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Margaret Mitchell (November 8, 1900 – August 16, 1949) is best known as the author of Gone With The Wind, one of the best selling novels in American literature. It was published in over 40 countries and adapted into the famed movie of the same name. It has been said that she herself was the model for Scarlett O’Hara, one of the most complex and charismatic of literary heroines.
Her father was Eugene M. Mitchell, an attorney and an authority on Georgia history. Her mother was the late Maybelle Stephens Mitchell, and she had one brother, Stephens Mitchell, who became an attorney and history buff like his father.
Margaret, or Peggy, as she was called by those close to her, attended the Atlanta public schools, then attended Smith College in Massachusetts. After her first year, she left due to her mother’s death and didn’t return. At age twenty-two, in 1922, she began working for The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine. Three years later she married John R. Marsh, and the following year, 1926, she left her position at the newspaper due to an ankle injury. while convalescing, she began writing Gone With the Wind.
The agony of creating Gone With the Wind
Steeped in the mythology of the south, Margaret claimed that she didn’t realize that the Confederacy didn’t win the Civil War until she was 10 years old. She grew up hearing stories about the Civil War, the burning of Atlanta, and Reconstruction. A story began to take shape, though writing it was agonizing to the fledgling writer. Legend has it that she had trouble framing opening sentences as a reporter, and so for the book, she started with the last chapter and worked backward.
For nine frustrating years, she worked and reworked the massive story, sometimes typing, sometimes scribbling by hand. The manuscript piled up here and there, on desks, in drawers, on closet shelves. She showed friends bits and pieces, but never the entire work.
Finally, in the fall of 1935, H.S. Latham a representative of the Macmillan Company, a New York publisher, was traveling throughout the South looking for new talent. A former colleague of Peggy Mitchell mentioned to him that she was working on a book. When he contacted her, she told him she couldn’t show it, since it was still unfinished. Truthfully, she wasn’t confident in it. However, by evening, she changed her mind, met him, and handed him the manuscript, now well over 1,000 pages.
A publishing phenomenon
Several days later, Peggy Mitchell got news by wire that Gone With the Wind had been accepted for publication. contingent upon some revision. After nine years of working on the project, there was but a few more months of revising and editing.
The book went on sale on June 30, 1936. The person most surprised by the book’s immediate success was the author herself, a writer completely unknown to the public.
Mitchell was hoping that GWTW, clocking in at 1,037 pages, would sell 5,000 copies so that the publisher didn’t lose money on the enterprise. It sold 50,000 copies in one day shortly after its publication, 176,000 copies within the first three weeks, and 1 million copies within the first six months. This was all the more remarkable considering that the book industry was still trying to recover from the worst of the Depression.
Even as the book became a massive publishing phenomenon, reviews were mixed. It was compared with Vanity Fair and War and Peace. Yet other reviewers felt it romanticized the plantation life, built on a foundation of slavery, and that it sympathized with the Confederacy.
Gone With the Wind on Amazon
The 1937 Pulitzer Prize and the loss of a private life
After GWTW won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, Mitchell received an honorary degree from Smith College, as well as all manner of other awards and accolades. She was inundated with requests for interviews and besieged with requests for her autograph. Often, she was asked whether she intended to write another book. Her answer was that she was too busy being the author of GWTW to have the time and privacy to sit and write. This remained true for pretty much the rest of her life.
Some years later, the governor of Georgia wanted to appoint her to the state’s Board of Education, and she replied,
“My time is not my own. It has not been my own since Gone With the Wind was published. The very fact that since 1936 I have never had the time to sit down to my typewriter and write — or try to write — another book will give you some indication of what I mean … Being the author of Gone With the Wind is a full-time job, and most days it is an overtime job filling engagements and meeting visitors.”
Movie rights and a phenomenally successful film
David O. Selznick paid Mitchell $50,000 for the film rights to GWTW. The casting of the film was followed with breathless interest by the public, with the most interest in who would play Scarlett O’Hara. Selznick conceived the idea of conducting a worldwide search for the right person to play Scarlett O’Hara. The campaign, directed by Selznick’s publicity chief, helped occupy the public mind during the long months before filming began. As it turned out, the film began shooting before a suitable Scarlett could be cast. Read more about the search for Scarlett O’Hara.
GWTW won for Best Picture of 1939, among other award categories. Vivien Leigh, a British stage actress, seemed born to portray the complicated Scarlett O’Hara. She won Best Actress, as did Hattie McDaniel for her portrayal of Mammie. Other major cast members nominated were Clark Gable (Rhett Butler) and Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Wilkes).
The film’s legacy, like the book’s, has been mixed. The cinematic achievement is weighed against the stereotypical portrayal of blacks and romanticism of the old South.
A secret philanthropist
It wasn’t until the 1990s that a surprising discovery was made: Margaret Mitchell secretly funded the educations of dozens of African-American medical students at the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta with the wealth she earned from GWTW book sales and film rights. These anonymous grants were made by Mitchell throughout the 1940s.
It started when Mitchell discovered how difficult it was to get good medical treatment for her domestic help, who were black women, as was common for that time. Gradually, she developed a correspondence with Benjamin E. Mays, the president of Morehouse College, which led to her anonymously funding of the medical students. More about this incredible story can be found in The Atlanta Magazine’s article on the subject.
Mitchell was only 48 when a motorist struck and killed her (she was on foot) in her native Atlanta, some twelve years after the publication of her blockbuster. She was with her husband, John Marsh, when she was struck by the car of the speeding, drunken driver, and sustained a fracture to her skull.
The August 17, 1949 obituary for Margaret Mitchell in the New York Times stated:
“Not once since the accident had the 49-year-old Miss Mitchell fully regained consciousness, according to hospital attaches. At infrequent intervals, she had murmured vague, incoherent responses to spoken questions.
Shortly after Miss Mitchell died, the driver of the auto which struck her surrendered voluntarily to police and Atlanta Police Chief Herbert Jenkins said an “immediate murder indictment” would be sought. Hugh D. Gravitt, 29, the driver, had been out on bond of $5,450, after having been arrested at the scene of the accident and charged with drunken driving, speeding and driving on the wrong side of the street.”
Her only other work known is a novella called Lost Laysen, written when she was only fifteen. It was discovered and published many years after her death. Margaret Mitchell will always be remembered for Gone with the Wind, still one of the most popular and influential novels in American publishing history.
More about Margaret Mitchell on this site
- 6 Reasons to Love Margaret Mitchell
- Quotes from Gone With the Wind and Others
- Original 1936 Review of Gone With the Wind in the New York Times
- Gone With The Wind: Echoing Through the Ages
- Gone With the Wind (1939 film)
- Gone With the Wind: A Publishing Phenomenon
- The Search for Scarlett O’Hara
- Lost Laysen (1916): A Lost Novella Rediscovered
- 4 Prequels and Sequels to Gone With the Wind
Biographies about Margaret Mitchell
- Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell by Darden Asbury Pyron
- Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story
Behind Gone With the Wind by Marianne Walker
- Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey
from Atlanta to Hollywood by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley
- Margaret Mitchell on Wikipedia
- Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel (PBS documentary)
- Reader discussion of works by or about Margaret Mitchell on Goodreads
- Margaret Mitchell page on Amazon
Visit Margaret Mitchell’s Home
- Margaret Mitchell House – Atlanta, Georgia
You might also like: 6 Reasons to Love Margaret Mitchell
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