The federal troops occupying the Southern states during Political Reconstruction had only been recalled a little over twenty years when Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) was born into one of Atlanta’s influential families. Her father, being born the year after the civil war concluded, grew up during the turbulent Political Reconstruction period. As an adult he was the president of the Atlanta Historical Society. Margaret’s precociousness was evident at an early age, as were her writing skills, which were sharpened as a young woman when she wrote columns for the Atlanta Journal, which included profiles of Georgia Civil War Generals, for which she did meticulous research.
As a background for her novel, she chose the devastation of the antebellum South that occurred during the war and its aftermath. This decision was apparently influenced by her parents wise predictions that future historians would not portray the event fairly. After experimenting with various titles, she finally selected a phrase from Ernest Dowson’s poem Cynara, because it seemed to be the perfect metaphor for a people who had lost the world they knew. Although Margaret began writing Gone With the Wind in 1926, it wasn’t until 1936 that she completed it to her satisfaction.
It seems almost superfluous to describe the plot of Gone With the Wind , as both the novel and its protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, have become part of our literary culture. The book’s immense popularity seems a little unusual as it doesn’t have a happy ending – not even a satisfying one. Conflicts between the major characters are not resolved, its vain, self-centered heroine does not inspire sympathy, and there is no decisive event that changes her. In the end she remains basically the same as she was at the beginning.
But, between the beginning and the ending Margaret gives the reader over a 1,000 pages of gripping action set against a background of authentic history. Contrary to clichéd thinking, the book neither glamorizes the Old South nor attempts to justify slavery. The unfolding of Scarlett’s story is accompanied by accounts of the simultaneous military actions in the area, including the burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia. The detrimental effects of Political Reconstruction and how it was manipulated to garner black votes for the Republicans is portrayed, as are the unscrupulous actions of the agents who operated the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Reading this classic book, you will find that Margaret Mitchell’s ability to write compelling fiction is more than equaled by her grasp of history.