Friday, April 22, 2011

Celebrating A Classic - 75th Anniversary of Gone with the Wind

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Coincidentally, it is also the 75th anniversary of the publication of Gone with the Wind. 75 years after the War Between the States ended, Margaret Mitchell published her only novel; a novel which has become an icon of American literature. It has been called, variously, “one of the most extraordinary phenomena of bestseller history” and “one of the most popular books of all time”, as well as “the most romantic novel in history”. It garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Mitchell, and the subsequent film earned a record 10 nominations and won the Best Picture award of 1939. The book became an instant bestseller, despite an unprecedented price of $3.00.

Gone with the Wind has stood the test of time in the US, but also has remained a bestseller throughout the world. It has been surmised that, perhaps, the themes of the novel are so familiar to anyone, anywhere, because, sadly, war is universal. It has been translated into 40 languages and published in over 50 countries. In Japan, it has been translated and is frequently presented as a stage production. Mitchell herself said that the theme of the novel was “survival”: certainly a timeless and universal one.

The Margaret Mitchell Museum in Atlanta sees visitors from all over the world, who come with stories of their own experiences with war. “Windies” – die-hard fans of the novel and its author – celebrate the book with pomp and relish. This year they are planning a champagne toast at the author’s gravesite to commemorate the anniversary. There have been several sequels, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley and Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig, as well as the disputed parody novel, And The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall. Negotiations are also underway for another sequel to be penned. In addition to the frequent Japanese theatrical productions, the musicals “Scarlett” and “Gone with the Wind” have been produced in England.

As with other novels of troubled times, GWTW has earned harsh criticism for its negative presentation of the slave characters and its benign view of the institution of slavery. It seems important to keep in mind, however, that Margaret Mitchell was writing from a single generation’s distance from the cataclysm, and from a locale at the heart of it. Much of her research was based on conversations she heard throughout her life from survivors and participants of the “war of Northern aggression”. The book’s sympathetic tone might rankle now as we view it from nearly a century later. Today’s novels of romance fiction also often deal with sensitive and sometimes controversial topics too, however and come in for their own share of criticism. The books that started it all, the “bodice rippers”, in fact quickly evolved beyond the “forced seduction” scenario in great part because of the outcry over the tacit presentation of rape as something that could be romantic.

Too, the protagonist of GWTW is not a typical romance heroine by any stretch. Scarlett O’Hara will, by her own admission, lie, cheat, steal or kill before she or any of her family go hungry. She is also immature, manipulative, selfish, and covets another woman’s husband until, well, until she doesn’t anymore. Because she has then set her sights on the incomparable Rhett Butler. However, she also embodies many of the de rigueur qualities in today’s heroines: fortitude, bravery, determination, pluckiness (gumption as Ms. Mitchell said), loyalty to home and family, and a zest for life and love.

As for the towering person of Rhett Butler, I find him the consummate romance hero. Despite his shortcomings, he fulfills the number one requirement of a romance hero: He comes through when the need is most dire. Of course, I like my romance heroes mad, bad and dangerous to know and flawed. The better to be saved and converted by a romance heroine!

The tempestuous character of Scarlett, and the novel overall, despite these issues, is unforgettable. Mitchell created a panoramic tale of love, loyalty, heartbreak and lust for life, set against a backdrop of the most devastating events the country has ever faced. The primary characters barely survive – and in fact, a number of them don’t. Characters go from the highest of heights to the most abysmal of lows. Talk about your black moments!

Gone with the Wind is a categorized as a “popular novel”. Certainly I would consider it “women’s fiction”. Today’s romance fiction also falls into those categories yet, in the end, while GWTW is certainly not a romance, by today’s standards (a happy ever after being notably absent for everyone involved) it is one of the most romantic novels of all time. A larger than life hero and heroine, trials and tribulations, historical sweep, passion and as with every romance – painful lessons learned.
Margaret Mitchell’s own words about her book might also sum up a basic romance novel tenet: “I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn’t.”
Despite the differences in length, complexity of narrative, and the most assuredly un-happy ever after outcome, Gone with the Wind might well be considered a progenitor of contemporary romance novels: stories where a hero and heroine meet and fall in love (albeit at different times), face impossible odds on the path to happiness, but who, in the end, are able to overcome the odds and find joy together.

Margaret Mitchell’s novel mirrored her own life in many ways. Her mother died during the 1918 influenza pandemic and she was left to care for her family, Irish Catholic just like the O’Haras. She was an independent woman, choosing to pursue a career in journalism when women were certainly not regulars on the newspaper beat. She suffered through an unhappy first marriage, only to marry the 2nd suitor who had been simultaneously vying for her attention when she accepted the proposal of the first.

Her novel almost never saw the light of day and the tale is legendary in the annals of publishing. While the specifics of the story vary, it is said that after seven years of work she had secreted the manuscript away in a pile of envelopes, in her closet, having no intention of pursuing publication. But when Macmillan editor Harold Latham visited Atlanta in the hope of discovering a new Southern writer (would that this practice was still in place – we could avoid all those rejections and just wait for the editors to come calling!), a mutual acquaintance mentioned Mitchell’s book. Apparently a friend found it humorous to think that Mitchell had written a book and Mitchell, her back up over what she perceived as a slight, marched to Latham’s hotel and handed over her tome. When she later tried to get Latham to give it back, he refused. He’d already begun to read, and had been swept away (couldn’t resist!). The rest, as they say, is history.

Sadly, Margaret Mitchell’s own HEA was not to be. Her life was cut short by tragedy when she was hit by a car and killed at the age of 49.

Gone with the Wind has sold more copies than any other book in history (with the exception of the Bible). It has fired the imagination of other writers who have sought to capture the time, the characters, and the questions of the time. It lives because it speaks to the human spirit of those who struggle against the tides of war. It gives us a heroine who remains unbowed despite all travails. Who never gives up and even as the novel closes, prepares to do battle again for the man she loves. Because, after all, tomorrow is another day!


  1. Amazing the impact of this novel. Also, amazing that she lived such a short life with that tragic ending. It's obviously a book from which all of us can learn.

    Thanks for this thoughtful, insightful post.


  2. Thanks, Monti! I was actually surprised about how little I knew of her life, and how many things that happened to Mitchell ended up in her novel. And yes, despite the issues I mentioned, I think everyone can agree it is a powerful novel of a turbulent time.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Wow! I didn't know how many copies it had sold. So cool!