Although critical evaluations of Gone with the Wind (1936) have varied, largely depending on the attitude toward the South that is considered intellectually fashionable at the moment, the novel has retained its initial popularity for more than fifty years, transcending the boundaries of culture and language to touch the hearts of readers throughout the world. The readers who delighted in the book, however, have disagreed over Mitchell’s own view of her South and of her unforgettable characters. In Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell, Darden Asbury Pyron draws upon a wealth of biographical sources in order to arrive at a better understanding of Mitchell’s own values and therefore at a valid interpretation of the novel itself.
One of the conclusions Pyron reaches is that Mitchell’s primary intention was to write a realistic work. He establishes her loathing for the Old South romance and her fury when her novel was placed in that category. Mitchell’s own family background illustrated the truth about the Old South, not the fantasy. Her father’s grandfather was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher; her father’s father fought fiercely for the Confederate cause and then after the war, as a self-styled capitalist, fought just as fiercely to accumulate money and property. Eugene Muse Mitchell, Margaret’s father, a lawyer, constantly worried because he felt he was less capable at money-making than his father had been. Similarly, on her mother’s side Margaret Mitchell could not look back to huge coastal plantations with hundreds of slaves. Her great- grandfather, an Irish-Catholic immigrant, had indeed been a landowner and a slaveholder, but he had lived in a farmhouse without columns located far inland in Georgia, on the very edge of the cotton belt. His daughter, the fiery, acquisitive Annie Fitzgerald, married another Irish-Catholic immigrant, John Stephens, a stern, strong-minded businessman, who was as successful at making money as his father-in-law. Mitchell’s view of Southern history, then, was accurate, not romantic; most of the characters in Gone with the Wind were not aristocrats, the end products of generations of gentility, but self-made men, who might value education, might even be learned men, but who never forgot how difficult it was to make money and how easy to lose it. In her fictional description of Southern society, Pyron points out, Mitchell anticipated the influential work of W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (1941), which was to appear five years after her novel, and which stressed the fact that the planters of legend were the exception in the antebellum South, which was populated primarily by the middle and lower classes.
In her analysis of women’s issues, Mitchell was even farther ahead of her time than in her description of antebellum society. The two women in her family who most influenced her were both extremely strong. Her maternal grandmother, Annie Fitzgerald Stephens, defied the invading Yankees during the Civil War and defied everyone else during her lifetime. Like Scarlett, who Pyron thinks was modeled on her, Annie was willful, tyrannical, and money-hungry; also like Scarlett, she was totally uninterested in nurturing her children. She tried, however, to keep a tight grip on the family, and because she did not die until two years before the publication of Gone with the Wind, Mitchell had a living model from which to draw her fictional character. In her own way, Mitchell’s mother, Mary Isabel (“May Belle”) Stephens Mitchell, was just as strong as Annie and a good deal more complex. While she was a devout Roman Catholic, she was also an ardent feminist. Although she trained her daughter to be a Southern lady, May Belle also warned Margaret that in a world that seemed on the verge of disintegration only the tough would survive. Interestingly, Pyron notes the parallel between that lecture from her mother, which Margaret never forgot—delivered as they drove past disintegrating stately homes on the road to Jonesboro—and the prediction by Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind of the inevitable fall of weak, aristocratic Ashley Wilkes.
Margaret’s own life reflected the mixed signals that she was getting from her mother. At school, she rebelled against the code of the Southern belle, even though her feminist mother had equipped her to play the part whenever it seemed appropriate. Later, that same desire to rebel led Mitchell to outrageous public performances such as Apache dancing, which led to her rejection by the Atlanta Junior League. On the other hand, she rebelled against her mother by refusing to stay in school. Certainly one reason she was so happy as a feature writer for the Atlanta Journal was...
(The entire section is 1942 words.)