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Margaret Mitchell, a descendant of the southern aristocracy of Atlanta, Georgia, and a former writer for the Atlanta Journal, was author of the 1,037-page Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gone with the Wind. The novel represented a culmination of her family’s southern history, Atlanta’s local history, and the South’s reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Depicted through the gaze of the novel’s protagonist, Gone with the Wind features Scarlett O’Hara, one of the most popular southern belles in Clayton County, Georgia. Scarlett is a woman with a determined spirit and uncompromising sensibility, willing to do whatever is necessary to survive and to maintain her home, the Tara plantation. In the turbulence of the Civil War, Scarlett’s love life is entangled when Melanie Hamilton marries the object of Scarlett’s desire, Ashley Wilkes. Disillusioned, Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother, Charles, but their marriage is short-lived due to his untimely death as a Confederate soldier. As the war continues, Melanie and Scarlett find themselves caring for wounded soldiers. Attacked by Yankee forces, both women are compelled to flee, Melanie with her newborn baby and Scarlett with her surrogate family—her black servant, Prissy—an escape assisted by Rhett Butler, a blockade runner and outcast.
At Tara, Scarlett discovers that her mother died, and the plantation, with only a few faithful slaves, was nearly destroyed. In dire straits for money, Scarlett returns to Atlanta to secure funds from Rhett. Again, in an effort to save the plantation, she marries, this time her sister’s fiancé. Exhibiting independence and entrepreneurship, Scarlett purchases and operates a lumber mill; this results in her becoming the victim of an attack and in her husband’s death.
Although still maintaining her affection for Ashley, Scarlett reunites with Rhett and is provided with an enormous estate and luxuries. She has Rhett’s child, a daughter (her third child, as she had two children in prior marriages), but the daughter is accidentally killed, devastating both Rhett and Scarlett. As the novel ends, Melanie, facing death, entrusts Scarlett with the care of Ashley, but now Scarlett recognizes that her real love is for Rhett. By this time, however, Rhett has lost his affection and respect for Scarlett, demonstrated by his dramatic exit at the novel’s end.
In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming a Book of the Month selection, Gone with the Wind sold over one million copies in its first year of publication. Its popularity as a literary work has been debated by a number of critics who attribute Mitchell’s success to her ability to infuse characters with captivating attributes; or to her ability to reconstruct southern history in an emotional and meaningful way from the perspective of a victim who is also a survivor; or to her ability to convey hope and optimism in the face of despair and defeat; or to its interdisciplinary appeal as a literary work to those interested in the military, in geography, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and in other fields.
Mitchell’s novel provided a response to the mythical view of the Lost Cause fueled by the defeat of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War and represented by the loss of wealth and power, as Atlanta was reduced to ruins. Despite the wealth formerly achieved from the South’s plantation economy and idealized by its glamorized past, Mitchell’s work responded to the Lost Cause myth through the assertiveness and aggressiveness of her protagonist, Scarlett—a character who symbolized that the South could emerge from its past degradation and despair. In 1936, producer David O. Selznick purchased the screen rights to the novel for some $50,000—at that time one of the largest sums ever paid for a screenplay. The film’s production was complicated by changes in the director and scriptwriters, searches for appropriate actors, and other problems. Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, was reluctant to accept the role, although he was the public’s popular choice. Scarlett O’Hara, played by British actress Vivien Leigh, won the role despite consideration of a number of widely known American actresses such as Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. The film cost some $4.25 million and ran well over 3 hours and 40 minutes. Appearing in the novel but not in the film were Scarlett’s first two children, Rhett’s blockade activities and his relationship with Belle Watling, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Comparison of Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation
Gone with the Wind was widely compared with the film Birth of a Nation (1915), based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman and produced by D. W. Griffith. Both films were Civil War epics, both were massive productions, both attempted to capitalize on historical facts, and both were regarded as controversial because of their racialized representations. These two films were also similar in sharing a common respect for the dramatization of American history by foregrounding the importance of romance and family. Birth of a Nation was nearly an attempt to embrace and resuscitate the past, while Gone with the Wind acknowledged the past from which it was fleeing and utilized this past as a means to reconstruct a new future and a new identity.
Both films endured censorship difficulties, with Birth of a Nation facing numerous censor boards prior to its exhibition because of its racial politics. Gone with the Wind challenged the Production Code’s profanity restrictions with Butler’s famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Birth of a Nation spawned riots in some northern cities and invited protests. Gone with the Wind, in comparison, elicited protests even prior to its completion and raised the ire of black newspapers.
Carlton Moss, an African American dramatist, submitted a letter to Selznick in 1940 that appeared in the Daily Worker.The letter outlined the racial insults committed by Gone with the Wind and suggested that it fabricated the myths that blacks were not concerned with freedom and that they lacked the innate ability to govern themselves. These views were echoed by members of the black press. The New York Amsterdam News described Gone with the Wind as the “pus oozing from beneath the scab of a badly healed wound.” The Chicago Defender charged that the film glorified slavery and depicted the black male as a “grotesque and ravishing beast.” The Crisis expressed its objections to the film’s racial epithets. These offenses were further compounded when black actress Hattie McDaniel was not invited to attend Gone with the Wind’s Atlanta premiere in December 1939. In spite of such derision, McDaniel received an Academy Award as best supporting actress for her role as “Mammy,” becoming the first African American to receive this award.
The mainstream press was much more enamored with the film. The New York Times claimed that while the picture may not have been the greatest motion picture ever made, it was “the greatest motion mural … seen and the most ambitious film-making venture in Hollywood’s history.” Other critics noted that the film was extremely well cast and acted with “costuming … above reproach; the interior sets are first rate; [and] much of the Technicolor photography is beautiful.” The film’s overwhelming reception, coupled with its movie attendance records, was further testament to its appeal and popularity. When Gone with the Wind premiered, some 55 million people reported that they intended to see it. Over one million people traveled to Atlanta for the film’s premier, which was accompanied by parades and celebrations. Added to these accolades, the film won ten Academy Awards, including an award for best picture.
Film Impact and Subsequent Works
Gone with the Wind was a powerful force in garnering sympathy for the South in the postbellum period. One critic suggested that even northerners stood to be influenced by this southern mythology to the extent that though the North and South were once divided, northerners were now willing to join southern forces and “whistle Dixie.” The film’s impact continues to evolve with subsequent releases. The impact of both the novel and the film is further apparent when the Mitchell estate commissioned Alexandra Ripley to write a sequel to Gone with the Wind, titled Scarlett and published in 1991. This novel was also transformed into a 1994 television miniseries, but it met with much less success. Variety stated that “viewers’ best hope, however, is to try to forget that classic book and film, and approach Scarlett for what it is: an eight-hour bodice-ripper.”
Interest in the novel was reignited when Alice Randall published The Wind Done Gone in 2000, described as a parody of Gone with the Wind. Randall’s work challenges the views propagated by Gone with the Wind by creating characters antithetical to those in the previous work. The Wind Done Gone provoked controversy, with many critics claiming that Randall infringed on the copyright of the 1936 novel. In a legal dispute to prevent the publication of Randall’s work, the court found it to be distinctly different from Gone with the Wind in that it explored the intersection of race and sex and defied the myth of black savagery and primitivism.
Both the novel and the film continue to surface in contemporary discussions and debates, with the film becoming a part of Hollywood legend and the novel becoming an integral part of the American literary canon. Gone with the Wind has solidified its place in American history and cinema—capturing and marking historical moments that deserve to be returned to again and again.
- Farr, Finis. 1965. Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta. New York: Morrow.
- Hanson, Elizabeth I. 1990. Margaret Mitchell. Boston: Twayne.
- Harwell, Richard, ed. 1983. Gone with the Wind as Book and Film. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Mitchell, Margaret. 1936. Gone with the Wind. New York: Macmillan.
- Pyron, Darden Asbury. 1983. Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture. Miami: University Presses of Florida.
- Ripley, Alexandra. 1991. Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. New York: Warner Books.
- Young, Elizabeth. 1999. Disarming the Nation: Women’s Writing and the American Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
CHAPTERS AND BOOK ARTICLES
Dunagan, Clyde Kelly. 1990. Gone with the Wind. In International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-1 Films, 2nd ed., ed. Nicholas Thomas and James Vinson, 350–352. Chicago and London: St. James Press.
- Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. 2004. Gone with the Wind: Black and White in Technicolor. Quarterly Review of Film and Video 21: 53–73.
- Leff, Leonard J. 1984. David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind: “The Negro Problem.” Georgia Review 38 (1): 146–164.
- Pyron, Darden Asbury. 1986. Gone with the Wind and the Southern Cultural Awakening. Virginia Quarterly Review 62 (4): 565–587.
- Reddick, L. D. 1937. Review of Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Journal of Negro History 22 (3): 363–366.
- Stevens, John D. 1973. The Black Reaction to Gone with the Wind. Journal of Popular Film 2 (4): 366–371.
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