hide captionMargaret Mitchell, pictured above in 1941, started writingwhile recovering from an ankle injury in 1926. She had read her way through most of Atlanta's Carnegie Library, so her husband brought home a typewriter and said: "Write your own book to amuse yourself." The result was Gone with the Wind.
Al Aumuller/Telegram & Sun/Library of Congress
Margaret Mitchell, pictured above in 1941, started writingwhile recovering from an ankle injury in 1926. She had read her way through most of Atlanta's Carnegie Library, so her husband brought home a typewriter and said: "Write your own book to amuse yourself." The result was Gone with the Wind.
In June 1936, a blockbuster of a book was published; it gave the world a sense of the Old South, an unforgettable heroine and (in the movie version) the phrase "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind sold one million copies in its first six months, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and brought an explosion of unexpected, unwished-for celebrity to its author.
In Mitchell's hometown of Atlanta, a lovely old apartment building on South Prado Street bears a big brass plaque. It reads:
In memory of Margaret Mitchell, who lived in this building from 1939 until 1949. The manuscript of "Gone with the Wind" was burned in the boiler room by her secretary and the building custodian the day after her death.
Intriguing ... but true? Partially, says John Wiley, co-author of the new biography, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Yes, the book was burned, but "the evidence generally points to that it was burned in a wire basket," Wiley explains. A little trash basket outside — not in the boiler room. As for whether it happened on the day after her death? Well, that detail makes for a good story and a good plaque.
There are hundreds of stories about Mitchell and the 19th-century epic she wrote — the story of how the Civil War affected her strong, vivid, sly, manipulative, mesmerizing Southern heroine Scarlett O'Hara.
hide captionMitchell wrote Gone with the Wind in a tiny ground-floor apartment in Atlanta that she liked to call "the dump." Mitchell and her husband, John Marsh, moved into the apartment on their wedding day, July 4, 1925.
Atlanta History Center
Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind in a tiny ground-floor apartment in Atlanta that she liked to call "the dump." Mitchell and her husband, John Marsh, moved into the apartment on their wedding day, July 4, 1925.
Atlanta History Center
Lines like "I'll never be hungry again!!" were written, first, in a ground-floor apartment off Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Mitchell and her husband, John Marsh, moved in on their wedding day, July 4, 1925. The place is tiny — just a parlor and a bedroom. The bedroom closet was converted to a kitchen.
"She called it 'the dump,' " says Joanna Arietta, director of historic houses for the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House. Apartment No. 1 was a real comedown for Mitchell — she grew up in a mansion just down the street — but the young bride was happy, full of life and spunk.
"She was quite the little spitfire," Arietta says. "She loved going to jazz clubs and speakeasies during Prohibition. She was definitely a little bit of a rebel."
The dancing and clubbing — not to mention her busy career as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal — came to a halt when Mitchell hurt her ankle in 1926. Arthritis set in, and she wasn't sure whether she would walk again. "So she starts to read a lot," Arietta says.
Mitchell read her way through whole sections of Atlanta's Carnegie Library. Her husband carted books back and forth for her on the trolley. One day, Arietta explains, Marsh walked in and told his wife: "You have read everything but the maths and sciences. So here is a typewriter. Here is some copypaper. Write your own book to amuse yourself."
hide captionGone with the Wind was written on a wooden desk, angled in a corner of Mitchell's parlor. A replica of the desk, seen in the far corner of the photo above, is on display at Mitchell's apartment. Click to see the actual desk, which is on display at the Atlanta History Center.
Atlanta History Center
Gone with the Wind was written on a wooden desk, angled in a corner of Mitchell's parlor. A replica of the desk, seen in the far corner of the photo above, is on display at Mitchell's apartment. Click to see the actual desk, which is on display at the Atlanta History Center.
Atlanta History Center
And so she did. Gone with the Wind was written on a wooden desk, angled in a corner of her parlor. Her secondhand 1923 Remington typewriter is on display at the Atlanta Fulton County Central Library. And the desk (there's quite a Mitchell cottage industry in town) is at the Atlanta History Center.
"I think most people are surprised by how small and plain and unimportant this little folding desk is," says Michael Rose, executive vice president of the Atlanta History center.
Mitchell herself was small — just 4 foot 11 — and so was "the dump," so everything fit nicely, albeit tightly. It was there, in that un-prepossessing atmosphere, that thousands of pages were typed, tucked into manila envelopes, and stacked on the floor all over the apartment. (When visitors came, Mitchell would cover these piles with towels or hide them under the bed.) Arietta says as chapters occurred to her, Mitchell wrote them down. She took care of connecting them later. And she wrote the last chapter first.
"She knew at the very beginning that Rhett wasn't going to care that much," Arietta says, "and that Scarlett was going to live for another day." (Scarlett wasn't always Scarlett, though. When Mitchell was writing in 1926, her heroine was named "Pansy.")
Every page of that last chapter — chapter 63 — is on display now at the Atlanta History Center. The typed pages are remarkably clean. There are very few strike-outs, but when Mitchell axes a sentence, she really axes it.
"She really could black out a line like no one else," Arietta says. "She could work for the Freedom of Information Act! We have tried everything to see what that original line read, and you cannot read it at all."
Despite the fiery fate of most of the manuscript, some pages were not burned. The last four chapters resurfaced recently at the Pequot Library in Southport, Conn., among the papers of Mitchell's publisher. There were also typescript pages that her husband saved after Mitchell was fatally struck by a car in Atlanta, at the age of 48.
"He created a packet that contained a number of different items," Rose says. "A few pages of the manuscript, some of the chronology of the book — who was pregnant and when, who got married, who died — and he put those in a packet, and those are in a bank vault in downtown Atlanta."
It was the Citizens and Southern National Bank on Marietta Street. The bank's name has changed over the years, but the sealed packet remains in its safe deposit box. A codicil to Marsh's will states that the papers should never be seen unless there is a serious question of authorship. Should the vault ever be opened, the papers will be turned over to the Atlanta History Center.
hide captionThough most of Mitchell's manuscript was burned after her death, a few chapters survived. The last pages of the book — which Mitchell actually wrote first — are framed on the wall at the Atlanta History Center. Click here for a closer look.
Though most of Mitchell's manuscript was burned after her death, a few chapters survived. The last pages of the book — which Mitchell actually wrote first — are framed on the wall at the Atlanta History Center. Click here for a closer look.
Why the secrecy? Why the agreement that if Mitchell died first, Marsh would destroy the manuscript? In the glare of publicity from Gone with the Wind, Mitchell became fiercely private. She refused to get involved in the movie version. She said no to would-be biographers and didn't give autographs. She did not want her working papers to be examined.
"She really didn't believe that any author should be judged by unpublished work," Arietta explains. It seems ironic that Mitchell, who was so careful about historical accuracy in her novel, seemed uninterested in the curiosity of scholars, students and fans clamoring to learn the history of how she created her American classic. Still, the very last pages (the first she wrote and then rewrote) can be seen, in frames along a wall of the Atlanta History Center.
"I'll think of it all tomorrow at Tara," Mitchell wrote. "I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all ... tomorrow is another day."
And then, she wrote, "The end."
Excerpt: 'Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind'
by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley Jr.
Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood By Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley Jr. Hardcover, 438 pages Taylor Trade List Price: $26.95
As she completed her chapters, she placed them in individual manila envelopes. Gradually, piles of envelopes began to clutter up the living room where she worked. They came in handy to prop up an uneven leg on a sofa and as scratch pads for grocery lists and phone messages. When the piles eventually took over their small living room, she moved some of them to the bedroom and others into a hall closet.
Mitchell descended from a family of lawyers who, she claimed, were famous for writing wills so clear and easy to read that a child could understand them. With that model as her guide, she put great effort into developing her story with a mode of writing devoid of literary flair. "I sweat blood to make my style simple and stripped bare," she said. "I'm sure if I had evidenced any style in early childhood, it would have been smacked out of me with a hair brush!" She went to great pains to eliminate verbiage that did not further the plot or develop a character. She relentlessly omitted "pretty words" that did not mean anything, aiming to write so clearly and crisply "that every word could be read from a galloping horse." The process proved a struggle for the loquacious Mitchell, whose natural tendency was toward detailed and colorful language. A chronic rewriter, she struggled over almost every word and sentence. "I don't have that facility for just dashing along," she said. She labored day and night, whittling pages-long passages to a few lines. Even after finishing a chapter, Mitchell rarely let it be. She thought it important to let her drafts sit and reconsider them later with a fresh eye. "Put your work up for two months and then when you take it out again," she advised other writers, "the errors will fairly leap out at you till you wonder why you ever thought it was good."
From the stories she had heard all her life, Mitchell knew the historical background of the region and the period she wrote about by heart. And so she did not bother with organized research. Yet, throughout the years of writing, Mitchell read about the Civil War era in old newspapers, diaries, government records, and firsthand accounts of life in antebellum Georgia. She also had access to letters between her grandparents written during the war and benefited from articles her father and brother wrote for the Atlanta Historical Bulletin. She would call out for special attention a piece Stephens Mitchell published in 1929 about wartime industries in Atlanta in the 1860s. She rarely made notes on any of what she read, using these historical details more for inspiration rather than literal adaptation. She once said the only notes she took were when an idea came to her in the middle of the night and she did not want to get out of bed to wok on the manuscript.
She was not one for outlines either; much of Mitchell's work went on inside her head. One section in particular frustrated her — a scene in which Pansy flees Atlanta and returns home through the war-torn countryside, only to find her mother dead and the plantation in ruins. "I prowled around it mentally for a long time, looking at it from all angles and not getting anywhere," she said. "I could never write a line of it and never made a try at it, on paper. I didn't seem able to capture the smell of the cedars; the smell of the swamp; the barnyard odors, and pack them into those chapters." But like so many writers, for whom the most unusual and unrelated stimuli — a smell, a remark, or a glimpse of scenery — can trigger a flood of thoughts and words, Mitchell had an epiphany. The words came to her at the Ritz Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she had accompanied Marsh on a business trip:
I was not even thinking about the story when all this came to me very simply and very clearly. It was cold, wet winter...and yet I could see clearly how dusty and stifling a red clay road in Georgia looks and feels in September, how the leaves on the trees are dry and there isn't any wind to move them and how utterly still the deep country woods are. And there is the queerest smell in the swampy bottom lands at twilight. And I suddenly saw how very haunted such a section would look the day after a big battle, after two armies had moved on.
Now that she had the "atmosphere" she had been trying to capture for so long, the couple cut short their trip so Mitchell could return home and continue writing.
She worked on her manuscript for the next several years at an inconstant pace. She suffered several spells of poor health, including bouts of eyestrain, pleurisy, and "the jitters." Also causing her to pause was "an attack of the humbles" brought on by reading books about the Civil War such as Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body and Mary Johnston's Cease Firing. Benet, Mitchell said, had caught what she was trying to capture "so clearly, so vividly and so simply" and with such "a heart-breaking beauty" that she could not write for months. Likewise, Johnston had "done what I'd wanted to do and done it so much better that there seemed little use of me trying." Toward the end of the decade, Mitchell wrote a friend that her work on the book progressed at a snail's pace. She reviewed what she had written so far. Much of it seemed silly, and her expectations for ever having the story published were not high.
The novel was substantially complete in 1929. In her own words, Mitchell hit it "a few more licks in 1930 and 1931," then put it out of her mind, not having any particular impetus to add the finishing touches. After that, she "worked on the book only now and then," Marsh later recalled. "She had reached the point where most of the creative job was done and there was nothing more to do except the drudgery of turning a rough manuscript into a finished one."
Excerpted from Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley Jr. Copyright 2011 by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley Jr. Reprinted by permission of Taylor Trade Publishing, a division of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.