MARGARET MITCHELL LIVED for only 48 years, and few of them seem to have been especially happy. She was the child of a timid father and an overbearing mother; from an early age she was haunted by social and intellectual insecurities that neither parent did much to alleviate. In school, whether high school in Atlanta or college at Smith, she tended to be the odd girl out who was ridiculed for her diminutive stature and/or her peculiar accent. Her first marriage, to a drunken lout, was a disaster; her second, though comfortable and mutually satisfying, appears to have been largely platonic.
She did have a few good years as a staffer on The Atlanta Journal, in the 1920s, where she "wrote 139 by- lined features and 85 news stories, assisted in the writing of a personal-advice column and a film column, and wrote a chapter for one of the Journal's weekly serials when parts of a manuscript were lost"; her colleagues there included Erskine Caldwell, Roark Bradford, Grantland Rice, Laurence Stallings and Robert Ruark, and she thrived on the ebullient atmosphere of the newsroom. Then she left the paper and, supported by the modest public-relations income of her new husband, John R. Marsh, pecked away on her little Remington at what eventually became a huge manuscript, filling a couple of dozen large manila envelopes; it was the story of a young woman named Pansy O'Hara, resident of a Georgia plantation called Fontenoy Hall, in the tumultuous years before, during and after the Civil War.
Which, of course, is where the legend begins. Reluctantly, because she "had a low estimation of her own worth as a writer," Mitchell permitted Harold Latham, vice president and editor in chief of the publishing house of Macmillan, to read the manuscript. Immediately he and his fellow editors saw, in the sprawling mess before them, a publishable novel; he offered her a $500 advance and wired her that "WE UNDERTAKE PUBLICATION WITH TREMENDOUS ENTHUSIASM AND LARGE HOPES." Soon enough Pansy O'Hara's name was changed to Scarlett and that of her plantation to Tara; the book's original title, The Road to Tara, became Gone With the Wind. Macmillan thought it would sell about 27,500 copies; Macmillan was wrong. Later, John Marsh wrote:
"April, May and June of 1936 saw, first a stirring of suspicion, then a rapidly growing certainty, that something remarkable was about to happen in the book world. A tremor of excitement rippled up, here and there, in far distant parts of the country. It was one of those phenomena that modern communication methods cannot explain. 'One-person-tells-another,' the original communications method and still the best, flashed the news along in a manner almost magical. From mouth to mouth, the word spread, and spread still further that a book was coming that you must not miss. Bookstores doubled and redoubled their orders."
It is the contention of Anne Edwards in this meticulous biography that the fame enjoyed by Margaret Mitchell in the months following this "tremor of excitement" was comparable to that which befell Charles A. Lindbergh a decade before: the bestowal of "immediate national adulation" upon a person who had emerged from utter obscurity with an accomplishment that seized the popular imagination. It is her further contention that Margaret Mitchell found precious little pleasure in her sudden wealth and celebrity--that the person who "should have been the happiest woman in America" was miserable because "drastic changes had taken place in (her) life and she was incapable of accepting them," because "what she wished for was a return to the way things had been and that wish could never be granted." This is how Mitchell herself put it, in one of the many long, dolorous letters she wrote in the difficult days following the novel's publication:
"I didn't know that being an author was like this, or I don't think I'd have been an author. I've led so quiet a life for many years, quiet by choice because I'm not a social animal, quiet because I wanted to work and quiet because I'm not the strongest person in the world and need plenty of rest. And all my quiet world has blown up recently. The phone has rung every three minutes, the door bell rings and perfect strangers bounce in asking the most extraordinary and personal questions, photographers arrive with the morning coffee."
Road to Tara, then, is as much a book about the high price of celebrity as it is a life of Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell Marsh. Truth to tell, that life was not especially interesting, though Edwards does her very best with the material presented to her. She does show us how persons and events in Mitchell's own life connected with persons and events in her famous novel: her engagement to Clifford Henry, who had "homosexual tendencies," was killed in World War I and became the model for Ashley Wilkes; her marriage to Red Upshaw, in whose good looks and "sexual magnetism" lay the model for Rhett Butler; her two severe horseriding accidents that presaged the violent death of Rhett and Scarlett's daughter; a conflagration that swept much of Atlanta and gave her the material to depict that city's destruction by fire in the Civil War.
Edwards also provides a sensitive portrait of Peggy Mitchell, who as a girl, "having listened to grim tales of war all her life, understood its waste and devastation better than most educated Northern adults." She was a cute little thing who was expert at the flirtatious games common to prosperous society, she had a "lively sense of humor" and "in addition to her feminine charms, she was extremely spirited, good fun, and knew how to be 'one of the gang.' " She knew how to go through the motions of the Jazz Age, but at heart she was a good southern girl:
"For all her later claims of being a true flapper of the twenties, Peggy Mitchell was slow in taking steps toward her own liberation and never truly won it. She sent up flares from time to time, flouted the old conventions of society, and acted the role of the new, daring woman when she could use the pose as a weapon to get back at those who had hurt or slighted her, or when it served to hide her true feelings. But the puritanical side of her character kept her from really letting go. In truth, she cared very much about what other people thought of her, especially those people whose love and admiration she so desperately needed."
"Those people" were Atlanta society. She was demolished as a young woman by her failure to make the Junior League and devoted much of the rest of her life to a clandestine campaign to "get back at the ladies" who had rejected her. Nothing about that campaign was remotely as effective as her novel, which made Peggy Mitchell the living embodiment of the romantic Old South that was the Junior League's beau id,eal--a lovely little irony that probably was lost on most of those at whom it was directed. Yet except for a few occasions on which she basked in her acclaim, most notably the Atlanta premiere of the film adaptation of her novel, Mitchell seems to have found precious little fun in her fame; and rather than turning up her nose at those who had spurned her, she merely curried their favor.
What is perhaps saddest of all is that once fame began to desert her, she suddenly missed it: "rather than feeling relieved, she felt let down." Celebrity is a powerful aphrodisiac indeed, even for those who claim not to seek it. Like so many others, Margaret Mitchell was not its beneficiary, but its victim.