I have to admit I am a new fan of Pat Conroy. The truth is I am a fan of Pat Conroy because Pat Conroy was a passionate friend to and fan of Gone with the Wind. He was the only author I ever read who unapologetically talked about Gone with the Wind with such a personal connection. Other writers have discussed Gone with the Wind with the formality of academic distance and air of critical superiority, but when Pat talked about and wrote about Gone with the Wind, it was personal and he credited the novel and its impact on his mother for shaping him as a writer.
I’ve often referred to the film Gone with the Wind as a gateway to the classic film genre. When I fell in love with Gone with the Wind, I unknowingly fell in love with all of classic film. Each trip to the video store in the 90s was a discovery of another classic film that I could almost always connect back to Gone with the Wind. Through my classic film journey, I have watched most of the classic 1939 films; I have followed the careers of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel, and Olivia de Havilland; and I have sought out productions by David O. Selznick. Thirty years after I first watched Gone with the Wind, I am still discovering its connections to other films.
Taking a similar literary journey from the novel Gone with the Wind, as I did with the film, has been difficult for me. I have struggled with fiction and often found non-fiction easier, more believable, and more interesting to read. Also, with publishing only one book in her lifetime, Mitchell didn’t leave us with a library of works to follow. Pat Conroy bridged the generational and literary gap for me between Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and a broader world of literary possibilities. In 1996 when the hardback 60th anniversary copy of Gone with the Wind was released, it came with a new preface by Pat Conroy. I immediately delved into Pat’s story and the influence Gone with the Wind had on his life. My passion for Gone with the Wind didn’t seem so far-fetched, when reading the tales of his mother and her relationship to the story.
While driving from Edisto Beach to Beaufort in October, my mother read to me Pat’s essay on Gone with the Wind from his 2010 book, “My Reading Life.” We laughed together at the imagery of Conroy’s well-dressed mother and her children in tow at Oakland Cemetery praying the rosary over Margaret Mitchell’s grave. The drive from Edisto Beach to Beaufort listening to my mother read Pat Conroy’s chapter on Gone with the Wind is one of my favorite memories of our vacation last year.
Meeting Pat was a thrill for me and my mother. She brought her copy of Prince of Tides as I toted along my 60th anniversary edition of Gone with the Wind, my copy of My Reading Life, and my copy of The Water is Wide, the first Conroy book I read. I told him how much his affection for Gone with the Wind had meant to me and how I had been waiting since I was in high school to get my 60th anniversary copy of Gone with the Wind signed by him. I truly believed this was the beginning of many little moments I might be able to share with Mr. Conroy at future festivals and book signings.
This past week I have read many excerpts, blogs, and articles by and about Pat Conroy. I feel even more comradery with him in our mutual love of water and geography. I wish I could have had a longer conversation with him about Gone with the Wind. I wish I would have walked through the literary gateway from Gone with the Wind to Pat Conroy before I did. But, I am grateful I was part of something special in Beaufort last year and had the opportunity to meet the great southern author whose literary essence was born from Gone with the Wind.
I look forward to more of the literary journey with Pat Conroy that still lies before me.
Excerpt from "My Reading Life" by Pat Conroy
When my mother described the reaction of the city to the publication of this book, it was the first time I knew that literature had the power to change the world. It certainly changed my mother and the life she was meant to lead. She read the novel aloud to me when I was five years old, and it is from this introductory reading that I absorbed my first lessons in the authority of fiction. There is not a sentence in this book unfamiliar to me since my mother made a fetish of rereading it each year. The lines of Gone with the Wind remain illustrated in gold leaf in whatever disfigured Book of Kells I carry around with me from my childhood. I can close my eyes today and still hear my mother’s recitation of it in the same reverential voice she used when she read to me from the story of Genesis.
When she drove me to Sacred Heart School and we moved along Peachtree Street, she could point out areas where the two armies of the Americas clashed. She would take me to the spot outside Loew’s Grand Theatre and show me where she was standing in the crowd on the night that the movie premiered in Atlanta and she saw Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh and Margaret Mitchell enter the theater to great applause. Though she could not afford a ticket, she thought she owed the book the courtesy of standing among the crowd that night. Together, we visited the grave of Margaret Mitchell at Oakland Cemetery, and Mom would say a decade of the rosary over her tombstone, then remark proudly that the novelist had been a Roman Catholic of Irish descent. On weekends, she would drive me to Stone Mountain to view the half-finished effigies of Southern generals on horseback carved into the center of that massive granite outcropping, then off to Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek, where she taught me the battle of Atlanta according to the gospel of Margaret Mitchell. My mother, during these visitations, taught me to hate William Tecumseh Sherman with my body and soul, and I did so with all the strength I could bring to the task of malice. He was the Northern general, presented as the embodiment of evil, who had burned the pretty city where I was born. Mom would drive me near the spot where Margaret Mitchell was struck down by a taxicab in 1949 and look toward the skyline at Five Points, saying, “Can you imagine how beautiful Atlanta would be if Sherman had never been born?”
But the story of this novel and my mother goes deeper than mere literary rapport. I think that my mother, Frances Dorothy Peek, known to all as Peg, modeled her whole life on that of Scarlett O’Hara. I think that fiction itself became such a comfortable country for me because mom treated the book as though it were a manual of etiquette whose dramatis personae she presented as blood relations and kissing cousins rather than as creations of one artist’s imagination. She could set our whole world against this fictional backdrop with alarming ease. Mom, the willful, emotional beauty with just the right touch of treachery and flirtation, was Miss Scarlett herself. Dad, the Marine Corps fighter pilot, flying off the deck of his aircraft carrier, dropping napalm on the enemy North Koreans an entire world away, played the role of the flashy, contemptuous Rhett Butler. Aunt Helen was the spitting image of Melanie Wilkes, Mom would inform me as she prepared our evening meal, and Aunt Evelyn acted just like Suellen. Uncle James could play the walk-on part for Charles Hamilton, and Uncle Russ the stand-in for Frank Kennedy. Mom could align our small universe with that of Gone with the Wind while she stirred the creamed corn. Once she had read the novel, it lived inside her the rest of her life, like a bright lamp she could always trust in the darkness.
- Pat Conroy
My Reading Life, Chapter 2: Gone With the Wind