Capital Punishment

Today is the anniversary of the publication of one of the great literary works of the 20th century. Today is the anniversary of the publication of Gone with the Wind.

But as interesting as the story of the great villain Scarlett O’Hara is, the story of how Gone with the Wind came to be published is even more interesting.

From Today’s Writer’s Almanac:

In 1920, Mitchell fell off a horse and suffered terrible injuries. She sort of recovered from the fall, but she kept reinjuring herself in different ways, and a few years later she had to quit her job as a reporter with The Atlanta Journal and stay in bed. Her husband, a newspaper editor, would go to the Atlanta library and bring her back piles of books to read so she could occupy herself while bedridden. One day, he came home and said, “I have brought you all of the books that I think you can handle from the library. I wish you would write one yourself.”

He then went out and got a Remington typewriter. When he presented it to his wife, Margaret, he said, “Madam, I greet you on the beginning of a new career.” She asked him what she should write about, and her editor-husband gave her the famous “Write what you know” line.

So she wrote about Southern belles, and she expanded upon family stories and the stories she’d heard from Civil War veterans while she was growing up in Georgia. The one-bedroom apartment that she and her husband lived in was cramped, and she called it “The Dump.” She would sit and write in every nook and corner of the tiny place, working in the bedroom or the kitchen or the hallway.

She told almost no one except her husband that she was writing a novel. When friends came over to their place, which happened often, she’d hide the manuscript under the bed or the couch.

But one of her Atlanta friends, Lois Cole, had found chunks of the manuscript lying around that cramped apartment. Cole was now living in New York City and working in the publishing industry. Cole told her boss at Macmillan, Harold Latham, that her witty Southern friend “might be concealing a literary treasure.”

Latham went down to Atlanta to pay Margaret Mitchell a visit and ask her about the novel. Mitchell denied its existence. He spent the day with her, following along on outings with her friends, and asked about the novel again in a car full of her girlfriends. Mitchell changed the subject. But when Latham got out of the car, all of her friends in the car kept up the questioning. One friend was adamant that Mitchell was working on a novel, and asked why she hadn’t shown it to Latham. Mitchell said that it was “lousy” and that she was “ashamed of it.” The friend goaded, “Well, I dare say. Really, I wouldn’t take you for the type to write a successful book. You don’t take your life seriously enough to be a novelist.”

That did it — Margaret Mitchell was furious and galvanized. She hurried back to her cramped apartment, grabbed the assorted piles of manuscript and shoved them into a suitcase, and drove it over to the hotel where Latham was staying. When stacked up vertically in one pile, the manuscript was 5 feet high. She delivered it to him in the lobby, saying, “Take it before I change my mind.”

It was published on this day in 1936, and immediately it was a sensation. Reports abound of people in Atlanta staying up all night to read Mitchell’s novel that summer of 1936. It revitalized the publishing industry. The next year, Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize. Her book was made into a movie starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, and when it had its premiere in Atlanta in 1939, Margaret Mitchell was there at the Loew’s Grand Theater with the movie stars.

The cramped apartment in which Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind is now the centerpiece of the Margaret Mitchell House in midtown Atlanta, which reopens this weekend after a long period of renovation. There are tours of the apartment, historical performances, and a museum devoted to her life and work.

Margaret Mitchell never wrote a sequel to Gone with the Wind. When pushed on the issue, she merely indicated that the story was over and that Rhett would never take Scarlett back.

Years later, whores and thieves, plundered her characters and wrote sequels to Gone with the Wind. Although I do not support capital punishment, I do have exceptions. I do feel compelled to believe that the ultimate penalty is justified in cases where crimes against humanity have been committed – genocide and the raping of the characters of other authors after the creator of those characters has met their maker. Not necessarily in that order.