Part and parcel of graduate work is reading. Reading takes up the bulk of my time, and I average about 3-500 pages a week when I’m not in crunch time (and can manage about 1000 a week when I’m really pressed). Suffice to say, I have devoured a lot of books and articles on American History. This semester, in my focus on the American South, and on women in the antebellum South in particular, I have come to encounter one name more consistently than any other:
Scarlett has appeared in nearly every book I’ve read thus far this semester. She came up in Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History. She came up in Catherine Clinton’s The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South. I’ve seen her in Kristen Olsen’s Chronology of Women’s History. She’s mentioned in Bridget Heneghan’s Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination. I’m pretty sure I saw her come up in Walter McDougall’s Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era, 1829-1877. She’s come up so frequently that I have a tally going on my desk, ticking off how many times her name comes up — and how many times I reference her myself! (This post is upping that count substantially.)
Pretty impressive for a fictional character written in the 1930s.
Scarlett O’Hara has become, for better or for worse, a symbol of antebellum womanhood, the prototypical Southern Belle — ironic, when one considers that Scarlett, with her temper, her manipulative streak, and her iron will, flies in the face of the 19th century ideal woman. She embodies the moonlight and magnolias vision of the South that has been projected backwards by white imagination into history. She is the visual symbol of cavalier culture, and she has more currency culturally, I would argue, than the image of the Southern cavaliers themselves.
(A piece of anecdotal data: When walking into the local grocery store here in Charlottesville, a sign welcomed back the University of Virginia Cavaliers. My partner, a Virginia transplant, asked, “Wouldn’t the cavaliers be a more fitting mascot for William and Mary? That school was at least around closer to the English Civil War.” After a moment of gobsmacked silence, I had to explain the image of the Southern cavalier, and its socio-cultural currency in the South, which would lead UVA to have the cavalier for their mascot. Ironically enough, my partner is a medievalist who studies Normans, and had never heard the connection of Southern cavaliers with the knightly ideal so popular in the South.)
Every Southern historian, it seems, deals with Scarlett. They mention her, reference her, and use her as an acceptable starting point for the uninitiated into the world of Southern history and culture. Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about plantation belles. Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about Southern fashion and corsets, her 17 inch waist being assumed as the immediate benchmark for antebellum ladies. Scarlett is the place we begin to talk about white mistresses and slaves. Scarlett is the image of the South, and we cannot escape her. And through our ongoing willingness to embed Scarlett into our serious history texts, we begin to give Scarlett a life of her own that Mitchell could have never foreseen.
I suspect I sound overly critical of Gone With the Wind. I rail about its inaccuracies when I talk to people about my work. I get frustrated when people ask after hearing about my topic, “So you must really love Scarlett O’Hara, huh?” The truth of it is, I do love Scarlett. Scarlett was a role model for me as a girl, and I wandered into my love of the Civil War through routine re-watchings of Gone With the Wind and Ken Burns’ documentary. But as I move on, I get increasingly frustrated that the image of the Southern woman is not a real Southern woman, but rather, a fictional construct made in the 30s, seeped in the post-war racism that characterized the early twentieth century. Where, I want to ask, are the images of real women, women with names and histories and places that we can look to and see something real? Why is fiction the dominant standard for all Southern women, be it Gone With the Wind, Steel Magnolias, Jezebel, or Designing Women? Are the real women not interesting enough, not fiery enough, not visible enough? Is fictional racism more comfortable than real racism? Or are we unwilling to let history get in the way of our vision of the romantic South and the spitfire Southern belle, be she Scarlett O’Hara or Julia Sugarbaker?
I’m not sure. I suspect that fiction resonates with us and stays with us in ways that history often doesn’t in a wider cultural sense, largely because of how Americans are taught their history. (Hint: its usually poorly.) To watch these films and read these novels is to connect with a romanticized plot-convenient vision of the past, and to have a narrative arc that is designed to be emotional and satisfying, giving it the staying power that history, with its inconveniences and heartbreaks and rough narratives rarely has. We wrestle with Scarlett O’Hara, I think, because Scarlett is the gateway drug to the rest of what is waiting in the South, be it the good, the bad, or the frequently ugly. Scarlett is a white vision of an idealized white past, and she’s more comfortable for white folks than the truth. Culturally, white America has never dealt well with uncomfortable realities when fiction is much more convenient and lovely, after all.
Suffice to say, my Scarlett O’Hara Watch tally isn’t going anywhere. Because, I suspect, neither is Scarlett. Scarlett is the vision of the modern woman projected into the past, and with racial issues largely sidestepped or avoided on a larger scale. She’s the image of one woman doing it all on her own, and getting what she wants, even if the guy issue is complicated (and in this day and age of divorce, who doesn’t sympathise with her holding onto the house and losing the husband?) and her life is a walking tragedy at times. Her clothes are good, she’s gorgeous, and she’s got ambition to spare. Mitchell, despite writing Scarlett in the past, was looking forward in some very prescient ways. And so Scarlett stays with us, the epitome of the imaginary South, eclipsing the cavalier and garnering more name recognition than most of the Southerners who made the Confederacy what it was and what it ever failed to be.