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Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949)

 

American author of the novel Gone With the Wind (1936), story about the Civil War and Reconstruction, as seen from the Southern point of view. The book was adapted into a highly popular film in 1939, starring Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara. At the novel's opening in 1861, Scarlett is a young girl. During the story, she experiences the destruction of the Old South, as well as three marriages and motherhood.

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin – that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia sun." (from Gone with the Wind)

Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta. Her mother, Maybelle Mitchell, was a suffragist and father, Eugene Mitchell, a prominent lawyer and president of the Atlanta Historical Society. Mitchell grew up listening to stories about old Atlanta, and the battles the Confederate Army had fought there during the American Civil War. At the age of fifteen, she wrote in her journal: "If I were a boy, I would try for West Point, if I could make it, or well I'd be a prize fighter – anything for the thrills." Mitchell graduated from the local Washington Seminary and started to study medicine at Smith College in 1918. She had adopted her mother's feminist leanings, which clashed with her father's conservatism – in the new surroundings, she lived fully the Jazz age. She wrote in an article, 'Dancers Now Drown Out Even the Cowbell', published in the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine: "In vain, the leader the jazz band may burst blood vessels in his efforts to make himself heard above the din of the "Double Shuffle" and the "Fandango Stamp," the newest dances introduced to Atlanta's younger set. Formerly we had a vast respect for the amount of noise a jazz band could produce. Now we see it is utterly eclipsed." After performing an Apache dance in a hotel in 1921, she was blackballed from the Junior League.

When Mitchell's mother died in 1919, she returned to home to keep house for her father and brother. In 1922, she married Berrien "Red" Upshaw . The disastrous marriage was climaxed by spousal rape and was annulled 1924. Mitchell launched her career as a journalist under the name Peggy Mitchell, writing articles, interviews, sketches, and book reviews for the Atlanta Journal. Four years later, she resigned after an ankle injury. Her second husband, John Robert Marsh, an advertising manager, encouraged Mitchell in her writing aspirations. From 1926 to 1929, she wrote Gone With the Wind. The outcome, a thousand page novel, was published by the Macmillan Publishing Company in 1936. The retail price of the book was $3.00.

Mitchell's work broke sales records, its scope and vision was compared with Tolstoy's War and Peace, the New Yorker praised it, and the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom admired "the architectural persistence behind the big work", but criticized it as overly Southern, particularly in its treatment of Reconstruction. Malcolm Cowley's disdain in his review originated partly from the view, that Mitchell had written a bestseller. John Peale Bishop dismissed it as merely "one more of those 1000 page novels, competent but neither very good nor very sound." Not surprisingly, Gone with the Wind was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

"Death and taxes and childbirth! There's never any convenient time for any of them." (from Gone with the Wind)

The protagonist of the novel is Scarlett O'Hara, a spoilt Southern belle, who loves Ashley Wilkes. However, the reader is soon assured that the most important man in her life will be the strong and shrewd Rhett Butler, in many respects a typical Victorian hero. Ashley marries Melanie Hamilton and Scarlett marries Melanie's brother Charles, but she is soon widowed. Surviving the siege and burning of Atlanta, Scarlett makes her way back through the lines to the O'Hara plantation. Then she marries Frank Kennedy, her sister's fiancé, to save Tara, her home. Frank is also killed, and Scarlett finally marries Rhett, who has made a fortune from the war. They have a daughter, Eugenia Victoria "Bonnie Blue" Butler, who dies tragically in an accident. Always on the move, Rhett decides to leave her, and when she asks, "what shall I do," he answers with the famous words, "My dear, I don't give a damn."

Until the publication of Gone With the Wind, Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur (1880) had been the best-selling American novel. Although the work brought Mitchell fame and a tremendous fortune, it seems to have brought little joy. Chased by the press and public, the author and her husband lived modestly and traveled rarely. Also questions about the book's literary status and racism, historical view and depiction of the Klu Klux Klan, which had much similarities with D.W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (1915), led to critical neglect, which continued well in the 1960s. Griffith's film was based on the Reverend Thomas Dixon's racist play; the author was a great admirer of Mitchell and wanted to write a study of her novel. In Atlanta, the Klan kept a high profile and had it national headquarters in the 1920s on the same street, where Mitchell lived.

Mitchell sold the film rights to the producer David O. Selznick for $50.000, and later received another $50.000. The old sets of the 1925 Ben-Hur, starring Ramon Novarro, were burned while shooting the Atlanta sequence. The film premiered on December 15, 1939. Mitchell did not take any part in the motion picture adaptation, but attended the premiere in Atlanta, overcoming her shyness. The film won ten Academy Awards, among them best picture. However, all reviews were not positive. Otis Ferguson wrote in the New Republic (April 22, 1940): "It moves, just as I suspected it would, and it is in color, just as I heard it was, and the Civil War gets very civil indeed and there is a wonderful bonfire and there are also young love and balls and plantations and practically everything... They threw in many good things, and everything else but a towel, and they got them in line and added them all up to one of the world's imposing cancellations." In England, the film and the book were highly popular during World War II – perhaps partly because of the theme of survival and reconstruction. After the war, the film conquered the rest of the Europe, giving many women comfort and strength in their everyday problems.

"'I'll think of it all to-morrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. To-morrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, to-morrow is another day.'" (Scarlett in Gone with the Wind)

During World War, II Mitchell was a volunteer selling war bonds and volunteer for the American Red Cross. She was named honorary citizen of Vimoutiers, France, in 1949, for helping the city obtain American aid after WW II. Mitchell died in Atlanta on August 16, 1949 – she was accidentally struck by a speeding car while crossing Peachtree Street. Authorized sequel for Gone with the Wind, entitled Scarlett and written by Alexandra Ripley, appeared in 1992. In the story Scarlett journeys to Ireland with her children and meets again Rhett Butler. Lost Laysen, a lost novella by Mitchell, written when she was 16, and given to her close friend, was published in 1995. The romantic story was set on a South Pacific island.

For further reading: Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta by Finis Farr (1965); The Road to Tara by Anne Edwards (1983); Gone with the Wind as Book and Film, ed. by Richard Harwell (1983); Recasting: Gone with the Wind in the American Culture by D.A. Pyron (1983); I Remember Margaret Mitchell by Yolande Gwin (1986); Scarlett's Women: Gone with the Wind and Its Female Fans by Helen Taylor (1989); Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell by Darden Asbury Pyron (1991); Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story behind Gone with the Wind by Marianne Walker (1993); "Frankly, My Dear...": Gone with the Wind Memorabilia by Herb Bridges (1995); The Irish Roots of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind by David O'Connell (1996) - Note: Alice Randall's novel The Wind Done Gone (2001) is a parodic sequel to Mitchell's work. The protagonist is Cynara, the illegitimate daughter of Scarlett's father and Mammy.

Selected bibliography:

  • Gone With the Wind, 1936
    - Tuulen viemää 1-2 (suom. Maijaliisa Auterinen, 1937-38)
    - film 1939, dir. by George Cukor, Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Haviland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, prod. by David O. Selznick, screenplay by Sidney Howard, along with Edwin Justin Mayer, John Van Druten, Ben Hecht, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jo Swerling
  • Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" Letters, 1936-1949, 1976 (ed. Richard Harwell)
  • Lost Laysen, 1995 (ed. Debra Freer)
    - Paratiisisaari (suom. Päivi Isosaari, 1996)
  • Before Scarlett: Girlhood Writings of Margaret Mitchell, 2000
  • Margaret Mitchell, Reporter, 2000 (edited by Patrick Allen)
  • I Want to Be Famous: The Writings of a Young Margaret Mitchell, 2000 (ed. Jane Eskridge)


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