The Author of “Gone With the Wind” Had Self-Doubt, Too
“In a weak moment, I have written a book.”
Margaret Mitchell reluctantly published one novel in her lifetime that took her a decade to complete. Then she simply declared that she “never wanted to write another word for as long as she lived.”
But one novel was all that it took.
Gone With the Wind is one of the most well-known and best-selling books of all time. Though its legacy is mixed — it can certainly be seen as romanticizing and sympathizing with the Confederacy — it is still an undoubtedly epic novel.
The colossal Pulitzer Prize-winning book is an incredibly detailed tale of the Old South, with strikingly memorable characters and vivid imagery. Yet even more fascinating than the novel itself is the eccentric author who began writing it in 1926.
While growing up in Atlanta, Margaret Mitchell was always an avid reader and writer. She used to fill notebooks with her own fairy tales and animal stories, and even founded her own publishing company at 11 years old.
As a teenager, she called herself an “unscrupulous flirt” and was known for galavanting around Atlanta social circles, not unlike her iconic future fictional creation Scarlett O’Hara. She later became one of the few debutantes banned by the Junior League, after performing a scandalous Apache dance at a charity ball.
She was soon married, but unfortunately, her husband became abusive. In order to make her own income and leave him, she got a job writing for The Atlanta Journal. This was extremely rare for a woman to accomplish in 1922.
During her short four years as a journalist, “Peggy Mitchell” (as her byline appeared) published 129 articles, reviewed books, and even subbed in as an advice columnist. She suffered an ankle injury that ended her journalism career, and she went on to become a housewife.
She drove her husband crazy by asking him to make multiple trips to the library so that she could read. One day he brought home a typewriter and exclaimed, “For God’s sake Peggy, can’t you write a book instead of reading thousands of them?” And Gone with the Wind was born.
Throwing In The Towel(s)
While writing the novel, Mitchell spent most of her time doing research on the Civil War, plus Atlanta and Georgia during the Reconstruction. Her own family had Civil War veterans still living that Mitchell interviewed, and she also remembered stories she heard from her family growing up about the war.
Mitchell always struggled with the first lines while writing her articles for the Journal, so the rumor is that she began at the end of the story (“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”) and formed the rest from there.
In the small, two-room apartment, she stored the chapters in used manila envelopes, Piggly Wiggly shopping bags under the bed, in the window box seat, and under the Singer sewing machine cabinet that was her typing table.
When anyone visited, she would throw towels over the multiple places where the chapters lived. Nearly nobody knew she was writing a book, and Mitchell certainly didn’t think she was a good enough writer to warrant having the book published.
In 1935, Margaret was invited to lunch with her former Atlanta Journal writers and a publisher happened also to be there. Her friends knew that she had been writing a story about the Old South, and brought it up to the publisher at the lunch — who then asked to read it.
Mitchell refused, thinking it was not ready, even after years of endless editing. Yet, just before the publisher left town, she changed her mind. She grabbed the envelopes and bags that contained the 1,000-page manuscript, and left it with him.
After the publisher began reading it on the train, the rest was history.
The Fame Monster
Many hours were spent by Mitchell correcting historical parts of the story. She wanted it to be as accurate as a depiction as possible. After the final editing process, Gone with the Wind was published June 30, 1936. Mitchell and her husband joked that they had 5,000 cousins in Georgia who would buy it. 50,000 copies sold the first day.
The author answered every letter she got from fans, sometimes hundreds a day, leading to an intense amount of stress. There were lawsuits, copyright violations, and of course a gigantic, unprecedented movie deal that would go on to win Best Picture in 1939. Mitchell hardly knew how to cope with any of it, and was out of place at the movie premiere, which she almost didn’t end up attending.
After her experience with fame from the book and film, Mitchell said that she “hoped to put on weight, become fat and amiable, and grow old gracefully.”
Not a Very Satisfactory Answer
In 1949, Mitchell was tragically hit by a car and killed — ironically, the same thing she was always fearful of — at the young age of 49.
As Mitchell’s will instructed, her husband destroyed most of his wife’s personal papers and manuscripts of her early work. However, many of the fan letters were passed onto her brother, and they were published decades ago.
They give insights into the kind of unique person Margaret Mitchell was, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. This one is my personal favorite: