Friday, July 01, 2011

Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey...

Yesterday, June 30, marked the 75th anniversary of the publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Timed to coincide with the milestone was the publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood, by Ellen Brown and John Wiley, Jr.

When I heard of the Brown/Wiley book, I immediately knew that I had to read it and wanted to blog about it on June 30. Alas, a business trip and teenage kid issues conspired to prevent me from finishing it in time to blog on it yesterday, but I'm happy to report that I finished it this morning and so am only a day off my original schedule.

Like millions of other readers, I first read GWTW as a teenager after seeing the movie and becoming completely enthralled by the story of Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, Mammy, and the rest of the cast. I credit multiple rereadings of GWTW with my lifelong interest in the Civil War. I have defended Scarlett on numerous occasions, and my original paperback version literally fell to pieces years ago and I replaced it with a hardbound reproduction of the original publication.

And then I grew up. I learned that it was unfashionable to like GWTW, in fact I was afraid of being labeled a racist if I admitted to liking the book. So I stopped rereading it and let my pristine hardbound copy gather dust on my bookshelf while I read elsewhere.

Last year, my interest in GWTW was rekindled when I read Erin Blakemore's The Heroine's Bookshelf. Blakemore's essay on GWTW and Scarlett was titled "Fight," and it is an excellent expression of what I learned from Scarlett as a teenager. I also admired the fact that Blakemore was unapologetic in her continuing admiration for Scarlett and GWTW.

Then the 75th anniversary hoopla came along, and I got to read all about GWTW in Brown and Wiley's excellent book. I give a hearty thumbs up to Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey. I really enjoyed reading about Margaret Mitchell, and my admiration for her grew enormously as I read about her life, her work on the novel, her integrity to remain true to her principles and not to cave in to crass commercialism, and her style, grace, and vitality. I read a bio of her quite awhile ago that was much more negative and was focused on her failed first marriage and the influence it might have had on her development of the character of Rhett Butler. In retrospect, this bio is a lot like Becoming Jane Austen, by Jon Spence, long on speculation and short on fact...but I digress.

Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey is a true tour de force when it comes to separating fact from speculation, relying on primary documents, and putting words and actions in context. As someone who is seriously in love with books, this book was a fascinating look behind the scenes, albeit 75 years ago, of the publication of one of the world's all time best sellers. It's safe to say that more people in the U.S. and even the western world have read this book than virtually any other, with the exception of the Harry Potter books. What is remarkable about the publication of GWTW is that it was published with remarkable little editing, whether this is a testament to Mitchell's writing or Macmillan's chaotic schedule, I'm not clear, but I can't imagine that happening today with an unproven author.

I really enjoyed reading about Macmillan's marketing strategy for all of the various editions of the books over the years, and how they capitalized on the movie and its multiple re-releases in order to sell more copies. I also read with respect how Mitchell and her husband, John Marsh, managed the book and the copyrights associated with it. No wonder Mitchell never got around to seriously consider writing another book--managing GWTW was more than a full time job in and of itself.

Frankly, my dears, the only part of this story that wore thin was the endless wrangling over international copyright issues and infringements. I'm not saying that managing these weren't important, but my eyes glazed over a bit during these sections. Thankfully the authors threw me a bone in the form of movie making gossip for relief after these sections.

What I found so interesting is that Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey is a biography of a book, and it explored the various players whose lives affected and were affected by the book, from the author herself, to her brother and husband, to the editors, publishers, agents, critics, movie moguls, book store owners, publicists, and sequel wannabe authors. Speaking of which, I never did read Alexandra Ripley sequel nor did I watch the made-for-TV movie, neither of which held any appeal for me, but I am seriously considering reading Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig, although the Amazon reviews are really mixed on this one.

I think the best quote in the book was when Mitchell found about an article that was being written about her by a former college roommate who insisted that Mitchell was "closer to being Scarlett than anyone who ever lived." Mitchell was able to read a draft of the article and was able to stop its publication, saying in a letter to the magazine's publisher that Scarlett was not an admirable person:

About the only good qualities Scarlett had were courage and a refusal to admit defeat. But on the other side she was selfish, vain, almost illiterate, a bungler in her dealings with other people, a person with shoddy tastes and a fondness for cheap companions. She neglected her children and she was the ruination of every man who loved her. She stopped at nothing in her grasping determination to make money, including cheating, swindling, and cruel abuse of the helpless convicts she hired. She committed murder, she stole her sister's sweetheart with a lie, and she offered her body for sale at a price. (p 193)

Mitchell's frank assessment of her heroine's manifold shortcomings somehow gave me license to admit to loving GWTW again. GWTW is not a trivial book. It is a reflection of the world in which Margaret Mitchell grew up and lived and achieved a startling if not burdersome success. Like it or not, GWTW is one of the greatest American novels ever written and its story is definitely worth reading...and rereading. How on earth am I going to make time this summer to reread GWTW? I already promised myself that I would make Little Women my big summer read! Oh well, I can't think about that now, I'll think about that tomorrow.


  1. I haven't read Gone With the Wind, but I did see the film many years ago. At the time the thought of reading such a long book put me off, now with so many long books to read I doubt I could fit it in, but I'd love to read it. Your account of the Brown/Wiley book is interesting - a biography of a book! and that quote from Mitchell about Scarlet's character is so revealing and one to think about when I read GWTW, if I eventually get round to it.

  2. Absolutely fantastic post, Jane. Your writing voice is so honest and immediate, and your insights so penetrating and wisely observed--but I know I've said all this before!:) You come to point so decisively in articulating the conflicting feelings Scarlett and GWTW set up. Maybe this conflict IS the signpost of greatness and realism, as opposed to some neat literary set-up that only inspires good feelings, uncomplicated admiration. I loved the quote from Mitchell about Scarlett--and her boldness in placing the anti-heroine center-stage, elbowing out the better-souled Melanie as she would have done if they were both in the room. And a big cheer for your perfect ending!!--a real bullseye.

  3. Jane, this is a book which I feel I ought to read, but haven't managed to read yet - your review has tempted me to add it to next year's TBR pile.

  4. AnonymousJuly 03, 2011

    They really don't make movies like that now-a-days!!! I've been wanting to read the actual novel for a while now, will have to get to it!


  5. I've been wondering if this one offered anything of interest or if it was just another book to capitalize on GWTW. Sounds like one I will really enjoy!

  6. Great post Jane! I love your idea of reading either GWTW or Little Women as a summer read. Perhaps you should try to read them both and do a dueling authors post after that. Mitchell vs. Alcott!

    Have a great summer whichever you decide.

  7. This is probably the book I've re-read the most times in my life -- probably 8 or 9 times now. My mom made me read it the first time before watching the film then we stayed up late one night and watched it together. I was probably 12 and it was all so glorious! No, it's not perfect but it's the product of a certain time and it's definitely worth reading.

  8. Thanks for this post! Can I ask you a favor?:) I would like to know the source (page 9, footnote no. 15) from Chapter I, please?

    I only read some parts from google books and would love to have my own copy, unfortunately, it's is not available here in our town.


  9. Sorry, Vanilla. I checked the book out from the libray and so I no longer have a copy on hand to check.

    You could ask the author, Ellen F. Brown, directly, as she is on Twitter as @Ellenfbrown -- good luck.

  10. Thank you so much for your reply. I'll do that :)

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