Tuesday, June 29, 2010

From Whom the Wind Blows

Magnet # 279: Margaret Mitchell at Her Typewriter Photo

Material: Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By: Me

Despite author Margaret Mitchell's best efforts to the contrary, Gone With the Wind was first published tomorrow, June 30, in 1936. It would go on to win her a Pulitzer Prize and break publishing records, becoming one of the best-selling fictional books of all time. And when it was adapted for the screen, it went on to win more Oscars than any other film, a record it kept for over two decades. It's almost hard to believe that Mitchell never really set out to even present her work to others, much less have it appear in nations all over the world.

Margaret Mitchell was born to an Atlanta family with deep Southern roots on November 8, 1900. Much of her childhood was spent hearing of the Civil War from family members who had fought in it. Her mother was a suffragist and Mitchell was a strong-minded individual who wrote her own stories from a very young age. Later, when she was in Smith College, she performed the scandalous yet popular Apache Dance as a debutante, a move which kept her blackballed from the Junior League. After her mother died, Mitchell returned home to run the household. She took a job as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, which made her one of the first women columnists at the South's largest newspaper. Soon, she married Berrien "Red" Upshaw, who came from a prominent North Carolina family. But the marriage was a disaster due to the fact that Upshaw was a bootlegger, an alcoholic, and he abused Mitchell. It ended in divorce and not long after she married the best man - literally - from her first wedding, John Marsh. He is believed to have courted Mitchell at the same time that Upshaw did, but failed to propose as quickly as his rival. The pair set up house at a one bedroom apartment they joking called "The Dump." After injuring her ankle, Mitchell was forced to stay at home, so she began to read books that her husband brought home for her. But when she complained that she had read all the books at the library, he said she should write her own. And so she did. Mitchell wrote the final chapter of Gone With the Wind first and spent the next three years working on the rest of the book as it came to her. After awhile, she had produced so many pages that she began to cram her chapters in manilla envelopes and stash them all over her apartment - it's said some were even used to prop up a sagging sofa. Though Mitchell tried to hide her project from her friends, word soon got out about her book. And when Harold Latham, an editor for the Macmillan Publishing company, came to Atlanta to begin a tour of the South in search of manuscripts, he crossed paths with Mitchell and heard the rumors about her novel. He pressed her to let him read the work, but she claimed that there was no novel. But after overhearing someone laughing at the idea of her writing a novel, Mitchell, enraged, gathered up her manilla envelopes, stuffed them into an old suitcase, and dragged it to Latham's room at the Georgian Terrace Hotel. When the surprise editor opened the door, she shoved it at him, uttering "Here, take this before I change my mind!" Latham later said it was in the worst condition of any manuscript he ever received. But he took it with him when he left the city the next day. Fortunately, he read it on the train, for by the time he reached his destination, there was a telegram from Mitchell awaiting him - she had changed her mind, and wanted her book back. But by then, Latham realized he had a blockbuster on his hands. He convinced Mitchell to complete the work, and had his company send her a check in advance. Mitchell got to work, filling in the holes in her work, taking out other parts, and finally writing the first chapter. Her concerns over her writing talent proved to be completely unnecessary - when Gone With the Wind was released, it was such a huge success that Macmillan Publishing gave all of its workers an 18% bonus that year.

Although Mitchell never published again in her lifetime, she kept busy after the success of Gone With the Wind, trying to protect her copyrights on the book overseas and answering every letter that was sent to her from fans of her book. When World War II came, she volunteered with the American Red Cross, working hard to help the troops. And when the war was over, she befriended a French Air Force pilot who was stationed in Georgia. Through him, she learned of how the tiny French village of Vimoutiers had been destroyed during the conflict, and how desperately it needed to be rebuilt. Mitchell sent both her own money and helped raise more to restore the town. They were so overcome by her efforts that she was made an honorary citizen of the town. Unfortunately, she was never able to see the restoration of Vimoutiers. In 1949, Mitchell walked out in front of a car on Peachtree Street while going to the theatre with her husband. She was hit and died five days later. Even though she had lived a brief life, Mitchell had made her mark on the world in more ways than one. The book she left behind is still read all over the world. And now, it is almost 75 years old and shows no signs of falling out of the public consciousness. Margaret Mitchell would have never guessed that her work could have attained such success, but I guess that's part of what makes her so wonderful.

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