Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Adventure classics -- Peggy Mitchell's Civil War baby

Gone With the Wind

by Margaret Mitchell


What strange conjunction of stars presided over the writing of Peggy Mitchell and John Marsh’s enduring legacy, the Civil War novel Gone With the Wind? It was the only novel from Miss Mitchell, an Atlanta, Georgia, debutante who had a short-lived career in journalism before marriage to her second husband, and muse, John Marsh.

How did a single book -- even at more than a thousand words -- launch a craze for all things 1860’s-ish that still lingers nearly eighty years after its 1936 publication?

Others, after all, had written about the American Civil War before Peggy Mitchell’s husband bought her a typewriter to distract her from a spate of illnesses. Even Miss Mitchell, who labored over the novel for nearly a decade, doubted anyone would want to read a romance about a character she thought no one but herself could like, depicted against the background of the war that killed more Americans than any other in history.

Possibly part of its allure stemmed from the realization -- like that behind the more recent, seemingly-insatiable demand for information about World War II -- knowledge that a watershed event in American history was fading from living memory.

Or from the total immersion in a culture that, to quote the title, was gone with the wind. Miss Mitchell and John Marsh crisscrossed the state of George searching for material, even to the extent of compiling notebooks of regional dialects, according to Marianne Walker’s biography of their marriage, Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind.

(The use of the author's maiden name, Mitchell, was a change late in the book’s preparation for publication. Other changes readers can be glad of -- the book’s working title during most of its writing was Tomorrow Is Another Day. And the heroine’s initial name -- “Pansy.”)

And then, of course, there’s the lure of the sexual tension between a heroine with the unforgettable name of Scarlett O’Hara and piratical Rhett Butler, tension hot enough to have burned down Atlanta without any help from the Union Army.

(Really short synopsis -- Bad but sexy Rhett pursues Scarlett, who’s infatuated with unattainable nice guy Ashley Wilkes, only to dump Scarlett among the crowd of refugees fleeing the battle-scarred city of Atlanta.)

It’s easy to make jokes now about the GWTW (as fans know it) phenomenon, but it almost single-handedly saved the American publishing industry during the Depression, selling 201,000 copies its first month in print. (Even though publisher Macmillan complained that the book’s length forced it to raise its price from $2.50 a copy to $3.) During World War II, it also sold incredibly well in Axis-occupied countries during World War II, earning the distinction of being banned by the Nazis.

I don’t even need to tell you, do I, that GWTW, in book and movie versions (starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable) is still widely available? Or that Civil War battle reenactments probably wouldn’t have become such tourist draws without it?

(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classics looks at another bad girl heroine, Justine, in the first volume of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.)

1 comment:

  1. I sat here thinking of all the comments I could make: about how my parents debated taking me to see the movie when it was re-released in 1954 because of Rhett's "damn" at the end, about how it was the first adult novel I read, how I once climbed over a fence to read a plaque on a building in Atlanta to discover that MM had written part of GWTW there, about having her brother pointed out to me by a teller in a bank in downtown Atlanta, etc. If you haven't read it, you should. If you've never seen the movie, you should do that too, although it deserves the big screen of a theater. Good commentary, Melissa!