Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gone with the Wind

I just watched the 70th anniversary DVD edition of Gone with the Wind. Earlier this year, I had read the novel for the first time. I loved both the novel and the film. Since the story is probably familiar to most of my readers, I won’t try to summarize or review it. I want to use it as an example of a standard by which I evaluate contemporary culture. In my Triumph of Dullness blog post, I said that we don’t have any contemporary geniuses. We have people writing novels, and people making movies, but these novels and movies aren’t in the same universe as Gone with the Wind. A great historical novel requires a combination of engaging story, interesting characters, plot, vivid historical details, and clear style. There may be some contemporary novels that have some of these elements, but none have all the elements that Gone with the Wind had. Many contemporary novels try to substitute sex, violence, foul language, and other gimmicks to make up for their lack of literary quality. A great epic movie requires a great story, great acting, cinematography, music, direction, and all the other elements that made Gone with the Wind so fantastic. Contemporary movies have access to better technology, which makes for gee-whiz special effects, but these effects cannot hide the movies’ lack of quality storytelling, direction, and cinematography.

Ironically, Gone with the Wind was about how a once-great civilization (antebellum South) was destroyed in just four years of war. The creative fecundity that characterized what was otherwise an awful time (the 1930’s) helped engender the novel and movie Gone with the Wind. Creative achievement of this high order is, like the antebellum South, gone with the wind.

In my Triumph of Dullness blog post, I mention how there’s a lack of ambition among potential creative geniuses. There’s also a lack of mentoring, role models, inspiration, and any other social aspect of creative accomplishment. I want to focus on these social aspects, because it’s directly relevant to the publication of Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell, the book’s author, was a Southern journalist who wrote a rough draft of the novel between 1925 and 1930. She had no desire to seek publication, however, and stashed away the manuscript in her apartment.

In 1935, Mitchell met MacMillan editor Harold Latham, who was in Atlanta to scout for promising writers. Her duty was to show him around the area. She gave him her manuscript, which he read on the train back. He recognized the book’s potential, and arranged for her to get an advance, in order to finish the novel. The rest is history.

Contemporary fiction writers can recognize just how much has changed since then. Major publishers don’t send editors around the country looking for new talent. They don’t give out advances to first-time authors with unfinished manuscripts. They, in fact, do everything possible to discourage wannabe authors. They make them finish the novel before even trying to get a publisher. They then force writers to get an agent, a difficult and arduous process that most people don’t want to go through. Even after getting an agent, there’s no guarantee that the agent can sell the book to a publisher.

Publishers will say that economic conditions have changed, that they can’t afford to publish books by unknown authors, most of which fail commercially. It’s true that traditional publishers are losing money and that they can’t conduct business the way they used to. My point is not to blame publishers but to comment on how things have changed in the last 70 years. It’s doubtful that Margaret Mitchell had the ambition to do the things that writers need to do today to get published. There are probably many talented contemporary writers who have started a novel, perhaps a very good novel, who would have been published in an earlier era, but are never going to be published today.

There are other social aspects of creative achievement that are relevant. Gone with the Wind (the book and movie) inspired thousands of writers, directors, actors, and other creative people to write books and create movies. The lack of any contemporary Gone with the Winds has resulted in the lack of inspiration for potential writers, directors, and actors to achieve anything.

There’s a painting that visually represents this transmission from genius to lesser creative people:

I like this painting, entitled “Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce,” by Anglo-American painter Benjamin West (1738-1820). The painting shows the winged male genius inspiring his female devotees. These devotees are engaged in various creative pursuits, the most prominent being the painter. In reality, a genius doesn’t have to directly interact with people he influences. For example, Mozart strongly influenced Beethoven, although they were together only for a short time, if at all.

What we need are one or two Margaret Mitchells who can inspire thousands of others to begin a rebirth of a glorious literary tradition that is, today, gone with the wind.

1 comment:

  1. What I can't believe is that Margaret Mitchell almost named the main character Pansy O'Hara. I love to study names and I don't think that name would have done justice for such a feisty character. Thanks for your post!