Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review: "Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood"

As a certified bookworm who grew up in Tennessee, Gone With the Wind was always on the edges (if not the forefront) of my consciousness. I watched the movie on videotape and on cable. I toted around an enormous copy of the book so I could read it to and from school. And I distinctly remember the surreal experience of listening to Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett book on tape (as read by Dixie Carter ) because the waiting list for the book at the town library was so long. Although my interest in the story has waned considerably since junior high, I was still excited to get Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr.’s Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. As the title suggests, this book focuses on Gone With the Wind’s publication and the phenomenon that the book became on the national and international stage. 

At the heart of Brown and Wiley’s book is Margaret Mitchell, and the authors do an excellent job portraying the duality of Mitchell’s career as the author of one of the most beloved novels of all time. On one hand, it seems like the stars aligned for Mitchell, and popular lore seems to attribute the author’s success to a great deal of luck. From the early support of Lois Dwight Cole, who recommended Mitchell to Harold Lathem, Macmillan’s editor in chief, to the publishing company’s impressive (and warranted) marketing campaign to the astounding success of the novel from both critical and popular standpoints, it is easy to credit fortune. However, as Brown and Wiley clearly show in their work, Mitchell (with assistance from her husband, John Marsh, and her brother, Stephens Mitchell) put a great deal of hard work into researching, writing, and revising her novel and into protecting its best interests. 

Brown and Wiley deserve a lot of credit for this book. Despite the fact that we know that Gone With the Wind will be successful, they manage to incorporate tension and suspense as they build to the book’s publication. Similarly, the seemingly unglamorous issues of copyright laws somehow become intriguing when described in the book. The authors’ clear and engaging style is particularly impressive considering the extensive amount of research used in it. Even though each chapter includes dozens of references and the book has almost 30 pages of footnotes, it does not read like a dry, academic tome. Instead, the authors successfully manage to incorporate the factual information to tell the full story behind Gone With the Wind without allowing the text to get too mired down in minutia.

The authors also provide a lot of insight into Margaret Mitchell’s life and her views on her novel. While I had never given the author a lot of thought, I came away from this book feeling a great deal of respect for her. Brown and Wiley depict Mitchell’s shrewdness and strong sense of justice without losing her innate gentility. Although she did not seek or desire publicity, Mitchell responded with admirable grace, and charm when faced with the often vociferous demands from the public. Even though this nuanced portrayal might seem too good to be true (more on this in a moment), the authors’ use of Mitchell’s correspondence helps support their claims. Perhaps my favorite piece of evidence is the warm exchange between Mitchell and Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the film version of Gone With the Wind.

Unfortunately, this warm portrayal of Mitchell also leads to the main complaint I have with the book. From the included letters, quotes, and anecdotes, Mitchell’s humanity is hard, if not impossible, to deny. Unfortunately, the book is not content to allow the author’s words and actions to speak for themselves. Despite the excellent research to back up authors’ claims, portions of this book drift into hagiography territory, as Brown and Wiley take great pains to tell the reader repeatedly that much of Mitchell’s behavior and decisions regarding "Gone With the Wind" stemmed from her dedication to accuracy and her outstanding principles. Although this is probably true, the constant reminders of become tiring and could be interpreted as either protesting too much or being defensive in regards to Mitchell’s justifiable desire to protect her characters and copyright. The authors certainly have the right to include their way of thinking, but statements about Mitchell’s scruples often appear and reappear within the same chapter (and occasionally on the same page).

Distracting as this might be for some readers, it does not detract from the fact that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is a well written account of the novel’s journey from bestseller to cultural touchstone. This book is as compelling as the novel it dedicates itself to, and I like to think that, despite Mitchell’s reluctance for the spotlight, she would be proud of Brown and Wiley’s extensive research and their commitment to showing the world that "Gone With the Wind’s" initial popularity and enduring legacy is not the result of serendipity but came as a result of the hard work, dedication, and vigilance of Mitchell, her family, and many of her associates.

Full Disclosure: I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.