When British author Mary Hoffman was a young lady 39 years ago her perception of the Plantation South was transformed by the TV miniseries, Roots. Last year she wrote, “The effect…was huge. Electrifying…up until then the only thing any of us knew about America’s deep-south was based on the film Gone With the Wind.”
Roots was released as a non-fiction book forty years ago in 1976 and the novel Gone With the Wind forty years before that. Like Hoffman, many of the original book reviews proclaimed Roots as a long overdue antitoxin to the plantation myth of Gone With the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s story, they argued, dominated Civil War memory and needed to be replaced by a valid narrative that disclosed the evils Southern society. Mitchell’s, they emphasized, was a fictional story whereas Haley’s was based on factual genealogical research. Therefore, Haley’s accounts of the deliberate amputation a runaway-prone ancestor’s foot and the rape of another, the critics assumed, were more accurate representations of Southern slavery.
If Ms. Hoffman experience was a typical example, Gone With the Wind’s dominance of Civil War memory between 1936 and 1976 was probably no more influential than Root’s dominance from 1976 to 2016. Each had its forty year season in the sun. Since 2016 is the eightieth and fortieth anniversaries of Gone With the Wind and Roots, respectively, now is a good time to review the research of each author.
Margaret Mitchell’s research began in childhood when she was hearing stories as early as 1905, which was forty years after the Civil War ended. Many of those who lived through the period were in their fifties and sixties at the time. When working for the Atlanta Constitution in the 1920s, among her favorite assignments was interviewing aged citizens for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. While at the newspaper Mitchell earned a reputation for thoroughness and accuracy.
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Upon publication, many reviewers praised her novel’s realism. The chief New York Times critic wrote that her book was, “The best Civil War novel that has yet been written…an extraordinary blend of romantic and realistic treatment.” Stephen Vincent Benet added, “Miss Mitchell…knows…the little distinctions that make for authenticity.” She was most proud of the accuracy endorsements received from historians such as Douglas Southall Freeman and Henry Steele Commager, among others.
Alex Haley’s Roots was on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for nearly a year but even months before it dropped from the list Haley was accused of plagiarism. Far from being an account of Haley’s ancestors, a white Jewish author claimed that Roots was largely derived from his 1967 novel, The African. A year later Haley paid the author $650,000 in an out-of-court settlement and acknowledged that some passages in Roots were copied from The African.
In later years historians and genealogists discovered numerous and serious errors in Haley’s research. Some directly contradict his stories. There is no confirmation that the original African ancestor ever existed, nor could others coming later in the ancestral chain be participants in the story as Haley tells it. Putative playmates were not children at the same time. There is no record that the ancestor Haley says was raped ever lived. He has her being born eight years after her supposed father actually died. The white man accused of raping her was not born into a poor family as Haley reports. The error list goes on and on.
The falsehoods are sufficiently large and numerous that at least one historian suggests that Haley’s Pulitzer Prize should be posthumously revoked.
Historical facts may be cited to support either the Mitchell or Haley interpretation. Consistent with Haley’s viewpoint, the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens stated bluntly, “The African-American is inferior to the white man.” But less than a year after the war ended he expressed a view consistent with the Mitchell narrative when he told the Georgia legislature:
Ample…protection should be secured to [ex-slaves] so that they may stand equal before the law, in the possession and enjoyment of all rights of person, liberty, and property. Many considerations claim this at your hands. Among these [is] their fidelity in times past. They cultivated your fields, ministered to your personal wants…nursed and reared your children, and even in the hour of peril they were in the main true to you and yours. To them we owe a debt of gratitude as well as acts of kindness.
It is probable that there is authenticity in both Roots and Gone With the Wind. The accepted narrative, however, depends upon the era and is likely—as Napoleon averred—an agreed upon fable.