On today’s date – June 30 in 1936, “Gone With the Wind”, Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping epic about the American Civil War With was published. The book was an immediate best seller making Mrs. Mitchell (above) a celebrity which she didn’t want to be. And it was all from a book that she wrote out of boredom, and which she didn’t really want to publish.
Margaret Mitchell Grows Up to Be a Reporter
Born on November 8, 1900, in Atlanta, Georgia, Margaret Mitchell was a child of a wealthy and politically prominent Irish-Catholic family. She had two brothers before her, both of whom died in infancy. Her father was Eugene Muse Mitchell, a successful attorney, and her mother was Mary Isabel “May Belle” (or “Maybelle”) Stephens, who was a strong minded woman who in fact was a suffragist (a supporter of women’s right to vote). So young Margaret came from solid stock. And as a young girl she liked to write stories. Her family was steeped in Southern Confederate history. When she was six years old her mother would take her on buggy rides past the old ruined remains of once grand plantation homes telling her of the terrible catastrophe of war that had destroyed all in its path. And she recalled her mother’s words:
“She talked about the world those people had lived in, such a secure world, and how it had exploded beneath them. And she told me that my world was going to explode under me, someday, and God help me if I didn’t have some weapon to meet the new world.”
The weapon which Mitchell developed was writing. In 1918, Margaret enrolled in a college in Massachusetts: Smith College in Northampton. In 1922 she got herself a job with the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine. She flourished in this environment writing some 130 articles. Unfortunately, she suffered a broken ankle in 1926 and this brought her journalistic career to and end.
Boredom Leads to “Gone With the Wind”
Mitchell had married John R. Marsh in 1925 (an earlier marriage had failed in less than a year). While she nursed her ankle, her husband would bring home arm loads of books for his bored wife to read. Eventually he grew weary of this and said: “For God’s sake, Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?” Towards that very end, John Marsh brought home a Remington Portable No. 3
typewriter. Mitchell perched this little typewriter on a small desk in a corner of their small apartment (above), and for three years Mitchell worked on a Civil War-era novel whose heroine was named Pansy O’Hara. Mitchell said that she had the story all worked out in her head before she started. And she wrote the final chapter first, filling in the other chapters in fits and starts over the years of writing. Sometimes she would hide the manuscript to keep her work secret.
Mitchell Seemed Reluctant to Publish...
She only showed it to an editor after being goaded into it by friends. And even then she didn’t want to have it published. She denounced it on several occasions as “a rotten book” saying that she hated the act of writing. Eventually, Mitchell gave the manuscript to Harold Latham of MacMillan Publishing in New York. Mr. Latham had only one substantial change to suggest: changing the name of the story’s heroine to something other than “Pansy”. Mitchell agreed to change it
to “Scarlett”.So the book was published on today’s date back in ’36. And it caused a immediate to sensation, selling one million copies in six months. It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1937. And of course the rights to it were snapped up by Hollywood Producer David O’Selznick (above) for a cool $50,000.00. Quite a tidy sum for that time. The book had and to this day has it critics for its foolish and quite inaccurate portrayal of African American slaves as being happily devoted to their benevolent masters. The film version goes even further in perpetuating this age-old southern myth.
Nevertheless, “Gone With the Wind” has gone on to be an American literary classic. As has the film
version – although Mitchell opted out of any participation in the filming process. But she was said to have been pleased with the film. I enjoy watching it although I am fully aware of the totally bogus depiction of the master/slave relationship. The portions depicting Southern Society are accurate as are the depictions of the destruction and misery wrought upon that seemingly genteel world by that momentous conflict. One can only read Mrs. Mitchell’s book or watch the film version and decide for themselves. In any event the personal publicity which the book brought to Mrs. Mitchell was quite unwelcome, and she became fiercely protective of her privacy thereafter. “Gone With the Wind” wound up being her only novel. She died in August of 1949 after being hit by a speeding automobile while crossing a street in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Past Imperfect – History According to the Movies” by Mark C. Carnes- “Gone With the Wind” by Catherine Clinton, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1995.