The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, MAY 16, 1937
Million Dollar Baby
--By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: It was this sort of article, more than his relatively innocuous references to GWTW in the book, which likely caused Cash's shudders and resort to Brown's Mixture when faced with the prospect four years later of meeting the genial Margaret Mitchell as her guest in Atlanta. Her warmth overcame whatever slights Cash may have let slip earlier and she quipped to him that she had to search the whole state of Georgia for one model for Tara, winding up with but a simple farmhouse, nothing like, forsooth,--what she herself mocked--the gaudy white columns of Selznick and company's vaunted manse in the film. (And Cash's rather completely incorrect prediction toward the end of the article came three years prior to the film's opening and unprecedented success, further catapulting the novel fully into our own time; so don't fault his faulty adumbration on the point too much. He did, after all, suggest it implicitly to be good fodder for filmdom--and, no doubt, this was the reason MGM came eventually to call on Ms. Mitchell.)
The references below to "the Fair Ellen" and "La Peterkin" are to Ellen Glasgow and Julia Peterkin, repectively, both of whom Cash respected as pre-eminent Southern writers.
And, though the risk is run of overstatement on the point, the two ethnophaulisms employed by Cash in this article are used in the context of deploring the sort of connotation conjured by the words, as used in the Rev. T. Dixon's and T. Nelson Page's racist pail-fillers; has nothing to do with some Gaffney-atavism slip of the tongue--as Cash was a most careful and deliberate writer--or subliminal Freudianola racism on the part of Cash. The note is made here only because--ho-hum--some very few careless readers and would-be critics of Cash have thought as much based on a microscopic fragmentary assessment (prosaic, pseudo-Mosaic hash-job) of similar employment of terms in The Mind of the South, and thought so much so of such, a time or two, to have wound up in print saying it, and right quite prosaically. As Cash said of art in 1928, honi sois qui mal y pense. To those misled few--hone it, smile, get on the fence, go wash your pens in soapy water, change your corrective lenses, glint again at your astrolabe's mater, clear the air, read a little further and then a little farther, maybe even a little in Jean-Paul Sartre--and come back to class when you think better of it.
WHAT fascinates me about that great current topic of conversation, "Gone With The Wind," is not the book itself or even its undeniably amiable author--but the spectacle of its astounding success in the world--and it's unfortunate fate from the literary standpoint.
As a matter of fact, the book is neither a very good one, nor a very bad one. I know, of course, that the Fair Ellen of Richmond is on record as thinking it an almost unexampled masterpiece, that La Peterkin is down as believing that it is the greatest novel ever to come out of Dixie and indeed probably the greatest that will ever come out of Dixie and that one of the more excitable New York critics has given it as his solemn opinion that it is the very greatest novel ever heard of on the spinning planet. But in the face of such formidable authority, I shall make bold to think that it falls a good deal short of greatness. Its passions are too naked and simple, and its characters, indubitably having a kind of reality, yet have only such reality as belongs to the better sort of moving picture.
MET IN THE ROSE GARDEN
On the other hand, it certainly has not been enough to deserve the kind of popular success which has descended upon it. The thing is definitely well-written, and in snatches, is written with genuine distinction--whereas it is almost an axiom that books which meet with great popular success have to be badly written, as witness the signal triumph of the celebrated Lloyd Douglas's "The Magnificent Obsession" and "Green Light"--and as witness on a somewhat higher level, but not much higher, the mighty flight of the now defunct "Anthony Adverse." Again, this "Gone With The Wind" is organized into a really magnificent flow--moves with stately and measured tread--and without any part of the perky, strident, staccato manner which is almost invariably the hallmark of popular success in America. Yet again, the book is, within its limits, intelligent. The author, of course, plainly knows nothing about the economic background of her time and people and her grasp of sociology is not likely to get her elevated to the faculty of the University of North Carolina. Nevertheless, if her people are in the last analysis only brilliantly lighted one-dimensional shadows, their psychology is recognizably human. They are not picture cut-outs of racial chauvinism and nigger-hate, like those of the Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr.--or of noblesse oblige and most noble blood like those of Mr. Stark Young. And if the whole Southern scene is not there, it is still true that what part is presented is at least relatively authentic. I have heard the charge that the book is only another tome in the rose-garden and duelling-ground tradition of the late Thomas Nelson Page. But with a nose easily offended by the slightest whiff of Meh Lady or that ineffable coon, Billy, I am unable to discover much truth in the charge. I think, indeed, that one of the book's chief claims to distinction is that it is really the first attempt, aside perhaps from Evelyn Scott's "The Wave," to deal with the Old South in realistic terms.
Taking it all in all, the book was good enough, and not too good to have normally commanded an audience of from 50,000 to 100,000 readers in its first year. And after that it ought to have lingered on for another 20 years--enjoying not too overwhelming respect, but enough to make its author eminently comfortable--and bringing pleasure to a considerable body of readers.
TOO MANY READERS
But as it is--. Everyone knows, of course, that what with publishers seizing on the first wild alerts of flustered critics and flinging them over the earth, what with every hedge critic eagerly seizing the cues from his betters and above all, what with that Frankenstein monster, the radio, braying in every home and practically every room in the Western Republic, the thing has already sold a million and a half copies. At least, such was the score the last time I listened in on the returns. By this time it may have gone to two million. Which means, of course, it is being bought by literally hundreds of thousands of people who haven't the faintest interest in its content, who can't read it or anything else with sense in it--and who have bought it simply because they are under the influence of mass hypnotism. The poor book, indeed, is no longer a book at all. It is a victim of mob madness, subtly played upon by organized propaganda--a dubious, dizzy, unhappy thing, like the sometimes celebrated Charles A. Lindbergh, or the sometimes celebrated Rudy Vallee. And by that token, of course, it is doomed to die before its time. Tomorrow, the day after, before the end of this year in all likelihood. It will vanish suddenly and forever--annihilated and scorned of memory.
Perhaps, in view of all the circumstances, I shall seem merely funny in saying that it seems sad and hardly fair. Yet there is pretty good evidence. It seems to me, that the little Mitchell herself feels at least something of exactly that. I surely would not describe her as unhappy. No American who had just found herself (or himself) quite unexpectedly paying income tax of half a million dollars, could possibly be unhappy, except, of course, in having to pay any taxes at all. Nevertheless, there is a distinctly querulous note in her public utterances that makes me think that in the bottom of her heart the girl feels at least dimly that her baby has not been done right by--not exactly right.
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