The Era of Charm and Grace: Margaret Mitchell Revisited
A Presentation for Authors Concerning the Civil War Genre
By James M. Volo, PhD
Contributor: Essential Civil War Curriculum Project (2013)
Novels and Narratives as History
Amid all the printer’s ink and historical speculation, the Antebellum Period in America has largely been ignored until recently. Well-educated adults are often unsure of the meaning of the term “antebellum” or relegate the entire pre-Civil War Era to Margaret Mitchell’s images of Georgia in Gone With the Wind. While Mitchell’s view of the Old South with its magnolia-scented plantations, hoop skirts, and flirtatious Southern Belles deserves its venerated place as a work of fiction and cinematography, it is far from giving a full historical view of all of Antebellum America.
Today some of the figurative pillars of “Old South Culture” can make readers cringe: aristocracy, bigotry, secession, confederacy, and, of course, slavery. Importantly, uncomfortable antebellum characteristics were not confined to the South. The North, the Midwest, the Far West, and the Border States all evidenced their own unique characters in this period — ones that often go unreported because many of them are also no longer acceptable to modern society and opinion: among them greed, exploitation, nativism, religious intolerance, and perhaps the worst — complacency. By these standards many of the heroes of the last century were not very nice people.
For many readers, and certainly for many audiences, Gone With the Wind is the American Civil War. It was Margaret Mitchell’s only published novel. Most authors only end up with one good book, and the rest are duds. Mitchell may be an idol to independent writers who hope to imitate her remarkable road to success, but she was no amateur scribbler. She had written professionally for The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine. She wrote 129 feature articles, 85 news stories, and several book reviews.
It was accident rather than enterprise that caused Mitchell to begin one of the most significant novels in literary history. She was forced to stay home for an extended period to nurse a severe leg injury. She began working on characters and plot development, but after a decade almost no one knew she was close to completing a book. An acquaintance hearing of the project scoffed, “Imagine you writing a book!” …. Annoyed (actually pissed) Mitchell took her massive manuscript to a friend, who was a Macmillan Company editor. Macmillan saw potential in her writing and offered her a publishing contract. She spent the next seven months in a frantic state as she endeavored to edit the narrative and check her history. The characters and locations are now familiar: war ravaged Atlanta, Scarlett O’Hara of Tara plantation, Ashley Wilkes of Twelve Oaks, Rhett Butler of Charleston, Melanie Hamilton, Mammy, Prissy, and other servants, and an army of young men and flirty girls. [i]
Behind the legendary passions at the heart of Gone With the Wind (Rhett for Scarlett, and Scarlett for Ashley), the book and the later 1939 blockbuster movie capture the scale and the devastation of the Civil War and its aftermath. As the war creeps closer, the trains deliver wounded and dying soldiers by the thousands. Yankee shells hammer the city, the citizens of Atlanta begin to flee in panic, but Mitchell avoids describing actual combat, turning instead to the birth of Melanie’s child. There are no battle scenes in the novel and little physical violence. Scarlett does shoot a Yankee cavalryman at Tara who enters the house with his pistol drawn, looking for loot. It is not just Scarlett’s tragedies and triumphs that make Gone with the Wind a masterpiece — it’s also the journeys of Mammy, Melanie, and the other women who loved, lost, and sacrificed during the Civil War.
Mitchell won the National Book Award for Most Distinguished Novel of 1936 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937. Within a month of the novel’s release, Mitchell sold the motion-picture rights to producer David O. Selznick for $50,000, the highest amount ever paid to a debut novelist, a fortune at the time. To the studio’s dismay, Mitchell declined to be publicly associated with the movie’s production, and the screen adaptation was assigned to others. The year 1939 in motion pictures is widely considered the most outstanding one ever. The film won ten Oscars and earned $200 million—its nearest competitor in that year, The Wizard of Oz. When adjusted for monetary inflation, it is still the most successful film in box-office history ($1.7 billion US / $3.4 billion Global). The film is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.
But this presentation is about books, not films. Yet today, it is difficult to differentiate among media. Knowledge of the film may have eclipsed that of the novel especially among the young who read e-books on their i-phones and watch DVD’s on tablets, or listen to audio versions and text readers through ear buds. (Me, too! How can you not listen to the smooth, velvet narration of historian Shelby Foote, made famous by Ken Burns PBS series?) Fear not, fellow scribblers! Each of these begins with you, the writer. Foote was a true scribbler. He did all his writing by hand with a pen, only later transcribing the result to a typewritten copy. Personally, having failed typing in high school, I could not write without a Hunt & Peck laptop and a backspace key. A Harris poll recently (2014) found Gone with the Wind to be the second favorite among American readers, just behind the Bible. It is amazing that so many hits rank just behind the Bible!
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Mitchell’s novel is that people worldwide incorrectly think it is the true story of the Old South and how the Civil War and Reconstruction changed it. In all likelihood, the film version of the novel amplified this effect. The main creative force was the producer's obsession in making the film as literally faithful to the novel as possible. This may have caused the film to emphasize Mitchell’s own predispositions toward traditional Southern attitudes.
It is often suggested that Gone With the Wind is a figment of imagination, a chimera or fantasy wrought in the mind of a bored housewife. This is not quite true. Mitchell admitted that she heard Civil War stories from her aged relatives when she was growing up. An image of "the Old South" was fixed in her imagination when her mother took her as a child on buggy tours through the stark ruins of Georgia plantations that still bore in the new century the scorch marks of Yankee invasion. Mitchell wrote, “On Sunday afternoons when we went calling on the older generation of relatives, those who had been active in the eighteen sixties, I sat on the bony knees of veterans and the fat slippery laps of great aunts and heard them talk.” Her two surviving maternal great-aunts had been twenty-one and thirteen years old when the Civil War began. Significantly one of these aunts was known as Mammy. In 1907, these women were closer to the Civil War than we are from the crisis of Vietnam today. Think about the number of our present convictions that are still informed by the circumstances of Vietnam in our own lives. Consider also how the history of that period has been influenced by subsequent events and interpretations.[ii]
Unable to find the right actress to play the lead after months of searching, Selznick decided to begin filming without his Scarlett. The spectacle of the burning of Atlanta was the first scene to be shot. Like Tara, which existed only as a plywood and plaster facade, forty acres of abandoned movie sets would be burned as stand-ins for Atlanta. This could be done just once, and Selznick had just four cameras capable of filming in the new process of Technicolor in all of Hollywood. As the blaze lighted the sky with cameras rolling, a slender, dark-haired beauty arrived in the company of David’s brother Myron, one of the best agents in Hollywood. Myron told his brother: “Dave, I want you to meet Scarlett O’Hara. Her name is Vivien Leigh.” Can anyone imagine a Scarlett that is not Vivien Leigh?[iii]
At the time, the public strongly identified Leigh with her fiancé and future husband noted British actor Laurence Olivier. Primarily a stage performer, Leigh may have spoken with an English accent, but she was still the incarnation of Mitchell’s heroine, the ultimate female role model: a feminist woman-child with an 18-inch wasp waist bound in stays, a badass coquette in an absurdly large straw hat and green ribbon, who at the same time was the author and the heroine of her own story. It’s not that strong women were absent from literature in the past, but rather that they were often welcomed with an adverse reception. Imagine the antithesis of several notable heroines from period novels, if you can: a self-centered Jo March (Little Women), an unscrupulous backstabbing Lizzy Bennett (Pride and Prejudice), or a deceitful and manipulative governess named Jane Eyre. The character Scarlett was each of these on amphetamines, but she was able to overcome any such negative responses. Scarlett is perhaps the most pragmatic of all of these characters. In a hostile unreconstructed South, Scarlett (like the South itself) is consistently faced with crises that she can only surmount by redefining herself and her values. [iv]
Gone with the Wind has been criticized as historical revisionism with respect to the war and secession. It is also thought to have had negative effects on race relations. The role of Prissy played by Butterfly McQueen is certainly cringe-worthy. Nevertheless, the film has been credited with triggering changes to the way African-Americans are depicted on the screen and in literature. While images of Black women as servants are as problematic today as they were then, Hattie MacDaniel was faced with only two choices – play the servant, or be a servant – she chose to do the former, be the best damn Mammy ever, and chip away at racism in Hollywood by simply existing and making room for herself. MacDaniel won an Oscar for her performance breaking the color line in the Academy Awards.
It must be noted, however, that it was Romantic love and honor that emerged as themes of abiding interest for Mitchell, not racial supremacy. Ashley Wilkes (played by Leslie Howard) remains the “Perfect Knight” for Scarlett even throughout her three marriages. Ashley is representative of the Southern aristocrat who fights bravely in the war but finds himself confused and directionless in its aftermath. Ashley realizes that the aristocratic code by which he has lived no longer has meaning, but he is unable to take action. The novel describes Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) as a black sheep, blackguard, and blockade-runner who was expelled from West Point and is not received in society by any reputable family. Yet it is Rhett, not Ashley that becomes her deliverer.
This circumstance is quite accurate. With their means of making a living gone and their place in the community ripped asunder after the conflict, Southern men returning from war, in particular, were left with little of their former gender identities beyond their personal honor and their continued allegiance to the “lost cause” of Southern independence. The fact was that the South had not merely lost the war. It had been beaten and beaten badly. Southern manhood – taken as a corporate identity – was generally considered to have failed to defend hearth and home. Many Northerners avoided this gender identity confrontation and came home to cities untarnished by war and festooned with red, white, and blue ribbons with the sustaining knowledge of having rescued the enslaved from cruel bondage while maintaining the sacred union.
Remarkably, Mitchell provided no confirming end to her work. This seems to violate the basic protocol of good authorship. The book ends with Rhett leaving Scarlett, and Scarlett deciding to go back to Tara to get herself together. One thing that is clear, though, Scarlett's gumption and determination are linked throughout the book to her willingness to push aside unpleasant thoughts. But this is also the root of all her failures. If the novel were to continue in the same vein, the ending wouldn't be either happy or sad …. only ominous.[v]
A final word about Margaret Mitchell as a historical personage. Her own mother chose a very un-Southern Smith College in Massachusetts for Margaret because she considered it to be the best women's college in the United States. An average student, Mitchell did not excel in any area of academics. While she was enrolled at Smith, her fiancé Clifford Henry was mortally wounded in action in France and died a hero in the trenches at Verdun. She was very young, just sixteen. After finishing her freshman year at Smith, Mitchell returned to Atlanta and abandoned a college education. Mitchell once called herself an "unscrupulous flirt.” This may have informed her presentation of Scarlett. Mitchell noted during an interview, “Flirting can be a girl’s most powerful weapon, for which the right outfit is key, even when one has to drag down mother’s green velvet curtains." (a la Carol Burnett) She divorced her first husband, an alcoholic with a bad temper, and quickly remarried. Sadly a speeding automobile struck Margaret Mitchell as she crossed a street in Atlanta with her second husband, ironically, on the way to see a movie. She died in 1949 after several days in hospital at age 48. [vi]
Summary for Scribblers
More than 100,000 individual volumes have been written with the Civil War as a theme, and it is estimated that a new one is published every day. The Library of Congress most likely owns copies of a great majority of them. These include histories, technical works, and fiction. The shelf space taken up by Civil War books just in their call number classification is considerable. An investigation shows that male authors seem to dominate both in terms of sales and number of titles. There is a conventional wisdom that men read and write non-fiction and history, while women read and write fiction and ignore history, but there has never been a study proving this to be the case. Take, for instance, Barbara W. Tuchman, Doris Kearns Godwin, Drew Gilpin Faust, Margaret MacMillan, or Cokie Roberts each of whom gives the lie to the concept. [vii]
Finally, the topic of portraying race in American literature and writing has rarely been a matter of step-by-step progress. It has proceeded in fits and starts, with backlashes coming on the heels of breakthroughs. It is difficult to write in the Civil War Genre today as anything that does not clearly condemn the South, the Confederacy, the plantation aristocracy, or the KKK by name is tainted by charges of indifference, disrespect, or even racism. This is not quite fair. Just writing in the Civil War Genre should not raise every uncomfortable issue. Moreover, the complaints are often arbitrary and misleading, or they reference omissions and subjective inferences. Yet “pushing aside unpleasant thoughts” is not a viable alternative. Any arrangement that a novelist or historian might choose for their topic results in inclusions and exclusions that privilege certain values and certain literary forms over others. Covering topics from Confederate personalities to daily living, to the impact of race and gender on events can create a daunting labyrinth for authors. Fortunately, most authors in the genre can limit themselves to military operations, technology, and weapons, which still dominate the popular interest and scholarly attention. Bloody battlefields seem to engender fewer controversies than Romance novels.
Here in this pretty world gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of knights and their ladies fair… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered…. a civilization gone with the wind.
[i] See Stacey Conradt (2017). URL: http://mentalfloss.com/article/30591/10-fascinating-facts-about-gone-wind
[ii] (Mary Ellen ("Mammy") Fitzgerald and Sarah ("Sis") Fitzgerald).
[iii] Vivien or Vivian depending on British or American spelling.
[iv] Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, Portia of The Merchant of Venice, or Beatrice, the gloriously witty self-effacing, proud bachelorette of Much Ado About Nothing. See: Elizabeth L. Silver, The Millions: The Death of the Ingénue (2013). URL: http://themillions.com/2013/08/the-death-of-the-ingenue.html
[v] See: URL: https://www.shmoop.com/gone-with-the-wind/ending.html
[vi] Martin, Sara Hines. More Than Petticoats: remarkable Georgia women. Guilford, CT: The Global Pequot Press, 2003. p. 161.
[vii] Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference, 2002, page 860.