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Writing in the second edition (1940) of his monumental and influential study The American Novel, Carl van Doren wrote: “Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind not only gave a revised version of the Civil War in the South, so often the subject of more conventional novels, but also told, with remarkable verve and narrative energy, the story of Scarlett O’Hara’s rise from desolate circumstances in which the war had left her and her Georgia community.”
Van Doren made three important points in this brief statement. First, he noted that Mitchell had given new life to what was by then a rather shopworn genre by telling her version of the Civil War story from a completely new point of view. Instead of setting the action of her novel among wealthy and affluent Virginia aristocrats or in a sophisticated coastal setting like Charleston, and instead of attempting to describe bloody battlefields, she chose hardscrabble North Georgia with its red clay soil and rolling hills. Within that cadre, she wrote a novel about human relationships that had been irrevocably changed by the war.
Secondly, at a time when literary modernism was on the rise and the Southern novel, in the hands of someone like William Faulkner, was becoming deliberately more obscure in style, Mitchell displayed an awesome ability as a storyteller by writing in a style that was accessible to ordinary readers. And, thirdly, a point that is important from the perspective of the 21st century, Mitchell told her story through the eyes of a young woman (Scarlett O’Hara) who was the daughter of an immigrant with an Irish and Catholic sounding name. She wrote, historically speaking, against the background of the Know- Nothing “Nativist” politicians who had declared war on such people.
The power of the Nativist movement had crested in the election of 1856 but the Know-Nothings did not go away. Rhett Butler, one of the main protagonists in the novel, speaks for the Know-Nothings in his many putdowns of Scarlett, her family and its Irish origins. His comments range from “Now don’t fly off the handle and get your Irish up,” to “The Irish are the damnedest race. They put so much emphasis on so many wrong things. Land, for instance,” to the overall trashing of Scarlett’s people as “that bunch of wild Irish.”
Although Rhett is physically attracted to Scarlett, his sense of caste and class keeps setting off alarm bells in his mind about her social origins. As an aristocratic son of Charleston, he is thus a true “native American,” while Scarlett is the daughter of an Irish immigrant who speaks with a foreign accent, lacks social polish, and is separated from poverty in only a tenuous way – her father, Gerald O’Hara, won the land that he owns in a card game.
There is an important parallel to be drawn, one that the academic critics have missed, between Scarlett and Mitchell. For just as Scarlett grows up with the anti-Irish Know-Nothings in the background, Mitchell also went through her adolescent and young adult years during a time when Tom Watson (1856-1922), Georgia’s home grown anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigot, newspaper editor, politician and ally of the resurgent Klan, was garnering headlines. Watson, who grew up on his grandfather’s plantation, wrote a novel in praise of the slave system. Entitled Bethany: A Story of the Old South, it appeared in 1904 and was diametrically opposed to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Catholic reaction to Watson, who suspected Irish Catholics of “Popery” (more loyal to the Pope than to country) and a lack of commitment to the “Southern way of life,” was based at Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta, where Mitchell’s mother, Mary Isabelle, or “Maybelle” (1872-1918), was a committed and activist member of the congregation. In fact, despite her gender in the patriarchal Southern culture of the time, Maybelle was a founding member of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia, the group that took on the powerful Klan bigots arrayed against the state’s Catholic and Jewish populations.
Like Scarlett’s mother, Ellen O’Hara, Maybelle was solid and unwavering in both her beliefs and commitment to defend them. Also, like Ellen O’Hara, who dies at Tara while Scarlett is in Atlanta, Maybelle died in the influenza epidemic of 1917 while Margaret was away at college in Massachusetts. Both Scarlett and Margaret arrive home just after their mothers’ deaths. Given the enormous effect that this event had on Margaret, her novel can be considered as an expression of the daughter’s final words to her mother.
The narrative voice in Mitchell’s novel echoes neither the self-righteousness of the New Englander, Mrs. Stowe, nor the racial paternalism of Georgia’s Tom Watson. In fact, Mitchell, like her mother and Ellen O’Hara in the novel, shows immense compassion for African Americans, seeing their plight through the lens of her Irish background, with its implicit and automatic sympathy for the underdog and the outsider.