While convalescing, Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone With The Wind (GWTW) in 1926. She sold the manuscript to MacMillan , which published the 1,037-page book on 30 June 1936.
The book drew criticism for its whitewashed depictions of slavery. Mitchell nonetheless won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, and by that time a movie project was already in the works. The  film was produced by Hollywood giant David O. Selznick, who paid Mitchell a record-high $50,000 for the film rights to her book.
With its publication and the subsequent movie, a romanticized Lost Cause narrative spread across the world like a global tsunami.
Its staying power is unprecedented. In 2008 and 2014, Americans named GWTW their second-favorite book, after the Bible. The movie, released in 1939, remains the top-grossing film of all time (inflation-adjusted dollars).
At $3 per copy ($64 in 2022 dollars), GWTW was the second novel to be incredibly expensive, and Macmillan originally printed only 10,000 copies. However, GWTW became such a success (“one reviewer described it as ‘the three best novels I read this year'”) that Macmillan would print 1.4 million copies within the first year.
Like my paternal grandmother, Mitchell was born in 1900. The Civil War was only 35 years in the past, and it was integral to her family’s ancestry, as it was mine.
Russell Mitchell, her paternal grandfather, fought in the Civil War, suffering two bullet wounds to the head during the Battle of Antietam. Annie Fitzgerald, her maternal grandmother, married in 1863, and she had keen recollections of the war and Reconstruction. Mitchell remembered hearing, as a child, numerous stories about the heroic battles, about Southern bravery and Yankee treachery, and about Southern life before, during, and immediately after the war. It was not until she was ten, she joked, that she realized that the South actually lost.
Mitchell left Georgia to attend Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts) but returned home after her mother’s death during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919.
During the years following publication, she personally answered every letter she received about her book. With the outbreak of World War II (1941-45), she worked tirelessly for the American Red Cross, even outfitting a hospital ship. She also set up scholarships for black medical students.
Mitchell died on 16 August 1949, five days after she was hit by a taxi as she and her husband, John Marsh, were crossing the street to see A Canterbury Tale at the Peachtree Art Theatre.
GWTW is not about the Confederate flag
In the midst of debates about the role of the Confederate flag in modern life, this daughter of the south tried to rewatch the movie (for the Nth time). And … said I was done with that part of my past.
Yet the movie is not the book. (No movie is the book!)
I first read GWTW when I was … 10? 11? It reflected the stories I heard from my granny and some of my older aunts and uncles. I admired Scarlet’s spunk, imagination and grit. She was a survivor.
My knee-jerk response when thinking about GWTW today is to run away. But my reading recent essays today is having me second-guess myself. Do I need to read GWTW again?
In 2016, The Guardian described Scarlett as “one of the most ruthlessly optimistic characters in literature.”
Here’s Cass R. Sunstein in 2015, in The Atlantic, reminding me that Scarlett was a feminist before the word took on modern overtones:
Inspired by recent debates over the Confederate flag, I decided to give the book a try. I confess that I did not have high hopes. I expected to be appalled by its politics and racism, and to be bored by the melodrama. (Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, and Ashley Wilkes? Really?) About twenty pages, I thought, would be enough. I could not have been more wrong. The book is enthralling, and it casts a spell.
Gone With the Wind can be counted as pro-Confederate, and also as propaganda, but it is not in line with any gospel… It is a romance, not a treatise. It paints a picture. It is much less interested in politics and apologetics than in innocence, loss, foolishness, resilience, and the mysteries of friendship and love (and also sex).
The book has strong feminist themes. It can even be taken as an early argument for sex equality. Scarlett is much smarter than her men, and she deplores traditional sex roles, which are depicted as confining and foolish. Wildly successful in business, Scarlett breaks out of them.
Mitchell draws a sharp distinction between those pathetic souls who keep hearing that sad magic, like Ashley, and those who want to move forward, like Scarlett and Rhett. Her own heart ultimately sides with the latter. But she also cherishes, and tries to capture, the magic, the yelping, the practical jokes, and a mother’s whisper.
Sunstein is a professor at Harvard University and author of The World According to Star Wars.
Then here’s Civil War historian Anne Sarah Rubin in 2013:
A few years ago, while researching my forthcoming book, I picked up a copy of [GWTW] at the library and sat down with it. I thought I’d skim quickly through it after dinner, pulling out the few references to Sherman and quickly putting it aside. I was wrong. By the time I looked up, it was two in the morning. I had been seduced again, but this time I saw past the plot and characters and into the history. And I realized that GWTW was richer than I had remembered. Larded throughout the melodrama is the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction, albeit from a very specific, early-twentieth-century perspective.
My most recent dip into that era is Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America.
White Supremacy is tearing our country apart. It feels like understanding how history has led us to today’s impasse is more important than revisiting GWTW.
Yet is the Scarlett that Mitchell created in her novel pining for the past, for plantations and slaves? Or is she a realist like Rhett, determined to succeed despite having her world turned upside down?
Rubin and Sunstein do give me pause. Because I don’t know how to answer.