Confessions of a Windy
Growing up in Fayetteville, GA, you could not escape GWTW. The inspirations for most of Scarlett O'Hara's family are buried in the old city cemetery and Scarlett went to school at the Fayetteville Female Academy. Margaret Mitchell came to Fayetteville often, eventually striking up a friendship with a group of women who started the town's first public library. Mitchell became the library's benefactor, donating books, money and time. A few weeks before she died, Mitchell drove to Fayetteville in a rainstorm, backed her car up to the door and unloaded books she had collected. The library was named after her and received money from her estate for many years.
My parents taught me to read early, so weekly trips were made to the Margaret Mitchell Library starting when I was about 5 or 6. I had read all of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries by the time I was in first or second grade and since I was a precocious little brat, my mother and librarian Rose Hall (who is still a dear friend) let me check out whatever I wanted. I was probably too young for Judy Blume and The Amityville Horror, but I read 'em anyway.
I became fairly obsessed with the book and became a "Windy" before that term was even coined. What's a "Windy," you ask? That's the term given to die-hard fans who collect GWTW memorabilia. Yes, that's right, squirreled away at my parents' house are the treasures I collected between 1982 or 1986, or so. There's dozens of editions of the book, a program given to patrons at the 1939 premiere, pristine copies of The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal (when they were separate, competing newspapers) from Dec. 14 and 15, 1939 with headlines like "Cheers Greet Flashing-Eyed Scarlett", an autographed photo of Olivia de Havilland, and god knows what else. There's boxes and boxes of it.
I patterned my life after Margaret Mitchell in a way. I knew from childhood that I wanted to be a writer, wanted to be a journalist and eventually write novels. From the Mitchell side of the family, I got my penchant for stirring up trouble, resisting the status quo and enjoying the company of bootleggers (Margaret married one, my grandfather was one and I can tell you that moonshine tastes not-so-unpleasantly like gasoline) and handsome rakes of questionable moral turpitude.
Then I grew up a little and my obsession for GWTW became tempered by reading other literature and the realization that Mitchell's portrayal of slavery and the...ahem...War of Northern Aggression was a little too whitewashed. I was also outraged to learn that Hattie McDaniel wasn't allowed to come to Atlanta for the premiere and was forced to sit alone and segregated from the white stars at the Academy Awards before she went to the podium to make history and collect her Oscar for playing Mammy.
With more study, I've come to understand that Mitchell was a product of her time and upbringing, the stories told to her by Civil War survivors and the Jim Crow era. GWTW reflects all of that. On Tuesday night, I watched a screener copy of the new Margaret Mitchell documentary American Rebel, which premieres tonight on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
American Rebel devotes its last half to exploring the dichotomy of the racial stereotypes in Mitchell's novel and the work she did on behalf of educating African American students in Atlanta. Just in the past couple of decades, it was discovered that Mitchell quietly gave thousands of dollars of her own money to provide scholarships for medical students at Morehouse College. She secretly corresponded with the college's president, Dr. Benjamin Mays, and their letters were handled by trusted couriers because the revelation of their friendship could have endangered their lives.
Is GWTW the best book ever written? I used to think so, but now that designation falls to Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo or Margaret Atwood – I vacillate often. But without Margaret Mitchell, I would have never become a journalist or novelist. Many thanks, Peggy.