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Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel

Posted in - gone with the wind, reviews on August 14th 2011 11 Comments

Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell has been enjoying a second (or 75th?) wind recently due to the fanfare surrounding the anniversary of the publication of her only novel, Gone with the Wind. Atlanta threw a big party and the Windies, a close-knit group of hard-core GWTW fans (think Trekkies in hoop skirts) even made it into the New York Times. As part of the celebration, GPB Media in Georgia produced a new documentary called Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel. It tells the fascinating life story of the woman who would write the most beloved novel in American history.

A progressive, pseudo-feminist  yet still very much a woman of her time, Margaret Mitchell was born into Atlanta’s high society in 1900 and was raised on stories told by a generation still sore about losing the Civil War. A tomboy with a creative side, Mitchell always loved writing. At age 16 she penned a novella called Lost Laysen which was discovered and published decades after her death and reveals a sensibility for romance and adventure that would later blossom into a Pulitzer Prize-winner. At 18, Mitchell enrolled at Smith College, the ivy league women’s school in Massachusetts, but dropped out her freshman year (1918) when her mother died of Spanish flu.

Mitchell seemed to take after her mother, a suffragette, and was never content to be complacent within the gender roles society placed on women of her generation. In a time when women were meant to be seen and not heard, Mitchell was more interested in playing sports and hanging around with the boys than she was to be in the kitchen and having babies. When the 1920s rolled in, she made the picture-perfect flapper. She accepted a journalist position at the  Atlanta Journal using the pen name Peggy Mitchell and took to the streets, covering important issues of the day and even interviewing Rudolph Valentino.

Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind

Mitchell married twice. Her first husband, Berrien ‘Red’ Upshaw, was a violent alcoholic and a bootlegger who commentators on the documentary think may have been the inspiration behind the character Rhett Butler. After the marriage failed, Mitchell wed Upshaw’s best man, John Marsh, whom she remained with for the rest of her life. It was while married to Marsh and convalescing from a broken ankle that Mitchell began work on her magnum opus. She started with the last chapter and wrote sporadically over the course of the next decade.

“If the novel has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just s able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption’. So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t.”

The fame that came along with the success of Gone with the Wind was overwhelming. Mitchell refused a direct role in helping David O. Selznick with his screen adaptation and became somewhat of a recluse due to the incessant writing and phoning from people wanting to know what happens to Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler after the end of the novel. She never wrote another book and died in 1949 after being hit by a car while crossing Peachtree Street in Atlanta with her husband on their way to see the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale. She was 49 years old.

Margaret Mitchell Gone with the Wind

The documentary itself was surprisingly well made and offered commentary from a host of film historians and Margaret Mitchell biographers including Molly Haskell and John Wiley, Jr., co-author of the new book Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood (which I look forward to finally reading once I’m finished with school. I also have a very nice Q&A with the authors to post here, which I also hope to get up soon). The historical re-enactments which are always the bane of TV documentaries were pleasantly unobtrusive. I also learned a lot about Mitchell that I hadn’t known before, such as her role as a secret financial benefactor for the private, historically all-black Morehouse College. This documentary would have been even better if Ken Burns of David McCullough had added their narrative gravitas, but alas. Beggars can’t be choosers, and it was wonderful as is.

If you haven’t yet seen Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel, you can order a copy from GPB. Recommended!

*Screencaps courtesy of Skye Bugs

As of now (11) people have had something to say...

  • Rita - Reply

    August 14, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Very interesting.Scarlett O’ Hara seems to be dangerous to live with, both Margaret Mitchell who brought her to life and Vivien Leigh who brought her to the screen reached unimaginable heights of fame and success, both had a short life, Anyway, miss Mitchell must really have been someone to reckon with, she wasn’t swept off her feet by her triumph, now we discover she was also compassionate and helpful… how can I get this documentary, please?

    • Kendra - Reply

      August 14, 2011 at 8:10 pm

      I’m pretty sure you can contact the production company and ask for a DVD of it.

  • Michelle - Reply

    August 14, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    This is definitely on my list of must-sees. Have you seen the movie version of MM’s life with Shannen Doherty playing her? It was made for TV in the 90s. It also goes along with Red being the basis for Rhett.

    • Kendra - Reply

      August 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      No, I haven’t seen Doherty one, but if you can get a copy of this, I’d really recommend it.

    • Ashley - Reply

      August 15, 2011 at 1:23 pm

      I’ve seen it. Its good for the time it was made(I believe it was made in 1994). If you ever get a chance to see it do.

      Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel is a must see if your a GWTW/ Margaret Mitchell fan. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see a great documentary.

  • Cathy Clinger - Reply

    August 16, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    I found “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel” DVD on Amazon.com also.
    Thanks for this blog Kendra. I look forward to every post.

    • Kendra - Reply

      August 25, 2011 at 5:07 pm

      Thanks Cathy! I’m glad you were able to get a copy off amazon!

  • FlickChick - Reply

    August 18, 2011 at 3:15 am

    A Person in the Dark is passing the “The Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award” to your wonderful blog. Please stop by A Person in the Dark to pick up your award!
    http://www.flickchick1953.blogspot.com

    • Kendra - Reply

      August 25, 2011 at 5:07 pm

      many thanks!

  • […] recent PBS documentary Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel offered an overview of the famously reclusive author’s post-GWTW life, but Brown and Wiley manage […]

  • […] my favorite of all favorite books, Gone with the Wind. Back in August I wrote about the documentary Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel, produced earlier this year for PBS, and just a couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the insightful and […]

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