Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. So begins one of the best selling novels of all time, Gone With the Wind. Released in 1936, it sold millions of copies at the height of the Great Depression and earned Margret Mitchell the 1937 Pulitzer. Love it or hate it, GWTW is an American classic.
I read it first in middle school. My grandmother allowed me to read what ever book I wanted from her large personal library. GWTW was the least daunting of my grandmother’s books. Her collection consisted of classic Greek, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Hemingway etc. You get the picture. GWTW seemed like a fairytale compared to the other choices. I would go to read it two more times. As silly as it may seem, I reread it, hoping for better outcome, or at least some better understanding of Scarlett’s fate. Mitchell leaves us with one hell of a cliff hanger!
From the first sentence I was hooked. Scarlett O’Hare was the most complex character I had ever read about. She went from being a spoiled Southern Belle to a strong yet vulnerable mature woman. Even as we are now decades past the Feminist Movement, women today try to emulate Scarlett’s manner and wish they had the opportunity to dress like her. Just the other day a friend and I talked about Scarlett’s famous green curtain “dress”. For many of us, she is a role model, not that we want three husbands and forced household help, but rather we want to know that if faced with hardships we too will preserver. Mitchell always said she did not think Scarlett and Rhett reconciled, but thought that Scarlett would “become a better person”.
Some like to point out the “racist” tone of the book. They see the relationship between Scarlett and Mammy as unrealistic and one that only a white person would think to be true. I argue that these people are missing Mitchell’s subtle message about African- Americans. The characters that are shown as having the most humanity, (compassion and wisdom) are all African- American. Rather than using stereotypical depictions that were in vogue in the 1930’s, Mitchell choose to have Mammy be Scarlett’s conscious and Sam to be her hero. And for those of you who have only seen the movie: spoiler alert; Scarlett’s second husband Frank, is killed because he attends a Klan rally. Mitchell writes about it in an unsympathetic voice.
So who was this woman whose only book still sparks historical themed debates while maintaining a timeless heroine?
Born in Atlanta in 1900, Margaret Mitchell was a debutante from Atlanta’s upper crust. She challenged the stifling social restrictions placed on women at the time. Mitchell was one of Georgia’s first female newspaper reporters and used the money she made from Gone With the Wind to fund many causes, including the education of the South’s first African-American medical doctors.
Mitchell had a charismatic personality and a great sense of humor. Her biographers describe her as sexy and smart with a rebellious streak that allowed her to achieve her personal goals. She was one of the first authors to have almost total control of her work. In order to publish GWTW, her publisher, Macmillan, agreed to let her have a say in all phases of the book’s publication. Though Mitchell agreed to change the name from Pansy to Scarlett, she voiced a strong opinion on everything else from the book cover to the amount of money she would receive for publishing it. Sounds a lot like something Scarlett would do.
Emmy®-winning executive producer/writer Pamela Roberts says of Mitchell: “She was captivating and complex. She took chances every day of her life, and she changed the world with her one book, Gone With the Wind. Only Margaret Mitchell could have created Scarlett O’Hara” So, instead of looking up to Scarlett, perhaps we should look to Mitchell as a role model.
If you are interested in learning more about Mitchell and her book, I suggest you pick up Ellen Brown & John Wiley’s book Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood.