By George F. Will
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Confined to her bed in Atlanta by a broken ankle and arthritis, she was given a stack of blank paper by her husband, who said, "Write a book." Did she ever.
The novel's first title became its last words, "Tomorrow is another day," and at first she named the protagonist Pansy. But Pansy became Scarlett, and the title of the book published 70 years ago this week became "Gone With the Wind."
You might think that John Steinbeck, not Margaret Mitchell, was the emblematic novelist of the 1930s, and that the publishing event in American fiction in that difficult decade was his "Grapes of Wrath." Published in 1939, it captured the Depression experience that many Americans had, and that many more lived in fear of. Steinbeck's novel became a great movie, and by now 14 million copies of the book have been sold.
But although the $3 price of "Gone With the Wind" ($43.50 in today's dollars) was steep by Depression standards, it sold 178,000 copies in three weeks and 2 million by April 1938, when it ended a 21-month run on the bestseller list. By now nearly 30 million have been sold. About 250,000 are still purchased in America every year, and 100,000 elsewhere.
In 1935 there had been an early indicator of the American yearning that Mitchell's novel satisfied. That year saw the publication of the final two volumes of another durable work of Southern sympathy, Douglas Southall Freeman's Pulitzer-Prize-winning four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee. What was afoot?
By the middle of the 1930s, with the Depression entering its second half-decade and showing no sign of succumbing to the New Deal's attempts to end it, Americans were rightly skeptical about the idea that happy days would soon be here again. Their world having been turned upside down, they saw a parallel between their plight and the story of the disappearance of the antebellum South. Hence their embrace of Mitchell's epic about a society pulverized to human dust that is blown about by history's leveling wind.
Parts of the novel reek of magnolia and cloying sentimentalism. But Mitchell writes sarcastic passages about the Lost Cause:
"How could anything but overwhelming victory come to a Cause as just and right as theirs? . . . Of course, there were empty chairs and babies who would never see their fathers' faces and unmarked graves by lonely Virginia creeks and in the still mountains of Tennessee, but was that too great a price to pay for such a Cause?"
Scarlett certainly was no sentimentalist. When Rhett Butler, the embodiment of unapologetic realism, asks her if she ever thinks "of anything but money," she replies with words that struck a chord with a nation that had heard quite enough of the song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?": "No . . . I've found out that money is the most important thing in the world and, as God is my witness, I don't ever intend to be without it again."
In 1936 The Washington Post reviewer called the novel "unsurpassed in the whole of American writing," which was a bit strong, considering what Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and Wharton had produced. What could, however, accurately have been said of "Gone With the Wind" was that it was the most cinematic novel yet written in America. A month after it was published, $50,000 was paid for the rights to turn it into the movie that has grossed (adjusted for ticket-price inflation) a record $3.8 billion worldwide.
Like another Southern woman who wrote a novel about her region, a novel that is still in print nearly half a century later and that became a classic movie (Harper Lee, "To Kill a Mockingbird," published in 1960), Mitchell never wrote another. In 1949, at age 48, she was killed by a taxi driven by a drunk in Atlanta, which was already on its way to becoming the symbol of the New South.
Mitchell had been born in 1900, just 35 years after Appomattox and 23 years after Reconstruction ended. Her sensibilities were not what ours are. The novel has passages that cannot be read without cringing. ("Not trust a darky! Scarlett trusted them far more than most white people . . . They still stuck with their white folks and worked much harder than they ever worked in slave times.") But to read such passages is to be stunned, once again, by the amazing speed with which America has changed for the better. In 1936, in Mitchell's Atlanta, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, had a son who was 7.