dialect, revisited

I made Johnn mad. Here’s the comment he posted in response to my post on the misuse and misrepresentation of dialect, most particularly in Gone with the Wind.

Before you make comments on how to write dialect, you might first want to make sure you have written a book that’s sold a tenth as well as the one you’re detracting. Writing dialect is tricky, but you picked an example that works, at least according to world wide sales of the book. In future, choose an example that helps novice writers, not one that simply identifes your own likes and dislikes.
Posted by: Johnn Gualt at March 20, 2004 12:15 PM

I’m being accused here of criticizing the representation of dialect in GwtW, to which I can only plead guilty.

Actually I’m surprised it took this long for somebody to jump up and cry foul — you don’t have to look very far to find some very acrimonious discussions about Gone with the Wind on the web, courtesy of the two major camps in this controversy: Those who dislike the book (and the movie) because of the way it glorifies racism and slavery, and those who have decided that GwtW is perfection and must not be criticized for any reason. I belong to the first camp; Johnn, to the second.

There’s a lot of material on the web about GwtW, including an interesting essay by Ruth Nestvold which deftly summarizes the novel’s primary flaw:

there is one point of criticism that remains no matter how you look at it: even if this popular classic is perhaps informed by a feminist impulse, even if it is not as apologetic as it is made out to be, it is unremittingly and unforgivably racist. With the exception of Mammy, the personification of the earth mother, and Uncle Peter, the exemplary father figure, “darkies” are almost always children in need of a guiding hand or children gone wrong. Gone With the Wind may not simplistically recreate the moonlight and magnolia myth, but it does argue that Southern society, complete with slavery, would have been a fine institution if uncultured, ignorant Yankees hadn’t come along and ruined it all.

One of the ways that GwtW encapsulates racism is by its differentiated use of dialect, as I discussed in that earlier post. John thinks that because GwtW has sold so many copies, I should not say such a thing. But in my view, it’s important to discuss racism in GwtW precisely because it has sold so many copies, and has influenced so many people’s views and understanding of the south. And not, I would claim, in a good way.

I am very interested in the way language is represented in dialog, because it’s an integral part of characterization. I will continue to write about it now and then. As to presenting my opinions here in the process of trying to be helpful to novice writers: of course. This is my blog. I would argue that my opinions are informed, given my academic specialization and publications, but of course people who stop by here are free to take what they need, and leave the rest.

Finally, if you’d like to look at some of the Unconditional Love arguments about GwtW, have a look at Mr. Cranky’s movie review, which sparked a sharp debate by means of this statement:

this film probably single-handedly set back Civil Rights a full ten years.