There are some movies so popular, so iconic and revered in the public imagination that I avoid seeing them. Gone with the Wind is one. Of course I was only six when it was released in 1939. Maybe I had mumps or measles when it came to a theater near me. In fact I did contract scarlet fever sometime around then and that may have been all of Scarlett I wanted to see.
I recall it being on marquees for years later. Over time I saw enough clips to know that missing a bogus history of the Civil War, however lavish the production, is not a deprivation. Like Clark Gable I didn’t give a damn. The abomination of slavery was distorted enough to receive ovations in Georgia. The movie seemed more concerned about Scarlett’s comeuppance than the reason for the war itself.
The same holds for certain books. As a card-carrying snob, I rarely read bestsellers. I missed On The Road until 55 years after its publication. The reception a book like this receives depends whether a boy is 17, bursting to live with Dionysian abandon or 79 and knowing better.
Jack Kerouac was not a guy you’d want your sister to hang with, nor was his fallen-angel hero, Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarity) who did the driving. They couldn’t stay put, couldn’t stay sober and couldn’t keep their peckers in their pants for 2 pages at a time. Kerouac was a Libertine turned Libertarian. He took a wrong turn on his road and drifted over to embrace William F. Buckley and Joe McCarthy. Yet I enjoyed the book for its prose, more poetic than most poetry. The road was life itself. Place became an interior landscape, a centrifugal propulsion to elsewhere, anywhere and finally to nowhere. His character’s name in the novel is Sal Paradise. He is searching for his name, the illusive unattainable with mad Ahab at the wheel.
For teenagers in 1957 the book provided no map but his words must have tapped into that inarticulate void, the sense that America was existentially impoverished, that conformity and consumption were not enough, behavior too narrowly prescribed and imagination crushed. Tidy suburbia was soon to be fractured and Kerouac’s Beats set the pendulum in motion for the counterculture movement and social upheaval to follow.
If I had read it at the time I might have left my mortar and pestle behind and become a different version of myself, a shoeless troubadour, Merry Prankster, half of Bonnie & Clyde; I coulda been Brando on a Harley. I also could have died in my 40s as both Kerouac and Cassady did, dissolutely spent. I’m glad they lived it out for me. It’s enough to know it’s there as the road not taken.
Roger Ebert, the film critic, suggests that Scarlett was a contemporary woman, fiercely independent, and a product of the jazz age not the antebellum South. As for old Dixie, not enough has gone with the winds of change except that now all the Hattie McDaniels and Butterfly McQueens of our time know plenty about birthin a new day.
When mass culture buys into a movie or book etc… the public often speaks in an incoherent voice. It may well be that the unprecedented embrace of Margaret Mitchell’s book and David Selznick’s film had less to do with the Confederacy than the emergent model of a powerful female archetype, even if Gable/Rhett felt the need to famously put Leigh/Scarlett in her place.
The consequences of a creative act may not necessarily be the intention of the artist. But authors live in an historical context receiving the Zeitgeist and transforming it into whatever form it may take.
Two widely different works of art, the Wind and the Road, convulsed the nation in their separate ways as if they overheard the inaudible stirrings of the country’s unconscious.