Last summer “The Great American Read” on PBS piqued my interest in several novels I had never taken time to read. In December I crossed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice off my must-read list, rectifying the fact that such a classic had fallen through the cracks of this former English teacher’s personal bibliography.
On-air testimony for Gone with the Wind during that same PBS project convinced me to have another go at Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War saga. Half a lifetime ago, I had not even made it through the first chapter: I just never “got into” the story and likewise never watched the entire movie.
I considered reading on my Kindle, but GWTW was filled with pages I felt I should actually turn with my fingers. I decided against borrowing a copy from the library, knowing I would never finish the lengthy tome in the library’s allotted time, even if I renewed it.
Eventually my sister ran across a random copy at her house. When I finally leaned back in my recliner one day in early January, book in hand, I discovered a 1991 inscription in my own handwriting. The very book I was holding had been a Christmas gift to my mother, one I do not remember bestowing. Coincidentally, Mother was 68 then – almost my current age.
And so the reading, or more accurately, the experience commenced. As much as I have been affected by The Book Thief and Lilac Girls and To Kill a Mockingbird, there have been just two novels in my lifetime that completely overtook me: East of Eden and Mila 18. I devoured these books by John Steinbeck and Leon Uris intensely, obsessively.
The GWTW experience, equally intense and obsessive, was entirely different. During the six weeks of my reading, each time I turned to the bookmark Mother had left in the book, I was transported to Tara and Atlanta. I became intimately involved with Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie and the whole lot of them, all those members of the Old South with its clear, unquestioned traditions of society and hierarchy.
In fact, the book became a film running in my mind, rather than a work of 1037 word-filled pages. And thanks to the few scenes of the movie I managed to see along the way, Vivian Leigh always appeared in my mind as Scarlett; and it was Clark Gable who showed up every time as Rhett Butler.
In addition to compelling characters, I read Gone with the Wind on so many other levels simultaneously. It was a history of the Civil War – prewar, the war itself, postwar and the Reconstruction – that I never gleaned from any social studies class in school. It was a love story of the triangular kind, with difficult lessons about the sad futility of unrequited love for an image rather than a person. It was the stunningly-violent passing of a way of life so cherished by so many. It was also a darn good story with a page-turning plot.
As soon as I closed the back cover, I turned to the internet for background information. I discovered that Margaret Mitchell began writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel during her recuperation from a broken ankle. She wrote the last chapter first, the other chapters in random order, and struggled to even come up with a first chapter, placing each chapter in a separate manila envelope. The Macmillan editor who took her manuscript back to New York had to purchase a suitcase to carry her almost seventy chapters, for which the author received a $500 advance and 10% royalties. The novel cost three dollars a copy when it appeared in bookstores in 1936.
Margaret Mitchell considered several titles for her literary opus including Not in Our Stars, Bugles Sang True, and of course Tomorrow Is Another Day. She finally chose the classic title from the line of a favorite poem. By the way, she also changed the heroine’s name from Pansy to Scarlett during the revision process.
It seems to me that Gone with the Wind was in some part autobiographical. Margaret Mitchell possessed something of the rebel spirit that defined Scarlett O’Hara. The Mitchell and O’Hara Families were both part transplanted Irish Catholic and part genteel Georgia society. The author and her protagonist lost their mothers, whom they revered, to early deaths. Scarlett’s three marriages and affair of the heart with Ashley Wilkes chronicled in the pages of GWTW might be related to the author’s two marriages – preceded by the death of a beloved fiancé during World War I.
As fascinating as these tidbits of information may be, they pale in comparison to the impact of Margaret Mitchell’s iconic story. I cannot remember another main character with such flaws and such strengths or such a complicated man who understood his lover/partner so much better than she ever understood herself. I allowed Mitchell’s language to wash over me, savoring her intricate descriptions of characters in the rural Georgian landscape and the bustling excitement of Atlanta, who experienced the horrors of a very personal war and its bewildering aftermath.
I have closed the cover on Gone with the Wind, but I am left with the indelibly-poignant memory of a strong woman who won her fight for survival, but in doing so, lost forever any return to the former way of life for which she so longed.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.