An American Sensation: Gone With the Wind

By Jim Cullen

In the history of American entertainment, no subject has been more popular than the Civil War. Whether in novels, television shows, or movies, some of the most beloved and durable works of popular culture have used the war as a point of reference, departure, or focus. But no work about the Civil War has attained the place of Gone With the Wind.

It first won praise as a novel by Margaret Mitchell. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Mitchell grew up among relatives who had first-hand memories of the war and the 1864 invasion that burned their city to the ground. After a brief, disastrous marriage, she began supporting herself by writing for an Atlanta newspaper. Ailing from a variety of ills that plagued her until her death in 1950, Mitchell retired from journalism in the mid-1920s and began writing her novel. She refused repeated requests to show her manuscript to a curious editor when he visited Atlanta on a scouting trip in 1935. But when an acquaintance expressed surprise that Mitchell was capable of writing fiction, she angrily presented it to the agent as he was about to leave the city. He read the novel on a train, and knowing he had discovered a classic, he offered Mitchell a book contract.

Mitchell’s novel tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a 16-year-old Southern belle in love with Ashley Wilkes, her neighbor. Ashley, however, is engaged to Melanie Hamilton, his distant relative. As Scarlett schemes to win Ashley’s heart, the Civil War breaks out, sending Ashley off to war and Scarlett into the bustling city of Atlanta. To Scarlett’s chagrin, her life becomes entwined with Melanie and with a mysterious, charming man named Rhett Butler. Rhett recognizes—and admires—Scarlett as scheming and ambitious. Through war, peace, marriages, births, and deaths, Scarlett continues her pursuit of Ashley while Rhett continues his pursuit of Scarlett. Scarlett and Rhett’s turbulent relationship gives birth to one of the most famous lines in American popular culture: “My dear, I don’t give a damn” (later revised for the film version as “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”)

Published in June 1936, Gone With the Wind became an instant publishing phenomenon. It sold 50,000 copies in one day, a million within six months, and an average of 3700 copies a day for the rest of the year. In 1937 the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. By 1997 it had sold approximately 30 million copies, periodically returning to the best-seller list.

Even before the book was released, there was a feverish fight for the movie rights. David O. Selznick, a Hollywood mogul who had recently created his own studio, paid Mitchell $50,000, an astounding amount for that time. But despite Selznick’s wishes, Mitchell refused to write a script or to have anything at all to do with the film’s production.

The making of the film version, which took more than three years, was an epic in itself. Technical difficulties abounded, and editing of enormous amounts of film footage slowed the process. In addition, Selznick’s perfectionism led him to use three different directors—two of whom worked simultaneously—and 17 different screenwriters, including American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Filming began before the script was even complete.

Meanwhile, the public speculated endlessly over casting. There seemed to be consensus that popular actor Clark Gable should play Rhett. But what about Scarlett? Actors Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Fontaine, and Lucille Ball all auditioned for the part, but all were rejected. Selznick announced that he was looking for an unknown, which further heightened the excitement. He finally selected Vivien Leigh, a little-known British actress who won an Academy Award for her performance.

Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939. All the stars were on hand, as was Mitchell (ten-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., was also there, singing in a church choir for the all-white audience). The film became an even bigger success than the book and won nine Oscars, including Best Picture. By the 1970s an estimated 90 percent of the American public had seen the film in a theater or on television.

Both the movie and book versions of Gone With the Wind became important documents of American culture for the rest of the world. During World War II, Germany’s Nazi government banned the book, while members of the French Resistance prized it as a symbol of resilience amid occupation. Following the Vietnam War the Vietnamese government requested the movie (along with King Kong) as part of a cultural exchange with the United States.

In the United States, Gone With the Wind has played an important role in reinterpreting the Civil War. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin attacked the Southern way of life for its embrace of slavery, Gone With the Wind turned the tables, depicting slave-master relationships as cordial and Yankees as greedy, impersonal conquerors. Despite decades of argument by professional historians to the contrary, the sheer pervasiveness of Gone With the Wind will give this perspective a wide hearing far into the foreseeable future.

Margaret Mitchell declined to speculate on the subsequent fate of the characters she created, and she refused to write a sequel to the novel. In the 1980s, however, her heirs designated romance writer Alexandra Ripley to write Scarlett: The Sequel to Gone With the Wind, which was published in 1991. The book was savagely reviewed but immediately shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. A television miniseries version of the sequel also received negative reviews. But despite these more recent descendents of Mitchell’s creation, both the original book and its film version have a secure place in American culture, not only as important works that depict history, but also as works that actually made history.

About the author: Jim Cullen is the author of The Art of Democracy: A Concise History of Popular Culture in the United States (1996).

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1 Comment»

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