If every American’s head could be opened up for a second, what would be found there is a movie set. On that set is being devised each American’s idea, their dream of what the country is. Of what it was. Of what it can be. In Professor Sarah Churchwell’s magisterial new book The Wrath to Come, she takes apart the novel Gone with the Wind and the film that was based on it.
Full disclosure: I know Sarah Churchwell. I know her previous studies about Marilyn Monroe and other American cultural icons. But this definitive examination of not only an iconic film and novel, but of the pillar that holds them up – white supremacy – is the apex of her work so far.
The complete title of the book is: The Wrath to Come: Gone with the Wind and the Lies America Tells. Because every American lies. It is in our DNA; it is
our national fabric; it is what the very nation is built on.
When Superman first hit the TV screens when I was a little girl, a booming male voice acclaimed the Man of Steel as standing for: “Truth, Justice and the American Way.”
But no one said that this “American Way” encompassed stealing the land of the indigenous people the nation violently implanted itself upon; enslaving people of African descent and waging a civil war about it; trashing the natural environment to an extent that a federal agency had to be created to begin to stop it. The list is long.
You never get from watching westerns, even those mid-20th century masterpieces like The Searchers or The Wild Bunch, that the cowboy genre
largely emerged from the defeated Confederate soldier, going out west to find “freedom”.
Gone with the Wind is also that kind of myth, that comfort zone in which an
idea of America, encompassed in its feisty heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, thrives
all around the world. It could also be called a kind of reverse Jordan Peele
horror movie 80 years ahead of its time, in which various tropes come together to present a view of America.
Needless to say, coming of age in America, there was no way that I was going to see this movie. There was no way that I was going to listen to the late, great Butterfly McQueen’s entreaties about her failure to “birth babies”, and of course, there was “Mammy”; whose name was a pejorative where I came from. It was akin to “Uncle Tom” and maybe even worse than that.
Like To Kill a Mockingbird it gives us a South which is ultimately about redeemable white people, and if we look closely at the movie, we can see
that it is also a not-too-subtle recruitment film for the KKK. What Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes has gone out to do in the last third of the film is ride with the Klan.
This “lost cause” romanticism even permeates Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary miniseries The Civil War, a fine piece of work. It is dominated by the late writer Shelby Foote, who time and time again presents us with a noble South in pursuit of its “dream”.
He literally plays Burns, and us, like a fiddle as he overlooks the fact, for example, that his hero Nathan Bedford Forrest practically invented the Klan
and was its first Grand Wizard.
“Oh, but you can’t get away with that now!” many might cry. But America did. And still does.
Because of the fact that America is always dreaming, Donald Trump can exist as a serious entity. “Make America Great Again” is a dream. The Capitol of the US was sacked on January 6, 2021, the first time this has happened since the British attacked it in the war of 1812.
This was done by dreaming American citizens, the flag of that Big Dream – the Confederacy – carried aloft, a flag that millions suffered and died to prevent being flown anywhere near DC.
Even Boris Johnson’s farewell to Parliament in disgrace ended with “Hasta la vista, baby” from the Terminator franchise, about a cyborg from the future bent on killing a woman whose yet unborn son would grow up to be a resistance leader.
And of course, Donald Trump feeds on the American Dream. He serves his chewed-up bits to a ravenous, largely white base eager to be told that they
can still be on top.
I say largely white base, because MAGA exists for people of colour, too. Many are eager to escape the benign notion of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” and join the hard, cruel Dodge City dream of Donald Trump. This, of course, makes America a kind of lethal weapon, an out-of-control entity dreaming its way to TS Eliot’s Bethlehem.
In spite of all of his political issues, and they were legion, I signed my last name on the registry of the Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature with Eliot’s pen, because his work, The Waste Land, 100 years old this year, is
one of the 20th century’s Bad Dream masterworks.
I cannot bring myself to read the novel of Gone with the Wind, but Churchwell has, and what she discovers there is not only appalling in terms of language and the depiction of the enslaved. But what she finds, too, is the enshrinement of what has to be called white American womanhood.
This temple is what is preventing a woman’s right to decide for herself about her own body; this temple is what Emmett Till and countless black men north and south were murdered to “preserve”. This temple.
And just as the American constitution exists to work for white men, its main beneficiaries, so Gone with the Wind, novel and film, gives the patriarchy its own fragrant hill to die on.
Yet, and this is what I discovered later on, and is what makes life complex and complicated: To not know Gone with the Wind is not to know one of the masterpieces of the Hollywood studio system.
It is not to know anything about Hollywood movie-making in one of its glorious eras. It is not to know the story of Hattie McDaniel, who sat in the back of a racially segregated restaurant where the Oscars were being awarded. Because African Americans were not allowed to eat there.
McDaniel, a smart woman whose motto was “I’d rather play a maid than
be one” wakes up America; shakes it away from the lies that it tells itself.