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Wednesday, June 8, 2011 - 10:23am

The Woman Behind 'Gone with the Wind'

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”. The classic American novel is a tale of romance set in old Atlanta during the Civil War and reconstruction. In the first of a three-part series on Mitchell, Noel Brown of WACG in Augusta has this profile of the woman who brought the story to life.

Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900 to an upper-class Atlanta family. Her father was a successful lawyer and president of the Atlanta Historical Society—her mother a central figure in the women’s suffrage movement. .

Throughout her childhood Mitchell was fascinated by tales of America’s Civil War and the battles fought by confederate soldiers in old Atlanta. She heard about the burning of Atlanta from family members who’d lived through Sherman’s siege of the city and began to develop a deep love and understanding of Georgia history.

Darden Asbury Pyron, author of “Southern Daughter”, says it was clear from the start that Mitchell had a unique gift for storytelling.

"She grew up in a very literate culture so writing was completely natural to her. Her brother said that she was writing stories by the time she could hold a pencil."

Mitchell kept detailed journals and wrote countless short stories as she grew into her teenage years. When she reached her early 20s she was expected to join the exclusive Junior League social club, a bastion of Atlanta high society. But Mitchell wasn’t a typical southern belle. At her debut the head-strong young woman performed a racy dance with a male partner that quickly became a scandal.

Biographer John Wiley:

"I think she did it just for the shock value and Atlanta society was not pleased and when the membership invitations went out to join the Atlanta Junior League her name was not on it."

But Mitchell’s rejection by Atlanta’s elite didn’t discourage her. She defied convention by getting a job as a writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Mitchell wrote many heavily researched articles including one about Civil War widows living alone in dilapidated houses. They were a far cry from the frivolous society columns expected of her.

But a steadily worsening child-hood horse-back riding injury forced Mitchell to quit her job at the newspaper. Confined to her Atlanta apartment, she began searching for something to fill her time.

John Wiley:

"Supposedly her husband one day just said “You’ve read every book in the library, now it’s time to write your own.” And he gave her a typewriter and she sat there in the living room of what is now the Margaret Mitchell House and began writing."

During those solitary writing sessions Mitchell turned to the stories of her childhood. She worked for three years crafting a manuscript of romance set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Mitchell used skills she’d honed as a journalist to research every historical detail to the letter. The result was “Gone with the Wind”, a sweeping 1,000 page novel vividly evoking the old south in ways that hadn’t been done before.

Darden Asbury Pyron:

"She lived in an old-fashioned world of oral tradition, preachers sermons, public prayers, narratives told on the front porch but she also lived in a world of literature that is effectively a culture that’s even alien to that and her genius was to be able to cut across both of those worlds."

Michel’s novel was published in 1936 and quickly became an international bestseller. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the book was turned into an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie.

Now 75 years later “Gone with the Wind” has endured as one of the most lasting depictions of the old South.

Throughout her life Margaret Mitchell combined raw ability and brazen ambition to become a singular figure in American literature.

*Our series on Margaret Mitchell will continue with stories on the author’s views on African-Americans and women’s rights. There’s more information at GPB dot ORG.

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