Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Catholic Nuns Like It..."

We all know the immense popularity Gone with the Wind enjoyed the very moment it was published. We are also aware of how unprepared that instant celebrity status caught its author. But in the excerpt we selected for today, you can see both of these aspects through Margaret Mitchell's eyes, in an account that speaks of her humor, modesty and talent at painting a picture, all at once.

Some quick background info before leaving you with our selection for today. The letter from which the respective paragraphs were detached is dated October 9, 1936 and addressed to Herschel Brickell. A journalist, reputed literary critic and supporter of the Southern Renaissance,  Brickell was among the first to review Gone with the Wind upon its publication in June 1936. His article, written for the New York Evening Post and called Margaret Mitchell’s First Novel, "Gone With the Wind," a Fine Panorama of the Civil War Period, praised the novel for "its definitiveness, its truthfulness and its completeness." He was also the first journalist to interview Margaret Mitchell in 1936 and the two became friends over the years. Their correspondence can be found in the Herschel Brickell collection at the University of Mississippi.
"Herschel, sometimes, when I have a minute I ponder soberly upon this book. And I can not make heads or tails of the whole matter. You know the way I felt toward it—and still feel toward it. I can not figure what makes the thing sell so enormously. I ponder soberly in the light of letters, newspaper articles and what people tell me. At first I thought the book might sell a few thousands to people who were interested in the history of that period. A few hundreds to college libraries for use in collateral readings in American History. But I've had to give up that idea because—well, my small nephew [Eugene Mitchell], aged nearly five, has had the book read to him several times and he has announced that it doesn't bore him with repetition as do other books. Here in Atlanta, the fifth and sixth grade students are reading it—obstetrical details and all—and with their parents' permission. I get scads of letters from school girls ages ranging from thirteen to sixteen who like it.

"As for the old people—God bless them! There are scores of grandchildren whose voices are rasping and hoarse from reading aloud to them and Heaven knows how many indignant grandchildren have told me that they had to sit up all night reading because the old folks wouldn't let them quit till after Scarlett was safe at Tara again.

"And in the ages between—this is what stumps me. The bench and bar like it, judges write me letters about it. The medical profession must like it—most of my letters from men and my phone calls from men are from doctors. The psychiatrists especially like it, but don't ask me why. And now, the most confusing thing of all. File clerks, elevator operators, sales girls in department stores, telephone operators, stenographers, garage mechanics, clerks in Helpsy-Selfy stores, school teachers—oh, Heavens, I could go on and on!—like it. What is more puzzling, they buy copies. The U.D.C.s have endorsed it, the Sons of Confederate Veterans crashed through with a grand endorsement, too. The debutantes and dowagers read it. Catholic nuns like it.

"Now, how to explain all of this. I sit down and pull the story apart in my mind and try to figure it all out. Despite its length and many details it is basically just a simple yarn of fairly simple people. There's no fine writing, there are no grandiose thoughts, there are no hidden meanings, no symbolism, nothing sensational—nothing, nothing at all that have made other best sellers best sellers. Then how to explain its appeal from the five year old to the ninety five year old? I can't figure it out. Every time I think I've hit on the answer something comes up to throw out my conclusion.

"Reviews and articles come out commending me on having written such a 'powerful document against war . . , for pacificism.' Lord! I think. I never intended that! Reviews speak of the symbolism of the characters, placing Melanie as the Old South and Scarlett the New. Lord! I never intended that either. Psychiatrists speak of the 'carefully done emotional patterns' and disregard all the history part. 'Emotional patterns?' Good Heavens! Can this be I? People talk and write of the 'high moral lesson.' I don't see anything very moral in it. I murmur feebly that 'it's just a story' and my words are swallowed up while the storm goes over my head about 'intangible values,' 'right and wrong' etc. Well, I still say feebly that it's just a simple story of some people who went up and some who went down, those who could take it and those who couldn't. And when people come along and say that I've done more for the South than anyone since Henry Grady I feel very proud and very humble and wish to God I could take cover like a rabbit....

"P.S. Small things do make me happy. The marked clipping, for instance. I sweated blood to try to make the voices sound differently and never dreamed anyone would catch it. The problem, for instance, of Archie and Will. Both Georgians, both practically illiterate, but one with a mountain voice and one with a wire grass voice. And Rhett and Ashley, both gentlemen, both educated, but with different intonations. It meant completely different sentence constructions, vocabularies not only in their words but in their thoughts and when I, as author, wrote about them."
--excerpted from Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind Letters edited by R. Harwell.
This post is part of our series A Week in August: The Margaret Mitchell Tribute. Be sure to check out the other posts and leave your comments either here or on the Margaret Mitchell thread


  1. This particular letter is probably my favorite one from the entire Harwell volume, and I'm so happy to see it reproduced here. What a perfect selection for Margaret Mitchell tribue week!

  2. Loved MM's comments about the challenges of writing different voices from different characters.

    Interesting that nuns would like the book since Scarlett was a lapsed Catholic and there is quite a bit in the book I'd have thought would be found objectionable (coveting a married man, for instance).


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