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1936 Fifty Years Ago

May 2024
2min read

It was nearly called Another Day . For a month it was Tomorrow Is Another Day , followed in quick succession by Tomorrow and Tomorrow , There’s Always Tomorrow , and Tomorrow Will Be Fair . But when it was finally published on June 30, it was called Gone With the Wind , and the 1,057-page novel set in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction became a phenomenal best seller overnight.

The thirty-five-year-old author of this blockbuster, Margaret Mitchell, of Atlanta, Georgia, came naturally to her subject matter. “She was very much the unreconstructed Southerner,” an Atlanta editor once said. “She had almost a reverence for the Old South traditions and legends.” Keenly aware of her city’s history, it didn’t take long for Mitchell to pick her topic: “A day came when I thought to myself ‘Oh, my God, now I’ve got to write a novel, and what is it going to be about,’ ” she later said. “That day I thought I would write a story of a girl who was somewhat like Atlanta—part of the Old South; part of the new South; [how] she rose with Atlanta and fell with it. and how she rose again ”

It took Mitchell ten years of often interrupted work to complete her only published book, years in which her enormous manuscript collected in odd corners of the small apartment she shared with her husband, John Marsh. For a time the manuscript was even used to prop up a collapsing sofa. That it was ever published is a wonder, for when a Macmillan agent visited Atlanta and asked to see her novel, Mitchell refused. But at the last minute she changed her mind and raced down to the train station with a suitcase twice her size, in time to give it to the surprised agent before he boarded. A contract was soon signed, and, after the book’s release, Mitchell found—to her dismay—that she had become a celebrity.

Critical reception of Gone With the Wind was mixed. It was praised for its readability but condemned for sentimentalizing the Confederacy and all it stood for. Malcolm Cowley described it as an “encyclopedia of the plantation legend … false in part and silly in part and vicious in its general effect on Southern life today.” But the reading public didn’t care. America was struggling through the Depression, and Gone With the Wind was just the antidote people needed to forget their troubles. From the day it appeared, bookstores couldn’t keep enough copies on hand; sales reached fifty thousand a day, and in three months, half a million copies were sold. By Christmastime that figure had doubled. In 1937 Gone With the Wind was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and in 1939 the film version was released, starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable—a film destined to become one of the most valuable properties in the industry. Today, with twenty-five million copies of Gone With the Wind sold, there are few Americans who don’t instantly recognize the names Scarlett O’Hara or Rhett Butler. Nor are there many who don’t tingle at the words, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

•June 23-27: The Democratic National Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, renominates Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidency.

•June 30: Employees of companies with substantial government contracts give thanks to the Walsh-Healy Act, which establishes for them a minimum wage, an eight-hour day, and a forty-hour workweek.

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