A review of The Wrath to Come—Gone with the Wind and the Lies America Tells, Sarah Churchwell (Head of Bloomsbury, 2023), £10.99
Sarah Churchwell’s new book could hardly be timelier. According to a recent YouGov and Economist poll, “More than 40 percent of those in the United States think civil war is likely within a decade”.1 Moreover, 54 percent of “strong Republicans” agree, and these people are armed to the teeth. There really does seem to be a wrath in US politics, and it appears ready to explode. The question that frames this book is posed first on the opening page: “What is happening to the US?”
Churchwell has chosen to answer that question in an unusual and original way. As a US liberal living in Britain her immediate concern is Donald Trump and the dark forces that he represents. However, to better understand Trump, Churchwell traces the ley lines of Make America Great Again (MAGA) racism back to the US Civil War and its aftermath in Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the fable of the “lost cause of the Confederacy”. To bring the 160 years of history since the Civil War into clearer view, Churchwell takes the 1935 novel and 1939 film Gone with the Wind as her focal point. Her aim is to “connect the dots between the Civil War era of the 1860s that Gone with the Wind chronicled, the 1930s into which it exploded and the US today”.2 In my opinion, the book manages to pull all this off with aplomb.
I should probably stress right away that Churchwell is no Marxist; this is ultimately a liberal analysis. Still, The Wrath to Come is founded on a materialist understanding of US history. Underlying everything Churchwell writes is the insight that chattel slavery, Jim Crow, white terrorism and today’s Trumpite racism are all about property and profits—what she summarises as “racial capitalism”:
Chattel slavery was above all a racial economy because its combined financial value eclipsed the rest of the nation’s economies. Enslaved Black people were worth more to whites than the banks, railroads and manufacturing industries combined, which all too easily obliterated their value as human beings.
Churchwell insists that the economic drivers of systemic racism continue to this very day:
Agrarian slavery was not simply replaced by modern industrialisation. On the contrary, it helped shape many of America’s economic and social institutions; today’s carceral system, property laws, insurance industry and modern finance systems all have roots in the Southern slave economy.3
Working from these economic first causes, Churchwell follows black radical writer W E B Du Bois’s argument that, after the Civil War, the rebel slave-owning Southern states were “determined to rewrite the history of slavery, and the North was not interested in history but in wealth”. This resulted in the rise of the dogma of the “lost cause”. It is a commonplace of historiography that the victor in any war gets control of its history. Counter-intuitively, however, the history of the Civil War was re-imagined through the mendacities of the lost cause to glorify the defeated Confederacy and justify the enslavement of black people. Churchwell explains:
By 1900, the idea of the lost cause had hardened into an article of faith for most Southerners and was accepted by the white North in the interests of reconciliation… That reconciliation was secured by a shared national popular culture… The racial hierarchies of slavery were simply transposed as nearly as possible into Jim Crow segregation, with its systems of sharecropping, debt peonage, mass incarceration, summary violence and voter disenfranchisement.
What makes Gone with the Wind such a symptomatic exemplar of all this is that both the book and film embody all the toxins of the lost cause, its support for white supremacy and its incitement of racial terrorism. Gone with the Wind is almost certainly the most successful example of cultural propaganda ever produced.4 The novel is one of the bestselling US book of all time.5 According to Churchwell, it is one of the two or three most read books of the 20th century, and it still sells 300,000 copies in 27 languages every year.6 Similarly, the film is by some distance the most popular movie ever made.7 Inflation means that the box office take from Gone with the Wind does not appear to compare with the megabucks generated by recent movies such as Avatar and the Marvel production line. However, in terms of bums on seats, Gone with the Wind simply dwarfs all other movies ever released anywhere.
For these reasons Churchwell argues that Gone with the Wind is a “skeleton key unlocking the US’s illusions about itself”:
After almost a century, Gone with the Wind now works as a code even for those who have neither watched it nor read it. It has become part of our lingua franca, one of those stories that people become aware of as part of our cultural inheritance.8
In short, Gone with the Wind is a “globally influential tale”. Significantly, when Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2019, Trump responded by calling for Hollywood to “bring back films like Gone with the Wind”. Well, of course he would.
There is a simple political reason why Trump would be so sentimental about Gone with the Wind. As Churchwell writes, “There is not a racist trope that Gone with the Wind does not endorse.” So, just like Trump. For Churchwell, what is historically important about the “code” of Gone with the Wind, and what makes it a conduit to the MAGA fanatics, is that it “offers a justification of slavery and white governance from start to finish. It contains a self-deluding account of US history. It is a story told in deeply bad faith.” Later, she amplifies that insight: “Gone with the Wind took a series of historical falsehoods and made them seem natural.” As the Communist writer Benjamin Davis Jr put it: “Gone with the Wind does such violence to US history that it practically lynches it.”
Churchwell shows that both book and film have always had an absurdly sycophantic critical reception. Initially, it was protected by the hegemonic racist historiography of William Archibald Dunning and his acolytes, who “justified the structures of Jim Crow segregation, insisting that it was white Southerners, not Blacks, who were mistreated”. As Churchwell explains, the “accuracy of Gone with the Wind” was “vehemently defended on the basis of its conformity” with Dunning’s white bigotry. As late as the 1990s, Darden Asbury Pyron’s biography of the book’s author, Margaret Mitchell, displayed a breathtaking dishonesty by playing down the importance of slavery in the narrative. Pyron claims that chattel slavery “serves chiefly as social decorations for upwardly mobile white farmers” in the novel.9 Churchwell responds, “That’s not a defence—it’s an indictment.”
In more recent years the mendacities of the Dunning school have been comprehensively debunked by better, non-racist historians. However, the status of Gone with the Wind has been left more or less undamaged. With an awful irony, the rise of academic feminism from the 1970s onwards has taken over from Dunning’s defence of the book, producing a string of new excuses for Mitchell. Scarlett O’Hara, the story’s central female character, has been retro-engineered into a “girl boss”—some sort of cross between Joan of Arc and Kim Kardashian. Churchwell writes:
Most defences of Gone with the Wind…hold that its racism is of its time and of secondary importance to Scarlett’s pleasingly psychological complexity. But that defence replicates the novel’s politics, in which white women’s power is preserved at the cost of Black people’s equality. Their own economic and social power was purchased…at the cost of Black people. That power may have been limited by gender, but it was underwritten by race.10
She continues: “For many years the story’s defenders argued that race and politics…were essentially negligible in Gone with the Wind, providing only a backdrop to Scarlett O’Hara’s struggle against the confines of Southern womanhood”.11 Churchwell will have none of this revisionist bullshit. Her view of Scarlett’s “struggle” is that “she is a profoundly racist enslaver” who, in Mitchell’s own description, “hated the impudent free negroes as much as anyone.”
The point here is not that Gone with the Wind is racist or “propagandist lies”, although it is unquestionably both.12 Mitchell casually used the n-word over 100 times in her book, and she was furious with the film’s producer, David Selznick, when he tried to cut some of this racist filth from the script.13 In the racist world of Gone with the Wind the “sympathetic Black characters reject freedom, choosing to stay with their enslavers and agreeing that slavery’s supposed horrors are just ignorant Northern propaganda”. Meanwhile, every single one of the major white characters is a “homicidal white supremacist manic with profoundly fascistic world views.” The male hero, Rhett Butler, is proudly unrepentant when he kills a black man because he was “uppity” to a white woman.14 The “drowsy-eyed” but gentlemanly Ashley Wilkes is revealed to be no less than the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan. Churchwell acidly comments, “The novel’s racism is much more extreme than the film, which is saying something.” Her conclusion is quite unequivocal: “Gone with the Wind is a root-and-branch racist novel that eulogises enslavement, hates Black people and rings a clarion call for Jim Crow savagery and violent ethnic cleansing.”
Unsurprisingly, Mitchell is herself revealed as a malevolent white supremacist. As a student at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, she refused to attend any class which included any of the tiny handful of black students enrolled there. As the bloodlust of Jim Crow lynch-mobs spread through the South in the 1930s and 1940s, Mitchell never once used her celebrity or her wealth to question—still less to condemn—this white terrorism. Churchwell is unambiguous: “Taken as a whole, Gone with the Wind does endorse racial violence.” Before she died in 1949, Mitchell supported Herman Talmadge, the governor of Georgia and “an avowedly racist opponent of desegregation and civil rights.” Even her own brother conceded that she was “extremely reactionary”, but that was an understatement.
Churchwell is particularly acerbic in her critique of the “of her time” apologia for Mitchell, her book and the film. The Wrath to Come is itself rightly sensitive to the drift in cultural contexts, and Churchwell takes particular care in her discussion of terminology of race. Throughout the book she respectfully follows Du Bois’s suggestion that the term “black” always be capitalised because, as black US novelist Toni Morrison insisted, “colour” is never simply about skin pigmentation in the US.15 For similar reasons Churchwell refuses to use the n-word, even when in a direct quotation from Mitchell or her vile book. However, she does allow terms such as “coloured” and “negro”. Of course, both words are today considered patronising or worse, but they “were acceptable usage at the time” and were “widely employed in Black newspapers”.
Churchwell articulates a number of reasons to reject the “of her time” defence of Mitchell out of hand as special pleading for white supremacy. First, during Mitchell’s “time”, black people in the US denounced Gone with the Wind as the white supremacist propaganda it is; “Black America objected strenuously” to both the book and the movie. The African-American Los Angeles Sentinel declared, “Hollywood goes Hitler one better.” The Chicago Defender argued that the film was “the voice of the lyncher coming from the screen”. The two principle black actors, Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, fought Mitchell’s racist stereotypes throughout every day of the production. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People tried to organise a black boycott of the film after producer Selznick refused to hire a black advisor. As a Jew, Selznick did have some nugatory sympathy with these black critics, but Mitchell was obdurate in her racial hatred.
So, black America was always loud in its condemnation of Gone with the Wind, but liberal white women were more easily fooled. Famously, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin D Roosevelt and a more liberal thinker than her husband, sprang to its defence. Churchwell makes a telling point: “A white liberal like Eleanor Roosevelt sympathised after reading the novel not with enslaved people but with the women fighting to keep them in chains. This is what it means to naturalise a value system.”
The lure for white liberals then and now is the apparent “feminism” of Scarlett, who is supposedly not a conventional heroine of antebellum romance. Churchwell refuses to buy into this: “The argument that Gone with the Wind is redeemed by its feminism does not go very far, because its feminism does not either. In fact, Scarlett O’Hara’s feminism is measured by the tenacity of her quest for individual power.” This quest is always at the expense of black people: “Spotlighting the fall and rise of a white woman whose economic agency is purchased at the cost of Black people, Gone with the Wind replicates the historic reality of US power structures.”
The Wrath to Come is a work of first class scholarship (with a bibliography running to 16 pages in small type). Churchwell brings to bear the enormous breadth of learning that we should perhaps expect from her as a professor of cultural studies and public understanding of the humanities at University College, London. I have chosen to concentrate here on her political reading of Gone with the Wind, but the book has lengthy discussions of 1930s US fascism, the role of the “romanticised medievalism” of Scottish novelist Walter Scott in the lies of the lost cause and the complicity of Southern “feminism” in white supremacy.16 Churchwell has the complementary sets of skills of a professional historian and an analyst of culture, having previously written an extremely good book on the history of the neo-fascist America First ideology as well as one about Marilyn Monroe.17 That means that she is adept at decoding the meanings of books and films with real subtlety, but at the same time she also understands how cultural texts are always embedded in much bigger historical and economic forces.
However, what really animates this book is its anger. The Wrath to Come burns with outrage at the injustice of the treatment of black America, at the savagery of white supremacists, at the vicious complicity of Trump and his racist MAGA mobs. This is a book in which black lives really do matter. Churchwell is that most rarely encountered type of academic—a liberal who really means it. I am not sure if I have ever read a book by a white academic that is so respectful of black America, its history and its great thinkers. She defends critical race theory and ridicules the lies of racist politicians, such as Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who use the theory as a bogeyman in their culture war campaigns. She holds Trump in total contempt as “a blowhard and a braggart of staggering ignorance”, calling for him to be indicted, tried and imprisoned. She reserves an even more vituperative hatred for white supremacist congresswomen Majorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebart. Shining through all this is her commitment to racial justice and awareness of white complicity. Great black writers of the past such as Du Bois, Morrison, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (all of whom are repeatedly quoted as authorities) would have admired this book, and I suspect that that thought would please Churchwell immensely. She writes:
It is the great Black writers who help explain what is happening with their profound understanding of the collective white imagination. As Black Americans keep saying, they are forced to understand white America if they want to survive it.
There is one other quality that makes this such an original and valuable book. It is unusually well written. Outside her academic day job, Churchwell is also a widely published writer in journals and newspapers and has a significant television profile. Her book displays an unusual fluency and an even rarer wit. In particular, she has an excellent eye for the symptomatic anecdote—those small historical facts that can encapsulate much bigger meanings. The Wrath to Come is studded with these.18
One example of these is when the film of Gone with the Wind had its 1939 premiere in Atlanta, Georgia. It was inevitably an elaborate affair, and it was equally inevitably exclusively white. It is reported that upwards of a million white people headed to Atlanta for the grand opening, but no black people were allowed to take part. Even the black members of the cast were banned from watching the film they had helped make.19 The following evening, there was another gala supper to hype the film; once again it was strictly whites-only. However, on this occasion there were some black people in the room: a choir of what Variety magazine called “shrill-voiced pickaninnies” from a local Baptist church, who entertained the nice white folks by singing “negro spirituals”. In keeping with the white supremacist politics of Gone with the Wind the choir were “dressed as slaves”. Among them was 10 year old Martin Luther King Jr. I like to imagine that the humiliation of “entertaining” this despicable racist junket might have helped turn King into the great black fighter he became. Perhaps that would be just about the only positive thing to emerge from the whole racist farrago of Gone with the Wind—that is, until Churchwell’s book.
Bob Light is a sacked dockworker, retired lecturer and long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party.
1 Pengelly, 2022.
2 Churchwell, 2022, p10.
3 Churchwell, 2022, p95-96.
4 Obviously I am not including religious propaganda such as the Bible in this.
5 Appallingly, Gone with the Wind supplanted Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery parable Uncle Tom’s Cabin as number one bestseller.
6 Churchwell, 2022, pp48 and 272.
7 The Guinness Book of Records confirmed this in 2014 when it estimated the box office take of Gone with the Wind (adjusted for inflation) at $3.4 billion dollars (probably closer to 5 billion dollars in today’s money). Such is the status of the film that over the years it has been given repeated general cinema releases, and I first saw it when it was re-released in 1954. Gone with the Wind was also widely available on most streaming services until the success of Black Lives Matter led a few to suddenly realise that the movie is racist toxic waste. As a US cultural product the film was officially banned in Nazi Germany, but Hitler is known to have seen it three times and recommended it to Joseph Goebbels. The racial laws in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were both fashioned on those of the Jim Crow South, so Hitler was right to acknowledge his debt in this way.
8 Ironically, that cultural ubiquity might help to explain the amazing success of the pastiche of Gone with the Wind that was produced as a poster by Socialist Worker in the early 1980s.
9 Pyron, 1991, p248.
10 Churchwell, 2022, p82.
11 Churchwell, 2022, p281. Churchwell makes an important, if contestable, point in this section of her book while discussing the cultural difference between the book and the film. She argues that the scene-stealing brilliance of black actors Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen actually adds both humanity and range to the film until it becomes “one of the richer portraits of American womanhood in popular culture.”
12 Churchwell, 2022, p170.
13 Churchwell, 2022, p10.
14 Mitchell has Butler say, “I did kill the n****r. He was uppity to a lady and what else could a Southern gentleman do?” Mitchell sees no need to refer to a “white lady”, because it is implicit in her white supremacist worldview—no black women qualify as “ladies”. Indeed, as Churchwell points out, amid the shitstorm of racist epithets in Gone with the Wind, black people are not once referred to as people.
15 In keeping with International Socialism style, “black” is not capitalised in this article, except when quoting from Churchwell’s book.
16 For example, the Klu Klux Klan’s adoption of the fiery cross as a symbol of the threat it posed was based on passages in one of Scott’s poems, “The Lady of the Lake”—Churchwell, 2022, p209.
17 See Churchwell, 2005 and 2018.
18 Another anecdote surrounds a reference to Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) in Gone with the Wind. Churchwell mentions that as the Red Army overran Berlin in the last days of the Second World War, the Berlin Philharmonic played one final requiem concert to mourn the end of the Third Reich. Inevitably, the concert closed with Götterdämmerung. It was then announced that Hitler was dead, and “the audience was offered cyanide capsules on their way home.”—Churchwell, 2022, p310.
19 Originally, Hattie MacDaniel was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress but was not allowed to attend the all-white Oscar ceremony. Eventually, Selznick called in some favours to allow Hattie to attend but on condition that she sat alone in an area cordoned off from white Hollywood. Despite its self-congratulatory reputation for “liberalism”, the US film industry has always been racist to its very core.