Author of Gone With the Wind, the most popular novel ever written, Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) was born on November 8 in Atlanta, Georgia, the burning of which became a spectacular scene in the immensely successful motion picture made from the book.
As a child Margaret Mitchell was saturated with stories of the Civil War told to her by family members who had lived through it. They indoctrinated her so effectively that Mitchell was ten years old before she learned that the South had lost the war. Her venturesomeness as a young woman, which included a year at Smith College and a subsequent career in Atlanta journalism, reflected the influence of her mother, Maybelle, an ardent supporter of woman suffrage. After her mother's death of influenza during the epidemic of 1918 Mitchell returned to Atlanta. Four years later she married Berrien Kinnard Upshaw, an attractive, romantic, but violent and unstable man who is often regarded as the prototype of Gone With the Wind's Rhett Butler. Their marriage lasted only three months, although they were not divorced until 1924. The following year Mitchell wedded John Marsh, a union that would last her lifetime.
Mitchell had become a feature writer for the Atlanta Journal in 1922, and by the time she resigned in 1926 she was considered the paper's leading feature writer. These years were, she would later say, the happiest of her life. Yet, despite her success and the pleasure she took in her work, Mitchell bowed to the still powerful convention that a wife should be supported by her husband, leaving the Journal as soon as John's finances permitted. Childless and with no outside obligations, Mitchell turned her hand to fiction and was soon writing what would become Gone With the Wind. She had largely completed the novel in 1935 when Harold Latham, an acquisitions editor at Macmillan, arrived in Atlanta looking for manuscripts. Mitchell served as his guide, and when Latham departed he took with him the huge, unpolished manuscript Mitchell had stuffed into numerous envelopes. Although it was in the worst physical condition of any manuscript he had ever seen, Latham was the first of millions to find it compulsively readable despite its length—which would come to 1,037 printed pages.
Gone With the Wind tells the story of Scarlett O'Hara, whose father owns a plantation named Tara during the Civil War and Reconstruction. At its start she falls in love with Ashley Wilkes, a neighbor, who loves and marries the virtuous Melanie Hamilton rather than herself. Out of spite, Scarlett marries Melanie's brother, Charles, who soon dies of various diseases after enlisting in the Confederate Army. Scarlett, now a mother, spends most of the war with Melanie in Atlanta, from which Scarlett and her son and Melanie and her newborn child barely escape when the city is fired, making their way to Tara. In order to save the ruined plantation Scarlett marries again, and is again widowed when her husband is slain leading a Ku Klux Klan attack on the Black section of Atlanta, where Scarlett had been molested by a freedman. After this she marries Rhett Butler, a dashing and dangerous man who has loved her for years and whose wealth will ensure her ownership of Tara. Eventually she realizes that it is Butler she loves after all, not Wilkes, but as by this time she has thoroughly alienated Butler he leaves her with the line immortalized by Clark Gable in the film version: "My dear, I don't give a damn."
Gone With the Wind was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection even before it was published in 1936. The movie rights were quickly purchased by Selznick-International for $50,000, an immense sum during the Great Depression. In 1937 Mitchell was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Two years later David Selznick's brilliant film adaptation opened in Atlanta to rapturous acclaim, not just in the South but everywhere. Like the book, which had sold eight million copies as of 1949, Gone With the Wind became one of the most popular and durable motion pictures every made. It won ten Academy Awards in 1940 and was the world's highest grossing picture for over 20 years.
Mitchell never wrote again, refusing even to collaborate on the screenplay despite Selznick's entreaties. During World War II she threw herself into defense-related activities, but otherwise spent the rest of her life shepherding her book through many foreign editions, protecting her financial and copyright interests, and answering her extensive fan mail. Considering her extraordinary fame and the fortune her book brought her, happiness seems to have eluded Mitchell. She was subject to bouts of depression. Her last years were clouded by her husband's invalidism following a near-fatal heart attack. Unexpectedly, she died first on August 16, 1949, after being struck by a drunk driver while crossing an Atlanta street.
Among critics Gone With the Wind has always been controversial. Few regard it as great literature, but beginning with the Pulitzer Prize Committee many critics have admired Mitchell's gift for storytelling and the breadth of her canvas. The book has been hailed as a contribution to feminism, held up as an allegory for the development of the United States, and condemned as racist and even sadomasochistic. Racist it unquestionably is—almost inevitably so, given the time and place of its composition. Beyond that, it gives powerful support to damaging stereo-types that for long helped sustain racial segregation. It romanticizes the slave-owning class, and, except perhaps for D.W. Griffith's classic Birth of a Nation, no work has done more to misrepresent Reconstruction as a cruelty visited upon an innocent white South—whereas today historians generally agree that it was an honest, if flawed, attempt to bring real democracy to a region that had never known it. In light of the book's continuing sales the controversy over it seems destined to persist, like Gone With the Wind itself.
Further Reading on Margaret Mitchell
The longest biography is Anne Edwards, Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell (1983). A good critical study is Elizabeth I. Hanson, Margaret Mitchell (1991). Although Mitchell's papers were destroyed after her death, she wrote thousands of letters, a selection of which was published by Richard Harwell, ed., as Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind Letters, 1936-1949 (1976).
Additional Biography Sources
Edwards, Anne, Road to Tara: the life of Margaret Mitchell, New Haven Conn.: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
Pyron, Darden Asbury, Southern daughter: the life of Margaret Mitchell, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.