Margaret Mitchell with the portable Remington typewriter she used to compose "Gone with the Wind"
|November 8, 1900
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
|August 16, 1949
Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell (November 8, 1900 – August 16, 1949) was the American author who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for her immensely successful novel, Gone with the Wind, that was published in 1936. The novel is one of the most popular books of all time, selling more copies than any other hard-cover book, apart from the Bible, and is reputed to be still selling at 200,000 copies a year. An American film adaptation, released in 1939, became the highest-grossing film in the history of Hollywood, and received a record-breaking number of Academy Awards.
Margaret was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and often used the nickname Meggy. Her childhood, it seems, was spent in the laps of Civil War veterans and of her maternal relatives who lived through the war and the years that followed. They told her everything about the war, except that the Confederates had lost it. She was ten years old before making this discovery.
After graduating from Washington Seminary (now The Westminster Schools), she attended Smith College, but withdrew following her final exams in 1918. She returned to Atlanta to take over the household after her mother's death earlier that year from the great influenza pandemic of 1918 (and Mitchell used this pivotal scene, from her own life, to dramatize Scarlett's discovery of her mother's death from typhoid fever when Scarlett returns to Tara). Shortly afterward, she defied the conventions of her class and times, by taking a job on the staff of Atlanta Journal, where she wrote a weekly column for the newspaper's Sunday edition as one of the first woman columnists at the South's largest newspaper. Mitchell's first professional writing assignment was an interview with an Atlanta socialite whose couture-buying trip to Italy was interrupted by the Fascist takeover.
Margaret spent time between 1922 until 1926, completing dozens of articles, interviews, sketches, and book reviews, including interviews with silent-screen star Rudolph Valentino, high-society murderer Harry K. Thaw, and a Georgia prisoner who made artificial flowers from scraps and sold them from his cell to support his family.
Most important for the development of her later Gone With the Wind were her profiles of prominent Georgia Civil War generals, the research for which, scholars believe, led her to her work on the novel. The first sketches were so popular with the Atlanta public that her editors assigned her several more.
Using Mitchell's own scrapbooks from the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia, editor Patrick Allen collected sixty-four of the columns Mitchell herself considered her best work. They were published under the title Margaret Mitchell, Reporter.
Her portraits and personality sketches, in particular, show an early promise of her ability to draw the kind of characters which have made her Gone With the Wind the most translated and best-selling novel in history. Even as a thoughtfully neutral reporter, the irrepressible personality of the observer shines through and, taken as a whole, this collection of Mitchell's journalism transcends the simple fact-gathering of the reporter's trade to give a portrait of the artist as a young woman and a compelling snapshot at life in the Jazz Age South.
Margaret married Red Upshaw in 1922, but they were divorced after it was revealed that he was a bootlegger. She married Upshaw's friend, John Marsh, on July 4, 1925; Marsh had been best man at her first wedding and legend has it that both men courted Mitchell in 1921 and 1922, but Upshaw proposed first.
Margaret is reported to have begun writing Gone With the Wind while bedridden and nursing a broken ankle. Her husband, John Marsh, brought home historical books from the public library to amuse her while she convalesced. Finally, after she supposedly read all the historical books in the library, he told her, "Peggy, if you want another book, why don't you write your own?" She drew upon her encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War, and used dramatic moments from her own life, to write her epic novel, typing it out on an old Remington typewriter. She originally called her heroine "Pansy O'Hara," and Tara was "Fontenoy Hall." When naming her great American novel, she considered naming it Tote The Weary Load or Tomorrow Is Another Day.
Margaret wrote for her own amusement, with solid support from her husband, but she kept her literary efforts a secret from all her friends. She would hide the voluminous pages under towels, disguising them as a pillows, or hide pages in her closets or under her bed. She wrote in a haphazard fashion, writing the last chapter first, and skipping around from chapter to chapter. Her husband regularly proofread her mounting manuscript to help in continuity. By 1929, when her ankle had healed and most of the book was written, she lost interest in pursuing her literary efforts.
While she used to say that her "Gone with The Wind" characters were not based on real people, modern researchers have found similarities to some of the people in Margaret's own life as well as to individuals she knew. Rhett Butler is thought to be based on her first husband, Red Upshaw. Another at least partial character source for Scarlett O'Hara might have been Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, the mother of United States president Theodore Roosevelt.
Mitchell lived her life as a modest Atlanta newspaperwoman until a fateful visit from a MacMillan publisher, Howard Latham, who came to Atlanta in 1935. Latham was scouring the South for promising new Southern writers, and Mitchell agreed to escort him around Atlanta at the request of her friend, who now worked for Latham. Latham was enchanted with Mitchell, and asked her if she had ever written a book. Mitchell demurred. "Well, if you ever do write a book, please show it to me first!" Latham implored. Later that day, a friend of Mitchell, having heard this conversation laughed. "Imagine, anyone as silly as Peggy writing a book!" she said. Mitchell stewed over this comment, went home, and found most of the old, crumbling envelopes containing her disjointed manuscript which she had stowed away. She arrived at The Georgian Terrace Hotel, just as Latham was preparing to depart Atlanta. "Here," she said, "take this before I change my mind!"
Latham bought an extra suitcase to accommodate the giant manuscript that had piled taller than the diminutive author. When Mitchell arrived home, she was horrified over her impetuous act. She sent a telegram to Latham: "Have changed my mind. Send manuscript back." It was too late. Latham had read enough pages of the disjointed, disintegrating manuscript to realize he had a blockbuster. Instead of returning the manuscript, he wrote to her of his thoughts on the potential success of the manuscript's eventual publication. MacMillan soon sent her an advance check to encourage her to complete the novel—oddly enough, Mitchell had never composed a first chapter for the manuscript. Mitchell completed her work in March, 1936.
Gone With the Wind was published on June 30, 1936. The book was dramatized by David O. Selznick, and released three years later. The official premiere of the film was held in Atlanta on December 15, 1939.
The house where Mitchell lived, while writing her manuscript is known today as The Margaret Mitchell House. Located in Midtown Atlanta, it is a major tourist destination. Another major tourist destination, a museum dedicated to Gone with the Wind, the book and film, lies a few miles north of Atlanta, in Marietta, Georgia. It is called "Scarlett on the Square," as it is located on the historic Marietta Square. It houses costumes from the film, screenplays, and many artifacts from Gone With the Wind including Margaret Mitchell's collection of foreign editions of her book.
Additionally, Clayton County (the area just south of Atlanta and the setting for the fictional O'Hara plantation, Tara) maintains "The Road to Tara" Museum in the old railroad depot in downtown Jonesboro.
For decades it was thought that Mitchell had only ever written one complete novel (and, in fact, periodically claims are made that she never wrote it at all due to the lack of any other published work by her). In the 1990s, however, a manuscript by Mitchell of a novella entitled Lost Laysen was discovered among a collection of letters Mitchell had given in the early 1920s to a suitor named Henry Love Angel. The manuscript had been written in two notebooks in 1916. In the 1990s, Angel's son discovered the manuscript and sent it to the Road to Tara Museum, which authenticated the work. A special edition of Lost Laysen—a romance set in the South Pacific—was edited by Debra Freer, augmented with an account of Mitchell and Angel's romance including a number of her letters to him, and published by the Scribner imprint of Simon & Schuster in 1996.
Mitchell was struck by a speeding taxi as she crossed Peachtree Street at 13th Street with her husband, John Marsh, in August, 1949. She died at Grady Hospital, five days later from her injuries. The taxi driver, who was falsely reported to be drunk, was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and received forty years' hard labor. His conviction, however, is still the subject of controversy, as witnesses said Mitchell stepped into the street without looking, and her friends claimed that it was a behavior that she often displayed.
Mitchell was 48. She was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta.
All links retrieved November 10, 2014.
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