The Perils of Teaching History Through Literature

 John De Gree, Director of The Classical Historian

Some home school parents think they are killing two birds with one stone when they attempt to teach history through literature. Unfortunately, many of these parents are perpetuating falsehoods, teaching fiction as fact, and training their children to use emotions when trying to understand the meaning of the past. There are many reasons why there are separate genres for non-fiction and fiction, and one of the most important is the critical need to teach children how to discern fact from fiction. The blockbuster novel Gone with the Wind is an excellent example of why we cannot teach literature as history. However, any novel could be used to show what is wrong with teaching fiction as if it were fact.  

Gone with the Wind has sold over 30 million copies, and there are few adults who cannot quote at least one line from the novel. However, most fail to understand that this novel is not a history of the south, slavery, and the Civil War. It is instead an expression of the author’s context and theme. In other words, the novel tells us more about who Margaret Mitchell was, the time she wrote in, and her message than it tells us about the accurate historical setting she placed her novel in. Like most novelists, Mitchell based much of Gone with the Wind on her own life and on the time she lived in (1900-1949), not on historical fact. Unfortunately Gone with the Wind rather presents an historically false view of slavery and Southern life that many readers believe to be true.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression caused a great deal of political, economic, and cultural turmoil. Totalitarian fascist and communist governments took power in Europe and Asia. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a number of state-run social work and welfare programs. In Europe and America, Popular Front movements arose that promoted nationalist expressions in art and culture. American authors and artists of the 1930s created works that celebrated America, idealizing the past. Like other Southern writers, Margaret Mitchell exaggerated and romanticized the Antebellum Era in the South, creating the Plantation Myth, where slaves were happy and society functioned beautifully. This myth has confused Americans when they try to picture life in the pre-War South.

As many author’s novels tend to be somewhat biographical, Gone With the Wind resembles more of Mitchell’s personal life than the Antebellum South and the Civil War. Mitchell was born in 1900, the daughter of Eugene, of Scottish and Irish descent, and Mary, of Irish Catholic roots. Mitchell was raised Catholic but grew away from the faith. At 22, the beautiful Margaret Mitchell married Red Upshaw, a bootlegger and an alcoholic. It was a failed marriage, and at one time, Upshaw even became drunk, beat, and raped Mitchell. They divorced in 1924. Mitchell soon remarried and her husband encouraged her to write a novel. In Gone with the Wind, the main character, Scarlett O’Hara, is a fallen-away Catholic, beautiful, who marries Rhett Butler. Butler is a privateer who drinks too much. Against Scarlett’s will, he carries her off to bed and it is assumed he rapes her.

Gone with the Wind contains idealized characters, or archetypes, that are not found in life. Archetypes enable authors to write interesting stories. However, they do not resemble real people but instead are stereotypes that are easy to understand. Ashley Wilkes is the archetypal Southern gentleman, always doing what is noble. Rhett Butler is the scandalous, reluctant, handsome Southern patriot. He’d rather not fight for a lost cause, but does it to protect those closest to him. Melanie Wilkes is the illustration of Southern virtue; loving, kind, and gentle. Archetypes have their correct place in literature, but historians do well to be wary of them.

Margaret Mitchell perpetuates the “Plantation Myth,” a falsehood that before the Civil War, black slaves were happy, simple, stupid, childlike, and dumb, and that after the Civil War, the “good” blacks remained as loyal servants to the whites, while the “bad” blacks caused problems. In Gone with the Wind, servants at Tara are treated as employees. They can earn rewards and presents, and, some feel like they are part of the family. Black slaves of Gone with the Wind love their masters, regardless of what their masters think of them. Mammy, a house slave at Tara, states that she “owned the O’Haras body and soul, that their secrets were her secrets.” Though Mammy loves Tara, Scarlett views her as a child. Scarlett O’Hara proclaims, “How stupid negroes were! They never thought of anything unless they were told.”  After the war, Tara’s slaves do not leave Scarlett, even though they have their freedom. Scarlett’s former slaves even risk their lives to protect her from the "bad" blacks.

The historical evidence of the master/slave relationship paints a different picture than what is portrayed in Mitchell’s book. While it may be true house slaves were treated better than farm hands, house servants were also subject to the whims of the master, including sexual perversion and adultery. In their autobiographies, both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington write of the sad plight of the female black house slave. In fact, both Douglass and Washington believed their slave mothers became pregnant because they were forced to sleep with their white masters. According to Southern thought, the child of your slave was your slave, regardless of who the father was. Although we find evidence of sexual abuse of house slaves in history books, we see none of this in the idealized Gone with the Wind. In addition, the portrayal of Scarlett’s servants as loyal and staying with her after the war is based in romanticized idealism of the plantation owner, not in historical fact.

Most Southerners in Antebellum South were poor, white, and didn’t own slaves. It is very likely that many white Southerners never saw slaves. This truth is not depicted in Gone With the Wind, and the reader assumes that slaves and plantations were everywhere and Southern society was a type of ideal Camelot. This is not the fault of Margaret Mitchell, as she was not trying to portray an historically accurate picture of the South. If she had wanted to do this, she would have written a history text.

Teaching history and literature are not two completely separate academic subjects, and many of the analytical tools used in understanding history are found in literary analysis. However, when parents try to teach history through literature, their children learn falsehoods, create wrong images of the past, and become a prey to their emotions in understanding the meaning of history. Students learn early that if a history book seems dry, they can just pick up an exciting, romantic novel that will take its place. Unfortunately, reading only what is immediately exciting and gratifying does not train the mind, and conditions the young person to believe that it is best to only study something that focuses on the frailties of human emotions, and not on the truth.

Young people need to be trained academically to think academically. Sometimes, learning can be hard work for the child and the child may want to not learn. However, one role of the adult is to gently guide the student in learning, even when that student’s emotions are telling them that they do not want to learn. Learning only what one likes to learn all the time is akin to eating what one likes to eat. A good parent would not give their child cake all the time, even when that is only what the child would like to eat.

Some teachers who use literature to teach history were never taught what history is and do not have an appreciation for it. Many have learned that history simply means memorizing names and dates, when actually it means applying the tools of historical analysis, using sound judgement, discerning fact from fiction, and making connections. Understanding the meaning of history, using history texts and primary source documents, is an exciting and worthy endeavor. When teaching history, we owe it to our children to learn what history is, to use the proper historical tools to teach the past, and then to challenge our children to learn and use those tools of historical analysis. 

John and Zdenka De Gree live with five of their children in San Clemente, California (Their oldest two are out of the house). After working in private and public school education for over twenty years, John recognized the great need in American society to promote independent and critical thinking through open and thoughtful discussion of history. The Classical Historian (www.classicalhistorian.com) teaches history through games and creative curriculum. Our materials are inspired by the best that is offered in the Western education tradition: openness, analysis, healthy competition, respect towards opposing viewpoints, recognition of an absolute truth, and academic honesty.