I just started reading Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell's blockbuster 1936 novel of the Civil War and after, which won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize. It's a fine specimen of what used to be called “midcult” literature, a full step up from mass market fiction, but not in the league of tier one novels. The movie is more famous, but the book has sold more than thirty million units and was rated No. 2 in a 2014 poll of Americans’ favorite books. (The Bible was No. 1.) Scholars and teachers don't like Gone With the Wind, of course, because of its sanguine rendition of slavery, but I can get past that. I've read and taught and written enough about slavery and Jim Crow not to be bothered. My interest isn't historical accuracy. It's this: Why was it—and is it—so popular?
I'm only fifty pages in, but some signs have already appeared. Here's the first sentence of the book: “Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” That was a surprise—it meant that Vivien Leigh was miscast. It also placed the power of Scarlett somewhere beyond beauty.
There are other compelling elements. Scarlett's mother and father are a model of domestic understanding. The sympathy they feel for each other easily could slide into sentimentality, but that's not the case. Mr. O’Hara worships his wife, and she is ever considerate of him. But he is 28 years older than she is. They married when she was 15. It happened just after the man Mrs. O’Hara really loved and wanted to marry (a cousin) was killed in New Orleans. Her family had pressured him to leave and stay away from her, and she blames them for what happened. She even threatened to enter a convent. The arrival of Mr. O'Hara, a gruff, uncultivated Irishman, provided another way out, and she agreed to marry him. She will never love him as she did the other, but she will be steadfast and responsible. When Mrs. O’Hara leads the children in the Rosary, little Scarlett tends to align her mother with Mary herself.
In 1790, the young Xavier de Maistre found himself under a forty-two-day house arrest in Turin after an illegal duel. He turned a great inconvenience into an opportunity, and thus A Journey Around My Room, the musings of a bored aristocrat, was written.
Many of us are undoubtedly starting to feel like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in his tiny, yellow-wallpapered apartment, our minds on the verge of being split in two. Fortunately, de Maistre’s work invites us to overcome our troubles by rooting ourselves more concretely within our familiar surroundings, seeing what we frequently overlook with new eyes: “Follow me, all you who, because of some mortification of love, or a negligent friend, have been keeping to your apartments, far from the pettiness and perfidy of men. Let all the unhappy, sick and bored people of the whole world follow me! Let all the lazy arise en masse!”
Furniture and objects in his room become springboards for delightful insights, both philosophical and trivial in nature. Take, for instance, his thoughts on his pink and white bed: “A bed witnesses our birth and death; it is the unvarying theatre in which the human race acts out. . . . It is a cradle bedecked with flowers; it is the throne of love; it is a sepulchre.” Later on, he pretends his armchair is a carriage, but is thwarted by gravity:
I saw that I was about to destroy the fruit of all my labours and lose my life. . . . Startled by the voice of a poor man who suddenly started to beg for alms at my door . . . my other half suddenly swung my chair round before my soul could have time to warn her that there wasn’t a brick behind to support it; the move was so powerful and sudden that my post-chaise found itself quite outside its centre of gravity and fell back on top of me.
Elsewhere, he expresses delight in listening to his servant making coffee, a reminder that we must, even now, intentionally find pleasure in the mundane activities of our everyday lives. It’s a short and amusing piece of writing, worth reading during quarantine.
As someone who has long believed in the necessity of travel, I have found this book to be a poignant antidote to my state of stasis. De Maistre’s way of traveling is about the disposition of the mind. It’s also very cost-effective.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I must take to my sofa, where I intend to ponder the deeper significance of my living room and the mountains of unread books and laundry.