In Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Lighting Out For the Territory, she dissects the various, and sometimes troubling, representations of Mark Twain’s life and work. While Twain is certainly a unique character, the phenomenon of tweaking the works of American authors to create a mythology is not specific to him. Margaret Mitchell, through her only novel Gone With the Wind, draws an easy comparison to Twain, from her Southern roots to the issues of race and slavery. However, by remaining true to the novel’s text, it has enabled Atlanta and it’s countryside to continue its worship of a civilization that is literally “gone with the wind.”
Margaret Mitchell hailed from Atlanta, which would come to be one of the major settings of Gone With the Wind. The city, as well as neighboring Clayton County, have embraced both the book and the film’s popularity as a major draw to tourists. In Atlanta, one can visit the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum, which allows fans to see where she wrote the novel and interact with some movie memorabilia, including the front door of Tara. Mitchell’s untimely death in 1949 also lends some backstory to the Atlanta setting. She was struck by a car on Peachtree Street and killed. She was working on a second novel, but the unfinished work begs the question “What if…?”
Clayton County, which is a few miles outside of downtown Atlanta, was declared the official home of Tara by Mitchell’s descendants. In both locations, one can get guided tours of the sites from women in hoop skirts and period attire, but there is scant reference to the slave culture that Mitchell illustrates in her novel.
Thematically, the novel taps into a number of ideas that run through the American fabric. First, the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War lead to the South looking at its past in a mythological way. The “great” South had been literally burned to the ground, and many southerners sought to glorify the region’s past. Gone With the Wind is a part of that tradition. The O’Haras and the Wilkes reflect the qualities of the Old South that many wanted to preserve. The fictional families had cultivated spacious and successful plantations, and their only downfall came with the War and Sherman’s March to the Sea. Extending from this idea is the idea of the frontier. Scarlett’s father says at the beginning of the novel and film that the only important thing is land, as “it is the only thing that lasts.” The American Dream of owning land and a home is something that the O’Haras struggle with throughout the novel. Scarlett’s final proclamation is that she will return to Tara, which represents her past, present, and future.
Gone With the Wind has certainly inspired a number of conversations concerning the role of blacks in the film and book. The slaves, most prominently Mammy, Big Sam, and Prissy, fall into a number of stereotypical depictions of slaves and freed blacks. It is doubtful that these characters populate the historical homes and sites of Atlanta and Clayton County. This is similar to Jim’s treatment in Hannibal, Missouri. Because slavery is an embarrassment to the nation, discussion of the practice is swept under the proverbial rug.
There are numerous texts that have entered the American imagination and created a home for themselves there, sometimes causing the creation of a mythology around the text and its subject. Gone With the Wind, along with the works of Mark Twain, are some popular examples, but there are many more that fit the criteria. Representation of certain historical ideas, such as slavery, can be very complicated in a historical or tourist setting, which raises questions on how to deal with them in a sensitive manner.