A portrait of Margaret Mitchell stares me down every time I hop off the elevator to the floor housing my current workplace. It’s one of those it-doesn’t-matter-where-you-are-in-the-room gazes, (what portraits are not?), and it can be creepy as she wildly projects the dominion of her vision over her typewriter, her premiere editions of Gone With the Wind, and her Pulitzer, all displayed in glass casings that reflect the obnoxious glare of the florescent rectangles of light overhead. It is a shrine to a woman and writer I’ve known so little about, and frankly, until now haven’t had the least bit of interest in. The ‘sensation’ of GWTW, both the novel and the film, though unrivaled in popular American culture, just never seemed palatable to me, a kid who attended most of grade school only miles from ‘The Road to Tara’, a kid still, who even now doesn’t fully have a grasp on the romanticization of ‘The Old South’ and the lament of its destruction.
Instead of regurgitating what is already stated in academic acknowledgements of Wharton being an ‘influence’ on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, I will just consider what I can imagine Wharton’s opinions or views may have been regarding GWTW, and the sentiment of ‘lost ideals’ so loudly and blatantly apparent in Mitchell’s unforgettable story.
Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, the year before Wharton died of a stroke outside of Paris, an ocean away from the literary ‘currents’ of not just modernity, but the still permeating, and increasing influence of ‘popular fiction’ on American culture. What Wharton would not have known, then, was the way in which Margaret Mitchell ‘composed’ her novel. After reading essentially every single book from The Carnegie Library, Atlanta’s original city library, and after injuring her ankle after leaving her job as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal, her husband, John Marsh, in so many sarcastic terms, ‘encouraged’ her to write her own story instead of devouring others’ by her husband’s arm-fulls — and so she did, writing about a city she knew so well, her home, Atlanta, set in a period that had all but vanished.
For those who know Wharton and her perspective, this, of course would sound much too familiar.
But Margaret Mitchell, despite her own ‘popular’ approach and mastery of storytelling that has so mythologized Gone With the Wind, did not seem to have the same ‘respect’ for the novel as an art form that Wharton did. In fact, she has been quoted as saying regarding the completion of GWTW — “I just want to finish this damn thing.” While Wharton herself was likely unamused with the rigorous physicality of the writing process, and the lengthy depths of thought involved (she was of course, unamused with most things in life), she would have also likely disdained the way in which Mitchell saw no purpose in her work. Another compelling ‘fact’ was that Margaret had demanded the original manuscript of GWTW returned to her after being mocked and subsequently irritated by an acquaintance, and after having already submitted it to the publisher. She did not even believe herself that the novel would bring her or the public any form of commercialized success. [http://mentalfloss.com/article/30591/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-gone-wind] Though Wharton’s temperament was in some ways practically identical to Mitchell’s, I believe she would have frowned upon and even disdained Mitchell’s nonchalant and indifferent attitude towards the role of the contribution of her novel and her work, Gone With the Wind, to the American cultural imagination, whether considered ‘literary’ or ‘popular’. Wharton’s aims and vision for her novels were far more broad-reaching and polemical in comparison to Mitchell’s, even though Mitchell’s one-hit-wonder (though not singular) work of fiction, Gone With the Wind, cannot be disputed as having far exceeded any single work of Wharton’s in not just national, but worldwide popularity.
I can’t help but not forget, however, the kinship of sentiment and subject matter shared by both Wharton and Mitchell concerning ‘things lost’ — Gone With the Wind both sponging and proclaiming the maudlin reaction to the burning of Atlanta, the end of The Civil War, and the dissolution of the agrarian South, while Wharton’s ‘Novel(s) of Manners’ pierce and bite the rigid, self-serving tactics of ‘Old New York’, lamenting not the loss of a romanticized ‘way of life’, but individual life, individual lives, casualties of an intangible milieu that would, ironically, just like the tangible roads and byways from Atlanta to Savannah along ‘Sherman’s March to the Sea’ consumed in flame, also completely disappear into history. In not just a literal sense could Wharton and Mitchell be considered ‘bedfellows’ — they both wrote in bed and often flung written pages of their work onto the floor — but that both cultures from which they wrote, North and South, so polarized in ideals, in an allegorical sense, ‘made their own beds’ and slept in them, meaning, that both the idealized, slave-based plantation systems of the 19th-century South, and the unforgiving social rungs of 19th-century aristocratic New York, would equally dismantle these now only and forever archived ways of life, the fleeting ‘securities’ and comforts that they had brought to the privileged, with their ignorant disregard of inequality, the soulful, and the passionate, forever securing, with the help of both Mitchell and Wharton, the myths of a nation once — or still? — divided.