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When Margaret Mitchell wrote the grande finale of “Gone With the Wind,” I wonder if she did so with the clarity that makes all novels, they say, autobiographical. Toward the end, the dashing Byronic hero of the story, Rhett Butler, utters these words: “I’m through with everything here. I want peace. I want to see if somewhere there isn’t something left in life of charm and grace.”
Personally, I feel those words pretty astutely. Many of you will, too. After all, in the end, isn’t that what we all seek; a world with some semblance of peace, where we and our values belong? If that is, in fact, the place we covet, then Mitchell’s own rollercoaster life, surely, was no exception. As talented and entertaining as she was (and, historically, is to explore), her life certainly had its ebbs and flows. In some ways, she was a woman after history’s own heart. She once hung from atop Stone Mountain, pen and paper in tow, while the landmark was being freshly carved; she shocked the Junior League with a scandalous Apache dance, and partied with the flappers of the era. Her Kentucky-born husband, John Marsh, introduced her to the stories of Lexington’s famed madam, Belle Breezing, whom he had met while a reporter in the city. It was Breezing’s scandalous life that, legend says, would become the inspiration for Mitchell’s own madam, “Belle Watling.”
My kids and I took a moment to visit Breezing’s grave in Lexington, just last summer. Doubtless that and many of Mitchell’s own exploits would have been deeply frowned upon in her day. They certainly challenged societal norms. Looking about us, I often wonder if norms exist anymore. For better or for worse, the world has definitively changed, and I sometimes question whether it even allows for the things that Rhett Butler most craved: peace, charm, and grace. After all, literary though it is, Butler’s world, like ours, had been torn apart and ravaged by deep divides. By the time he uttered these words, his society, we might treacly say, was ‘gone with the wind.’ It had forever been altered by regional divisions, war, politics, and culture. All things we heavily relate to today.
In 2022, nothing much, anymore, seems sacred. We live in times when being top dog comes with no barriers and rules, an all in, attention-craved, do-anything, shock-for-fame and fortune culture. At least Mitchell, despite her propensity for causing scandal, used her talent rather than infamy to gain success. We can’t say that for many in our society. For Mitchell, that aforementioned pen and paper came in handy. She did so, at one point, working in the newsroom, somewhere between the First World War and the publication of the novel that would ultimately define her.
Unlike that of a century ago, our world seems more blatant. There was, in Mitchell’s day, the semblance of an effort to maintain appearances. Having just come through months of political wranglings that seem inescapable and engulf our every sense, where someone is always demonizing another, I sometimes question if we’re made of the same ilk, even if we’re experiencing similar divides. It’s one of the reasons, I’d suggest, that I, a former cable news junky, quit watching broadcast news, and I’d suggest it’s why both ratings and profits slump for America’s news networks. The days when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America are long gone.
Something tells me, contentious as some of those early American political races were – Jefferson vs Adams in 1800 seems notable – that our modern state is not exactly what our founders had in mind. After all, Benjamin Franklin is said to have warned Americans that they were given “a Republic, if you can keep it.” George Washington, on the other hand, warned of the days when citizens became more loyal to their political parties than to America. Sound familiar? Nastiness and partisanship seems to have become the American way, sans charm and grace. Maybe, just maybe, as we spiral headfirst into the holiday season, we can be conscious of ghosts of the past – Butler, Mitchell, and all that we are losing – and, as the holidays tend to allow, recoup some of the aura of community and goodwill that we have lost. Let us look to a new start. As Mitchell penned: after all, tomorrow is another day.