Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell, born in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 8, 1900, was the second child of Maybelle (Stephens) and Eugene Muse Mitchell, an attorney and president of the Atlanta Historical Society. Atlanta’s history meant Civil War history, and the perceptive young daughter of the Mitchell household developed a keen interest in this event and its lingering impact even as a child. What she later did with this lore caused perhaps the biggest splash in American publishing history.
Mitchell completed her elementary education in the Atlanta public school system, then attended Washington Seminary in Atlanta. In 1918 she entered Smith College and became engaged to marry Clifford Henry, but he died the same year in France while serving in World War I. In January, 1919, Mitchell had to leave college and return home when her mother died. In 1922, she started a career in journalism on the Atlanta Journal as “Peggy Mitchell.” On September 1, 1922, she married Berrien K. Upshaw, who physically abused and then deserted her. After divorcing Upshaw on July 4, 1925, she married John R. Marsh, a power company executive, to whom she would later dedicate her book.
In 1926, a slow-healing sprained ankle caused her to resign from the newspaper. While recuperating, she began researching Civil War history for a novel, a rough draft of which she had finished and put aside by 1929. In 1935, she met Harold Latham, an editor at Macmillan Publishing Company, and he accepted the novel for publication. Its title taken from Ernest Dowson’s poem “Cynara,” Gone with the Wind was published on June 30, 1936, and among the many awards which followed were the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and the American Booksellers’ Association award in the same year; Mitchell also was given an honorary M.A. degree from Smith College. The book was hugely successful, selling some two million copies in a single year (and fifty thousand in a single day).
The book owes its immense popular appeal to its sustained narrative and the well-drawn characters. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler become vivid personalities whose all-too-human emotions absorb readers. David Selznick’s film version of the novel premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939. Margaret Mitchell wrote no other book. On a summer evening in 1949 she was struck by a taxicab on an Atlanta street and died shortly thereafter.