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Margaret Mitchell

November 8, 1900, marks the birthday of a woman whose own life reads nearly as dramatically as her most famous book.  Margaret Mitchell, a native of Atlanta, wrote Gone with the Wind, a book that was very nearly never published but, in fact, ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize for the author in 1937.

Mitchell's mother was a suffragist.  Her father was a prominent southern lawyer and president of the Atlanta Historical Society.  She grew up listening to stories about the Old South and the battles that the Confederate Army had fought around Atlanta during the Civil War.  As she grew older, she loved being the center of attention.  She said, "If I were a boy, I would try for West Point, if I could make it; or, well, I'd be a prize fighter anything for the thrills." 

After being graduated from Washington Seminary, Mitchell studied medicine at Smith College.  She adopted her mother's feminist leanings, clashing frequently with her father's conservatism.  But she lived the Jazz Age in full and reported on it in her article, "Dancers Now Drown Out Even the Cowbell" in the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine.

"In vain," she wrote, "the leader of the jazz band may burst blood vessels in his efforts to make himself heard above the din of the Double Shuffle and the Fandango Stomp, the newest dances introduced to Atlanta's younger set.  Formerly we had a vast respect for the amount of noise a jazz band could produce.  Now we see it is utterly eclipsed."

Mitchell had numerous suitors when she was young.  She fell in love with a man who went to fight in World War I and never returned.  When Mitchell's mother died in 1919, Margaret returned to keep house for her father and brother.  In 1922, she married Berrien Kinnard Upshaw, who turned out to be a cruel husband with a violent temper.  The disastrous relationship was climaxed by spousal rape and was finally annulled in 1924. 

Mitchell began her writing career as a journalist in 1922.  Using the pseudonym, Peggy, she wrote whatever she thought her Atlanta Journal readers would enjoy--articles, interviews, sketches, and book reviews about beauty pageants, summer getaways, hospitals, prison cells, and whatever else that crossed her mind.  She also contributed to a popular gossip column called "Elizabeth Bennett." 

Mitchell remarried in 1926, shortly before developing a stabbing pain in her ankle.  She couldn't walk, so she took a leave of absence from the paper and holed up in her apartment.  She passed the time reading books.  After reading everything she could get her hands on, she decided to write a book, herself.  She wrote Gone With the Wind, beginning with the last chapter and working her way back in time.  The book tells the tale of Scarlett O'Hara, an aristocratic woman born on a plantation into the genteel life.  By the end of the war, she loses everything she owns.

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.  In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.  But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw.  Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends.  Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin - that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia sun." - from Gone with the Wind

At the end of the book, Scarlett pleads with the man she loves, Rhett Butler, who tells her that he is leaving her.  She tells him that she doesn't know what she'll do if he goes away, to which he responds with one of literature's most celebrated lines, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Mitchell wrote the book on a sewing table and stuffed each section into a large Manilla envelope.  She wouldn't admit to anyone that she was writing it.  She said, "I fought violently against letting even a close friend read as much as a line."  If someone walked into the room, she would throw a bath towel over her typewriter. 

It took Mitchell nine years to complete her book.  In 1935, editor Harold Latham visited Atlanta.  When she met him, he said that he had heard she'd written a novel.  She felt shy and told him that he was mistaken.  Soon afterward, a friend told her, "I wouldn't take you for the type who would write a successful book.  You know you don't take life seriously enough to be a novelist ... I think you are wasting your time trying."

She was so furious with the comment that she went home and grabbed the manuscript.  She ran back to Latham's hotel and caught him just as he was packing for a train back to New York.  Latham liked it, and the book was published by MacMillan in 1936.  Comparable in length to Tolstoy's War and Peace, it ran over a thousand pages in length and sold millions of copies.  It broke all previous sales records.  The New Yorker praised it, and poet and critic John Crowe Ransom admired "the architectural persistence behind the big work" although he criticized it for being overly Southern, particularly in its treatment of Reconstruction. 

Malcolm Cowley's disdain in his review came partly from the book's popularity.  John Peale Bishop dismissed the novel as merely "one more of those 1,000 page novels, competent but neither very good nor very sound."  Regardless, in 1937, Gone with the Wind was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  And in 1939, the movie adaptation appeared, starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.  It won 10 Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture.

Margaret Mitchell died in Atlanta on August 16, 1949, after being struck accidentally by a speeding car while crossing Peachtree Street.  Lost Laysen, a lost novella by Mitchell written when she was 16 and given to her close friend, was published posthumously in 1995.  The romance was set on a South Pacific island.

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