Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel

Gone With The Wind is one of the most popular books ever published. More than 75 years after its publication, neither it nor its author are above controversy.

Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel

Distributor: PBS
Cast: Marianne Walker, Pearl Cleage, Molly Haskell
Network: PBS
Release date: 2012-05-15

Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With The Wind remains one of fiction’s most popular works––the epic melodrama not only won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize but was adapted for the screen just three years later in what remains one of Hollywood’s most popular works. Featuring dramatic recreations and interviews with several Mitchell scholars this 2011 episode from PBS’ American Masters series follows the author from cradle to grave, offering us some especially keen insights into the writing of her one and only novel.

A pants-wearing, baseball-playing child, she grew up in early 20th century Atlanta, as the city was determined to rise from the ashes of its past. Mitchell’s philanthropic father was one of the men who helped the city move forward and her life of privilege not only shaped the characters that would emerge in her novel, but also gave her something to rebel against. Although her mother insisted the young woman read the classics the budding author favored the adventure and melodrama of popular fiction.

The daughter of a suffragette, she strove to break free of gender stereotypes but was less concerned about upholding racial ones, a woman who was able to attend college but rebelled against her education, who married twice but maintained her autonomy, Mitchell proves an especially complex and interesting character and throughout this hour-long story we are asked to draw parallels between the author and her most memorable creation, Scarlett O’ Hara.

Mitchell’s early foray into journalism––which saw her interview the rich and famous as well as death row inmates––is cut short by an ankle injury and subsequent emotional depression. It was during her convalescence that she began writing Gone With the Wind, a story given spark by a childhood conversation she’d had with her mother. Within three years she emerged with a first draft, but remained unsatisfied. She tinkered and with it in subsequent years, but felt that what she’d created was nothing short of a disaster.

The book might not have been published at all, the story goes, but for a chance encounter with a publisher who visited the South. Despite Mitchell’s initial protests Gone With the Wind found its way into publication––with some revisions to her initial behemoth manuscript. From the moment of its 1936 publication, Gone With the Wind was a runaway success––despite its appearance at the height of the Great Depression when the hefty $3 price tag should have been prohibitive.

Despite its acclaim, the novel’s overt racism became––and remains––a contentious issue. Mitchell herself said that she didn't see her story as racially charged, claiming she saw the characters as portrayed with dignity; the black press and present day scholars see the characters as caricatures.

Despite her runaway success, Mitchell didn't engage in egregious displays of wealth. Instead, she became a philanthropist and, perhaps most surprisingly, also became a major donor to the all-black Moorhouse College. By the time of her early death in 1949, Mitchell had become something of a recluse who favored the cinema over literature, an author who never had to write a second act, and whose legacy is perhaps all the more rich for it.

There’s hardly time to explore the full range of complexities of Mitchell’s own character and the problems presented by it, but this certainly serves as a decent primer on one of the world’s most popular books and its author.

Bonus features include an interview with Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides) on the inspiration his mother found via Gone With The Wind, a look at the controversy of Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize, and a closer look at the premiere of the film adaptation.


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