A Chinese scholar I met in Hangzhou, China, this past summer asked if I would collaborate on an essay comparing Scarlett O’Hara to Wang Hsy-feng from Cao Xueqin’s 18th-century novel, A Dream of Red Mansions. She wanted to look at a strong American character at a time of economic shock and growth and a strong Chinese character in a similar period of upheaval at the end of the Qing Dynasty, focusing on each woman’s survival strategies.
“Sure,” I replied, unsure. I hadn’t yet finished reading A Dream of Red Mansion, let alone dug into the historical context. But I know Gone with the Wind well as a novel and a film and wondered how Li viewed it. I have come to expect the unexpected from Chinese scholars of American literature. Since 2011, I have lectured at six universities in China, meeting with students and professors launching their academic careers on Edgar Allen Poe, Toni Morrison, and Stephen King. Free from the invisible social constraints, disciplinary norms, and trends that govern literature departments in most American universities, Chinese scholars are asking better and more insightful questions than we are about what texts are deserving of study and why, like why we prefer William Faulkner to Margaret Mitchell, even though Gone with the Wind beat Absalom Absalom! for the 1937 Pulitzer Prize.
“Send me your abstract,” I told Li.
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind “tells the twists and turns of the love story of Scarlett O’Hara, describing the social dynamics of the United States from the slave-based plantation economy to the capitalist industrial economy,” Li writes. A fearless heroine, Scarlett “adapts to the trend” of Northern industrial civilization, seeking “to build a new life in the old ruins as a trend-setter during a critical moment of transition.” She “sees the potential of the exchange between the North and the South, seizes the opportunity to do business with the Yankees, and gets rich.”
Why not? I thought. In many ways Li’s reading is not wholly new. Historians have given the novel a thorough going-over, drawing on the work of Drew Gilpin Faust and others to suggest that Scarlett’s physical exertions, business sense, and anti-Confederate attitudes were not rare.1 Indeed, Scarlett O’Hara fits the archetype of the rapacious and driven American CEO.
Scarlett is bored by war talk, bored by Ashley Wilkes’s plantation reminiscences, and annoyed by Jefferson Davis’s goatee. After the war, she comes to loathe Lost Cause nostalgia. “Scarlett correctly cares about tomorrow,” Li writes. She cares about profits.
What about the other successful businesswoman in the novel, the red-haired Atlanta brothel owner, Belle Watling, I ask? Let me think, Li replies.
Given the Chinese fascination with the terrible history of slavery and race violence in America—the first American novel translated into Chinese was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1901—I was surprised to see that Li’s reading downplayed the novel’s unapologetic white Southern politics and its deplorable portrayal of African Americans. Well, she said, Gone with the Wind punishes everyone who looks backward. Scarlett is the hero because she survives and looks forward.
But we need to address the novel’s racism, I press. The portrayal of characters moving seamlessly from slaves to loyal servants is a fiction that readers should question. Given the current debates in the United States about removing Confederate monuments and the violence this past summer in Charlottesville, some theaters worry about screening Gone with the Wind. The film is a kind of Confederate monument.
Li responds that Ashley is the biggest villain in the piece precisely because he “embodies the Southern Knight spirit and typical aristocracy”—but his failings go beyond his racial pride. He won’t see that he is living in “the ascendant phase in the American history, with the rising capitalists representing the advanced productive forces against the declining decadency of the southern plantation.” When he works for Scarlett’s lumber company, he can’t even keep the account books, she writes.
You forget that Ashley’s in the Klan, Li adds. That’s right—the movie version of Gone With the Wind doesn’t mention the Ku Klux Klan, I write. And David O. Selznick famously would not let the “n-word” be spoken in the film. Except for Rhett Butler, all the men around Scarlett are Klansmen. Even recent essays don’t mention this.
“The novel is full of bias toward black people,” Li writes, in what at first seems like an understatement but in fact is perfectly put. The novel is indeed “full of bias.” But bias is not directed exclusively at blacks, Li adds, pointing to Scarlett’s use of white convict labor in her lumber mill as evidence. “Scarlett’s attitudes toward former slaves are transitional, like the era,” Li writes, urging me to see Scarlett in a more positive light. In Mitchell’s novel, Scarlett calls the Klansmen “crack-brained fools” that “stir up the Yankees” unnecessarily. The times have moved on, and so has she.
We decide to put the Chinese novel on hold to focus solely on Gone with the Wind. I ask Li if she has given more thought to Belle Watling, about whom I found little scholarship. Both Mae West and Tallulah Bankhead turned down the invitation to play the notorious flaming-red-haired prostitute in the film because the part was “too small.”
Anne Sarah Rubin, one scholar who mentions Belle Watling, notes that she “won’t be received in proper society, but she exhibits more decency than most of the Atlanta matrons.”2 Backwards-looking Melanie always liked her, Li points out. But not Scarlett. Readers of Gone with the Wind first meet and hear Belle through Melanie’s voice after Belle donates 50 dollars in gold to the Confederate cause. “Ain’t I a Confedrut, good as you?” Belle says, perversely echoing Sojourner Truth’s famous question, “Ain’t I a woman?”
Li directs me to the following passage:
Scarlett, there’s fifty dollars here! And in gold!” cried Melanie, awed, as she counted the bright pieces. “Tell me, do you think it’s all right to use this kind—well, money made—er—this way for the boys? Don’t you think that maybe God will understand that she wanted to help and won’t care if it is tainted? When I think of how many things the hospital needs….
Melanie and Belle Watling would give money after the war for statues, Li proposes. But not Scarlett. Aha, I say aloud. Indeed Melanie (had she lived) would have chaired the monument committee and Belle would have quietly footed the bill. Even Rhett would have contributed. But not Scarlett, the “representative of advanced material civilization and of the emerging bourgeoisie.” Scarlett wants to do business with Yankee businessmen.
We skip forward 700 pages to where Scarlett is deliberately kept ignorant of the Klan raid after she is assaulted in Shantytown. (She had been traveling unescorted to check on her lumber business, and was rescued in the nick of time by the ever-loyal Big Sam.) “Scarlett, perhaps we should have told you but…you were always so outspoken against the Klan—” Melanie says. See? writes Li.
Belle provides the alibi for the men participating in the botched Klan raid, testifying to the Yankee officers that the men were in her “sporting house.” Melanie goes along. For Mitchell’s narrator, this is the scene of Belle’s redemption:
Belle Watling! To owe their men’s lives to her! It was intolerable! Women who had ostentatiously crossed the street when they saw Belle coming, wondered if she remembered and trembled for fear that she did. The men felt less humiliation at taking their lives from Belle than the women did, for many of them thought her a good sort.
For Scarlett, Belle Watling is common and vulgar, and only vile people had anything to do with her. But Melanie has already decided that politics trumps morality. The next day, Melanie meets Belle to thank her, already rehabilitating the “fallen woman” in her mind:
Somehow this handsome, sedately dressed woman sitting in the darkness of the carriage didn’t look and talk as she imagined a bad woman, the Madam of a House, should look and talk. She sounded like—well, a little common and countrified but nice and warm hearted.
To Li, Melanie’s complicity in postwar racial violence is clear—and defines her role in the novel. “Melanie has to die,” Li writes, “so Scarlett’s emotional ties with the old world can break.”
Reading Gone with the Wind with this insightful Chinese scholar during our current political moment, I found myself reassessing the novel. If I taught Gone With the Wind in an African-American literature course, I suspect we would have pounced on the Klan passages at once. But we don’t teach Gone with the Wind in African-American literature courses. Li encouraged me to read the novel as if we do.
I am struck too by Mitchell’s stage-managing of Melanie’s capitulation to Belle Watling’s power. As Li points out, we can read Belle as more than the “whore with the heart of gold” stereotype that Mitchell wants us to see. And this is not simply a case in which “politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough” as Noah Cross famously remarks in Chinatown.
No, the universally beloved Melanie Wilkes and her Klan-supporting circle have demonstrated a political-ethical calculus that, despite our country’s Puritan origins and mega-churched countryside, is as American as peach pie. The notorious Madam Belle Watling is Team Lost Cause and that is what matters to Melanie. “Ok,” I write. “I’m in. We can write about Scarlett’s break from Southern traditions to be a prototypical CEO. And poor Melanie be damned.”
And it occurs to me that while so many political pundits are scratching their heads as to how so many good-hearted American evangelical Christian voters came to support a man with as brazen and sordid a past as the current President’s, our own fiction—that brief scene in Belle Watling’s darkened carriage—tells us what we need to know.
1Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (University of North Carolina, 1996). Kathryne Bevilacqua, “History Lessons from Gone with the Wind,” The Mississippi Quarterly (Winter 2014), pp. 99-125; Katherine Lane Antolini, “Scarlett O’Hara as Confederate Woman,” West Virginia University Philological Papers 51 (2004), pp. 23-35.
2Rubin, “Why Gone with the Wind Still Matters; or, Why I Still Love Gone with the Wind,” Civil War History (March 2013).