On with the wind in Scar­lett’s city

It’s 75 years since Mar­garet Mitchell wrote her sole novel and her Atlanta home has be­come a shrine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PEG FONG

SHE scan­dalised con­ven­tional so­ci­ety with her un­la­dy­like be­hav­iour and, like Scar­lett O’Hara, the char­ac­ter she cre­ated, au­thor Mar­garet Mitchell was full of what they used to call gump­tion.

Gone with the Wind, Mitchell’s only book, was filled with char­ac­ters who had gump­tion as well as those who did not. She wove her fic­tion out of sto­ries she heard from rel­a­tives who had lived through the Amer­i­can Civil War’s blood­i­est bat­tles. Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind in 1936, 75 years af­ter the start of the war, whose 150th an­niver­sary is be­ing marked this year. All year, events are also be­ing held to com­mem­o­rate the novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and con­tin­ues to have an im­pact on Ge­or­gia’s cap­i­tal city of Atlanta.

The first event, held in May, drew de­vout fol­low­ers, self­con­fessed Windies, from across the world. One Gone with the Wind fan who ar­rived in Fe­bru­ary sur­prised Atlanta of­fi­cials with his re­quest. The Gov­er­nor of China’s Hu­nan prov­ince, Zhou Qian, was in Atlanta for a rib­bon-cut­ting cer­e­mony for Chinese firm SANY Amer­ica, a heavy equip­ment man­u­fac­turer that has in­vested $US100 mil­lion ($93m) to con­struct a fa­cil­ity in Ge­or­gia.

With only four hours of free time be­fore his re­turn to China, Zhou had one wish. He wanted to see Mitchell’s home on Atlanta’s fa­mous Peachtree Street, which is listed with the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places.

A tour of Mitchell’s base­ment apart­ment, which she called ‘‘the dump’’, was ar­ranged and Zhou ar­rived with his en­tourage to the red-brick build­ing with its lay­ers of white porches.

It was built in 1899 and the au­thor and her hus­band moved into a ground-floor suite in 1925.

Zhou toured ex­hibits show­ing Mitchell in her teens and early 20s, when she up­set the up­per-mid­dle­class so­ci­ety to which she be­longed by her early mar­riage to John Marsh, a dark-haired, mous­ta­chioed man who, as it tran­spired, strik­ingly re­sem­bled her fic­tional Rhett But­ler. And the dis­played pho­to­graphs of Mitchell clearly show that ac­tress Vivien Leigh, who played Scar­lett, bore a re­sem­blance to the au­thor.

‘‘The Gov­er­nor knew the novel very well but I don’t be­lieve he was fa­mil­iar with Mar­garet’s life un­til af­ter he took the tour,’’ says Brandi Wigley, se­nior man­ager of com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives for Mar­garet Mitchell House and Atlanta His­tory Cen­tre.

‘ ‘ He said that the Mar­garet Mitchell House was the one place in Atlanta that he re­ally wanted to visit,’’ she adds.

When the book was pub­lished in 1936, dur­ing the De­pres­sion, it be­came a best­seller. It also gained a fol­low­ing in Europe and Asia over the next decade, par­tic­u­larly in coun­tries where peo­ple were liv­ing through World War II.

Scar­lett’s fa­mous line (af­ter she stum­bles across the ru­ins of plan­ta­tions owned by her neigh­bours) that she was pre­pared to lie, cheat or kill in or­der to keep her and her fam­ily from starv­ing, is of­ten mocked, but still res­onates as a uni­ver­sal vow: ‘‘As God is my wit­ness, I’ll never be hun­gry again.’’

Zhou told Wigley he wished younger gen­er­a­tions would also be­come fans of the book and got emo­tional as he re­counted how Scar­lett O’Hara’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to sur­vive was a les­son he never for­got. Wigley adds that the gov­er­nor’s staff had ‘‘to nearly drag him back to the car to go to the air­port’’, but not be­fore he and his en­tourage spent more than $US1500 ($1400) on sou­venirs.

As Sally Tip­pett Rains, au­thor of The Mak­ing of a Mas­ter­piece: The True Story of Mar­garet Mitchell’s Clas­sic Novel, Gone with the Wind, ex­plains, the mes­sage of sur­vival, which is the un­der­ly­ing theme of the book, has made the novel uni­ver­sal, and of course it was al­most im­me­di­ately trans­lated into many lan­guages.

When you walk through Mar­garet Mitchell House, it’s re­mark­able to think of how a ma­jor pub­lish­ing event came from such a tiny space. It is a mas­sive book in size and scope; its 63 chap­ters en­com­pass a pe­riod from the an­te­bel­lum south to the hard­ship of war and then Re­con­struc­tion. Scar­lett O’Hara, born in the same year as Atlanta in 1847, goes from be­ing a pam­pered belle to a thrice­mar­ried, twice-wid­owed har­den- ed plan­ta­tion and busi­ness owner.

Mitchell wrote in a small cor­ner of her apart­ment, hid­ing the pa­pers in en­velopes un­der news­pa­pers when friends called. Peachtree Street re­mains the fash­ion­able mid­town ad­dress it was when she lived there.

Atlanta, with a pop­u­la­tion of about 500,000, is a thriv­ing city with a rich his­tory en­com­pass­ing the civil war and the civil rights move­ment. There are still rem­nants of the gashes through­out the city as Atlanta was burned when the Union army took over.

It was then a bustling rail­way town where cot­ton from plan­ta­tions in the north of the state was brought down to be trans­ported to man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­tres in New Eng­land. The Atlanta His­tory Cen­tre has an in­ter­ac­tive dis­play as part of its civil war ex­hibit show­ing streets to­day com­pared with 150 years ago, in­clud­ing one start- ling im­age of a sign ad­ver­tis­ing slave auc­tions and an­other of a rail line de­stroyed by the Union army.

Scar­lett on the Square in Ma­ri­etta, near Atlanta, is ar­rang­ing events and fes­tiv­i­ties for fans who will travel from all over to par­tic­i­pate, mu­seum ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Con­nie Suther­land says.

‘‘They are an iron­clad group who share a pas­sion for the book and movie, [and] who wel­come new mem­bers into their group at any time,’’ Suther­land says.

‘‘We see a lot of at­ten­dees [at] our events who are sim­ply mod­er­ate fans. But we plan our fes­ti­vals with the Windies in mind.’’

There is also a Road to Tara Mu­seum in Jonesboro, where Mitchell’s grand­par­ents lived, and a Gone with the Wind mu­seum in Jef­fer­son, Texas. A themed mu­seum in Bran­son, Mis­souri, opened last month.

Even 75 years af­ter the novel’s re­lease, its pop­u­lar­ity shows no signs of wan­ing; it re­mains the sec­ond most pop­u­lar book in the US, be­hind the Bi­ble, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll.

For the an­niver­sary of the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, fans have con­verged on Atlanta for a pil­grim­age that in­cludes a visit to Mitchell’s grave in ma­jes­tic Oak­land Ceme­tery, the city’s old­est and the largest ex­panse of green. Here mar­ble tombs of Atlanta’s prom­i­nent cit­i­zens soar against a sky­line dom­i­nated by glass of­fice tow­ers.

Mitchell was buried here af­ter she was killed in Au­gust 1949 when hit by a car as she crossed Peachtree, the street she had made the best known in Atlanta. at­lantahis­to­rycen­ter.com mar­garet­mitchell­house.com ma­ri­et­taga.gov

PHOTOLIBRARY

Mar­garet Mitchell House in Atlanta is a pil­grim­age site for her fans

AP

Mar­garet Mitchell in 1937

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