idealistic. But in so many ways it was actually pretty close to reality. Melanie did not adhere to this reality out of obligation or duty. She was born with it. We say tongue and cheek that it was “in her DNA,” but of course that is nonsense. It was not literally inherited. It was nurture not nature. But it was practically inherited, because it was so much a part of the culture that one could almost be forgiven for thinking it was genetically part of her. Melanie lets us believe that there can be something good about even a culture that did so many bad things.
Anyway, realistic or not, that is the state of things. That’s how a poor immigrant became a wealthy plantation owner. Here is how Mitchell describes him:
Gerald was likeable, and the neighbors learned in time what the negroes, children and dogs discovered at first sight, that a kind heart, a ready and sympathetic ear and an open pocketbook lurked just behind his bawling voice and his truculent manner.Note that phrase, “negroes, children and dogs.” Is that Mitchell’s own racism coming through, or is she making a statement about Gerald, and the kind of people he felt closest to? More about that when we get to “theme.”
So what are we to think of Gerald? How significant is he to the story? In my opinion, Mitchell makes him weak so that she can show how strong Ellen is. He’s the nice guy who would bc nothing without her. This is not to say that he is lazy. But he is definitely not the driving force behind this enterprise.
The book does not say a lot about his past. But he had come to America to get away from a bad situation in Europe, and then won this plantation in a card game (again, only in a novel) and married a high society lady and settled down to live the life of a plantation owner. The way the story goes, when Ellen dies he loses his mind. So we would tend to conclude that he is a man of weak character. But there is an incident toward the very end of his life, where one of his daughters is trying to convince him to sign a loyalty oath to the Union. I can’t remember if the book says how much money he would get if he did that. At first he seems to be going along with it, but then he comes to and refuses. He rides home in a drunken stupor and falls from his horse and breaks his neck.
The challenge Margaret Mitchell has is that she has to make Gerald weak in order to portray his wife as the strong person. But then he has to get both of them out of the way to show the strength of their daughter, who is bull-headed, cruel, and conniving, but also strong and resilient—the person who, in the end, holds everything together.
Scarlett had never seen her mother's back touch the back of any chair on which she sat.But we endure it because of Ellen's kindness—her perfection, if you will. Still, it is a troubling kindness. Ellen is the conscience of this book. She is there to underscore the nobility of Southern culture. But that includes putting a noble face on the institution of slavery—on the ownership of human beings as property. But is slavery less evil just because it is practiced by polite, refined people? It sure seems that way. This point was brought home to me in a powerful way during the ten years that I studied the Civil War, when I read a book called Children of Pride. Children of Pride is a collection of letters between the members of a southern family before, during, and after the American Civil War. Regularly they would end their letters by saying, “Howdy to the servants.” This was the family of a Presbyterian minister. They treated slaves with dignity and respect.
But after the war, the “servants” were freed. I will never forget reading a letter from the matron of the clan, the Presbyterian minister’s wife, expressing her sorrow and bewilderment about the fact that her slaves had just taken their things and left. Some of them she had cared for since they were babies. But you see, her slaves didn’t want to be taken care of. Her slaves were not pets. They were human beings, and the human spirit longs for freedom. Its amazing how human and kind you can make slavery look if you can manage to paint the right picture. Make the slave owner a cruel task master and slavery looks evil. But make the slave owner a benevolent, well mannered lady who is kind to the poor and treats the slaves with humanity (although not going so far in her humanity as to set them free), and slavery looks downright noble. The nobility with which one indulges a very ignoble custom does not somehow sanctify it. What’s wrong is wrong. But it does force us to ask if a person should be judged by the standards of the society in which she lives, or by some universal standard that transcends culture and commands obedience regardless of what is considered socially acceptable within the cultural milieu in which that person lives and was raised.
The question is a difficult one. How can a person’s actions be considered OK just because they happen in a culture where everyone around that person is doing the same thing and considers it perfectly normal? Yet, try as we will, we cannot bring ourselves to hate her, even though the politeness with which she practices slavery is, in some ways the most vile evil, because it makes evil look good. "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!" (Isaiah 5:20)
Throughout the story, Scarlett is torn between her strong attraction to Ashley, the neighbor boy who was supposed to marry her but instead married Melanie, and Rhett Butler, whom she scorned, but was passionately drawn to. That conflict runs as a constant theme through the book. But it seems apparent that she does not deserve someone like Ashley, and that, in the end, she would not have respected him. I will have more to say about Rhett and Ashley, but for now, suffice it to say that Scarlett is not defined by the men in her life. This is partly because she is a very self-centered individual, but also because, when the chips are down, she possesses a strength that supersedes that of the men she thinks she is attracted to.
Scarlett is selfish and manipulative—qualities that seems out of place and appear as weaknesses in polite society, but which stand out as strengths in the desperate poverty of Tara (her home) in the years right after the war.
As I mentioned earlier, the book sorta drags on after the war is over. I don’t know…maybe that’s because my primary reason for reading historical novels is to get history, and when the history is over, I see no more reason for the book to continue. Whatever the case, as long as there was the crisis of war, we were torn between our frustration with Scarlett’s selfishness and the extraordinary strength she exhibits in taking care of her family through the last days of a slowly dying culture. But after the war is over, she just keeps looking more and more pathetic and disgusting. There’s no more crisis to bring out the best parts of her character, so we just keep getting more and more tired of seeing her around.
As I mentioned, Scarlett is definitely the one who is supposed to be the heroine of this novel. But the author does not make her the most virtuous. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Margaret Mitchell sees Scarlett’s strength as itself all the virtue that is needed. But that can’t be right, because then why would she create a character like Melanie?
To get a grasp of how the author deals with these contradictions, you have to read the section describing the trauma of Melanie having a baby in her frail condition in the middle of a very horrible war, with her husband in some far flung battlefield. It’s part of how a master novelist creates the innate realization in the mind of every reader that these two people somehow need each other to be themselves. There is no way Melanie would have lived through that troublesome childbirth if Scarlett had not been there. And for all her hardness, there is never any question that Scarlett will do whatever is needed to keep Melanie alive and get her through the crisis. That is what makes us admire Scarlett in spite of the shallow superficiality that seems to characterize her dealings with people so much of the time.
But was Ashley really that nice a guy？ We find out toward the end of the book after he comes back from the war that he was actually a member of the Klan, because he and Frank (one of Scarlett’s husbands) went to avenge an attack on Scarlett by criminals (one of whom is Black) and Frank gets killed.
Pat Conroy, who wrote the preface to this particular edition, relates what his mother, who read Gone with the Wind to him once a year throughout his childhood, said to him about Ashley:
No matter what girls day, they’d much rather marry a man like Ashley Wilkes than RhettBut is that true? Scarlett wanted to marry Ashley, but spends the whole book finding out that he wouldn’t have been right for her, and ends up marrying a guy who has regular dealings with northerners. And although it is not related to the plot of this book, it is interesting to me that Pat Conroy’s mother, who made this statement, actually married a northerner. Here’s the rest of the conversation from the preface by Pat Conroy:
“I hate Ashley Wilkes,” my father would say. Literary criticism was not an art form conducted at a high level in my family, and I still do not believe my father ever read my mother’s sacred text. “That guy’s a pansy if I’ve ever seen one. Of course, Rhett Butler’s a pansy compared to me.”So what do you think? Both Scarlett and Pat Conroy’s mother claimed to prefer Ashley Wilkes, but both of them actually married men who couldn’t have been more different. And is Ashley really the kind of person that a virtuous woman should set her heart on? He is addicted to the past in a society that is being dragged into the future:
My mother would sniff and say, “Your father’s from Chicago. He doesn’t even know what we’re talking about.”
I do not know what the future will bring, but it cannot be as beautiful or as satisfying as the past.So why do women marry men who are the extreme polar opposite of the kind of man they say all women would prefer? In Scarlett’s case, it’s partly, of course, because Ashley married someone else. But she didn’t marry another man like him, she married someone about as different from him as one could imagine.
Whatever the answer to that question, Ashley is important in this book not because of some great feat of bravery that saves the day. He is important because he epitomizes the Old South, which everyone romanticizes, but which seems doomed from the very beginning, and because Scarlett is so obsessed with him. But toward the end of the book, as Scarlett’s obsession wanes, Ashley becomes largely irrelevant.
Rhett Butler epitomizes the person who lives for himself in defiance of standards and custom and honor. He stands in contrast to Ashley, who is addicted to the Old South.
Butler is perhaps the most conflicting character in this book. We have a love-hate relationship with him from the very beginning, and I suspect the author does too. He is at once shallow, unconnected, and selfish, but at the same time, practical, realistic, and helpful.
As I was reading this book, I tended to think that Margaret Mitchell used him to give the rational, real world view to the discussion at hand. But sometimes he (or Mitchell) takes this to a rather irritating extreme. I’ve not decided yet whether this is poor writing or brilliance. But one thing is clear: In terms of history, Rhett Butler is the most important character in the book, because he and he alone brings a real perspective to the events taking over the South as mentioned previously.
He is presented as the opportunist who cares not for causes, and takes advantage of events for his own benefit:
There's just as much money to be made in the wreck of a civilization than in the upbuilding of one. -Listening to this, we see a man who does not grieve for the loss of the Southern society, because he is profiting from it. But, inexplicably, at one point he joins the Confederate army. His impulsiveness is completely unexpected, given his behavior and statements up to that point. He himself is baffled by it:
I cannot understand why I did not desert. It was all the purest insanity. But it's in one's blood. Southerners can never resist a losing cause.So at the same time as he is disparaging the Confederate cause, he is identifying himself (reluctantly, it seems) as incurably Southern in his thinking. He has an ingrained politeness toward woman that expresses itself over and over, yet he seems to be completely amoral in his view of marriage and the idea of being committed and faithful to one person:
I've always felt that women had a hardness and endurance unknown to men, despite the pretty idea taught me in childhood that women are frail, tender, sensitive creatures. But after all, according to the Continental code of etiquette, it's very bad form for husband and wife to love each other. Very bad taste, indeed. I've always felt that the Europeans had the right idea in that matter. Marry for convenience and love for pleasure. A sensible system, don't you think? You are closer to the old country than I thought.So who is he, really? I don't know that we ever quite find out, because as soon as we think we have him pegged, he surprises us. Cynical opportunist, yet loyal to the cause in crisis. He forces the question we addressed with Ashley: Why do women end up with men who seem to be the opposite of what they themselves say that most women would prefer? For the purposes of history, he is the one person who reminds us throughout that the Southern cause is futile. But he also reminds us that sometimes one embraces a cause even though it is futile, because to neglect it would be unthinkable. Better to die fighting a losing battle than surrender what you hold dear for the sake of mere survival. That’s what seemed to motivate his decision to join the Confederate army, yet, to the end of the book I was not sure that he ever really believed that.
She is loyal to a fault, and given to her role as the protector of the family. Never does she disparage her position, or indicate in any way that she would rather be something else. She does disparage two particular kinds of people: slaves whom she did not think were up to her standard,
Mammy waddled back into the hall and Scarlett heard her call softly up the stairwell to the upstairs maid.and poor Whites who did not possess the superiority she expected from White people:
"You, Rosa! Drap me Miss Scarlett's shawl." Then, more loudly: "Wuthless n-----! She ain' never what she does nobody no good. Now, Ah got her to climb up an' get it mahself."
"Ah has said time an' again, it doan do no good doin' nuthin' for w'ite trash. Dey is de shiftlesses, mos' ungrateful passel of no-counts livin'. An' Miss Ellen got no bizness weahin herself out waitin' on folks dat did dey be wuth shootin' dey'd have n------ ter wait on dem. An' Ah has said--"But how accurate is a character like Mammy? How many slaves stayed with their masters after they were given freedom? This book implies that slaves liked being slaves, and that they voluntarily stayed with their masters. In fact, a very small minority of the slaves stayed with their masters. You see, slaves were treated as a higher level of livestock, and it was a shock for many slave owners, especially kind slave owners, to see their slaves just up and leave when they were given their freedom. Human beings long for freedom, and their owners shouldn’t have been surprised when they promptly got up and left after emancipation. In my lecture on the Civil War I mentioned the matron of the family featured in Children of Pride, but there were many other such situations. Their shock and dismay only underscores the depth of their racism.
Still, there were those who were torn between the love for their white host families and their freedom. It doesn’t seem to have been a large number—historian Eugene Genovese puts it at fifteen percent.
So there were those like Mammy who stayed, but she is not at all representative. And the interesting thing is that the house servants were the least likely to stay. So the impression created by the way the end of the war is portrayed in this book is bogus. It just didn’t happen that way in most cases. Mammy is a myth.
Reading Margaret Mitchell’s novel I sometimes got the same feeling I had in Pingyao. The effect is created, in part, by filling the novel with many, many characters who, although not important in themselves, tend to give the novel life because, well, that’s the way real life is. You meet people all the time whose lives intersect yours in ways that are not apparently significant, but collectively give you a feeling of humanity.
Anyway, I had assumed that Mrs. Tarleton was one of these tangential characters—a nervous woman who was obsessed with her horses. That is, until I read this statement after the war by Mrs Tarleton when she discovered that her beloved Thoroughbreds were gone, and a mule was living in their paddock:
It's an insult to the memory of my blooded darlings to have a mule in their paddock. Mules are misbegotten, unnatural critters and it ought to be illegal to breed them.First of all, strictly speaking, you can’t breed a mule. You can only create a mule by breeding a jackass with a mare. Mules have 63 chromosomes, so they cannot produce offspring. They are sterile females. But the implication is troubling.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think anything of interracial marriage. It was very rare. I grew up as a white minority in Japanese communities. I was born in Tokyo, but the place where we lived was actually in the countryside of northern Japan, where there were very few foreigners. We actually had close relationships with Japanese people, but the idea of intermarriage never even occurred to us. Of all the MKs I knew as a kid, the only one who married a Japanese person was my brother Mark. But that was years later after we had left Japan and had lived in America for quite a few years. We were never opposed to it when I was growing up. It just didn’t happen.
But in America the issue was very different. Interracial marriage was a highly contentious issue. It was called “miscegenation,” a term I had never heard until I read an article by Jimmy Swaggart opposing it. I was floored. Why would anyone be opposed to a Black person marrying a White person? But my first introduction to the issue was earlier than that. We went to a drive-in theater in Fergus Falls a year or two after returning from Japan and saw a movie called “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,” a story about a young White woman who brings home a Black man to visit her parents. If you’re interested in the issue, you should see the film, because it was put on the National Film Registry because of it’s perceived significance.
Anyway, I remember watching the film without any feeling that it was that big a deal. You see, during that part of my childhood that occurred in America, I lived in Midwestern communities that had very few black people. I had no idea how contentious this issue had been in the South (again, until I read Jimmy Swaggart’s article, and realized that even Christians were caught up in this nonsense). I should clarify that I do not know if Jimmy Swaggart still holds this position. It could be that he, like Bob Jones University has turned from his former belief.
But getting back to my point, I had originally dismissed Mrs. Tarleton’s neurotic ramblings about her beloved Thoroughbreds as really insignificant expressions of her obsession with her pets. You see, I had been educated about Thoroughbreds. It happened shortly after we moved to the United States from Japan when I was thirteen years old. I was talking with my cousins about horses. I had never heard of the “Thoroughbred” breed. I thought the word thoroughbred meant “full-blooded” or “purebred.” It actually does mean that when you’re talking about dogs, but you can’t use it for that purpose when you’re talking about horses, because there is a breed of horse by that name. Here is now the conversation developed—remember, this is a conversation between a kid who has just come to America from Japan and had never heard of the Thoroughbred breed, and Dakota farm kids who are aware that there is a breed of horse called a “Thoroughbred.”
“What kind of horse is that?”
“Is it a thoroughbred Quarter Horse?”
“No. Just plain Quarter Horse.”
“Just Quarter Horse? Nothing else?”
“Nothing else. Just Quarter Horse.”
“Well, then it is a thoroughbred Quarter Horse.”
“No. no. It’s not a Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse. It’s just a Quarter Horse.”
“But is it pure Quarter Horse?”
“Well, then it is a thoroughbred.”
“Nope. It’s a Quarter Horse.”
Uncle Otto finally straightened me out. I wasn’t stupid, you see. Just completely ignorant and uncultured regarding horse breeds. I thought thoroughbred meant “full blooded” or “purebred,” which it certainly does if you’re talking about dogs. But again, you cannot use the word that way when you’re talking about horses. We did not have the Internet in those days, but fortunately for me, Dad was a sucker for encyclopedia salesmen. You can bet I did what I had to to get up to speed. Now, if you talk to the owner of an Arabian, he’ll tell you that the only pure breed is the Arabian horse. But I digress. We won’t go there.
You can understand my reaction, then, at the beginning of the book when I encountered Mrs Tarleton and her beloved Thoroughbreds.
It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just the name of a breed, I thought. I was educated, you see. So I just blew it off. But that statement by Mrs. Tarleton at the end of the war stopped me in my tracks. Let me explain why the analogy is so hideous.
A mule is the offspring of a jackass and a mare. Horses and donkeys are fundamentally different. They have different numbers of chromosomes. So a mule has an odd number of chromosomes, and thus cannot have offspring. Every mule is a sterile female. Thus you cannot mate two mules. Every time you want to get a baby mule, you must start over with a jackass and a mare. To compare marriage between Blacks and Whites to a jackass mating with a mare is disgusting. The term “interracial marriage” is a misnomer. To have interracial marriage you need at least two races, and there is only one race. It’s called the human race. Minor differences like skin color are insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
I have three daughters. Two of them have brown hair and one of them has blonde hair. Does that mean that there are two different races in my family? Well, if you consider two people with different hair colors as being from two different races, then I suppose so. Should we really do that? Should we really start talking about the brown haired race and the blond haired race? Why not? We do it all the time with skin color, why not with hair color?
But it’s completely ridiculous. And it’s a savage, cruel insult to Black people. Come on, you guys—you know the implication. If you breed a donkey with a race horse, the offspring will be a better work animal than the jackass, but it will never be a faster race horse than the mare. And this is the thinking behind restrictions against interracial marriage and interracial dating that persisted at institutions like Bob Jones University for so many years.
“We can’t have our beautiful race horses marrying those crude….I can’t say it. Most of the people today who are always whining about “systemic racism” have never seen real racism.
Theme. What is the “theme” of a work? Well, first I should say that with many works of literature, including this one, it can be hard to find one overarching theme. This can be because of the author’s design, or it can be because of the reader’s experience. For example, if you had just come from fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, you might immediately say that the overarching theme of this book is “war.” But if your life has been profoundly affected by complicated family relationships, you might say that the overarching theme is “family,” and that war was just the outward circumstance used by the author to underscore the way members of a family relate to each other in crisis.
Skim through this list of themes quickly and see which one(s) you relate to the most:
|Theme||Theme Definition||Theme Examples|
|Circle of Life||What comes around, goes around. The Circle of Life dwells on life’s transience and impermanence: how death isn’t death, just an evolution.||
|Coming of Age||Also known as a bildungsroman, Coming of Age involves the intense experiences of growing up, and how these experiences shape the future of the protagonist.||
|Faith vs Doubt||Whether it’s faith in God, other people, or the protagonist’s own self, believing isn’t easy—but is it worth doing anyway?||
|Family||Many families are connected by blood, but to overcome certain obstacles, literary families must strengthen their ties to each other.||
|Fate vs Free Will||How much of our actions are decided by fate, and how much does free will really control?||
|Good vs Evil||One can argue that every story is about good vs evil, assuming the story has a protagonist and antagonist. Still, good and evil are in eternal conflict with each other, so writers must document how this conflict evolves.||
|Hubris||Hubris refers to excessive self-confidence and the terrible decisions that arise from it. Many works of literature explore hubris as man’s defiance of God/the gods, or else man himself playing God.||
|Identity||At some point in their life, the protagonist asks the question: who am I?
Additionally, “Identity” refers to the qualities that make one person distinct from another. How much of a difference exists between you and I?
|Justice||What makes a society just? What are the proper consequences for people who do the wrong thing? Who is best equipped to dispense justice? Are we collectively responsible for each other’s actions?||
|Loneliness||Loneliness affects the way people think, act, and view the world. The theme of loneliness charts how certain characters contend with their loneliness, and whether man can survive this disconnection from others.||
|Man vs Nature||Man’s natural inclination is to dominate the land, but nature has its own means of survival.||
|Man vs Self||Sometimes, the protagonist is their own adversary. In order to overcome certain challenges, the protagonist must first overcome their own internal conflicts.||
|Man vs Society||When the story’s antagonist is society-at-large, the protagonist must convince the world that it’s sick—or else die trying. Some protagonists also try to escape society altogether.||
|Power and Corruption||Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This theme is often closely related to “Man vs Society.” Additionally, “Power” can refer to a person’s political leadership, personal wealth, physical prowess, etc.||
|Pursuit of Love||Love makes the world go round, but it’s not always easy to find. Whether it’s romantic, familial, or platonic love, there’s much to be said about love’s pursuit—and the conflict that comes from pursuing it.||
|Revenge||When someone wrongs you or the people you love, revenge is tempting. But, is revenge worth it? Can revenge beget justice? And how far is too far?||
|Sacrificial Love||When you truly love someone, you’re willing to sacrifice everything for them. Sacrifice is a component of all themes concerning love, though this is especially true for stories about motherly love.||
|Survival||When survival is at stake, people discover the limits of their own power. The theme of survival applies to stories about being lost in the wilderness, but it also applies to stories about the survival of ideas, groups, and humanity-at-large.||
|The Environment||Whether it’s because of technology, climate change, or our increasingly online world, man’s relationship to the environment is ever-evolving. Themes in literature concerning the environment often coincide with “man vs nature.”||
|War||Mankind has been at war with itself since the dawn of civilization. The causes of war, as well as its impacts on society, are topics of frequent musing by writers—especially writers who have been at war themselves.||
This is really an excellent article, which you should read when you have time. But for our purposes here, I just want you to look the list and see which ones you relate to the most. You see, I could probably find some way to argue that every one of these themes relates in some way to Gone with the Wind. I can’t address all of them. So for our purposes, I am going to focus on four main themes:
First is racism, because that is the foundational value that underlies everything else that happens in this story. Second, I want to talk about slavery, because this is the issue over which the war was fought. The third theme I am going to address is war (or maybe more genaricly conflict, because war is the inevitable result of a complete inability to manage conflict). The final theme I am going to talk about is redemption. I want to talk about redemption not because this book is such an excellent example of it, but because this book shows what a world without redemption is like.
What I want to do in this section is to discuss the ways in which this book seems to indicate racist attitudes among whites and also among some slaves. Racism was all but universal among the southern landed aristocracy. That is, it would be virtually impossible to find a southerner at that time in history who did not believe that Blacks were genetically inferior to whites. Here’s Robert E. Lee:
“General, you are very competent to judge the capacity of black men for acquiring knowledge,” said Senator Howard. “I want your opinion on that capacity, as compared with the capacity of white men.”Most people today would identify that as a racist sentiment. That’s why studying the Civil War is useful. People today who argue bitterly about whether or not racism in still ingrained in American society will all agree that it certainly was then. You see, if two people who have very different view points about a given issue, can find at least one thing they agree on, it will be easier for them to begin to narrow the gap between them.
“I do not know that I am particularly qualified to speak on that subject,” Lee replied, “But I do not think that he is as capable of acquiring knowledge as the white man is.” Black people are “an amiable, social race,” Lee told the committee. They will work briefly to earn their sustenance, but they aren’t inclined to prolonged hard work: “They like their ease and comfort.” [“Robert E. Lee Faces Congress” in American History]
But running parallel to the idea that the Negroes (and again, that’s not the “N” word) were inferior, was the idea that people who treated this inferior race kindly were good people:
With unerring African instinct, the Negroes had all discovered that Gerald had a large bark and no bite at all, and they took shameless advantage of him. The air was always thick with threats of selling slaves south and of direful whippings, but there never had been a slave sold from Tara, and only one whipping, and that administered for not grooming down Gerald's pet horse after a long day's hunting.So a man who keeps slaves in bondage is portrayed as a “good” man because he treats his captives “well.” In addition to this, those who are held for servitude are swept up in the attitude, with all of their focus on how slaves are treated, rather than the fact that there are slaves at all. Listen to Dilcey discussing the racial proclivities of her husband and daughter:
The bronze giantess did not grin or squirm under praise like the other negroes. She turned an immobile face to Scarlett and said with dignity: "Thankee, Ma'm, but Mist’ Gerald and Miss Ellen been good to me. Mist’ Gerald buy my Prissy so I wouldn't grieve and I doan forgit it. I is part Indian and Indians doan forgit them as is good to them. I is sorry 'bout my Prissy. She mighty wuthless. Look lak she all nigger lak her pa. Her pa was mighty flighty.And overshadowing everything is the fundamental belief that slaves were genetically “born” for servitude. How many slaves actually believed this is an open question. But the White majority who perpetrated this institution and benefited from it seemed to want to convince themselves that Blacks were contented with their lot.
How much of what Margaret Mitchell says about Black people is meant to give us a feel for how Blacks were viewed by the White majority population, and how much of what she says reflects her own view of slaves and how they thought? Is Margaret Mitchell herself a racist? Well, sometimes it can be hard to tell how much of a given novel expresses the author’s own feelings. But look at this comparison the author makes between Dilcey and Mammy:
Dilcey was tall and bore herself erectly. She might have been any age from thirty to sixty, so unlined was her immobile bronze face. Indian blood was plain in her features, overbalancing the Negroid characteristics. The red color of her skin, narrow high forehead, prominent cheekbones and the hawk-bridged nose which flattened at the end above thick Negro lips, all showed the mixture of two races. She was self-possessed and walked with a dignity that surpassed even Mammy's, for Mammy had acquired her dignity and Dilcey's was in her blood.Pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that Margaret Mitchell herself believed that character qualities like dignity were genetically bestowed. This thinking was so deeply embedded in the Southern mindset, that most Southerners would have been shocked to hear it described as racist. And since we are on the subject, how much do any of us tend to see these kinds of qualities as genetically related? Racism is subtle, you guys. Remember my definition of racism now from my racism podcast episode:
Racism: The belief that moral qualities are genetically derived.Do you believe that? If you do, you are racist. Did Margaret Mitchell intend for racism to be part of the theme of this book? Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether she is trying to show how racist people are, or trying to justify these attitudes by structuring the behavior of her characters so as to confirm them. You be the judge.
The N-word. I did discuss this in my Racism podcast, but since it is an audio file, I cannot link the to a specific paragraphs, so if you don’t have time to go and listen to the whole thing, I’m going to give it to you in summary. In this segment, I am going to be talking about three words: Negro, nigra, and nigger. The last one, of course, is the infamous N-word. There is a fourth one I have heard: Nigga. Jussie Smollett used it in a tweet about Donald Trump. Yes, this racist name calling goes both ways. Jussie Smollett calling Trump a “Nigga” is not different from any White man calling any Black man a “nigger.”
But let’s get to the definitions.
- Negro Young people born after the Civil Rights period are not aware of the fact that “Negro” is the polite term that Blacks actually wanted to be called. Martin Luther King Jr. used it in his speeches. Malcolm X used it in his speeches. Some time ago on a Fox program called the Five, I heard a quote from Joe Biden where he used the word Negro. This was presented as an example of using an ethnic slur. That’s very unfair. I am not a fan of Biden, but he was using the term that was the polite term at that time. Nobody had ever heard the term “Black.”
So why did Blacks stop using it and just start calling themselves, “Black?” It was because they couldn't get people to say it. They would either say “Nigra” or “Nigger.” Racism dies hard. When I was in middle school..eighth or ninth grade, I was in a group discussion competition. Discussion competition is something that seems to have died away as a forensic competition. I was trying to set up something like that for my students at CYU several years ago, so I searched for schools that had something like that, and the only one I could find was at university in India. Anyway, this was in the late sixties, and we were dealing with the issue of race, and one of the kids on our team who was seen as a bit of a nerd, announced in Cliff Clavin fashion that the Negroes just wanted to be called “Black” now. Those other socially conscious White boys reacted with horror at such an absurd statement. Their ridicule was merciless. How can you say that?! How would you like it if we called you “Whitey?” They were appalled that he could even think something so ridiculous. But of course, the nerd was right. So the term “Negro” passed out of common use—so much so that today’s historically challenged Americans think of it as an ethnic slur. I wonder how they would feel if someone decided that the proper name of their own ethnic background was an ethnic slur that couldn’t be mentioned in polite company? If someone tried to tell me that the term “Norwegian” was a name to be ashamed of, and than I could not say it in public, I would be insulted.
- Nigra I try to see the best in people, so I am willing to believe that the use of this word was mainly careless for some people. Rather insensitive carelessness, but not necessarily intended to hurt. Jimmy Carter, in this book Turning Point : A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age talks about when he was first elected to the State Legislature in Georgia, and a senior Black legislator was trying to teach the White newbies how to say “Negro” correctly. He would touch his knee and then put his hands together and pull them apart slowly to indicate growing. You see, Blacks at that time were not ashamed of the word “Negro” any more than you are ashamed of the proper name of your ethnic background. They just wanted people to say it properly and respectfully. Is that really too much to ask? The fact that they had to come up with a term like “Black” to avoid having the name of their ethnicity slurred (whether in contempt or just insensitively) is a sad commentary on the attitude Southern Whites had toward Blacks at that point in history. The word “Negro” isn’t that hard to say. No German vowels or Middle Eastern consonants. There was just no good reason for any native speaker of English not to say it politely and correctly.
- Nigger This, of course, is the infamous “N” word. Nobody argues about this one today. But how did it get started? And when did it become viewed as an ethnic slur?
I was talking about this with my friend Bill. I asked him if he thought Margaret Mitchell was a racist. He said he didn’t think so. I said, “You sure see the N-word a lot in that book.”
“It wasn’t a racist term back then.”
He has a point. Here’s LBJ:
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson appointed Marshall Solicitor General. When Marshall hesitated, Johnson’s closing argument was, “I want folks to walk down the hall at the Justice Department and look in the door and see a nigger sitting there.” Two years later Johnson appointed Marshall to the Supreme Court.So could we say on the basis of this that Johnson was a racist? I personally don’t think that. LBJ pushed through the massive civil rights legislation that changed America for Black folks. I do not think he was a racist. But I do think perhaps even at that time it was a careless way to talk.
I grew up in Japan, but for four years in my childhood I lived in America. I went to first grade in America. I remember even at that time Mom told us we must never say that word. She told us we should call them “colored people.” We went back to Japan in 1961, so this would have been either the late fifties or very early sixties. So it has been a negative word for as long as I can remember. And it is of note that even Blacks use the term to refer to other Blacks they don’t like:
So is this racist? No, it isn’t. Notice the audience is also Black, and they’re applauding wildly. You see, the behavior Chris Rock is describing is stuff we all deplore. The difference is that he is not attributing it to genetics. After all, Chris Rock himself is Black. It is not racism. It is culturalism. Remember my explanation of the difference between the two.
Sometimes White people will say, “If Blacks can use that word, why can’t I?” But it’s not the same. If a White person gave this same lecture it wouldn’t go over very well, because people would assume that the White person was saying those people act that way just because they are Black. So White people definitely shouldn’t use it. If you are criticizing the behavior of a group of people, it is important to clarify that you are not attributing that behavior to race. If you are sure to do that, it is not wrong to talk about wrong behavior which has become acceptable in a given culture. Here is Paul the Apostle in the Book of Titus:
One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, "Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons." (Titus 1:12)This is not racism. It is a criticism of cultural norms which have become degenerate. The “prophet” Paul is referring to was Epimenides, who was basically doing the same thing as Chris Rock in the video above—criticizing his own ethnicity for behavior patterns which represent a degeneration of culture. If we we say or imply that these moral qualities are genetically derived then there is no hope—you’re just born that way. But if we emphasize that they are culturally derived, then there is hope, because these patterns of behavior can be repented of and changed. Missionaries go to other countries to spread the Christian message because missionaries are not racists. They believe that people can become different if they allow God to change their hearts.
There are two basic texts to view with regard to the rules for Biblical slavery. So let’s look at both of them, and then I will try to compile a composite list:
Exodus 21:1 Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.OK, let’s see if we can put these two together:
Exodus 21:2 If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
Exodus 21:3 If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.
Exodus 21:4 If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself.
Exodus 21:5 And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:
Exodus 21:6 Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever. (also note Deuteronomy 15)
Deuteronomy 15:12 "If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.
Deuteronomy 15:13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed.
Deuteronomy 15:14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.
Deuteronomy 15:15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.
Deuteronomy 15:16 But if he says to you, 'I will not go out from you,' because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you,
Deuteronomy 15:17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same.
Deuteronomy 15:18 It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.
- The slave was required to serve for six years. During that time he was not free. He was a slave.
- There is some disagreement about what Deuteronomy 15:18 means. Presumably, it is saying here that the slave had only his lodging and food provided, whereas a hired servant had a salary in addition to that.
- After six years of slavery, the slave was released in the seventh year. The master was required to give him provisions so that he could spend the seventh year setting himself up in business, or whatever.
- If the slave decided that he did not want to leave his master, he could have his ear pierced with an awl, and then he would be a slave for life, and his master would be required to provide for him for the rest of his life.
In addition to all of this, there was one more rule for Biblical slavery that would have horrified the Southern plantation owners: If, after everything was said and done, and the slave who had decided to stay with his master had had his ear pierced and voluntarily bound himself for the rest of his life—if, later, he became unhappy, he could run away, and the law strictly forbade returning him to his master:
Deuteronomy 23:15 You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you.In sharp contrast to this, the Southern plantation owners pushed through the Fugitive Slave Law. This is not something they would have done if they really wanted their system of slavery to be in harmony with the Bible. Not only that, but later, when they fought against the Union in the Civil War, they clamed to be fighting for “states rights.” But their support for the Fugitive Slave Law exposed their hypocrisy. Forcing Northern states to return escaped slaves to the South does not show a respect for the right of every state to determine what happens within their borders.
Deuteronomy 23:16 He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.
I did find a text that seems to justify returning slaves to their masters:
If any one find runaway male or female slaves in the open country and bring them to their masters, the master of the slaves shall pay him two shekels of silver. If the slave will not give the name of the master, the finder shall bring him to judgment; a further investigation must follow, and the slave shall be returned to his master.Does this not appear to be a contradiction to what I have just said?
Yes, it is.
How can this contradiction be explained?
Very simply. This text is not from the Bible. It is from the Code of Hammurabi. You see, pagans return slaves to their masters. But Godly people do not do this.
So where does Margaret Mitchell come down on this issue. This, in my opinion, is the most important reason to read this book. Over and over again as I read through this book, I noticed implications that the Black slaves were comfortable with their lot in life. You make your own judgment, but if you are expecting this book to be a diatribe against slavery, I think you’re going to be disappointed.
Sometimes the temptation to conflict is just too great. But why do people go to war? It hurts so many people. The King James Bible says “Only by pride cometh contention.” I believe that is a slight mistranslation. The American Standard Version of 1901 puts it this way: “By pride cometh only contention.” But let’s look at the Interlinear and focus on that one phrase directly from Hebrew: “Strife comes by pride.”
Most Americans have heard about Pearl Harbor. But most Americans are not aware that Japan actually invaded the United States. My uncle was wounded fighting the Japanese in the Battle of Attu:
And there were defense placements on the west coast anticipating an attack from Japan.
The Japanese clearly bit off more than they could chew. This is the result of the hubris I mentioned. It is the one thing for which Margaret Mitchell criticizes the South in this book.
Winston Churchill contrasted the American Civil War with World War II. He believed that World War II was the most avoidable war in history and that the American Civil War was the least avoidable war in history. I think he's right. World War II could easily have been avoided if a stand had been taken against Hitler from the very beginning. The Civil War was different, because it involved a fundamental change of life for the Southern landed aristocracy. Their plantation lifestyle was dismantled. We can understand their determination to fight to protect their lifestyle. You should fight for what you hold dear. But the problem is that their lifestyle depended on keeping their fellow man in bondage.
And slavery and this bondage was intolerable to conscientious Northern people who ordinarily would have considered Southern concerns non of their business.
Sometimes in discussing the Civil War with advocates of the Southern cause, you will hear people say stuff like, “The Southerners were just getting ready to give up their slaves anyway.” Don’t you believe it. Here’s Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy in 1861:
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.No, my friends. The Southern Whites were wholeheartedly given to slavery as a right they were willing to fight and die for. For all his protestations about slavery as a "moral evil," Robert E. Lee kept his own slaves until the very last millisecond he was allowed to legally, and whipped them when they tried to run away.
So Churchill was right. I am not sure if his reasons for saying it were exactly the same as mine, but clearly the American Civil War was unavoidable. It did take a war to pry the slaves from the clutches of the Southern plantation owners.
If both sides could have allowed tempers to cool, there might have been a way to make the transition away from slavery that would not have created quite such a shock to the economy of the South. Hubris prevented that from happening, and the war came.
Winston Churchill really admired the American Civil War. He included it in this History of the English Speaking People. He thought it was a noble war, and in some ways he was right. The generals on both sides had been classmates at West Point, and had fought side by side in the Mexican War. The Mexican War was the training ground for Civil War officers, just as World War I was the training ground for World War II officers.
Churchill was born in 1874, which was not long after the Civil War ended. For his twelfth birthday, he asked his mom to give him a copy of Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs. If I remember correctly, it was originally published in two volumes, but I think you can get a one volume edition now. I read it many years ago, and I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to get an understanding of the Civil War, but it would have been quite a chore for a twelve-year-old.
Later, he studied the Civil War under G.F. Henderson at Sandhurst (British equivalent of West Point), and said that the American Civil War was "the most interesting of all the wars of which I have read."
Churchill’s sentiments lay more with the South than the North. But his sense of justice forced him to admit that injustice of slavery was insurmountable;
Of all the wars that men have fought, none was more noble than the Civil War in America. But all the heroism of the South could not redeem their cause from the stain of slavery.As contradictory as it sounds, there is a moral element to war, you guys. It does matter about the cause.
The American Civil War was a “gentleman’s war” in contrast with the Vietnam War, which was savage. As I said, the officers on both sides were former classmates. They were friends and acquaintances.
“It’s so nice to see a polite war between gentlemen where bloodshed can be kept to a minimum.”
Are you kidding? Sixty thousand American soldiers lost their lives in the Vietnam war. Six hundred thousand men died in the Civil War. Here me well, my friends: When gentlemen go to war, they kill each other just as dead as in any other war. War is horrible, you guys. There is no such thing as a good war.
Yes, of course we should study just war theory, and we should prosecute war crimes. And of course we should try to protect the women and children on both sides. But war is a sad and terrible curse. We try to minimize it’s effects when we cannot prevent it, but oh, for the day when we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside and study war no more!
He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire. (Psalm 46:9)
Strictly speaking, redemption is not a religious concept at all. Here is a dictionary definition of “redeem:”
Gain or regain possession of (something) in exchange for payment.So the very act of redemption implies buying something back that has been lost. And it often describes something to which you are entitled without payment. The story I heard several times in Sunday School is the story of the little boy who had a toy boat. He was playing with this toy boat down by the riverside and his boat somehow got away from him. He chased this boat downstream as it floated away. But there was nothing he could do, because it was out of his reach. Some time later he was walking by the window of a pawn shop and he saw his boat! He was very excited. He walked into the store and explained to the shop keeper that the boat sitting in the window was actually his boat. The shopkeeper was not impressed. He thought this was the flimsiest effort to steal something that he had ever heard. He demanded full price, and the boy wanted his boat back very badly, so he paid it. He bought the boat that was already his. He redeemed it at the full price demanded by the shopkeeper. This is redemption. For redemption to happen, somebody has to pay the price for buying back that which was already once purchased.
So how did it get to be a religious word, and what relevance does that had to anything in this story? Pretty easy to figure that out. If we believe that God has created us to have fellowship with him, and that we were stolen away by sin, and then God had to buy us back with the blood of his own Son, then we can see that the word “redemption” could be a pretty good word for describing this process.
But how does that relate to this book? Where is the redemption in this story?
That’s the problem. There isn’t any. Throughout the book, the end of the institution of slavery is viewed as a sad tragedy, and slaves are viewed as basically happy with their lot. The N-word appears a lot, of course, but most of the time spoken by slaves about other slaves they viewed as lower than themselves.
Contrast this with Harriet Elisabeth Stowe’s description of the slave warehouse in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
A SLAVE warehouse! Perhaps some of my readers conjure up horrible visions of such a place. They fancy some foul, obscure den, some horrible Tartarus "informis, ingens, cui lumen ademptum." But no, innocent friend; in these days men have learned the art of sinning expertly and genteelly, so as not to shock the eyes and senses of respectable society. Human property is high in the market; and is, therefore, well fed, well cleaned, tended, and looked after, that it may come to sale sleek, and strong, and shining. A slave-warehouse in New Orleans is a house externally not much unlike many others, kept with neatness; and where every day you may see arranged, under a sort of shed along the outside, rows of men and women, who stand there as a sign of the property sold within.You see, Stowe portrays the lot of the slave as sad and unjust, while Mitchell portrays the slaves as “needing” slavery in order to be happy:
Then you shall be courteously entreated to call and examine, and shall find an abundance of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and young children, to be "sold separately, or in lots to suit the convenience of the purchaser;" and that soul immortal, once bought with blood and anguish by the Son of God, when the earth shook, and the rocks rent, and the graves were opened, can be sold, leased, mortgaged, exchanged for groceries or dry goods, to suit the phases of trade, or the fancy of the purchaser.
Ah done had nuff freedom. 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.This is not to say that Margaret Mitchell glorifies every aspect of Southern life. Not at all. If you look back at the Pat Conroy’s statement I referred to earlier, Conroy uses the word “Utopia” to describe the Southern plantation lifestyle. But that is his word, not Margaret Mitchell’s. To her credit, although she seems to justify slavery, and (according to Conroy) mocks the sensationalism of the slave escape at the beginning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she also shows the dark side of White Southern life. Over and over again.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a moral sermon. It shows the evil of slavery by creating a picture of it as sad and cruel. It ends in a tragedy. Uncle Tom is beaten to death by Simon Legree (with the help of two slaves).
But the tragedy has purpose. It is redeeming. Uncle Tom breathes words of forgiveness to Legree and to the two slaves who did the dirty work, as he leads the two slaves to faith in Jesus Christ. The son of his previous master (the one who sold him to Legree) is so moved by the tragedy of Tom’s cruel death that he vows never to own slaves again:
It was on his grave, my friends, that I resolved, before God, that I would never own another slave, while it was possible to free him; that nobody, through me, should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation, as he died. So, when you rejoice in your freedom, think that you owe it to that good old soul, and pay it back in kindness to his wife and children. Think of your freedom, every time you see Uncle Tom’s Cabin ; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was.So Uncle Tom’s Cabin begins in desperation, but ends in hope, and forgiveness, and freedom.
Gone with the Wind ends with “I don’t give a damn,” and that pretty much sums it up. No remorse. No repentance. No expression of sorrow for the terrible institution of slavery which they had perpetrated against the poor people who were kidnapped by slave traders, packed into crowded conditions on slave ships—where slaves who died were summarily tossed overboard—sold like livestock in slave markets, and forced to work without pay as the personal property of the plantation owners who did their work by the “sweat of other men’s faces,” as Lincoln put it.
To be sure, there are expressions of remorse for the stupidity of the hotheads who fired on Fort Sumpter and started a war that they could not win and that took their lifestyle away from them—a lifestyle that included the beloved institution of slavery that made their lives so much easier. But remorse for slavery itself? You won’t find it in this book. Just pathetic people living Godless lives and waiting for the Devil to take their souls.
I had originally planned a fifth theme: Judgment. But I decided against it. Not that judgment is not an important subject. It is. Terribly important. But while judgment is certainly an important theme of the Civil War—if the Civil War were a novel judgment would probably be first on my list—it is not a theme of this book. There is nothing about judgment in this book. These are people who do not fear God . So I will address the subject of judgment in a separate post at a later time.
What this book is really about is loss. I guess you could say that loss is the overarching theme of Gone with the Wind. The story itself describes the loss of antebellum Southern culture. But in describing this loss, once cannot help but notice the loss suffered by those who had been taken captive and pressed into slavery. The Southerners suffered the loss of heirlooms. The slaves never had a chance to have heirlooms. You see the idyllic life of the plantation owners required denying the slaves the right to have the things that normal humans appreciate as part of their lives. Think about this: there was nothing the Southern Whites lost that they had not already been depriving Black slaves of for centuries.
The antebellum South was a polite, refined culture. It had much to commend it. And that is certainly part of the story. But we will never understand the Civil War until we come to terms with what was wrong with it. There is a measure of virtue I use as a student of culture, to evaluate a culture in terms of it’s level of humanity. For lack of a better term, I have called my measuring stick “economic virtue.”
What is the economic virtue of a society? It is not GDP. It is not the per capita income. It is not the amount of money the government gives people so that they don’t have to work for a living. Economic virtue comes down to one question: How possible is it for someone with nothing to become prosperous and successful if he is willing to work hard? If it is very possible, then this is an economically virtuous society. But if this sort of mobility is impossible, then this society has a very low level of economic virtue. Like they used to say about river life in Asia, “If you’re born on a sampan, you will die on a sampan.”
But if living on a sampan still givcs you a chance to get ahead so that you can eventually do something different, then it isn’t a bad thing at all. You be the judge. You see, this is the problem with American slavery. It assumed that the slaves would always be slaves. And their children after them. And their children’s children, and their children’s So it is not the slavery itself, but the racist nature of American slavery. It left the Blacks with no future. Now some would counter that indentured servitude in the north wasn’t that good either, and certainly it’s true that if your conditions of indentured servitude are so severe that you end up dying before your indenture is up, then you don’t have much of a future there either. But clearly a system like American slavery, where lack of a future is literally baked into the pie is a system with zero economic virtue.
It is amazing what you an endure if you know that it is temporary. But if there is no future—if you are destined to be a slave, if there is no way out, then two people doing exactly the same work could have very different views about what that work meant to them.
I spent seven years in the trucking industry. That seven years was a difficult time in some ways, but also a very positive experience in other ways. I should have kept a list of all the many, many books I read while driving the highways of the United States and Canada. But from the very beginning it was temporary. I never, never intended to do it for my whole life. I had originally planned to spend about five years at it. That five stretched out to seven. But it did some to an end.
There was one time when I was off the road for about a year taking care of some legal matters that would be hard to handle from the road. I eventually got a job with a local trucking doing LTL stuff. LTL means “less than truckload.” In other words, lots of different pieces of freight going to different places, rather than one big truckload of stuff going to the same place. Sorta like UPS, except that it was a private local company.
Doing this kind of work involved a lot of detail. It was very different from over the road trucking, so I had a lot to learn. I remember one day I was working with the guy who was training me in, and he was kinda jokingly giving me a hard time because I was so ignorant about everything. He was a pretty nice guy, actually, and very helpful in showing me the ropes. Anway, as he was telling me about his experience, and I looked at him in mock admiration and said, “Boy, I sure wish I had your education.”
It was a joke, but he wasn’t laughing. He suddenly became very serious. He looked somber and depressed. He said, “I wish I had your education. I’d kill for your education. Then I wouldn’t have to be doing this.”
You see, we were both doing the same job, but we had a very different view of our future. I did not know what the future held, but I had a sense of optimism that some day I would be doing some thing very, very different. When I entered the trucking industry, I pretty much had my education behind me. I already had a K-12 Guidance and Counseling certificate from the State of Montana. That’s partly how I knew that I had a good chance of success as a truck driver. Now, it had never been my life long ambition to be a truck driver. But I had always thought it might be very useful to be an ex-truck driver, and there’s only one way to get there. But the point is that it was temporary. Temporary, temporary, temporary. That, more than anything else, is what was so deeply immoral about the antebellum Southern culture. The slaves had no future. No chance to make a better life. No chance to become prosperous if they worked hard.
Sometime after I left that trucking job, I was reading the paper and saw an article about a group of people who had just gotten their GED. I was surprised to see that my coworker was one of them. Good for him. I like to think that maybe, in some small way, I motivated him to look beyond his current situation and dare to hope for something better.
Sad to say, there is very little in this book of honest awareness of the injustice of slavery. Remember, of course, that this book was written in the Jim Crow south, where many people still believed that the Blacks should “know their place.” But that doesn’t excuse it.
But how about us? Do we live a life that requires other people to be taken advantage of?
Years ago, I visited a sweater factory in South China. The ladies working there had one day off a month. Seven days a week except for one day. That’s not good. But is that slavery? Well, not really, because what often happens in China is that people like the young ladies working in that factory will go to the factory, live in a dormitory, work for two or three months to get some extra money, and then just quit and go back to their home towns in the countryside. I have been in China for eighteen years, and I have never heard of someone being punished for quitting a job, or their families being threatened. People are perfectly free to quit their jobs anytime in China. Now, if they have signed a contract (like teachers) there may be a fine if they leave before the contract is up. But no punishment. So it cannot really be called slavery. And eventually the boss gets tired of people quitting all the time and raises the wages.
Still, they shouldn’t have to work seven days a week. Their situation is not nearly as bad at the condition of the slaves in the Old South. But it could be improved. The question we all have to ask is, “How much of the affordability of my life requires somebody somewhere to live a very meager existence.” And I'm not just talking about China.
When I left Arizona in the mid-noughties, the minimum wage for waitresses was $2.13 an hour. The assumption was that they got tips so that should count as part of their minimum wage. I don’t think that’s fair. When I was in the trucking industry, I thought nothing of tipping. It was just natural. But Arizona changed my mind. I think tipping should be outlawed. It creates a terrible inequality. Some waitresses make good money at it. But others really suffer. There is no tipping in China. It’s nice to be in a place where waitresses give you good service just because it’s their duty. But more than that, it’s a much more equitable system.
But I don't want to turn this into a political sermon about minimum wage. To be honest, I have misgivings about minimum wage. I’m not really sure where I stand on that. As you can see from this map, countries like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have no minimum wage, but they have a pretty good standard of living. But I don’t want to get sidetracked. My point is that all of us need to ask this question: To what extent is the affordability of my life based on someone else working like a dog for very little pay. If this book in any way moves us to think a little more about that question, then maybe it can be said to have some redeeming value.
My poor book is in pieces now. I still have all the pages, but if I didn’t keep it in a plastic bag, I’m afraid it would soon be gone with the wind. The other day, I was walking along the road near the lake, and I got a call from my brother in Tokyo. I stopped to talk for awhile, and as I was standing and talking, my eyes fixed on as sign I had missed in my walk, but which I noticed now because I was standing still. It said, “Books.” After I hung up (that expression totally makes no sense anymore), I walked over to the little bookstore, which was actually a small apartment made into a place for selling books. As I entered, I thought, “By George, I do think this is the place where I bought my book." Not sure, but definitely the same general area. I asked for the English section. One bookcase on the balcony. Sure enough, there was a copy of Gone with the Wind. Exactly like mine. I didn’t buy it, so it’s there for you if you want it. But I did discover another little jewel that I would never have expected to see: There was a solitary copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That book has been way, way on the fringes of my “books to read” circle. You know, the “books I wish I had time to read, but probably won’t get to in this lifetime” list. It just got moved up a bunch of notches. We’ll see what happens.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. (Ecclesiastes 12:12And on and on it goes…
Labels: American Civil War, Forced Labor, Racism