On June 30, 1936, “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell was published. A first-time author, Mitchell became an overnight celebrity after the book’s release. To date, more than 30 million copies of “Gone With the Wind” have been printed worldwide. Set in Georgia during the Civil War and Reconstruction, the novel centers around Scarlett O’Hara’s struggles and romantic entanglements. Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937 for the book. Two years later, she sold the movie rights for $50,000. Although controversial for its sanitized portrayal of slavery, as well as omnipresent racial stereotypes, “Gone With the Wind” is still one of the most popular American novels of all time. According to a 2014 Harris Poll, it is the second favorite book of American readers, just behind the Bible.
Mitchell was born in Atlanta, GA on November 8, 1900. She grew up listening to stories about life in the “Old South,” during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Although she spent most of her life in her native Georgia, Mitchell attended Smith College in Massachusetts in 1918 for one year. She returned home after her mother passed away from the Spanish flu. Between 1922 and 1926, Mitchell was a newspaperwoman, writing articles for the Atlanta Journal. However, after injuring her ankle, Mitchell was forced to leave her job.
While recovering from her injury at home, she began writing her romantic novel in 1926. Nine years later, in the fall of 1935, H. S. Latham, a vice president of the Macmillan Company, made a trip through the South looking for new authors. When Mitchell shared her manuscript with him, it was so massive in size that he had to buy a new suitcase to bring it back to New York City. By July, Macmillan offered her a contract. She received a $500 advance and 10 percent of the royalties. Mitchell spent the next six months revising and putting the finishing touches on it, including writing a new introduction.
“Gone With the Wind” went on bookstands on June 30, 1936. Mitchell had hoped that her 1,037-page novel would sell 5,000 copies. Instead, it sold an impressive 50,000 copies that summer alone. Readers fell in love with O’Hara’s epic survival story.
The novel begins on the eve of the Civil War at the Tara plantation. Mitchell paints the picture of an idyllic plantation life, often criticized for whitewashing the brutal realities of slavery. Written as a coming-of-age story, readers follow O’Hara as she navigates through the war-ravished South, while sorting through her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler.
The landmark film based on the novel starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable won eight competitive Oscars and two honorary Oscars. Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress, making her the first African-American to win an Oscar.
Sadly, “Gone With the Wind” was Mitchell’s first and only book. She tragically died in 1949 after getting hit by a drunk driver while she was crossing the street. The New York Times obituary for Mitchell succinctly summarized her profound legacy on American literature: “…Miss Mitchell wrote a book which was the most phenomenal best seller ever written by an unknown author of a first novel.”