Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038
Born on November 8, 1900, in Atlanta, Georgia, Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell began her life at the dawn of a new century in a society intent on remembering the past. Her father, Eugene Muse Mitchell, was a lawyer and president of the Atlanta Historical Society. Songs and stories of the Civil War and Reconstruction filled her childhood, and she preserved the experiences and personalities of friends and family members in her only published novel, Gone with the Wind.
Before enrolling at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1918, Mitchell became engaged to a man whom her brother Stephens later called the one real love of her life, Clifford Henry, who was posted overseas to fight in World War I. Mitchell created a fantasy figure of this reserved and gentlemanly person, who died in battle on October 16, 1918; their relationship almost certainly served as inspiration for that of Scarlett and Ashley Wilkes. In January of 1919, while Mitchell was at college, her mother fell ill with Spanish influenza and died before her daughter's train arrived home from Massachusetts. Mitchell, who had been doing poorly at Smith, took this opportunity to leave school permanently. At the urging of her father, whose resources were rather limited, she applied to the Debutante Club, hoping to find an eligible and wealthy suitor.
Mitchell's relationship with society had always been strained; rebellious and independent, she made no attempt to hide her Jazz Age predilection for smoking, drinking, and fast cars. In August of her debutante season, she attended a costume ball and became infatuated with an out-of-towner named Berrien Kinnard Upshaw, commonly known as Red. She walked out on her date and left the ball with Upshaw, who soon became her steady boyfriend. Red's vaguely scandal-ridden reputation— thrown out of the U.S. Naval Academy twice, he made his living running bootleg whiskey down from the mountains— later became source material for the devious side of Rhett Butler.
Already no favorite of the older set, Mitchell shocked the Atlanta matrons beyond any hope of forgiveness by performing an Apache dance in a skimpy black skirt at a charity ball. At the end of the season, Mitchell did not receive the necessary invitation to join the Junior League and was thus denied the opportunity to marry one of the more socially acceptable young men. At least partly in defiance of her family and the Atlanta society that had spurned her, Mitchell entered into a short and illfated marriage with Red in 1922. The couple was not accepted in polite society, and Red's drinking and bouts of violence contributed to the union's dissolution a few months later.
Throughout the courtship and the brief, turbulent marriage, Red's roommate, John Marsh, served as the couple's intermediary and peacemaker. A constant and reassuring presence who loved but made no demands on Mitchell, Marsh helped her get a job as feature writer for the Atlanta Journal. In December 1924 Marsh suffered an attack of hiccoughs that lasted for forty-two days. Thirty days into the attack, Mitchell realized that it was Marsh whom she loved. Marsh lived, the hiccoughs abated, and on Independence Day of 1925, Mitchell married the man whose dependability inspired the solid and reliable side of Rhett Butler.
Under pressure from her new husband, Mitchell resigned from the Journal early in 1926 and began to write fiction out of boredom. That October she injured her leg in a car accident and remained in traction for many weeks, passing her time reading novels and histories. On the first day that she was able to sit up, Marsh brought her a large stack of copy paper and informed her that since she had read everything in the library, she would have to write her own book. Never confident that anyone would want to publish or read her writing, Mitchell nonetheless spent the next ten years of her life toiling over Gone with the Wind. Like a mystery writer, she wrote the end of the novel first, starting with an observation about her central character: "She had never understood either of the men she loved, and so she lost them both."
In 1935 Harold Latham of Macmillan publishers visited Atlanta in search of material. Spurred to defiance by a sarcastic acquaintance who refused to believe her capable of writing a novel, Mitchell delivered a stack of manila envelopes— each containing many pages of text and several versions of each chapter— to Latham's hotel lobby. Some chapters were missing altogether, and the manuscript was neither titled nor signed. Soon appalled by what she had done, Mitchell cabled Latham, "I've changed my mind." But it was too late; Latham and Lois Cole, an editor, had read the work and deemed it a certain success. To complete, revise, and check the manuscript for accuracy exhausted Mitchell to such an extent that her eyes failed briefly from the strain, but by 1936—a full ten years after its inception— the novel was ready for publication.
Gone with the Wind proved an instant success, much to the surprise of Mitchell and her husband. Advance printings sold out before they reached the bookstores, and by April 1938, when it dropped off the best seller list, Gone with the Wind had sold two million copies in the United States and one million copies in sixteen countries abroad. In her 1983 biography of Mitchell, Anne Edwards notes that Gone with the Wind continues to enjoy phenomenal success and has outsold, in hardcover, every other work but the Bible. The 1939 film version of Gone with the Wind is consistently ranked as the most popular motion picture of all time. The combined impact of novel and film has made worldwide folk heroes of Mitchell's characters.
Mitchell won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for her novel, as well as the 1938 Carl Bohnenberger Memorial Medal, awarded biennially by the Southeastern Library Association for "the most outstanding contribution to Southern literature." But following this initially warm reception, literary critics rejected Gone with the Wind as serious literature. In the 1970s, however, critical interest in the novel was revived as academics began to reexamine it, in part as a cultural artifact. Despite the extraordinary popular success of Gone with the Wind, Mitchell never published another book. She died on August 16, 1949, in Atlanta, after being struck by a taxicab.