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Margaret Mitchell is known exclusively for her authorship of Gone with the Wind, the best-selling novel in American history. The novel has created the dominant image of the antebellum South for millions of readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Journalist Turned Novelist
Mitchell was born on November 8, 1900, in Atlanta, Georgia, into an upper-middle-class family. Her father was an attorney and her mother was an activist for women’s suffrage. Throughout her childhood, Mitchell was captivated by her parents’ and grandmother’s stories of Atlanta and their tales of heroic efforts during the Civil War. These stories eventually served as material for her famous literary work. Mitchell attended Smith College, with the goal of becoming a psychiatrist. However, she left school after one year to manage her father’s household after her mother’s death in 1919.
In 1922, following a brief marriage that ended in divorce, she became a journalist for the Atlanta Journal and rose in status from a fledging reporter to one of the newspaper’s best feature writers. However, Mitchell’s journalism career lasted only four years, and ended when an ankle injury confined her to her home. During her convalescence, and at the suggestion of her second husband, John R. Marsh, Mitchell began to write, with her husband’s editorial assistance, a novel with the working title Tomorrow Is Another Day. For her story, she drew upon her knowledge of Atlanta and the South, and created fictional characters that were composites of people she knew. Although Mitchell finished most of the work by 1929, she researched historical facts and rewrote sections of the novel for nearly seven more years.
Breaking Publishing Records
In 1935, the manuscript was brought to the attention of Harold S. Latham, editor for Macmillan, who was in Atlanta on a trip to find publishable manuscripts. Never expecting her work to be published, Mitchell reluctantly allowed Latham to read the imposing manuscript, which was over one thousand pages long. He immediately accepted the novel, and after one year of exhaustive revisions, Mitchell’s book was published as Gone with the Wind—retitled from a line in Ernest Downson’s poem ”Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae.” Upon its entry into the literary market, Gone with the Wind broke all publishing records, selling more than a million copies in its first six months. The book’s success also dramatically altered the life of its author. Mitchell spent the remaining years of her life trying to maintain a modicum of privacy for herself and her husband, who became an invalid after suffering a stroke in 1945.
On August 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband decided to view a film at a local theater. As Mitchell helped her husband across the street, a speeding taxicab came at them from around a corner. The drunken driver hit Mitchell, who died of brain injuries five days later. So many people wished to attend Mitchell’s funeral that tickets had to be distributed for the event.
Works in Literary Context
Gone with the Wind was written in the tradition of the historical novel. In her work, Mitchell employed a simple narrative style to combine a sentimental account of the ”Old South” with the historical facts of an era that experienced immense social and economic change. From the threat of war between the states to General Sherman’s fiery march on Atlanta, and through the Reconstruction period, Gone with the Wind depicts the tribulations of Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton—four of the best-known fictional characters in American literature—as they attempt to adapt to the changing circumstances of their homeland. However, only the willful heroine Scarlett and the roguish Rhett emerge as survivors in the ”New South,” while the ineffectual dreamer Ashley is defeated in spirit and the docile ”Southern woman,” Melanie, dies. Both Melanie and Ashley are viewed by critics as representatives of the antebellum South—a way of life that was destroyed by Civil War.
While Mitchell may have begun her novel with the retelling of her ancestor’s stories of life in the South, what she ended up with was something that spoke to American readers in a way that even Mitchell may never have fully understood. As Anne Edwards, Mitchell’s biographer, has put it, ”Who can now think of the South before, during, and after the Civil War without images drawn from the pages of Gone with the Wind?”
Mitchell defined the theme of Gone with the Wind as simply ”survival.” The Civil War devastated the economy of Georgia, and Scarlett s determination never to be hungry again, whatever the cost, and her final decision to return to Tara, from which she and her family draw strength, exemplify Mitchell s aim. Melanie may die, Ashley may be a lost soul, Rhett may leave, but Scarlett and Tara endure. In presenting this theme Mitchell offers her readers a plethora of other attractive elements. The novel is nostalgic, regionally patriotic, romantic, filled with stirring events, and crammed with information about the characteristics, customs, beliefs, and manners of antebellum, wartime, and postbellum Georgia. All of these elements, along with the vivid characterization of Scarlett and Rhett, combine to provide an epic account of the fall of a traditional society and the way its inhabitants survived that fall.
Most commentators feel that Scarlett O’Hara is Mitchell’s most interesting character, and she is frequently compared to Becky Sharp in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Similar to Becky’s determination, Scarlett’s will to survive dictates her actions throughout the novel. In this way, she appears coquettish, clever, selfish, amoral, and even loving in order to suit her needs.
Works in Critical Context
Gone with the Wind
Gone with the Wind, Mitchell’s only published work during her lifetime, is the most popular novel in American fiction. From the time of its publication in 1936 to the present day, this historical romance has outsold any other hardcover book with the exception of the Bible. By 1976 the work had been translated into twenty-seven languages in thirty-seven countries. Praised as the first Civil War novel to be told from a Southern woman’s point of view, Gone with the Wind won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Three years after its first publication, Mitchell’s novel was adapted into a lavish film that has also become a popular classic.
Although Mitchell is praised for the clarity, vitality, and sheer readability of her story, most critics agree that Gone with the Wind suffers in comparison to other works of American Civil War literature. W. J. Stuckey offers a somewhat harsh but representative opinion of the novel, when he states, ”While one can hear distant echoes of Fielding, Thackeray (especially), and Emily Bronte in Gone with the Wind, Miss Mitchell’s art most noisily proclaims its indebtedness to the literature of wish fulfillment—the bosomy and sub-pornographic historical romance, the sentimental novel, and the Hollywood extravaganza.” Similarly, Floyd C. Watkins lambasts the novel for being ”narrowly patriotic, prudish, melodramatic, and sentimental.”
Yet Gone with the Wind is always extolled for its detailed telling of this period of American history. In his review for the New Republic, Malcolm Cowley described Gone with the Wind as ”an encyclopedia of the plantation legend.” This sentiment was echoed by others, and has remained the prevailing view of the novel.
- Asbury, Darden. Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Bridges, Herb. Gone with the Wind: The Definitive Illustrated History of the Book, the Movie, and the Legend. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
- Edwards, Anne. Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New Haven, Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
- Farr, Finis. Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta: The Author of “Gone with the Wind”. New York: Morrow, 1965.
- Pratt, William. Scarlett Fever. New York; Macmillan, 1977.
- Taylor, Helen. Scarlett’s Women: Gone with the Wind and its Female Fans. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
- Walker, Marianne. Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story behind Gone with the Wind. Atlanta, Ga.: Peachtree, 1993.
- Watkins, Floyd C. In Time and Place. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1977.
- Atlanta Historical Bulletin: Margaret Mitchell Memorial Issue (May 1950).
- Atlanta Journal Magazine: Margaret Mitchell Memorial Issue (December 18, 1949).
- Clark, George R. ”G. W. T. W.” Harper’s (February 1949): 97-98.
- Drake, Robert Y., Jr. ”Tara Twenty Years After.” Georgia Review (1958): 142-150.
- Gaillard, Dawson. ”Gone with the Wind as Bildungsroman or Why Did Rhett Butler Really Leave Scarlett O’Hara.” Georgia Review. (1974): 9-18.
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