Margaret Mitchell

Born - Nov 8, 1900   |   Died - Aug 16, 1949   |   Genres - Film, TV & Radio, Romance, Epic

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Margaret Mitchell was the most successful historical novelist of the mid-20th century, though her work was confined to a single book. That book, Gone With the Wind, was simply the most talked about novel in American popular culture from a time predating its actual publication, and its screen adaptation was the biggest "event" movie of the 20th century. Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell was born in Atlanta, GA, in 1900, the daughter of attorney Eugene Muse Mitchell and the former May Belle Stephens. She attended the Washington Seminary, a finishing school, and also studied at Smith College, but her mother's death from influenza in the 1918-1919 epidemic made it impossible for her to complete a degree. The latter was no great loss for Mitchell, as much of her education was self-directed, in any case, and she had never excelled in the earning of grades or the taking of tests. She had an insatiable appetite for books, and was consumed by an interest in writing and literature.

Mitchell's twenties coincided with that decade in history, and were a chaotic time for her personally. She lived the free-spirited life of a flapper girl, racing from one paper-thin, decadent diversion to another, and became party to a whirlwind marriage in 1922. Her first husband was no provider, however, a fact that forced Mitchell into a career as a reporter with The Atlanta Journal. The marriage ended completely in 1924, after incidents of physical abuse, and in 1925 she married a friend and colleague named John Robert Marsh. In order to make this marriage work, Mitchell eventually decided to give up her career and settle down to more solitary literary activities -- she turned to writing fiction. In 1927, she began writing the book that eventually became Gone With the Wind. The book went through numerous drafts and the characters through many transformations in name and attributes -- at one point, Scarlett O'Hara was named Pansy O'Hara -- but as hard as Mitchell worked on the book, she was also very defensive about her writing. By 1935 the work, as yet unpublished and unseen, was widely discussed in Atlanta, because of her social connections, and it was only with the greatest reluctance that she allowed an editor to see even a part of it. Harold Latham of the Macmillan Company, however, was convinced of its worth upon reading a portion of the manuscript, and word soon spread in the publishing industry and literary communities across the country.

By the time it was published in mid-1936, Gone With the Wind was the most talked-about book in America and Mitchell was a media star. By then, producer David O. Selznick had set his sights on the story and its screen rights. His well-orchestrated ballyhoo leading up to the shooting of the film at MGM -- highlighted by a national talent search for the role of Scarlett O'Hara -- represented a new phenomenon in the selling of films, and helped make Gone With the Wind (1939) one of the most anticipated movies in history. Mitchell was, as might be gathered, an unapologetic romantic when it came to the history of the American South and the Confederate States of America -- she was the granddaughter of the generation that had fought the war's losing side. The book was taken to heart by white Southerners in love with that sanitized vision of their history, and also by readers who liked a good multi-layered romantic story with lots of character development; between them, the two groups made the novel into a pop-culture icon and touchstone. The book and the movie were also derided by those who held no romantic illusions about the South or the institution of slavery upon which the region had impaled itself. Mitchell herself was a conservative Democrat, typical of upper-class white Southerners of the period, vocally anti-Roosevelt from 1936 onward -- she found a directly opposed literary foe in leftist author Howard Fast, who wrote his post-Civil War novel Freedom Road as a counter-active to Mitchell's book.

In the South, however, at least among whites, there was no dispute about the book's power, and that went double where female readers were concerned. In a time long before modern feminism was even thought of, Mitchell and the sensibilities that she brought to the book helped to push two generations of upper-middle-class and middle-class Southern women into the 20th century, describing the conflict between their proper upbringings and their need for independence. In a broader context, she took on the role of a popular cultural heroine in the city of Atlanta, a status that lingered long after her death. On the other hand, literary scholars never treated Mitchell kindly, in part because she never published a large body of work open to analysis. Her popularity sustained her reputation, but Mitchell was never treated as seriously as, say, Erskine Caldwell, who wrote some 50 books, most of them about the South and many of them presenting a very different vision of his subject. Mitchell was a genuine one-book author. She never published or, so far as is known, even tried to publish another novel. Beyond her lack of inclination to do so, various personal and family difficulties and the distraction of the Second World War, in which she was heavily involved in the support of troops' morale, made it impossible for her to author any other fiction. On a personal level, she grew more conservative in the decade after the book's publication and subsequently took on various reactionary political positions. Although she was known for her polite relations with the black Americans with whom she had contact, she was an opponent of the early civil rights movement.

On August 16, 1949, Mitchell and her husband left their home, intending to go to a movie theater to see the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger movie A Canterbury Tale, when they were struck and killed by a drunk driver. In the decades since, the book's mystique has grown just as the movie has gone through multiple release cycles; about once each decade, whenever MGM needed to put a few million dollars onto its balance sheets, it could get Gone With the Wind back into theaters nationally. As late as 1970, it was still regarded as the one American feature film that would never be shown on television, a position abandoned within two years. There have also been numerous restorations and reissues on videocassette, laserdisc, and DVD. And Gone With the Wind provided the motivation for Ted Turner to purchase MGM -- all in order to own the movie -- and, thus, indirectly, became the reason behind Warner Home Video assuming control over the MGM library in the late '90s, when Turner, in turn, sold out his holdings to Time-Warner.