Monday, May 9, 2011

Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood by Ellen Brown & John Wiley, Jr.

"In the seventy-five years since Gone With the Wind's publication, millions of people the world over have speculated about what happened after Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara he didn't give a damn. Whether author Margaret Mitchell envisioned a reconciliation for her famous lovers is one of many intriguing questions surroung the legendary novel and its enigmatic creator.

Granted unprecendented access to GWTW records and correspondence, Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr. examine the biggest mystery of them all: how a disorganized and incomplete manuscript by an unknown Southern writer was discovered by a major New York publisher and became one of the most popular, profitable, and controversial novels in literary history. Various Mitchell biographies and several compilations of her letters tell part of the story, but until now no single source has delved into the full saga.

Brown and Wiley answer the question once posed by her husband, "How in the hell did she do it?"

(from the publisher)

my thoughts:

Every once in a while I pull out my copy of Gone With the Wind and just pick a chapter at doesn't take me long to get totally swept up in this amazing saga of one of the most controversial heroines in southern literature.....Scarlett O'Hara. Once, someone compared the fiesty Margaret Mitchell to her fictional creation, Scarlett, and the author was most offended!

"About the only good qualities Scarlett had were courage and a refusal to admit defeat. But on the other side she was selfish, vain, almost illiterate, a bungler in her dealings with other people, a person with shoddy tastes and a fondness for cheap companions. She neglected her children and she was the ruination of every man who loved her. She stopped at nothing in her grasping determination to make money, including cheating, swindling, and cruel abuse of the helpless convicts she hired. She committed murder, she stole her sister's sweetheart with a lie, and she offered her body for sale at a price." (p. 193)

Whew! Yet millions of fans are enthralled with Mitchell's Civil War-era tale and after seventy-five years, the story of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara is still going strong, considered by some to be one of the Great American Novels.

This account, although tedious at times (copyright issues = ZZZZzzzzzzzzz), traces the origins of GWTW. Margaret Mitchell was the epitome of the southern lady.....gracious, charming, pretty and petite, with a family legacy of Civil War stories told to her from the time she was born. The only real writing experience Mitchell had was childhood stories and news articles. She had an idea for a story in her head, and over the years began quietly working on her manuscript in a haphazard way. As she completed chapters or ran into a road block, she filed away the papers in large envelopes and stashed them all over her tiny apartment in Atlanta that she shared with her husband. After several years, the apartment was crowded with overstuffed envelopes! She had no intention of showing her work to anyone, much less getting it published, but as we all know, this mishmash of envelopes was eventually fine-tuned and honed into a blockbuster masterpiece. A former reporter friend of Mitchell, Lois Cole, went to work for Macmillan Publishing House in New York. It was this connection with the publishing world that eventually brought Harold Latham, a Macmillan publishing executive, to seek out Mitchell while on a trip to the south. Margaret was horrified to learn that her friend had discussed her work as the quiet lady suffered from severe self-doubt. She simply couldn't believe anyone would be interested in reading her material, much less publishing it and paying good money for it! The manuscript was not even complete or organized into any cohesive start-to-finish format. At first she denied ever having written anything, but Latham convinced her to share her work and asked to see what she had on hand. She reluctantly gathered together the envelopes she could find and handed them over against her better judgement, and the rest is history. Those stuffed envelopes held a future Pulitzer Prize winning novel!

What followed for Margaret Mitchell, however, is not a happily-ever-after fairytale. The job of completing the manuscript, researching for historical accuracy, proofreading and editing, and filling in gaps for continuity over the next year took it's toll on her mentally and physically. Working from dawn and well into the night, she and her husband (who assisted her) almost dropped from exhaustion to try to meet the deadline Macmillan had set for publication. It was an arduous task for her, and once her manuscript was finally completed to her satisfaction, she vowed she would never write again. The toll was just too great, and "Tote the Weary Load" could well have been the title!

Unfortunately for Margaret, the publication of her novel was not the end of her worries. In fact, she and her husband spent the remaining years of her life fiercely guarding and overseeing the overwhelming universe that Gone With the Wind created. Everything from copyrights for radio, audio recordings, film, stage, merchandise, foreign translations and overseas rights, etc... kept them working full-time to protect their financial interests and legal rights. Everyone wanted to cash in on the phenomenal success of GWTW, and the publicity-shy, reclusive new author was thrust into the glare of worldwide success and high-stakes business deals. In one way, she was like her Scarlett: she was a fierce warrior when it came to protecting her personal interests. Margaret Mitchell dug in her heels and made her views known to Macmillian and the world: she would not appear in public to promote her book -- her poor health would not allow her to travel extensively; she would not speak about her book in public -- her few attempts ended in a bad case of stage fright; she was not up to writing again; and NO ONE would profit from her intellectual property without her consent. (The one thing Mitchell was dedicated to was her fan mail -- she and her assistant diligently answered the thousands of fan letters she received and believed each person should be individually thanked.) She was pleased with the Hollywood version of GWTW, but again, she wanted little to do with the movie's creation after signing a deal with MGM for the movie rights. She did appear at the movie's Atlanta premiere and made a brief statement, thanking the people of Atlanta for their kindness to "me and my poor Scarlett."

The one thing everyone wanted to know was, "What happens to Rhett and Scarlett? Will you write a sequel?" Her coy answer to the first question was always, "Why, I don't really know." As to the question of a sequel, she had a definite answer: "No." She was so insistent that a sequel not be written that her will stated the all future heirs/trusts should respect her wishes. The book ended exactly how she intended it to end. Period. She insisted she simply didn't have time to write again as managing the business of GWTW was a full-time job. Her untimely and tragic death in 1949 (she was hit by a car while crossing Peachtree Street) put an end to the possibility of the world ever experiencing another book from this extraordinary woman.

Why, then, did her brother (who became her heir upon the death of Margaret's husband) agree to a sequel? Stephens Mitchell, her brother, also had spent his life protecting his sister's interests and deflected offers to have a sequel written for many years. He also fought unauthorized fan fiction versions of his sister's writings. However, he was in his eighties, and he was weary of fighting. He had no idea how much longer he would live, and after his death, he felt people would have a field day with GWTW. If he authorized a sequel, at least the Margaret Mitchell Trust could handpick the author and to a certain degree, guarantee that it would be in keeping with the integrity of the novel. Alexandra Ripley, a southern author, took on the job, knowing that it would be a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" job. People would criticize her work as inferior to Mitchell's (which she was willing to admit she was no Margaret Mitchell), and she would not please everyone with her plot for Scarlett and Rhett. The world finally had their sequel in 1991, Scarlett, and one alternative to what may have happened to Scarlett and Rhett. Rhett also got his story in 2007 with McCaig's Rhett Butler's People.

So, join me and dust off your old copy of Gone With the Wind, raise a glass and toast to seventy-five years of stunning success for Margaret Mitchell and her "poor Scarlett."

Original cover of 1936 first edition

Title: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood
Authors: Ellen F. Brown, John Wiley, Jr.
Taylor Trade Publishing
379 pages
nonfiction: literature and film industry


Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

GWTW is one of my favorite books, I've read it so many times, mostly when I was in middle school. I recently re-read it a few years ago and I loved it even more. As a "grown up" reading it, I had a different perspective of Scarlett and I was afraid I'd hate her, but in fact, it was the opposite. I understood her all the more and her motivation for everything she did.

Regarding Mitchell, her publishing story with Macmillan is amazing! The first 13 times I read GWTW it was from my grandmother's orginal 1937(?) copy of GWTW. It was gray, no dust jacket and I read it so many times, the cover completely fell off and got lost. Alas, a few months before my grandmother died, she asked to have it back to read. I was so sorry that I was returning it to her in such awful shape! I don't know what ever happened to it. But it was mine for about 20 years and I'll never forget that well worn copy, it was my heart and soul for 2 years when I was 12-14 years old.

Joanne said...

Julie - Oh, Lordy be! If your grandmother's copy was from 1937, not only would it be a
sentimental treasure for you, but it would have been among the first to roll off the presses!

I loved it too, and while I didn't read it multiple times (13 times!!!), it was required reading at my girls' high school for American Lit and we had a great time putting up a huge poster of Rhett Butler (where he's playing cards in prison wearing a black cape) on the chalkboard! :) (Probably gave the nuns the vapours!) ha!

What are your thoughts on the ending? I adored Rhett and wanted him to move on and begin again with someone who truly loved him. I hoped Scarlett would find peace (and love if she wanted it) back at Tara. I never saw them back together (and still don't).

Staci said...

Wow! I didn't know any of that about the author and the way she wrote this wonderful story!! I've read it twice but maybe I'll dust it off again!!

Joanne said...

Hi, Staci -- I'm doing a full reread and enjoying it all over again. Her ability to create a picture with her words is just magnificent, and of course, all of her characters are so richly imagined. When I was very young and read it for the first time, the romantic part of me thought it was a tragic love story. But it seems that Mitchell saw it more of a story of survival -- some who make it, and some who don't.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Oh, I'm definitely in the school of Scarlett will get him back, but not until "she grows up." She needs a wake up call when it comes to Rhett, but I do think she'd get him back some day. No way can I see him with anyone else!

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) said...

That was interesting. Gone With The Wind is one of my favorite books. I never knew much about the author... only that she never wanted a sequel written. So when one finally came out I rushed to read it and was very disappointed. They should have left well enough alone. Now that I think about it, I can't remember what happened in the sequel and that's just fine with me!

Joanne said...

Hello, Leslie -- You know what? I read the sequel, too, and don't really remember much except that they went to Ireland at some point. I guess Mitchell knew what she was doing when she refused to agree to a sequel. It's best left to the reader's imagination to create their own ending! Thanks for stopping by.

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