Posted by: Elizabeth Anne Mitchell | August 13, 2011

Gone with the WInd

On August 16, 1949, Margaret Mitchell died from injuries sustained when she was struck by a taxicab in Atlanta, Georgia. Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize for her only novel published during her lifetime, Gone with the Wind (GWTW). Released in the summer of 1936, GWTW had sold a million copies by December. A 2008 Harris Poll rated GWTW the second favorite book of Americans, selling more than 30 million copies at that time. It has been translated into over 40 languages and published in 50 countries. It was smuggled into Nazi-occupied France, where someone caught with it could be shot (1). Nebiy Mekonnen was arrested during Megistu’s Red Terror in Ethiopia. While in prison, he wrote his translation on the only paper available to him, the inner lining paper from cigarette packs. The completed pages were smuggled out in cigarette packs. When he was finally released, He compiled over 3000 lining papers to print his translation. (2)

Despite the popularity of the novel (some would say due to it), academicians dismiss it as conventional and unevenly written. Educators avoid the political morass of its glamorization of slavery and a classist society that deservedly met its end 150 years ago.

While I was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., my family moved to Atlanta when I was 8 weeks old, so I am nearly a native. I read GWTW ensconced in an overstuffed chair in a corner of the living room the summer I was 9 years old. I left that chair for nothing beyond basic necessities for several days. There were many things about it that held me entranced. Scarlett O’Hara had a brash Irish father and a genteel Southern mother, like me; unlike me, she lived in a sprawling house with an upstairs, and had her own room. When Margaret Mitchell wrote about Atlanta, she named streets that I knew, on the way to my father’s office, or down where the Capitol building was. I knew the town she wrote of; I’d walked those streets.

I had heard family stories from the Civil War; how my great-great grandmother had hidden the family silver from Sherman’s men by throwing it in the well; stories of genteel poverty after the War filled my youth. In my innocence, not fully understanding the complexities of Scarlett’s character, I made Katie Scarlett my role model. It didn’t matter that I was a girl; I could still go out and conquer the world, just like she did. I began to voice my opinions, to my genteel mother’s distress, who warned me that boys didn’t like smart girls. I wonder if the popularity of GWTW in war-torn, occupied countries wasn’t due in part to the way Scarlett found a way to survive in such harsh conditions.

It is true that GWTW glamorizes a way of life based on a fundamentally evil concept. I have to agree with Pat Conroy that Mitchell’s portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan “appears to be a benign combination of the Elks Club and a men’s equestrian society” (3). Perhaps I am naïve, but I certainly understood that the KKK was not a good group, no matter its description in the novel, and I cannot imagine any other reaction despite Mitchell’s depiction. Even at nine years old, I knew that Atlanta was a different place, and a better place than antebellum Georgia had been.

I would like to say in closing, that if all you know of GWTW is the movie, it is a pale shadow on the novel. At 1,037 pages, it is not a small investment in time or energy. It is not a perfect novel, but the characters have a vibrancy and life that leaps off the page. Despite all the academic training I have undergone in the meantime, I still recapture the glow of possible futures when I open the novel again.

(1) Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Critic at Large: A Study in Scarlett.” The New Yorker. August 31, 1992, pages 87—103 (see page 101).
(2) Huang, Carol. “Tomorrow Is Another Day: An Ethiopian student survives a brutal imprisonment by translating Gone with the Wind into his native Amharic.” The American Scholar. 2006, Volume 75 (Autumn, Issue 4), pages 79—88.
(3) Pat Conroy, Preface to Gone with the Wind, Pocket Books edition.

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Responses

  1. I’ve been meaning to read GWTW for ages and ages now. I grew up watching the film (it’s one of my mom’s favorite), but I’m excited to hear that the book is better. Adding this to my library list!

    • I love the movie, too, Jamila, but there is so much more story in the book, I just love it more. Of course, one critic said it should have been edited to about half its length, and I guess I see that point, but I still love it. I think you’ll enjoy the book. Have a great week, and thanks for commenting!

  2. I’ll tell you where Peggy shows in her book the KKK as a bad institution. It´s when Rhett tells Scarlett that he and Ashley have managed to dissolve it in the area (this is after Scarlett´s miscarriage). GWTW in film version is still one of the best movies ever made, but the book is beyond words, and no, I would not edit a comma from it.

    • You are absolutely right, Violante. It is a shame that more are not aware of that dialogue–and I must confess I have not seen the unaltered movie in so long I don’t remember if it is included in the movie.

  3. I’ve just started Pat Conroy’s ‘My Reading Life’ and there is a wonderful essay in it about the influence of ‘Gone with the Wind’ on his upbringing, his mother was a diehard fan and read the book to him every year during his childhood and they made pilgrimages to locations noted in the book.

    It made me want to read it again, knowing how passionate some people like her were about this book and the voice those characters represented. And then the influence this had on a writer like Conroy.

    • I think GWTW really defined a generation of Southern women, who were asked within a few years after GWTW was made into a movie to be strong, independent women while their men were off at war. My mother stood in the crowd outside the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta for the premiere; I saw the movie for the first time when I was 13 in that same theater. I love feisty women of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Civil War, oh heck, of any time.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Claire!


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