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, lazy Sunday 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,