Skip to main content


December 12, 2008


Posted by admin

Sam Wyly, author of 1,000 DOLLARS AND AN IDEA, describes the tumultous personal history of his family, and the comfort they found in reading Margaret Mitchell's classic tale, GONE WITH THE WIND.

I have vivid memories of my parents reading aloud to my brother, Charles, and me back in the days on our cotton patch in tiny Lake Providence, Louisiana. We sat at their feet and listened to stories of heroes and plain folks, to the lush detail of places and times we would never see except in our minds. With Lake Providence tucked into a bend of the Mississippi River, pretty much everything Mark Twain ever wrote, we had heard. But my most lasting memory is of the book Margaret Mitchell wrote.

For Christmas in 1939, my father bought my mother a copy of GONE WITH THE WIND. The story of Scarlett, Rhett, Tara, and the ravages of the Civil War originally had been published in June of 1936. The movie had just been released, but my parents always believed in the completeness of a book's story and the power of imagination unleashed by the written word. And GONE WITH THE WIND, they said, was an especially meaningful saga for the family to imagine from the book.

Like all of the South in 1939, we were at war --- not with the North, but with the Great Depression. My Scots-Irish folks owned 400 acres of cotton land called Island Point, which had once been part of a vast 2800-acre farm called Arlington Plantation, owned by my great, great grandfather, Edward Sparrow. By 1860 he had built it into one of the top 10 cotton-producing plantations in the South. Then came the Civil War --- "The War of Northern Aggression," as it still is referred to in Lake Providence --- and the Sparrow family was thrown out of the beautiful home by Union soldiers. Arlington became a headquarters for Generals Macpherson, McClellan and McArthur, and the first floor was turned into a stable for officers' horses. Hoofprints from them are still visible in the downstairs parlor.

I was only five years old that Christmas, but with my family history the Civil War was a story that already resonated with me. And I never heard it described as graphically, or with as much feeling, as when my parents read GONE WITH THE WIND aloud to Charles and me. For 1,024 pages, we hardly spoke. In so many ways, it was our story, too.

Like Tara at the hands of the war, Island Point was under siege by the Depression. We'd been living in a white painted house in the town of Lake Providence, but by the end of 1939 cotton prices had fallen to six cents a pound and the crop "almost wasn't worth pickin'." It was a long period of hard times.

Scarlett's father, Gerald, had told her, "It will come to you, this love of the land. There's no gettin' away from it if you're Irish." He was right. My parents wanted desperately to hang on to this land that had been passed down from Dad's Irish great-grandfather, born in Dublin in 1810. Just as Scarlett finagled $300 to pay taxes on Tara in order to save it from the carpetbaggers, my folks sold our painted house in town to pay down the farm debt to the bank. As Scarlett made clothes from curtains so as not to appear destitute, my mother made curtains and linens to sell to make ends meet.

The painted house gone, we moved outside of town onto Island Point itself, and the four of us made a new home in one of the field hand's cabins, an unpainted clapboard house with a rusty tin roof, a "double shotgun." We pumped water from a well outside, where there was also an outhouse. Dad ran a wire from an electric pole into the house so that we could power a radio to listen to progress of the war in Europe and to have a light to read by. By the light of this solitary lamp, our parents read us GONE WITH THE WIND.

Money being what it was in December of 1939, the book was the Big Gift that Christmas. Even if it hadn't been, it would have meant the most. Its account of the cultural history of the Old South seemed to parallel stories of my own people, brave and hard-working Scots-Irish immigrants who settled in Louisiana and became successful cotton planters. Scarlett came to love the land, as her father had predicted. She got Tara back, though other tragedies awaited her. We would lose Island Point. In 1941, when prices hit five cents a pound, my parents let go of what had been a 15-year fight and sold most of the land. A few acres we still have. I guess it's a nostalgia thing, a feeling of roots.

But any good story has ironies. One of ours is that the family got back Arlington Plantation. My cousin Flo lives there today, along with the hoofprints in the parlor and the dried blood of wounded Union soldiers soaked into the back porch. The house, which was the Tara of our family, tells its own stories.

Another irony is that my family embraced the philosophic view of the deeply flawed Scarlett, namely that "Tomorrow is another day." There is a fundamental optimism in that, a belief that if you don't give up, you will find a way. It guided my irrepressible folks to realize new dreams of self-determination (they bought a small newspaper in Delhi, Louisiana) and time and again, over a 45-year career in entrepreneurship and investing, enabled me to pick myself up and find a happy ending.

Margaret Mitchell's masterpiece that Christmas of 1939 became the foundation of my understanding of my own heritage. It remains at the core of my lifelong interest in American cultural and intellectual history. I just wish things had turned out as well for Scarlett.

But then, tomorrow is another day.

Tomorrow, Karen Robards discusses her proudest accomplishment as a mother.