Monday, June 25, 2012

Margaret Mitchell and Her Damn Good Story

On a recent trip to Atlanta, I had no intention of visiting the birthplace of Gone With The Wind (GWTW), but somehow between this and that, I ended up at the Margaret Mitchell house.

I’m glad fate led me there. Myths were dispelled and I learned things that both humbled and inspired me. I had to put away unfounded assumptions that Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara were one in the same. Oh, they have their share of similarities, but Margaret Mitchell, I learned, was not the spoiled Southern Belle (SSB), I had assumed. In fact, she was much different.

The Margaret Mitchell house is not the house Mitchell grew up in. That is long gone. It’s not even her house. No, it is an apartment house where Mitchell and her husband rented a cramped three room (+bath) apartment during the eight years Mitchell wrote GWTW (1926 to 1934).

So how did a SSB end up in a shotgun-style ground floor flat with mismatched furniture writing one of the great American novels? Read on, my friend.

Margaret "Peggy" Mitchell was a new sort of Southern woman back in the 1920s. Daughter of a wealthy Atlanta family, Peggy’s behavior scandalized her family and friends. She smoked, wore trousers, cut her hair short and turned Atlanta society on its ear by dancing the sensual Apache Dance at a debutant ball (click to see). Some of her biographers have called Peggy "free spirited," but she was more than that. She was singular in her desire to make her own way in life and, to my great surprise, to right the wrongs of society. 
According to Pamela Roberts ("Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel" documentary), "[Mitchell] was a lifelong rebel who looked deeply into life and challenged the hypocrisy of society whether taking a job as a reporter — or secretly funding African-American education, an act for which she could have been killed had it become known to the public."

Peggy had a disastrous first marriage to handsome playboy, Berrien "Red" Upshaw. The young couple lived with her father in a grand mansion. Red, a wife beater and a bootlegger, was the kind of man my grandmother would have called "no count." Peggy, determined not to rely on her father’s money, went to work and shortly thereafter to divorce court. She began writing for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine where she earned $25 per week.

 Somehow, Peggy made a living writing for the Journal. She ditched Red and married former beau John Marsh and they moved to the little apartment on Peachtree Street, which she christened "the dump." Today, we’d call it shabby chic with an emphasis on the shabby. After settling into marriage #2, Peggy injured her ankle and was sent home to recover. John would make daily trips to the library to get books to feed her voracious appetite.

One day he came home empty handed and history was made. He told Peggy something like this: "You’ve read all the books in the library. If you want to read any more you’re going to have to write the book yourself."

Yep, that’s how GWTW was born, a challenge from a loving but frustrated spouse. Peggy sat down at the tiniest little desk you can imagine next to a high window (you can’t actually see out the window unless you stand on the window seat) in her dumpy apartment and started typing. She used a Remington manual typewriter to pound out 1000 pages of a story she never planned to publish. If fact, she didn’t even bother to write chapter one. When complete, she put the manuscript in a drawer and went on living, never dreaming that one day she’d sell three million books for the unheard of amount of $3 a book in the middle of a depression (1936) and make a whopping $300,000 (from which she would make secret charitable gifts to Morehouse College). She never dreamed that in 1937 she’d win a Pulitzer Prize or that in 1939, GWTW would become the highest grossing film in the history of Hollywood. The movie received a record-breaking ten Academy Awards.

Nope, she put the manuscript in a drawer.

But GWTW was destined to be more. It’s the stuff of legend and what makes it legendary is just what you hear from agents and editors: Write a damn good story with compelling characters. Make me feel something. Well, frankly Scarlett if you aren’t feeling something when reading GWTW then I don’t give a damn. (Or something like that.) Peggy's characters are large than life and pack a huge punch. A slew women (moi included) suffer from Rhettism, a condition whereby you believe you're not truly loved unless pursued by a handsome scoundrel and made love to with steamy abandon. How you get the dishes done, the kids fed and the dog walked with all that steam going on, I don’t know, but that’s my expectation and I blame GWTW.

Agents often tell you to write something that stands out, the breakout this or that, but, really, are there any new plots? Maybe, but mainly I see the most room for breakout in character development. Characters only you can create because of your own individual experiences and creativity. To me, it’s all about characters. Even if you build characters around solid archetypes— like Cinderella—there is still plenty of room for crafting a character that is unique and three dimensional.

Peggy Mitchell had a few other things going for her besides the ability to write a damn good story. She was persistent, passionate, incredibly brave (or maybe reckless) and at some point she believed in herself and her story. She worked hard and she didn’t take anything for granted. She’s a Cinderella character herself in that despite great privilege early on, she experienced the loss of that privilege, called upon her core strengths (storytelling, imagination and passion) and made a success of herself on her own terms.

I left #1 Crescent Apartments at 990 Peachtree Street inspired, by Peggy’s passion and courage, and humbled, by Peggy’s good works and dedication. It was a fortuitous side trip that I will remember for a long time.

How about you? Are you writing a damn good story? Are your characters compelling? How do you make the compelling characters? Tell me about it.


  1. GWTW has always been one of my favorite novels, I read it 8 times in the 8th grade, and yes, dreamed of Rhett. :) I didn't know all this info about her, thanks for sharing. I did always think it was so sad she died, what else would she have written? Or was she a one-book wonder?

  2. Hi Diana,

    Thanks for stopping by today to chat. I don't remember how old I was when I read GWTW. The movie looms larger in my memory.

    Peggy died so young after GWTW was released as a book and movie that I don't think she finished another book. But I'm not sure about that.

    I haven't seen the documentary yet, but plan on doing it soon because she's such an intriguing person and now I want to know more.

    Hope you come by and see us again at the Rockville 8 again!


  3. I want to know how the MS got out of the drawer and into the hands of her publisher!! Magic? That loving second hubby? The cat?

    I admit I suffered less from Rhettism than from Gableism. I never (gasp) read the book, but gimme Clark Gable and I'll show you some steam.

    Joking aside, I'm on board with your premise: I can forgive a lot in a story if the characters command my attention. If I don't care about the who, I'm less likely to care about the what let alone the why of a story.

  4. Shellie, what an interesting side trip! Thanks for telling us about it. I have to admit that I've never read GWTW. I don't even think I've ever made it through the entire movie, though I have seen bits and pieces of it here and there.

    Characters are definitely one of the most important factors for me, in a good read. But not the most important, I guess, because I'm reading a book right now where there are a couple of Big Things that don't feel natural to the characters--more forced on them by the author in the interest of story-and each time one of them comes up, I think "Hmm." But then I keep reading because the author's voice is so engaging and I am with her. I am in the hands of the storyteller and I want to know where she takes me.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Fascinating post, Shellie. I always love learning about writers' lives. It's inspiring.

    I've never read GWTW either. It might be a yankie thing, I'm not sure. LOL. And I can't say I've ever watched the movie through to the finish. That being said, I still understand the references to Scarlett and Rhett because enough people have talked about them over the years that they've become cultural icons.

    I think compelling characters are important. If you don't make the reader care about your characters, they won't stick with you. They might buy your book, but they won't buy your next. There's too much competing for their attention out there that is compelling and flashy. So if you want to keep 'em, you gotta hook 'em.

    Great post! Loved hearing about MM's background. Thanks!

  7. How fun! I read every word of your blog post. Coming from Georgia, Margaret Mitchell is a legend, but I've never visited her house. You are way ahead of me, girl!

    And I suffer from Rhettism too.

  8. Hi Keely,

    I've had some Gableism too. and I've been GPeckish too!

    A friend told a editor about Peggy's book and on a whim Peggy gave it to the editor who took it back with him to NY. At the last minute she tried to get the MS back and the editor said "No way!"

    The stuff of fairy tales!

  9. Hi Evie,

    Good storytelling is key. Sometimes, when things are off about the character i think, mmm, maybe there's a reason and if I just hang in, all will be revealed. Sometimes that is the case and other times, its not.

    Compelling characters are like fantasy friends and lovers. I fell madly in love with Jamie Fraser oh, maybe 15 years ago (Outlander) and I know I was one of millions of women. I was actually jealous of Claire. Sick, right?


  10. Hi Maggie,

    The best part of the visit was learning that this great Southern writer had a social conscious and wasn't just like Scarlett. That assumption on my part had driven me away from respecting Margaret Mitchell and being interested in her story.

    Now I'm fascinated!

  11. Hi Candy,

    You know Scarlett is a self center bitch. A lot of people will tell you not to write a strong, potentially hateful character like that. How do you redeem that character, how do you make the reader care. Somehow Margaret Mitchell does it.

    By the end, you root for Scarlett, her efforts to survive and keep her family together, to save her home. Scarlett's not likeable but "as God is my witness" she's got guts and courage.


  12. Shellie, thank you for teaching me something today! I never knew much about Margaret Mitchell--how fascinating that she fought for equal education for African Americans! She certainly lived her own adventure. You make a great point about compelling characters--we'll forgive a lot in a story if we're hooked on the characters. So glad that you followed fate to the Margaret Mitchell house! :-)

  13. Hi Kathy,

    It's always good to hear from you.

    Yes fate led me there and I've mulled over lots of new thoughts following that visit.

    One thing I've been thinking about is how to make a nasty piece of baggage like Scarlett loveable. She has to grow and transform for the reader to care about her but how do you keep the reader engaged long enough to witness the transformation?


  14. Hi Shellie -

    I read Gone with the Wind when I was in the 8th grade and I loved it. I had seen the movie on TV shortly before that. Candy's right - I think it's a Yankee vs. Southern thing.

    In college, I read a biography on Margaret Mitchell. She was quite a spunky little thing. It was really interesting - I remember staying up well into the night to finish it. I really admired her. One thing I remember from that book is that she knew a lot of old men who had been in the Civil War and they would tell her stories about it. I think that's what gives the book such an authentic ring.

    You mention that it's hard to make a hateful character like Scarlett likable. I think that her strength through the difficult times makes her admirable even if you don't like her personally. Wondering how she's going face each crisis kept me turning the pages.

    I also think that Melly's character is so sweet and good that though you love her, she is boring. It's refreshing when Scarlett shows up on the scene and makes things interesting. She is a great juxtaposition for Scarlett.

    I also think that Scarlett is a metaphor for the southern plantation lifestyle. Many of the big plantation owners were obscenely rich, spoiled and used to getting their own way. No one challenged their way of life or their thinking until the Civil War. In the aftermath, they had to find a new way to survive just as Scarlett did.

    Scarlett thinks she wants Ashley - the most vanilla, boring man on the planet. He gives in to her just like her father always did which is one of the reasons she wants him. The other is because he doesn't want her, it becomes a challenge for her to make him want her. Scarlett loves a challenge and Ashley unintentionally hands her one that consumes her. I also think that the challenge of pursuing Ashley gives her mind a break from the fact that her world is crumbling around her. I think focusing on this goal is part of what keeps her from crumbling with it.

    Ashley and Melly are perfect for each other. You'd like them as friends, respect their goodness but they're not exactly the people you want to party with. Rhett challenges her thinking and is exactly who she should be with. Her stubbornness keeps her from seeing this and it takes him leaving for her to finally realize that she loves Rhett.

    Great post, Shellie!

  15. Hi Lisa,

    What a wonderful analysis of what makes this story such a page turner and the characters so memorable. I like your description of Melly and Ashley as "vanilla." Rhett and Scarlet are both red hot chili peppers. I was always really sad when Rhett finally gave up and left Scarlett. Too little too late on her part.

    And I agree, her perseverance and spunky keep you rooting for Scarlett despite very very bad behavior.

    Thanks for stopping by to chat.

    Stay cool out there.

  16. Hi Shellie!

    I read GWTW when I was 14. It was so accessible, even to a teenaged Midwesterner who was neither priveledged nor of an age to try to be the belle of the ball and get into such romantic entanglements! Maybe that's Peggy's real triumph: she's readable no matter where you are or where you're from.

    By the way, my father in law knew Gable during WWII. Unlike Rhett, he served his country humbly. I marvel when I recall he did his duty during the height of his celebrity. What a guy!

  17. Damn good review!! GWTW is one of my all time favorites, I read it over and over as a teenager. So sad that she died before she was able to write another book. I didn't know anything about her life, like the secret donations to Morehouse. If I ever get to Atlanta I'll have to make the pilgrimage to her house.