September 26, 2013

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Some passing mentions by the later historians, though, were more admiring than you’d expect for a book of that kind. I had assumed, for example, that Charles Hamilton’s death from measles in the movie was just an author’s way to bring a ridiculous character to a ridiculous end; but no, country boys really did die in camp by the thousands from infantile diseases to which, unlike city slum kids, they had never been exposed.

The author, Margaret Mitchell, certainly did her historical legwork. Her biographer writes that:

She spent a vast amount of time verifying historical facts. She felt an overwhelming burden to avoid factual error….She spent hours on end checking data in the collated files of both ancient and contemporary newspapers….

(On the other hand, her fictional chronology could have used more care. A friend tells me: “When someone pointed out that the time between Ashley’s last leave and the fall of Atlanta would make Melanie pregnant for 11 months, Mitchell reportedly said, ‘Well, we do things slow here in the South.’”)

Her sociology is good, too. I learned a lot about the structure of the Old South. The word “cracker,” for example, which some deluded white people nowadays are trying to argue is as offensive as the fabulous n-word”€”as if white people are allowed to take offense at anything!”€”was socially quite specific.

[Will Benteen] was not of the planter class at all, though he was not poor white. He was just plain Cracker, a small farmer, half-educated….Scarlett wondered if he could be called a gentleman at all and decided that he couldn’t. [Ch. 30]

Speaking of the n-word, the custom that blacks may use it freely but well-bred whites shouldn’t use it at all seems to go well back before the Civil War, in the South at least.

“Ah ain’ no yard nigger. Ah’s a house nigger.”

“You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you,” said Scarlett slowly….There, she thought, I’ve said “nigger” and mother wouldn’t like that at all. [Ch. 24]

And although it’s outside the strict scope of Civil War studies, GWTW brings home another fact: that as awful a trial as the war was to the white people of the South, Reconstruction was almost as bad.

Now I regret having wasted so many years on tomfoolery such as analytic number theory. History’s the thing, and to understand this country you have to get acquainted with the Civil War. Back to the library.


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