Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Rereading. This is an amazing novel, old-fashioned but amazing. Written in 1936, it creates Georgia at the eve of the Civil War, both the estate of Tara and the city of Atlanta. The reader then lives through the war and the post-war Reconstruction as it is experienced by the heroine Scarlett O’Hara. And it creates a lively roster of characters, both Scarlett’s family and the cousins and friends she encounters at both Tara and in Atlanta.

It also creates Scarlett herself, with all her contradictions, with her vanity, her bravado, her stubbornness, her naivete, her self-assurance, her passion for men, and her love for one particular, unattainable man, Ashley Wilkes. What is striking is that the reader understands this woman, with all her shallowness, with all her false bravado, even as she herself would deny those very qualities. Scarlett’s character comes across most obviously when she continually says, “I’ll think of that tomorrow.”

But despite being amazing, this novel is old-fashioned, too. It is carefully structured, shifting back and forth from the drama of Scarlett’s life to a history of both the war and the post-war period. It also reveals too openly the inner thoughts of Scarlet in the form of unspoken dialogue. And it underlines the contradictions in Scarlett more than is necessary. Moreover, the antipathy that grows in Scarlett for Rhett is underscored, even as the reader suspects there is something growing between them.

These are the traits of a novice writer who has not learned the technique needed to make the reader unaware of the book’s author. As a result, she tries too hard to make her intentions clear.

And yet the novel reveals an author of high intelligence, an author who understands how people act and think, whether young or old, male or female, slave or free, rich or poor. An author who understands how details create reality on the page. And an author who is able to turn her considerable research about the Civil War and its times into a vivid world that provide a real backdrop for her characters.

What is also impressive is that the reader relates to a Scarlett who thinks only of herself, who will cut any moral corners in order to achieve what she wants, what she feels she deserves. The reader is fascinated by this woman whom he or she would never want to deal with personally. And the reader is not alienated by those private thoughts that betray her shallowness and her contradictions, a primitive technique that Mitchell uses to reveal the distortions in her thinking.

But whereas Sarlett’s character is carefully presented by the author, Rhett Butler jumps off the page. Perhaps this is because I immediately recalled Clark Gable when he appeared. Given Gable’s vitality, that was a perfect casting.

Rhett is particularly effective whenever he speaks. He is continually challenging Scarlett, continually expressing thoughts that go against the grain. He also admits he is a rogue, whether with women or whether in his illicit pursuit of money, first with blockade running and then with collaborating with the Yankees during Reconstruction.

Indeed, one marvels at the skill of this novelist who, in creating her two romantic characters, has cut across the grain, We sympathize with them; we want them to get together. And yet they are, to a large degree, not admirable characters. They seek the comforts of life, meaning they seek money, and they are beholden to no laws or ethical standards to achieve it. One wonders how much this prompted the novel’s popularity in the 1930s, when readers in that era of privation could identify with these characters who were also the victims of a callous history.

As I delve deeper into this novel, it is not only the research that is so impressive, it is how well Mitchell captures the temperament of the Southern character: what a woman should or should not do, the sense of class within the whites and who is worthy of whom, the relationships between the whites and the Negroes, and the relationships within the Negroes, such as between the house Negroes and the field hands.

Mitchell is particularly effective in how she portrays Scarlett’s lack of understanding of both Ashley and Melanie. That the one she loves does not want her, and the one she does not love so wants to love her.

Mitchell is also here a student of history. This is particularly evident in the second half of the novel, after the war. She captures the intricate atmosphere of the Reconstruction. There are the Scallawags and the loyal Southerners, the Northern occupiers, the free Negroes and the faithful servants, the occupying Northern army, and the wives of all these men—plus the relationships among these various and conflicting elements of society. Even the creation of the Ku Klux Klan is understandable, as loyal Southerners join it in rebellion against the Carpetbaggers and the freed Negroes who assault and swindle them.

   There is also a commercial aspect to this novel, perhaps driven by Mitchell’s study of novel writing. And it is that every few chapters there is a significant story development. It is often the result of the return of Rhett, but it may also be the arrival of soldiers, Yankees or defeated Southern soldiers, a new pregnancy, a death, etc. Or a spectacular scene, such as Scarlett’s escape from burning Atlanta. In each case, this new event picks up reader interest, and carries him or her for another 50 pages.

   Mitchell is interested, above all, in story. In what will become of Scarlett—in the midst of war, of siege, of poverty, as well as in her relationships with her parents, with Melanie, with the various men she pretends to love, and above all with Rhett, whom she despises on one level and is drawn to on another. Complicating this is her understanding of herself. As she learns to deal with many people around her, she does not understand her own emotions (Melanie) or her own heart (Rhett).

   After much movement among the characters toward the end, I was curious about how Mitchell would end her story. Overall, I was satisfied more than dissatisfied. Indeed, the final scene with Melanie is rather moving as Scarlett comes to understand their true relationship. And while the final scenes with Ashley and Rhett lack emotion, they do

effectively conclude her relationships. That is, Scarlett is consistent. She understands her past dealings with both men, and is sorry how both have concluded, but she still blames the men, especially Ashley, for that result.

   Thus, Mitchell communicates the true reason for the outcome of those relationships, but shows us that Scarlett still does not understand her own contribution to how they ended. And, perhaps to reinforce this, she has Scarlett again saying she will not think about her future with these men, not until tomorrow. So Scarlett’s character remains consistent, for which Mitchell should be complimented. And our heroine receives her just desserts for how she has handled her relationships with these two men throughout the novel. Note: I see irony at work her more than a desire to punish her for her misdeeds, such as a commercial work might require.

   So what is my overall evaluation of this work? I believe Mitchell has written a work of literature. Because its characters are alive on the page, because the texture of the South is brilliantly captured, and because this work addresses the moral issue of how one is to survive when one’s civilization is destroyed, even if it is one’s own doing. But many critics have been turned off by the emphasis on story. Which is why, of course, this work was so popular from the beginning. But for many critics, story belongs to another category, that of commercial fiction. And this work is for them easy prey, because Mitchell’s lack of technical skills leads her to betraying her literary intentions in too obvious a way.

   The richness of this novel is reflected in all that I have written here. It was apparently a richness that Mitchell herself could never duplicate. Or perhaps did not want to. It surely required a large chunk of her life to research, think about, and write this novel. She obviously identifies here with the viewpoint of the South, understanding the views of both owners and slaves, as well as the South’s pride in its independence, its culture, and its accomplishments. Nothing else she wrote could further this identification with the South. So, perhaps, she had nothing else to say.

            I might even speculate why subsequent continuations of Scarlett’s story by other writers have not worked. The readers of the 1930s no longer exist. Today’s economy is no longer in similar dire straits. And the South is much more a part of the nation today. Moreover, commissioned writers seem not to be able to understand Scarlett and her contradictions as Mitchell did, which is undoubtedly difficult after today’s changes in the role of women in our society. (November, 2013)

The Official Warren Commission Report

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaches, I realize that this series of reviews does not reflect my comments after reading The Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Here is an edited summary of what I wrote back in 1965 while reading the report, and then my conclusions.

 I find the chapter on the gunshots to be inconclusive. The point of entry is variously described, especially regarding the possible trajectory and the alignment of Kennedy’s back and throat with Connally’s body. The report also does not analyze the Zapruder film frame by frame, and match up the time Oswald would have taken to fire three shots.

   The report does suggest, as Edward Jay Epstein says in his book, that the film’s frames are really picked to make a point, not to refer to all possibilities. Just as the trajectory shown in one frame is fudged in its description, when such a trajectory appears to be impossible, so the tracing of the missed shot (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) is also indefinite and unsatisfying. The time between shots is not defined with any precision, either, ranging from 4.8 to in excess of 7.8 seconds.

   The report does show that the shots were probably fired from The Texas School Book Depository and that three shots were fired (shells found and witnesses), but it doesn’t explain how the one shot could hit two men, or how two shots could wound two men so quickly in the given time required by that rifle.

   The chapter on Oswald is more conclusive. It establishes Oswald as the owner of the rifle found in the Depository. It is not conclusive in proving Oswald fired the actual shots, but it does show how he brought the rifle into the building, and that his actions after the assassination were those of a man guilty of something. Proof that he shot policeman Tippet is stronger, however. And evidence that Oswald shot at General Walker is stronger than I thought.

   Regarding the rifle, Oswald did practice working the bolt, which the experts did not, so it is plausible that he fired the shots as the commission describes. Over all, the presented facts indicate that Oswald’s actions both before and after the shooting were those of a guilty man, not those of a victimized person or of a fall-guy.

   The chapter on the press is very interesting, as it shows how it took over the Dallas police station, how security was all but impossible for Oswald’s transfer, and how the police cooperated with the press. All was confusion in the basement at the moment of Oswald’s transfer. However, Ruby’s route is not traced exactly, and the question of his being aided is not clear either way.

   The chapter on a possible conspiracy offers strong arguments why Oswald was not involved in one. It is primarily based not on any evidence but on Oswald’s character. He did not get along with anyone. He had delusions of grandeur. He was just not the type of person you would ask to join you in any conspiracy. Nor was he the type of person the Soviets would want to use, and if they did they would never have sent him back with a Russian wife. Also people in the embassy felt that he was acting out what he thought and felt, not following a pre-written script.

   Oswald’s character suggests he was ready to commit a violent act, without regard to personal consequences, when he felt he was boxed in. Examples are an attempted suicide when the Soviets would not let him stay, the fair-play-for-Cuba activities, and the shooting at General Walker. The suggestion is that his inability to get to Cuba in October is what put him in the mood for the assassination.

   Ruby’s activities from November 21 to 24 are covered in the report, and nearly eliminate any opportunity he had to be involved in a conspiracy. His distraught, sentimental state was observed by too many not to be true. And his wanting to be in a big event is also in keeping with his character. Strangely convincing is the suggestion that he shot Oswald so Jacqueline Kennedy would not have to return to Dallas for Oswald’s trial.

   The chapter on Oswald’s background says the key to his character was the lack of love he had from his mother, with the result that he retreated from the world, into himself, and there was a compensating build-up of his own vanity when the world paid no attention to him. Life for him was a series of escapes, from his mother, from the U.S., from Russia, from love, from responsibility, from society, and from mediocrity and anonymity.

   Oswald’s relationship to his wife is never explored. The report covers what Oswald said and did, not what she said and did, nor how they interacted. And whether or not their getting together in the final week of their estrangement might have changed his plans is not sufficiently explored. Interesting is the commission’s view that the mood in Dallas did not motivate or influence Oswald. But I’m not convinced by its cursory treatment.

  The appendices reflect the lack of organization or precise thinking in the report. They are indeed almost as long as the report itself, as they work either to demonstrate why the evidence in the report is accurate, or to show that the investigation was complete.

   Yet one does not get a sense of completeness in reading these appendices, especially in the speculation and rumor appendix, where the Commission’s conclusions are stated very arbitrarily.

   All in all, these appendices should have been part of the main report. That they were not reflects its poor organization. And this is the result of the staff having to break down the various categories of the crime ahead of time, according to what they think the investigation will reveal, because of the limited time available. The tail thus wagged the dog, the truth; and this lends evidence to Epstein’s point that the Commission reported the subjective truth of what the country needed to know, rather than the objective truth of what really happened.

 Conclusion. One comes away with this report feeling that it probably hits close to the truth, that it is perhaps 75% accurate That probably Oswald acted alone, that probably the same shot hit Kennedy and Connelly. That probably Ruby acted alone, and his entry into the police station was unaided.

   But this is merely a set of probables. In part, this is because of the Commission itself and the arbitrary way it has presented its facts: that it divides up the book into subject areas, and uses the facts in those areas to draw its conclusion that Oswald was guilty. Its own hedging of its conclusions I interpret to be a result of skilled lawyers playing it safe (in case there are future developments), as much as an admission that one cannot be positively certain from the facts given.

   But, after all, one is asked in court only to prove within a reasonable doubt, even when there are many witnesses, as here. So many witnesses, so much news media, so many government officials, in fact, make it inevitable that there are contradictions in various areas, from the number of shots, to the various hospital and autopsy reports, to Ruby’s entry into the police station basement. (The disappearance of the Bible used in the swearing in ceremony on the plane shows the confusion that reigned everywhere.)

   With all this, however, the Commission should have done better. It should not have been under the pressure of time. Indeed, the loose ends and lack of follow-up appear to substantiate Epstein’s case. This means that while this is so far the major source of information about the Kennedy assassination, it is not the definitive source it might have been. (January, 1965)


One should also note the Historical Afterward by Bruce Catton that was published with the report. Here are excerpts:

 The exact and complete truth about any tragic historic event is impossible to get. We can never know precisely how and why certain things happened. The best we can do, usually, is to work out a rough approximation—to say, somewhere within these boundaries lies a truth that we shall never really see; somehow, out of all of these facts, this result emerged. Even the most painstaking history is a bridge across an eternal mystery….

   …In the case of President Kennedy we have the hard facts but we do not quite know what they really mean. How far was Lee Oswald like John Wilkes Booth? Did his haunted mind, like Booth’s, somehow respond to the hatreds and terrors that boiled up all around him?…Was this act part of 1963 in the sense that Booth’s was part of 1865, or was it simply an irrational explosion that might have happened to any President at any time and in any place? The Warren commission could find no trace of a plot that used Oswald as trigger man. It saw no evidence of a conspiracy of either the right or the left. It established that truth, which cuts the ground out from under the myth-makers but which also leaves us confronting a riddle. What did this really mean?

   The question will bother us for a long time to come because it involves the intangibles that lie beyond the reach of any commission. We know that John F. Kennedy was President at a time when many diverse hatreds were being aroused, hatreds born of hot war and cold war and the agonizing difficulty of adjusting a complex society to a time of incomprehensible changes; we know that he devoted himself as President to the task of quelling those hatreds and facing the future with hope and without terror; and we know that in the midst of all this he was shot to death. There our knowledge ends. In Lincoln’s case we can see that an era of irrational fury led inescapably to an irrational act of hatred. In Kennedy’s case we do not know.

   Perhaps we shall never know….


Updated commentary.

I have long accepted the determination of the Warren Commission, despite the popularity of books which challenged its conclusions. I was once even offered the opportunity to write a contrary work, but I never agreed with that view. I still believe Oswald acted alone, despite the intriguing speculation that behind the crime were such people as Fidel Castro, Joe Kennedy, the Russians, Marina Oswald, Lyndon Johnson, Mafia chieftans, and various sections of the U.S. government.

   I have long accepted the single-bullet theory (both Kennedy and Johnson were hit by the same bullet) and the explanation of why Kennedy’s head went backward when shot from behind (meaning there was no second gunman on the grassy knoll). Both these factors were explained, incidentally, in that PBS documentary I have referred to.

   More interesting to me are the literary efforts that treat of the assassination. For they enable me to return to a moment I will never forget, a moment that I need to rise above. In their way, they give a meaning to that horrible deed, although they explore a profounder meaning than the one that historian Bruce Catton cited.

   These novels range from commercial work to serious work. Four that I have read are:

   Winter Kills (1974), by Richard Condon. “This is strictly a commercial work, written with no style and grace. And yet it is enthralling. As the JFK assassination will always be. As the sense of powerlessness in a threatening world always will be for me….[But] there is no probing of ethical, political, psychological issues. And an opportunity to do so is missed, for there could be a conclusion in which the hero, for whatever reason, could not reveal the truth, and this is why America still does not know for sure what happened to JFK.”

   Libra (1988), by Don DeLillo. “The strengths of this book emphasize its weaknesses. In this fascinating story of conspiracy, the CIA plots to turn American public opinion against Castro by creating a failed assassination of JFK by the Cubans….This book would have been much more powerful if the character of Oswald as victim had been presented more strongly….Isn’t this where a serious novelist should probe, not just into the details of the conspiracy?”

   Flying into Love (1992), by D. M. Thomas. “This is a marvelous, imaginative novel. It is not what I expected it to be, however. For Thomas explores the actions and the thoughts of the actual people who were part of that tragic day….His framework is that the assassination is a conspiracy, not the act of a lone gunmen….The great conceit of this novel, and it is a magnificent one, is its description of a Kennedy visit to Dallas that never happened. For in this version there is no assassination. And this marvelous counterpoint works, for in 1963 many of us could not accept the fact of the assassination. So Thomas creates an alternate world of denial, a world we are comfortable with, the only world, indeed, we wish to accept.”

   11/22/63 (2011), by Stephen King. This is another brilliant, and imaginative, novel from King. No critic will dare to call it literature, but I would suggest that this work will survive as long as the Kennedy magic survives. Or perhaps longer. For this novel is King’s salute to Jack Finney’s Time and Again, the classic of time-travel novels….The two books are similar because both heroes travel into the past, both seek to negate an event that occurred in the past, both fall in love with a woman living in that past, and both are tempted to remain in that past.”

   If I prefer the King and the Thomas novels. I wonder if it is partly because both explore the possibility of the assassination not happening. That is, such an assumption reflects both an extra step in their imagination, and wishful thinking by all readers who were alive back then. (November, 2013)

The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright

Sub-title: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. This 2006 work is a magnificent summary of how one corner of the Moslem world developed its hatred of the West, how it reached expression in the founding of al-Qaeda, and how this culminated with the attack on the Twin Towers. One has to marvel at the revelations here, at the intimate details, including strategic discussions within the leadership of al-Qaeda. How on earth, the reader continually thinks, did Wright uncover such details, such conversations, that take us inside the tents, the caves, and the huts of these men out to destroy the United States?

                  What I regret not doing here is writing a summary of the events as I read this book. The events are indeed remarkable. The origins of the movement that produced the 9/11 attack were in the streets of Cairo. Then its creators moved to the south into the Sudan, before finding a haven in Afghanistan. Where the Arab bin Laden and the Egyptian Zawahiri joined forces, Zawahiri the strategist and bin Laden the executor of that strategy. Their initial successes were the bombing of two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and then the exploding of a huge hole in the side of the destroyer USS Cole.

                  We read the early histories of the movement that developed into al-Qaeda, how Zawahiri began as a 15-year-old in a Cairo underground cell, trained and practiced as a doctor, then joined a movement that led to the assassination of the Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Meanwhile, in Arabia, bin Laden’s father, a poor laborer, rose to become one of the richest men in that country. He founded a construction company, and its efficiency pleased the royal family, resulting in work on major buildings as well as on the highways and airports of Arabia. One son, Obama, was a loner, very religious, who worked for the company awhile, and then became alienated from his father, his family, and the direction of his country.

                  On the American side, Wright details how the CIA and the FBI had separate evidence regarding the suicidal 9/11 flight crews, but never put their information together, each trying to protect its own territory and neither trusting the other. Trust was a special problem with John O’Neill, the counter-terrorism chief of the FBI, who aggravated every one with his single-minded pursuit of the terrorists. He was a philanderer, with many mistresses; but, more important, he was a very effective agent. Wright uses many pages to tell O’Neill’s story, making him a kind of hero, despite his personal issues; or perhaps he is more a symbol of the failure of the American intelligence community. Not that he himself was a failure, but that the entire intelligence team was, especially those at the CIA who held back information that he could have fit together. His fate, for some, verges on tragedy—and certainly is ironic.

                  This book works because of its narrative drive, and because its various characters are real on the page. The biographies of the leaders on both sides do not interrupt the narration but bring us deeper into the conflict. We understand the views of these terrorists, even as we see the faults in their thinking—the main one being that they do not understand the people of America. They think their attack will disillusion the Americans and as a result their civilization will collapse. Little do they know. Little do they understand people like John O’Neill.

                  Perhaps rightly, Wright ends his book with only a brief summary of the attack itself and the collapse of the towers. In fact, he spends little effort on all those final weeks—from the training of the terrorist crews to the takeover of the planes to their eventual course. Some might miss this climax of the plot, but undoubtedly it is not here because those calamitous events have been told in other books. Wright’s purpose here is to tell what led up to that day, the people involved, why they did what they did, and the failure of the American intelligence community to detect and stop them.

                  One suspects that this book will be a major reference for future historians who wished to understand what led up to 9/11. It is all here. The founders of the terrorist movement. The internal struggle between the idealists and those more practical. The flight into Afghanistan when the movement was still weak. The contrasting and conflicting personalities of bin Laden and Zawahiri, before they eventually came together. The painstaking strategy behind the final attack. And, above all, the actual conversations of the main participants, especially bin Laden. Testifying to these details are the six pages of two-column listings of the people Wright interviewed, and the 41 pages of notes that cite the reference for each statement of fact.

                  This book details, as I said, how much the Moslem terrorists misunderstood how much the American people were committed to their democratic form of government. And how much the Moslems distorted their belief in justice, defending the arbitrary killing of innocent civilians by citing isolated passages in the Koran and ignoring the general tone of the Koran that denied resorting to such violence. These Moslems have created their own image of the world, and acknowledge no one else’s. And unfortunately, one sees on the horizon no possibility of their changing.

                  As Filkins wrote in the Times, the book ends inconclusively, with Zawahiri vanishing in the hills on his flight into Pakistan, suggesting there is also no end in sight for the West’s pursuit of terrorism. As there is also no end to the dispute between East and West, Islam and Christianity, the rich and the poor, and advanced and the backward civilizations. Or even between the idealistic young Moslems and the more practical older generation, not to mention the growing dispute about the role of women in Arab societies. (The Moor can marry and take a woman for one night, and then divorce her in the morning.)

                  In sum, this is a brilliant book. It has a strong narrative, believable characters, a significant contrast in world cultures, and heart-rending tension as those two cultures collide. It conveys both the big picture, the clash of cultures, and the intimate details of what the men on each side said and did. It will survive as a true portrait of this moment of world history. (May, 2013)