It happened today - June 30, 2015
On June 30, 1936, Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind. Admit it. You haven’t read it. But you’ve seen the movie.
Or maybe you have read it. It was an immediate and enduring success. It was the top American fiction bestseller in 1936 and 1937, the fastest-selling novel to that point in U.S. publishing history, selling 50,000 copies in one day and more than a million and a half in its first year. It has been translated into dozens of languages. And an Ottawa Citizen story in June 1999 said it was one of the three top selling novels of all time, along with To Kill a Mockingbird and, of all things, Valley of the Dolls
On the face of it, its popularity is puzzling, especially as it has endured to this day despite its mawkish sentimentality and total lack of political correctness (and for once I’m with the politically correct on its outrageous depiction of the antebellum South). Yet there it is. In a 2014 Harris poll, was Americans’ second favourite behind the Bible. In 1998 the Radcliffe Publishing Course, at the Harvard affiliate then merging with Harvard, put it 26th on its list of 100 best novels of the 20th century, behind The Color Purple and Ulysses but ahead of Native Son, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Slaughterhouse-Five, Brideshead Revisited, The Wizard of Oz (incidentally not a good novel) and a host of other sound and eccentric entries.
An Indigo Books online poll of Canadians in 2005, it placed fourth, behind To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice and The Da Vinci Code and just ahead of The Return of the King. And apparently the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century had it in first.
Clearly its popularity was hugely enhanced by the 1939 movie adaptation with its classic closing line which adjusted for inflation is the highest-grossing movie of all time and, like the novel, continues to rank high in “best-of” lists by people with no sympathy for its treatment of race. Though it is a sign of the vanished times that there was considerable controversy (though not, despite persistent folklore, a $5,000 fine) for Clark Gable’s final word “damn”. Nowadays you’d be more likely fined for a movie that didn’t contain an obscenity. But speaking of signs of the times, it is curious that the book should remain so popular despite its preposterous depiction of a culture we all now despise, the slave-owning elite of the antebellum South, complete with unflattering stereotypes of blacks. Even if the movie did include among its 10 of 17 Oscars that year a Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel, who was black, it is weird that this novel and the enduring affection for it could emerge from the same nation that made Uncle Tom's Cabin an instant best-seller and keeps putting To Kill a Mockingbird high on its lists of best novels… and rightly so.
Besides, most of the characters are annoying. Scarlett O’Hara herself strikes me as a vain, spoiled and petulant brat. And if her personal development is meant to be part of the movie’s appeal, well, obviously I do not share the taste of the cinema-going public. (As a side note, the original name of the heroine was Pansy O’Hara, a salutary reminder of the value of that infuriating breed known as editors. One wonders how much that small change contributed to this enormous phenomenon.) Even her actual last line in the movie, “Tomorrow is another day,” strikes me as a rootless and irresponsible declaration of pseudo-independence, a disavowal of responsibility for all she has done to that point in her life.
Also, the great romantic love between her and Rhett Butler is something of a puzzle. Mind you, great capital-R Romantic love is always a puzzle. It seems to depend on an irresistible attraction between two people who don’t like one another, have nothing significant in common, and aren’t happy together. There I think lies part of the appeal of the story: its inherent adolescent quality. And to be fair at least Scarlett and Rhett don’t end up marrying.
There is also the strange lingering attraction of the Confederacy, even among people with no use for bigotry, let alone slavery. To this day, Civil War reenactors generally prefer to be Confederate, to the point that there is sometimes a requirement to do the Union side a few times before you can switch.
There are reenactors in Europe as well as the United States. There seems to be a certain inescapable romance, especially in our modern materialist age, about unselfish, uncalculating adherence to a clearly lost cause even when the lost cause itself is not terribly attractive and has nothing to do with one’s own. Indeed one odd detail of the book that has stuck in my mind since I first read it nearly a quarter-century ago is that it was read around campfires by both sides in the Spanish Civil War.
Still, I have to admit that personally I prefer the lost cause of Gondor, which not only deserved to win but did. And if you don’t think Tolkien a greater novelist than Mitchell, or James Joyce, frankly, I don’t give a hoot.