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In the spring of 1936, a new novel blew onto the American scene with the force of a hurricane -- Gone With the Wind. Essentially the story of a willful girl and the people around her during and after the Civil War, the book was an overnight sensation, selling a million copies and commanding thirty-one printings in its first year of publication.
People were crazy about GWTW, as it soon became known. The first printing sold out almost as fast as it rolled off the presses. Eager fans thronged around its author each time she set foot on a city street, as if she were a movie star, while the press beat a path to her door and never left it. GWTW had arrived.
Now, more than fifty years later, it is still popular. Readers are just as apt now, as then, to discover it sold out in bookstores and already checked out in libraries.
What was the mind behind Gone With the Wind? How was a work of such enduring popularity created? To know that, one must know its author, Margaret Mitchell. And to know her, one must slip back in time.
Atlanta, Georgia, 1900. The War Between the States had been waged and lost only thirty-five years earlier and was still a fresh and vivid memory. In the gracious homes that lined Peachtree Street and the shanties along Decatur Street still lived the survivors of a conflict that had already taken permanent root in the collective consciousness of the South and flourished.
Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell was born on November 8 of that year, the fifth generation of her family to proudly call themselves Atlantans, steeped in the legends of the city and the South.
As a child she spent long, lazySunday afternoons "sitting on the bony knees of Confederate veterans and the fat, slick laps of old ladies who had survived the war," listening to tales of relatives who walked fifty miles with their skulls cracked by Yankee bullets, stuffed wrapping paper beneath their corsets to keep warm during the blockade, and sat down to supper with Rebel leaders. And all these tales were told not as epic drama but as ordinary family happenings that could have occurred just yesterday.
When she was six, Margaret herself became a rebel, against going to school. On a blazing hot September day her mother drove her out along the road to Jonesboro, pointing out the ruins of great houses that had fallen during or because of the war, chimneys standing ghostly among the scattered leaves and creeping foliage of the encroaching woods. She also pointed out the proud homes that still stood, testimony to their owners' steely spirit.
She explained that all the people who had once lived in all the houses had believed they had wealth and beauty and good times that would never end. But their world did end. And it would happen again, Margaret's mother warned. And when it did, she had better be prepared. "...All that would be left after a world ended would be what you could do with your hands and what you had in your head," not the least of which was an education. Margaret went to school.
Margaret grew up with the twentieth century, a Jazz Age baby, sufficiently enlightened in the New Era of women's equality to set off for college with aspirations of becoming a neurologist or psychiatrist. During her first year, however, her mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, and she came home to keep house for her father and brother.
A freethinking flapper, "one of those short-haired, short-skirted, hard-boiled young women who preachers said would go to hell or be hanged before they were thirty," as she described herself, Margaret talked her way into, and succeeded admirably at, a position as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, no mean feat in an age where the only newspapermen were men.
Margaret -- Peggy, her friends called her -- moved about in a modern world of moving pictures, speedy automobiles, electric iceboxes airplanes, and radios, but to her the Civil War was just as recent and probably more real.
She found herself in 1926, at the height of the Jazz Age, housebound with a broken ankle that developed into arthritis she began to write a novel about the Civil War.
She was first of all a voracious reader. Her husband, John Marsh, brought home armloads of library books every night to entertain her until one evening he announced that he had exhausted the supply; she had read every book in the library except the exact sciences. Dropping a sheaf of copy paper in her lap, he told her she now had no choice but to write her own book.
She didn't know why she chose the Civil War as her subject, she would later say; it was just always there in her background.
The first chapter she wrote was the final one, in which Rhett leaves Scarlett alone to think about him "tomorrow," and from there she wrote a chapter here and a chapter there, apparently in no particular sequence, but as the spirit moved her. As each chapter was completed, it was sealed into a manila envelope and stacked next to the typewriter. When the stack became two and the two became towers, the envelopes were squirreled away in varying spots in the three-room apartment -- some under the bed, some under the sofa, others in the pots-and-pans cupboard.
When friends visited, the typewriter and the current chapter were covered over with a large bath towel. Peggy didn't like people to know she was working on a book. And, anyway, she never planned to sell it; it was only for her own amusement.
Sometime in 1929, the novel was finished, all except for the opening chapter and two others. The stock market crashed, a black and ominous Depression fell over the world, and Margaret Mitchell went on about the business of being Mrs. Peggy Marsh.
She had written the book mostly during the three years she had spent laid up, sometimes bedridden, with her bad ankle, having been told by doctors that she might never walk again. She finished the book, her ankle thankfully healed, and as she put it, "When my foot got well, I stopped writing because walking seemed far more interesting."
Peggy had been engaged once, to a young man who was shortly thereafter killed in World War I, and married once before -- for a period of only months -- to a fellow emotionally unequipped for life with the headstrong Margaret. But now her ship had come in.
Being Mrs. Marsh was fun. Peggy and John lived in a small, dark apartment they affectionately called "The Dump" and used as a base for lively, intellectually stimulating dinner parties and evening entertainments. Life flowed on like Southern molasses, sometimes thick and grainy, crystallized with illnesses or the woes of friends, but always sweet.
Then, in the spring of 1935, life abruptly changed.
Lois Cole, one of the few intimates who knew Peggy had been writing a book, was working for the Macmillan Company, publishers, in New York. The firm had reasoned that Southern books by new authors were frequent sellers and decided to send senior editor Harold Latham on a tour of the South. Lois suggested that he stop and talk with Peggy Marsh. Mr. Latham followed through, calling on her at her home.
Mrs. Marsh, however, insisted that she was not an author, was not writing, had never written a book, and wasn't the least bit interested in being reviewed by any publisher. Mr. Latham packed his bags and prepared to leave Atlanta.
But first he attended a tea where Peggy introduced him to a young girl who did hope to make it big as an author. As she drove the girl and her friends home from the tea, another young lady in the car spilled the beans about Peggy writing a book. The first girl was amazed. She couldn't believe that Mrs. Marsh could write. She didn't seem the type. She took life much too lightly, the girl said, and was wasting her time trying to be a serious novelist. As Peggy put it later, the girl had said, "And you've never even been refused by a publisher? I've been refused by the very best...."
That was it. Peggy rushed home, gathered up all the manila envelopes from all their hiding places -- except the ones under the bed and in the pots-and-pans closet, which she forgot -- rushed down to the hotel with them, and thrust them at the unsuspecting Mr. Latham. "My idea," she said, "was that at least I could brag that I had been refused by the very best publisher."
The envelopes were so unwieldy and so voluminous that Mr. Latham, who had been half out the door to catch the next train, was forced first to go into town and buy a new suitcase to carry his newly acquired manuscript.
At the moment that Harold Latham safely left Atlanta, Peggy came to her senses. She realized what she had let out of her grasp and was "appalled." Desperately she wired ahead to Mr. Latham's next hotel, requesting that he send back the offending, "sloppy" manuscript. But Harold Latham had already begun reading the book and had fallen under its spell. Instead of sending it back, he offered to buy it.
Back in New York, Peggy's untitled novel wove its magic around the entire Macmillan Company, and the firm set a publication date for May 1936. That left the author only six months to complete the still unwritten opening chapter, two other bridging chapters, perform the numerous revisions she felt necessary, and fact-check the entire manuscript -- a bow to historical accuracy she insisted on.
Peggy Marsh was now Margaret Mitchell again -- at least as far as the novel was concerned -- and it seemed to consume her entire life. Working up to twenty hours a day in a feverish rush to meet the publisher's deadline, always terrified that some historical fact would escape her strict attention, she devoted all her waking and sleeping hours to the book.
Her husband, John, who had been a copy editor when they met, proofed every page. Her father, Eugene Mitchell, an expert on the history of the period, acted as consultant. With their assistance the book was finally completed in January 1936.
It still had no title. Macmillan was sending it to press with a working title, Tomorrow Is Another Day, when Margaret sent them a list of dozens of possible alternatives, including her favorite, Gone with the Wind.
She had found the phrase in "Cynara," a poem by Ernest Dowson. She chose the line because, she said, "it had the far away, faintly sad sound I wanted." The Macmillan people agreed, and the book sailed off to press, named at last.
Gone with the Wind (yes, the word with started out with a lowercase w) rolled off the presses in May 1936 as planned. The official publication date, however -- meaning the date advertising and reviews would commence -- was postponed a month until June, because the Book of the Month Club had chosen it as its July featured selection.
But advance word on GWTW spread like wildfire, and by June 30, the official release date, bookstores were already placing frantic reorders. Libraries tried futilely to fill requests for the book. Friends fervently urged dog-eared copies on friends. In fact, by June 30, the first printing of ten thousand copies had been swept away on a tide of excitement and almost one hundred thousand copies were being shipped around the country.
Margaret Mitchell was miserable. She had adored the quiet, unassuming life of Peggy Marsh. Now, as a famous authoress, her phone never stopped ringing, her doorbell never stopped shrilling; she could scarcely walk down a city street without being accosted by well-wishers, autograph hounds, reporters anxious for an interview. Strangers demanded to know if Scarlett ever got Rhett back and insisted she write a sequel so they could find out. Ladies' club members requested that she speak at their meetings, and on and on....
Margaret fled to the mountains, someplace quiet without telephones or telegrams, someplace where she could at least sit down in peace and read her reviews.
These thrilled her. She had never considered herself more than a passable writer ("lousy" is the way she once put it) and she was delighted at how favorable the reviews were.
She was also too much of a lady not to thank each of her reviewers and as many of the well-wishers who wrote her as possible. Before, during, and after her week-long sojourn in the hills, Margaret personally wrote each of these people charming, witty, lengthy letters and only increased the exhaustion she had brought upon herself racing to meet her manuscript deadline. Finally her eyes rebelled with an attack of severe strain, forcing the rest of her diminutive body to follow them into a darkened room to lie quietly beneath black bandages and only dictate thank-you letters for months.
People still frequently asked, was there a real Tara? A real Twelve Oaks? A real Rhett? Or Scarlett? Or Ashley? Did she plan for her novel to mirror the Great Depression?
Margaret insisted that her characters were real, not as specific individuals -- she strove mightily to avoid that -- but as types; people she had known all her life. They were different than those romantic-novel "lavender-and-lace-moonlight-on-the-magnolias people," she said. They were "remarkably tough...they had to be...or they'd never have survived."
She had researched for years the way people lived during the war, how they dressed, what they looked like -- again, for her own amusement. For example, she described Rhett Butler as looking the way he did because he was "typical of his times....I went through hundreds of old ambrotypes and daguerreotypes looking at faces, and that type of face leaped out at you." Not to mention the fact that Rhett's was the type that seemed to have lingered the longest in the minds and hearts of the elderly ladies she slyly interviewed about their old beaux.
Margaret steadfastly maintained that there was no real Tara, though people frequently refused to believe her. She had invented it and Twelve Oaks out of whole cloth. But, like everything and everyone else in the book, she had so meticulously researched both landscape and architecture that only a slight wave of the hand of fate must have prevented their actual existence.
As for mirroring the Depression, Margaret insisted she never had any intention of doing so, and pointed out that when she began GWTW, the carefree, richly lived Jazz Age was at its peak. She had had no idea the Depression was on the horizon. She wrote about hard times, she said, because they were the stuff that was described to her throughout her childhood. They were the canvas on which her family's colorful heritage was painted.
People asked, and still ask, what gave the book its universal appeal. Perhaps this is the answer: She wrote about real people in real situations and made them live. She gave readers characters they could care about as much as they did themselves and their loved ones. And more than any other, there was the character of Scarlett, who determined that no matter what tragedies befell her -- death or war or poverty -- she would triumph, and not the situation. Scarlett was a survivor and a winner, to whom people of all ages, eras, and walks of life seemed able to relate.
All the events that occurred in the book had their basis in fact. They didn't all happen to the same people, or in the same time or place, but they all happened within the context of the war and Reconstruction. The only real difference between the events on paper and in history, Margaret said, was that she had had to water the more horrible ones down. They were too strong to be swallowed whole.
Horrible or not, Margaret's characters went on loving, living, and, in some cases, dying, and people everywhere followed along just as passionately as if they were bound up within the pages themselves.
Then David O. Selznick bought the movie rights for fifty thousand dollars. Margaret warned him that it would do him no good. She argued that the book was un-filmable and would cause him no end of headaches trying to make it a movie. But if he wanted the headache, he could have it.
He wanted it.
Margaret Mitchell stayed in Atlanta, trying hard to slip back into the simple life of Peggy Marsh, while David O. Selznick movie mogul, laid the plans to put GWTW on the silver screen.
Copyright © 1989 by Herb Bridges