Have you ever bought a book just to have a copy of the great Preface or Introduction it contained? I have done this more times than I should own up to. I bought The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance by John Hale because of its moving Foreword by Hale’s widow, who told how she had enlisted her husband’s colleagues to finish and publish his last opus. I bought My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk surely to read this novel by one of the world’s most gifted living authors, but I chose the Everyman’s Library edition for the author’s revealing Introduction, in which he discusses the book’s genesis along with his historical research and narrative methods. A treasure trove before the “book” even began!
And now I’ve done it again.
I couldn’t resist Pat Conroy’s preface to Gone With the Wind, in the 2007 Scribner trade paperback I’m holding. It features an arresting cover photo by Marc Yankus and cover design by John Fulbrook III:
But it was Conroy’s preface that sent me walking to the checkout line. Conroy is personal, telling how Margaret Mitchell’s novel pervaded the South he grew up in, explaining its inhabitants to themselves; how it shaped his mother, giving her strength to shake off a Depression-scarred childhood and face the oncoming whispers of war in the 1930s; and finally, how it shaped young Pat Conroy and the writer he became. He admires it and sees its flaws (which he mentions more than once).
For me, Conroy’s portrait of the book was most telling when he began to paint Scarlett O’Hara and articulate the shades of her greatness as a character. He calls her “the most irresistible, spiderous, seditious and wonderful of American heroines.” He compares Scarlett and Rhett Butler to Romeo and Juliet in their fame for English-speaking readers, but it is Scarlett who “springs alive in the first sentence … a fabulous, pixilated, one-of-a-kind creation.” He locates Margaret Mitchell’s genius in her distilled focus, placing the Civil War “in the middle of Scarlett O’Hara’s living room.” Perhaps it is Scarlett’s very self-centeredness, her “Machiavellian” determination, that permit the reader to experience this “Iliad with a Southern accent,” as Conroy calls it, nearly exclusively through her concerns.
Thankfully, Gone With the Wind, 75th Anniversary Edition, featuring the 1936 cover art for the novel, still includes Conroy’s wonderful Preface.
Read more about Scarlett O’Hara in The Fictional 100.