CNN reports that Thursday will mark the 75th anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, and love for the novel and the movie based on it still seems to be going strong. Fans dubbed “Windies” (because as one notes, it sounds better than “Goners”) have get togethers and visit Margaret Mitchell’s grave while dressed in period garb.
Meanwhile, back in Mondoville, I taught Kipling to my Brit survey class yesterday — we read “Man Who Would Be King“, “White Man’s Burden“, and “Recessional.” In a full semester class, I’d follow that with a week on Heart of Darkness, but it’s a 5-week term, so there’s really no time for novels. I don’t think you can teach the survey without discussing the Empire, and Kipling works as well for that as anyone.
But GWtW and Kipling’s works are problematic today, and in the CNN piece, film critic Molly Haskell notes that in the case of the Mitchell novel, “the politics make us uncomfortable.” And the same could be (and has been) said for Kipling — a former classmate of mine once dismissed the Nobel winner as a troglodyte while admitting she had never actually studied his work, or even read much of it. Of course, had she taken the time to read his work, she might have recognized a genuine respect and affection on Kipling’ part for the people of India (Who is the real hero of Kim? And remember, Gunga Din is the “better man”.) and some penetrating questions he raises (including, perhaps, in “Burden”) about the colonial project itself. Furthermore, the fact that Kipling adopts the style of the music-hall song and the persona of the enlisted man in much of his work strikes me as indicative of a sympathy for the underdog that is difficult to reconcile with the rabid, racist jingoism often ascribed to him. Going even further back, in my own field, Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale also presents these problems, with a virulent anti-Semitism that incorporates a variant on the blood libel and seems to encourage Jewish extermination.
I will admit here to never having read Mitchell’s novel; I’m not an Americanist, and it just doesn’t strike me as the sort of book I enjoy. However, the fact that (as CNN reports) the book was banned both by the Nazis and the Soviets indicates that it can’t be entirely irredeemable. Indeed, some readers have argued that Scarlett O’Hara is a proto-feminist heroine of sorts, and that the book warrants serious literary consideration. Whether these assessments are accurate or not (and again, I can’t say — I’ve only seen the movie), I think that discounting these works because their political sensibilities aren’t contiguous to our own is not only foolish, but contradictory to the very awareness we claim the study of literature promotes.
First of all, what does it say that all of these writers have maintained some sort of popularity for decades, even centuries? Let’s start by being charitable enough to assume that people can read and enjoy these works without wanting to bring back slavery, the Raj, or the pogrom. Why do people still care enough about these characters and these stories to keep reading them?
But a larger question is available as well. Granted, these authors were from times, places and cultures with different attitudes from our own. But again, if we treat the ideas and stories of these authors as unworthy of the intellectual effort of reading them, isn’t that really a larger judgement on our own ability to imagine other viewpoints (and their underlying values and assumptions), evaluate them, and accept or reject them in part or in whole, rather than on the stories themselves? Indeed, doesn’t such an approach indicate a fear of the challenge such works might pose to our own ideas and values?
Finally, what does it say about our culture that we can discuss the admirable qualities of Milton’s Satan, but not those of Scarlett O’Hara or the Tommy of Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads? If it’s a good story, read it and talk about it. Even — perhaps especially — if it’s uncomfortable. Otherwise, we’re heading for the waste land of the Bowdlerized Huck Finn. And that’s much less comfortable still.