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
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
Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta is a pilgrimage site for her fans
Margaret Mitchell in 1937