Tackling dangerous historical myths

Staying In

Book review
Brid Conroy

The smell of honeysuckle on a summer’s evening as I pass my neighbour’s house is made even more poignant by the sight of the silver moon rising behind Clew Bay in a still-red sky from the sunset. I wonder at my luck to live here and equally how division and strife in the world can exist alongside such beauty.
‘The Wrath to Come: Gone with the Wind and the Lies America Tells’, a new book by Sarah Churchwell (published by Head of Zeus), is about the division that exists at the core of American society. Churchwell seeks to blow apart the myth of the Lost Cause, an interpretation of the American Civil War that attempts to preserve the honour of the South by casting the Confederate defeat in the best possible light. This enduring myth asserts that the white in the American South who sought to defend the practice of slavery were treated appallingly and in a sense were the victims of Northern aggressors in the American Civil War.
Churchwell uses the story of ‘Gone with the Wind’ – the novel published in 1936 and the film of 1939 – to help explain misrepresentations and societal divisions, from the war in 1861 through to today. The novel is a significant choice: A poll in 2014 found it to be the second-most-favourite book in the US, after the Bible.
In the novel, Scarlett O’Hara, daughter of plantation owner in the Southern state of Georgia, is fighting to keep her land during the Civil War and afterwards in the Reconstruction Era, when slavery was abolished. Churchwell points us to the huge omission from the story: the Trail of Tears, which started in 1831 with the forcible displacement of five Indian Tribes and continued for 20 years, and was effectively a genocide of the indigenous peoples. ‘Gone with the Wind’, however, never questioned Scarlett O’Hara’s moral right to the land.
The racism in the story was controversial even in 1936, as it hides the brutality behind the American experience formed from a legacy of slavery.
Churchwell charts 160 years of American denialism, via the ‘Lost Cause’ myth, which seeks to rewrite history to justify slavery and maintain America’s innocence. She quotes Hannah Arendt who defined fascist lies – untruths intended to negate history to create an alternate reality – and she talks about the contemporary links, such as when rioters stormed the US Capitol. When faced with falling back against police resistance, one rioter was caught declaring, “This is not America, they’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot at Black Lives Matter.”
Churchwell also looks at the historic focus on male suffrage in Civil War-era South – highlighting the fact that women at that time were beginning their own fight for the vote. Furthermore, although ‘American women’ did get the right to vote in 1920, the full suffrage was denied to African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American women. Some of the most violent race riots occurred around this time, notably in Chicago in 1919 and Tulsa in 1920, when between 300 and 500 were killed.
‘The Wrath to Come’ seeks to separate fact from fiction in the American narrative of the last 160 years of history, and in doing so shows what happens when we ‘normalise’ violence into our historical narrative, and fictionalise reality.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia  – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.