Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell
by Darden Asbury Pyron
Oxford University Press, 533 pp., $26.00
Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’
by Alexandra Ripley
Warner, 823 pp., $24.95
“Oakland cemetery hasn’t changed much in the hundred and thirty-odd years it has sheltered Atlanta’s favored dead,” writes the contemporary Atlanta novelist, Anne Rivers Siddons, in her novel Peachtree Road. “Our crowd has always been in and out of Oakland almost as frequently and as easily as we enter and leave our homes and clubs…. Lucy always swore that it was here that she and Red Chastain first made love, on top of Margaret Mitchell’s grave.”
Fifty-five years after its 1936 publication, GWTW remains a cult novel of the American Civil War, and its author, Margaret Mitchell, a local Atlanta deity. An instant best seller on publication, the novel’s amorphous quality, like a ghost unobstructed by doors and walls, allowed it to be interpreted to nearly any purpose by nearly any of its nonblack readers. During the war, it was popular in Britain, presumably as a picture of a courageous and embattled people; it was equally popular among the Axis powers, presumably for its picture of a master race defending civilization. A wartime pirated edition was immensely popular in Japan, and the story was eventually adapted as an all-female musical revue in Tokyo. Polish resistance fighters read it avidly, as did Eva Braun, who listed Margaret Mitchell as one of her two favorite authors.
To date,the book has sold 28 million copies, second only to the Bible, and is available in at least thirty countries. The book’s life was extended, too, through the equally popular David Selznick film of 1939, and through having become a cultural toy not unlike Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, although Tara has not matched the wealth of the magic kingdom. It is tempting to see Mickey as a spokesman for the playfulness, the fun of commerce, while Scarlett and Rhett represent commerce as a kind of eroticism. There are Gone With the Wind perfumes exhorting us to “feel their passion,” GWTW chess sets with pieces modeled after Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, and costume dolls of Scarlett O’Hara, an odd example of an ironic current in the American toy industry, conjuring a picture of little girls playing with the image of a murderess who despised her two eldest children. There are lithographs, posters, and collector’s plates. And now there is a sequel, written by a romance novelist under the guidance of the Mitchell estate, and a lengthy biography of Mitchell herself, written by a history professor named Darden Asbury Pyron, who shares Mitchell’s southern roots and has previously edited a collection of critical essays on Gone With the Wind titled Recastings.
Gone With the Wind was from the outset an arena for critical and historical conflicts. The contradiction between its popular success and critical rejection by the most influential critics of its day, a failure that increasingly embittered Margaret Mitchell, dramatized the characteristic aesthetic irony of the United States: How can it be that if majority rule democracy represents supreme political judgment, that degree of readership …