Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1900. Her father was a lawyer and the president of the Atlanta Historical Society, and her mother was a suffragette (a woman in support of extending the right to vote, especially to women) and an advocate of women’s rights in general. Mitchell grew up listening to stories about Atlanta during the Civil War, stories often told by people who had lived through the war. Mitchell attended Smith College, a women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1919, she returned to Atlanta and began to live a lifestyle considered wild by the standards of the 1920s. After a disastrous first marriage, Mitchell began a career as a journalist and married an advertising executive named John Robert Marsh. In 1926, encouraged by her husband, Mitchell began to write the novel that would become Gone with the Wind. She went through nine complete drafts of the thousand-page work, setting an epic romance against the Civil War background she knew so well. In the first eight drafts, the protagonist was called Prissy Hamilton, not Scarlett O’Hara (as the character was renamed in the final draft).
Gone with the Wind differs from most Civil War novels by glorifying the South and demonizing the North. Other popular novels about the Civil War, such as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, are told from a Northern perspective and tend to exalt the North’s values. Mitchell’s novel is unique also for its portrayal of a strong-willed, independent woman, Scarlett O’Hara, who shares many characteristics with Mitchell herself. Mitchell frequently defied convention, divorcing her first husband and pursuing a career in journalism despite the disapproval of society.
Gone with the Wind was published in 1936, ten years after Mitchell began writing it. A smash success upon publication, Gone with the Wind became—and remains even now—one of the best-selling novels of all time. It received the 1937 Pulitzer Prize. In the late 1930s a film version of the novel was planned, and David O. Selznick’s nationwide search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara captivated the nation’s attention. The resulting film starred Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, and it quickly became one of the most popular motion pictures of all time.
Mitchell was less than thrilled by the sweeping popularity of her work. She found the spotlight uncomfortable and grew exhausted and ill. Gone with the Wind is her only novel, though she continued to write nonfiction. Mitchell volunteered extensively during World War II and seemed to regain her strength. In 1949 a car struck and killed Mitchell while she was crossing Peachtree Street in Atlanta.
Many critics question the literary merit and outdated racial stances of Gone with the Wind. Some consider the novel fluffy, partly because women of Mitchell’s time rarely received credit for serious literary fiction and partly because the novel features a romance along with its historical plot. Both blacks and whites have harshly criticized Mitchell’s sympathetic depiction of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan and her racist depiction of blacks. The novel is most valuable if read with an understanding of three historical contexts: our own, Mitchell’s, and Scarlett’s.