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8 Reasons to Love Margaret Mitchell

8th Nov 2013

8 Reasons to Love Margaret Mitchell
Frankly, my dear, we do give a damn about one of the only writers to win a Pulitzer for their first novel…

1. Her cross-dressing childhood

When she was three years-old and her skirts caught fire, her mother decided that she would dress in trousers. Margaret would refuse to wear dresses until she turned fourteen, insisting that she was a boy called Jimmy, spending time with the other boys in the neighbourhood and playing baseball.

2. Scandalising society

In 1921 she scandalised all polite society by dancing an Apache for her dance at the Atlanta debutante charity ball. Particularly taboo at the time for its elements of eroticism, the Apache usually includes mock slaps and punches, but Mitchell took her dance to a new level, passionately kissing her partner on the dance floor.

After this, she was blackballed from society, denied invitations to dances and to ‘nice’ events, none of which seemed to deter her.

3. Her love of erotica

In fact, she became fascinated by erotica throughout her twenties, and would trawl bookshops in New York, looking for volumes to add to her ever-expanding collection.

4. Scarlett O’Hara

“Fiddle-dee-dee”

As a writer, the character of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind seems to be her greatest creation.

Perhaps most remembered for being the epitome of a spoilt southern belle, Scarlett is far more than that. She manages to get herself and the very pregnant Melly Wilkes [Ed note: Barf] out of Atlanta in the midst of the American Civil War, and on returning with her second husband, continually challenges society’s gender roles.

It is she, not the retiring Frank Kennedy, who expands the Kennedy business to include two mills, as well as the general store, and it is she that oversees the running of them.

Criticised at the time for having no maternal feelings, Scarlett O’Hara represents everything that Margaret Mitchell both loved and hated about herself, and she is still one of the most realistically flawed characters in modern fiction.

It is impossible to ignore – or indeed gloss over - the fact that, for much of her life, Margaret Mitchell did nothing to help race-relations in the Southern states5. Aspiring journalist

Despite having no previous experience and distinct opposition from her family and ‘society’, she was hired in 1922 by The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine and proceeded to pursue a career in journalism over the next four years.

Her first story appeared on December 31, 1922 entitled Atlanta Girl sees Italian Revolution. Assigned a piece on skirt lengths in the coming year, she managed to turn the piece into one on Benito Mussolini’s overthrow of the Italian government. She would go on to become the first female reporter on The Atlanta Journal staff to report ‘hard news’.

6. What married name?!

Not only did she ignore the advice of her family over getting a job in the first place, but when she got married in the mid-1920s, Mitchell insisted on keeping her maiden name for professional purposes.

7. Pulitzer Winner

Gone With the Wind, despite being a flawed book in many ways (namely in its depiction of slavery and the American Civil War) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937.

When we consider that out of 93 winners, only 29 have been women, it is a remarkable achievement for a first novel.

8. Equal Rights Support

It is impossible to ignore – or indeed gloss over – the fact that, for much of her life, Margaret Mitchell did nothing to help race-relations in the Southern states. The depiction of the slaves in Gone With the Wind, as well as the glamorising of the origins of the KKK, cannot ever be condoned.

But it was after the film of Gone With the Wind was released that she started to publically rethink her attitudes. At the film’s premiere, laws made it impossible for the black actors and actresses from the film to sit with their white co-stars, a fact that enraged Clark Gable as well as shocking Mitchell herself.

That night, after the premiere was over, she sent a telegram to Hattie McDaniel – the actress who had played Mammy in the film and would win an Oscar for the role, the first African-American to do so – saying “The Mayor of Atlanta called for a hand for our Hattie McDaniel and I wish you could have heard the cheers.” She and McDaniel went on to exchange letters and class each other as friends.

In 1942 she set up a scholarship for African-American medical students to attend Morehouse College, anonymously sponsoring between forty and fifty students.

Do you think that, in hindsight, that Mitchell’s Pulitzer win was deserved?

Comments

  • Ruth says:

    Totally deserved. One novel – and just look at how enduring it is! I love that Scarlett, while not always a likeable character, was strong, wilful and determined. (I heard that Gable threatened to boycott the premiere because he was so furious that the black cast members wouldn’t be able to attend, and that it was Hattie McDaniel who persuaded him to go.). Great post, thanks 🙂

    • Ali Williams says:

      As a 14 year-old I loved the fact that Scarlett didn’t get the happy ending I craved for her, and I think – though utterly unlikeable at times – she’s still an incredibly drawn character. And thanks!

  • Marion says:

    I don’t think Mitchell’s developing some kind of friendship with McDaniel makes up for the depiction of slavery, or African-Americans in her novel. White Southerners often thought of themselves as being “friends” with the blacks — as long as those blacks knew their place. The novel is far more overtly racist than the movie — which is pretty cringe-worthy. The book not only paints, plantation life as idilic, but goes as far as viewing early Ku Klux Klan activity as a necessary defense of southern (white) womanhood.

    Also Scarlett may have been a good businesswoman post slavery, but she employed chain-gang prison labor which even other characters condemned as worse than or at least equally to slavery. Even Mitchell didn’t think much of her heroines ethics.
    She was known to have walked out of a college class because there was African-American woman in it. In later years, she supported a southern medical school for training black doctors, but even that goes along with the white-Southern ideology of separating the races — black doctors to treat black patients.

    In the US today, we’re still dealing with the legacy of slavery and its bloody ending. You see it in continuing efforts at voter repression, and revisionist civil war history — the war is still called “the war of Northern Aggression” in some parts of the country. You see it in the vitriol aimed at the President by the ironically named Tea Party.

    As another southern writer once said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

    • Ali Williams says:

      Thanks for your comment, and for sharing your point of view about this – I realise Mitchell’s life and work raises sensitive subjects and I welcome your feedback and thoughts

      Firstly, I’d like to point out that I wholeheartedly agree with what you’ve said. I am in no way condoning the portrayal of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan in GWtW – in fact I remember being pretty much horrified by it as a teenager.

      I was also unaware of the fact that she walked out of a class because of the African-American student in it, so I’m pleased that you’ve brought this to my attention. I do think that it’s important that we acknowledge and educated about the mistakes that have been made by others in the past to ensure that we can try and stop them from happening in our own presents.

      I do however, think that there are other aspects of Mitchell’s life which are worth a mention. Her continued determination when starting out as a journalist, and the fact that she won a Pulitzer for her debut novel was pretty remarkable.

      She was, by no means, perfect and some of her views do not reflect a society that should be emulated, however the positive things that she did do deserve recognition and celebration.