“I not only do not intend to set about another book too soon, but, thank God, never intend to write another one if I keep my sanity,” wrote Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) after completing her first novel, Gone with the Wind. “I have heard other writers make that same remark and then observed that they were suddenly stricken with a novel while in their bath, or woke up in the night with a violent attack of short story. I hope Fate will be kinder to me; I wouldn’t go through this again for anything.” By “this,” Mitchell was referring to the phenomenal success of her first (and only) book, published 85 years ago on 30 June 1936. Gone with the Wind was popular when it was published and it has remained so, with over 30 million copies in print. It has also been a source of controversy since its publication, as well as a huge influence on the way we imagine the Antebellum South.
In 1936 New York Times book critic Ralph Thompson introduced Gone with the Wind as “an outsized novel of Civil War and Reconstruction days in Georgia.” Margaret Mitchell’s novel tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a classic Southern Belle whose previously idyllic life as the daughter of a plantation owner is destroyed by the Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara and her sisters “wear hooped dresses; their scores of Negro slaves are lovable and happy. Yams drip with butter; plates overflow with golden-brown fried chicken. Young men who come to call are furnished with mint-juleps.” It’s an idealized vision of the Antebellum South and one that, by the end of the novel, many readers felt a personal attachment to. “It is, in all probability,” predicted Thompson, “the biggest book of the year: 1,037 pages.” In fact, Gone With the Wind became the biggest book of the century. Its success changed Mitchell’s life and losing a sense of normalcy was, perhaps, what she lamented.
Born just 35 years after the Civil War, Mitchell grew up in a wealthy family in Atlanta, surrounded by friends and relatives whose lives had been personally touched by the war and its aftermath. She was the maternal granddaughter of a slave holder whose plantation house, Rural Home, became the basis for Gone With the Wind’s Tara. Growing up in the house of her Confederate general grandfather and grandmother, Mitchell spent time with many veterans and heard all their war stories as a child. "I heard everything in the world except that the Confederates lost the war,” Mitchell recalled. “When I was ten years old, it was a violent shock to learn that General Lee had been defeated. I didn't believe it when I first heard it and I was indignant. I still find it hard to believe, so strong are childhood impressions."
May Belle Mitchell, Margaret’s vibrant, well educated, suffragist mother was a huge influence on her view of the South. May Belle took her on field trips to visit the crumbling plantations in rural Georgia, and “she talked about the world those people had lived in, such a secure world, and how it had exploded beneath them.” Mitchell was a debutante who, after one year at Smith College, returned to her hometown to do something society ladies usually didn’t: get a job.
Mitchell became a columnist at the Atlanta Journal, but soon turned to fiction writing. She didn’t find it easy. “When I look back on these last years of struggling to find time to write between deaths in the family, illness in the family and among friends which lasted months and even years, childbirths (not my own), divorces and neuroses among friends, my own ill health and four fine auto accidents ... it all seems like a nightmare. I wouldn’t tackle it again for anything.”
Yet she continued to write for the next eight years, producing thousands of manuscript pages that, legend has it, were occasionally utilized to stabilize wobbly furniture in Mitchell’s Atlanta apartment (now the site of the Margaret Mitchell House Museum). In 1934 an editor from Macmillan Publishers visited Atlanta in search of new authors. Mitchell steered him towards her local peers until the very last night of his visit, when she dumped her massive manuscript in his hands. Macmillan published it.
The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1937 and the phenomenon only grew stronger when the 1939 film was released, winning eight Academy Awards. But the greater exposure brought greater scrutiny. When a larger, more diverse audience experienced Gone with the Wind as a film, many were offended by its portrayal of Antebellum southern society. In the novel and especially in the 1939 film, enslaved people such as “Mammy” and “Prissy,” portrayed by Black actors Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, appear as “happy house servants and unthinking, helpless clods,” as the Black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier put it in 1939. When the teenaged Malcolm X first saw Gone with the Wind, he recalled in his memoir, “I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug.” Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her role, but neither she nor Butterfly McQueen attended the movie’s premiere because it was held in a segregated, whites-only movie theater.
Gone with the Wind arrived at a critical point for the burgeoning civil rights movement. Within a few years World War II would expose the hypocrisy of fighting the racist policies of the Third Reich while still practicing Jim Crow at home. Even so, most white Americans at the time were sympathetic to Scarlett O’Hara and the other white protagonists of Gone With the Wind . “No reader can come away without a sense of the tragedy that overcame the planting families in 1865,” the New York Times argued, specifically citing Claude Bowers’ 1929 history of Reconstruction, The Tragic Era, for support (Bowers’ book was an overtly pro-slavery history of Reconstruction that has been used ever since to justify racial segregation). Gone with the Wind’s contention that Reconstruction was a time when formerly enslaved Black people "lived in leisure while their former masters struggled and starved" was buttressed by histories like Bowers’. But as the civil rights movement grew stronger in the 1950s and 1960s, this view of history began to change.
Margaret Mitchell did not live to experience those changes. She died in 1949 after being struck by a taxi in downtown Atlanta at age 48. She had spent the years after her novel’s publication trying to distance herself from Hollywood (she had no official role in the script or the film) and becoming an activist for the Red Cross and a fundraiser for war bonds during World War II. She was also known for the personal letters she wrote to wounded soldiers during the war, and she personally sponsored two U.S. Navy ships during the war.
True to her word, she never wrote another book after Gone with the Wind, but she did live to see her only novel become an important and controversial touchstone of American culture. “Both beloved and condemned,” as the scholars at the Margaret Mitchell House today acknowledge, “Gone With the Wind went on to shape the way that millions of people imagined the American Civil War for decades to come… [although] the depictions of enslavement, the Civil War, the American South, and historic Atlanta are not accurate,” they write, “these depictions are, however, hugely influential, and provide a case study of how narrative, art, and film can affect our view of history.”
Research in the 19th-century South can be anything but straightforward. With the extensive number of burned counties, the primarily agricultural make up of farmers, ranchers and planters, as well as the largely illiterate condition of the general population, Southern records can leave much to be desired; but only if viewed through a conventional lens.
Let’s face it - it isn’t often that Southern records provide direct evidence of familial relationships or events. The absence of direct evidence in an individual record requires researchers to address genealogical questions indirectly, through exhaustive research and a compilation of details extracted from multiple sources. Though much more tedious and time consuming, the genealogical “silver lining” found in the act of compiling and contrasting details garnered from alternative records is that it allows a family historian to obtain an in-depth knowledge of the lives of their ancestors. This greater understanding makes one appreciate and feel a real connection to their forebears, and share detail-rich stories about their ancestors with other family members, making the complexity of Southern research a blessing in disguise.
So where does one begin? Here are a few suggestions for knocking down those Southern brick walls:
Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the journey of exploring your Southern roots!
Articles like The Basics of Southern Genealogy provide additional tips regarding research of Southern ancestors.
Granville, Hicks, "Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With The Wind’ Letters 1936-1949,” New York Times (New York, New York), 3 October 1976], transcription, https://www.nytimes.com/ (https://newspapers.com : accessed 24 June 2021), citing print edition, p. 214.
Georgia Women of Achievement (https://www.georgiawomen.org/ : accessed 24 June 2021), “Margaret Mitchell.”
Ralph Thompson, Books of the Times (https://archive.nytimes.com/ : accessed 24 June 2021), “Gone With the Wind By Margaret Mitchell.”
Finis Farr, Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta: Author of Gone with the Wind (New York: Avon, 1974), p. 14.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson, Seattle Times (https://www.seattletimes.com/ : accessed 24 June 2021), “Treasures: A first-edition ‘Gone With the Wind’? Fiddle-de-dee!.”
Atlanta HIstory Center (https://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/ : accessed 24 June 2021), “Atlanta History Center Midtown.”
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division “Miscellaneous Items in High Demand,” digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 24 June 2021), digital image of original photograph, “[Margaret Mitchell, half-length portrait, seated, facing slightly right, holding her book, Gone with the wind],” 1938, William F. Warnecke, photographer, digital ID 94510616.
Library of Congress, “Geography and Maps Division: Civil War Maps,” digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 24 June 2021), map image, “ Map of the southern states, including rail roads, county towns, state capitals, count roads, the southern coast from Delaware to Texas, showing the harbors, inlets, forts and position of blockading ships,” Bacon & Co., 1863, digital ID g3860.cw0037000.
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gone With The Wind featuring McDaniel & de Havilland & Leigh.jpg : 24 June 2021), 1939 photo of “Gone With The Wind featuring McDaniel & de Havilland & Leigh.jpg;” photograph uploaded by TerryAlex.