The hot, late August days of summer in Charleston are a little slower than the usual pace of slow. Many Charlestonians, both the new ones with a little money and the old ones with lots of family history, go to their North Carolina mountain houses around Flat Rock to escape the heat and enjoy the cool mountain breezes. It’s been that way for generations.
Having neither an abundance of new money nor the heritage of the old family mountain house, I am stuck in Charleston, with the windows closed tight and the air conditioner set on high, consoling myself by settling in with a cold beer on long nights of watching old movies on TV. It’s not the same as cool evenings on the front porch watching vivid sunsets over the mountains, but…
It was on just such a muggy night last week that I again watched Gone With the Wind for the first time in years. To say that the movie is a stunningly brilliant cinematic achievement is a radical understatement. But on another level, I was struck by how much it was a Charleston story, and it’s power in defining our lives as Southerners – both white and black.
First the Charleston part. Though I have lived here over 40 years, as my Charleston-born children are quick to remind me, I am not a Charlestonian; I’m (proudly) from the Upstate. But, during those 40 years I have absorbed many facts and tales about various parts of the movie that real Charlestonians, who say they know what’s so, say is ”real Charleston.”
All of this is based on the claim that Margaret Mitchell spent many summers in Charleston visiting her grandmother and thus, these real Charlestonians say, it was here that she leaned the stories (or myths) that came to life on the big screen. A few of the most oft-told ”facts”:
• Rhett Butler was from Charleston and his character is allegedly based on the real life of George A. Trenholm, a wealthy blockade runner. In the next block over from my house on Bull Street there is a modest two story house where Trenholm lived for a time after the War. Supposedly he stayed in this plain little house a few months each year to show his solidarity with the post-war suffering of his fellow Charlestonians, while the rest of the year he lived like a king in the opulent splendor of his mansions in Liverpool and London.
• The long suffering Melanie is said to be modeled on Mitchell’s Charleston aunt and Mammy is supposedly the personification of her maid.
• The magnificently opulent home of Rhett and Scarlett in Atlanta, real Charlestonians say, was inspired by the Calhoun Mansion on Meeting Street.
• Belle Whatling’s house of ill repute is recognized by locals as the Big Brick, a well-known house of leisure that serviced many generations of Charleston’s gentlemen at 11 Fulton Lane.
• Aunt Pittypat and the little old busy-bodied ladies with the broad bosoms and their incessant chatter about their prominent ancestors — well, they are still here and can be found pretty much unchanged in many South of Broad parlors today.
But, beyond these superficial characters and incidents, most importantly, the movie has come to define the popular perception of the mythical Old South. It has defined the myths by which we as Southerners define ourselves — and by which the rest of the world defines us as well … .
It’s all about the gallant cavaliers and their all-important Code of Honor; the big white-columned houses with the avenue of oaks at the happy plantation; the joyful sounds of slaves singing their songs in dialect as they picked cotton; the nobility of the fight for The Lost Cause; the loyal, simple-minded slaves who so loved their masters; the Southern belles in their hoop skirts and their peculiar blend of mindless flirtation in happy times and their steely resolve during crisis; and on and on it goes.
These are the myths of the Old South, and the movie has made them real to millions of people worldwide. From Birmingham to Bangkok and from Richmond to Rome the movie has created for them the Old South — this romantic fairy tale of what they are told it was like.
And every day, they come to Charleston by the thousands, looking for the myths, looking for what they believe to be real. They come looking for Scarlett and Rhett — and Mammy too. They are called tourists.
Whether or not all this was really the Old South, we’ll never know. It is the stuff that armies of historians, professional and amateur, debate to this day. Doubtless there is some basis in reality, but more importantly, the movie has created these myths and seared them in our hearts and minds, in brilliant Technicolor.
And, these myths are now the historic reality of choice for many of us, especially some who are said to take ”excessive pride” in our Southern roots.
And most of all, after again watching the movie, I’m struck by how much I would hate the movie if I were an African American. It both creates and confirms every false myth of race in the South — myths that at the time clothed a system of pure evil, and that have ever since sustained the legacies of racism that haunt and punish us all down to this day.
In the end, some simply would dismiss it as just a movie, and it is. Though you can take a Gone with the Wind Tour in Charleston today, not a single scene was shot here — or even in Georgia for that matter. The whole thing was a Hollywood production; the Southern mansion shown before the opening credits was on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles.
But in reality it is much much more than a movie. It is a movie that has created and made vivid two myths, one about Southern whites and another about Southern blacks. And, because we and others believe these myths — or want to believe — these myths have both defined and defiled who we are, as Southerners, as South Carolinians, both black and white.
Or so it seems to this proud Son of the South on a hot, muggy, August night in Charleston in 2013.
— Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring change and reform to politics and government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.