The fiery, redheaded, Irish Southern belle, whose family typified the antebellum South, went through a terrible war, saw her hometown of Atlanta burned in an uncontrollable conflagration, and lived to see the day when its streets were filled with soldiers. No, it wasn’t Scarlett O’Hara, but her creator and alter ego, whose family members were central characters in the history of Georgia.
Born in 1900, Margaret Mitchell came of age during the great mobilization of World War I. Her mother was feminist Maybelle Mitchell, a noted suffragist and founder of the Atlanta Women’s Study Club. “Nothing infuriated her so much,” reported Margaret later, “as the complacent attitude of other ladies who felt they should let the gentlemen do the voting.” She immortalized Mama in her famous novel, modeling the character of Rhett Butler after the tough- minded Maybelle.
A former flapper (who used her maiden name in a manner very uncharacteristic of genteel Southern ladies in the early decades of the century), Margaret began writing her epic novel in 1926 after a serious ankle injury ended her brief
career as a columnist for the Atlanta Journal. Never intended for publication, Gone with the Wind was instead viewed by Margaret as a very private exercise where she could weave together many of the stories that surrounded her. The manuscript evolved over a period of ten years into a massive cluttered stack of disjointed papers. She rarely spoke about it to anyone, although after a while, the existence of this huge pile of words became common knowledge among her friends, one of whom was MacMillan editor Harold Latham. In a 1935 visit to Atlanta, Latham asked Margaret if he could take a look at it.
Impulsively, and in retrospect, surprisingly, for someone who considered herself a poor writer and was extremely private about her writing, Margaret bundled up the huge stack of handwritten pages and dumped them onto his lap. Almost immediately she had second thoughts, and when Latham got back to New York, he found a telegram informing him that she had changed her mind and to send the manuscript back. But by then, he had already become ensnared in the saga (even though at the time, it lacked a first chapter and any semblance of order).
The rest, as they say, is history. Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. This huge (over a thousand pages) romantic saga of struggle and perseverance immediately captured the imagination of the Depression-battered public and went on to become a monumental bestseller. It was also the last book Margaret Mitchell would ever write (she had previously written parts of two novellas, Pansy Hamilton Flapper Heroine and Ropa Carmagin, but both remained unpublished and were destroyed after her death by her family). In 1996, Lost Laysen, another lost novella, was published by her estate, but it failed to capture the same attention as her greatest work.
The sheer scope of the impact that Gone with the Wind has made on the American cultural landscape is breathtaking. In many respects, due to its incredibly evocative description of the antebellum South, it has come to represent the exact opposite of what Margaret intended. Instead of a simple story about a young girl learning how to grow into a strong woman with her own identity, who is able to rely on her own wits and succeed, it became for many the one-sided symbol of nostalgia for a particular period in history that existed for a small elite group of slave owners, a way of life not at all typical of most Southerners of the time.
When asked her opinion about what made Gone with the Wind such a success and her fans so fervent, Margaret opined, “Despite its length and many details, Gone with the Wind is basically just a simple yarn of fairly simple people. There’s no fine writing; there are no grandiose thoughts; there are no hidden meanings, no symbolism, nothing sensational—nothing, nothing at all that have made other bestsellers. Then how to explain its appeal from the five-year- old to the ninety-five-year-old? I can’t figure it out.”
Margaret Mitchell, in a fashion true to the free-spirited, strong-willed, independent archetypal female character she created, went on to endow a medical chair providing full scholarships for African American students that has helped to create some of the best doctors in the United States. By the time she was tragically killed by a speeding taxicab on Peachtree Street in Atlanta at the age of forty-eight, Margaret’s greatness, on the basis of one book, was cemented forever in history.
The book lives on. The 1939 movie starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable only fueled the flames of fame. And while Mitchell’s estate’s decision to commission a sequel in the 1990s drew controversy, the resulting book, Scarlett, had no dearth of readers. At costume parties, there’s always bound to be a Scarlett or two; even Mattel has a Scarlett Barbie. The passion and power of Scarlett and the romance between the two firebrands is eternally appealing.
The usual masculine disillusionment is in discovering that a woman has a brain.
Margaret Mitchell, in Gone with the Wind