TOM MACK’S ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Atlanta museum links visitors to world’s most popular novel

  • Posted: Friday, June 14, 2013 8:24 a.m.
Photo submitted by Tom Mack
The Margaret Mitchell house
Photo submitted by Tom Mack The Margaret Mitchell house

When they moved into their first apartment, newlyweds John Marsh and Margaret Mitchell were less than impressed by its small rooms and scarcity of windows. “El Dumpo” was the nickname they had for the place. Yet it was in these cramped quarters, from 1925 to 1932, that Mitchell wrote a large part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that was to become, next to the Bible, the most widely read book in the modern world.

Today’s visitors to the Margaret Mitchell House on the corner of 10th and Peachtree Streets in Atlanta can still get some sense of the seemingly inauspicious conditions under which “Gone with the Wind” was composed. Although the brick-sided building began its life in 1899 as a single-family dwelling, it had been subdivided into 10 apartments in 1913. Of those 10, only one ground-level apartment is still preserved today as it was at the time of its most famous resident; the rest of the building is devoted to displays focused on the life and work of Margaret Mitchell.

The entrance to Apartment #1 features the same tiled floor and much the same row of tenant mailboxes; there’s also the same lion’s head carving on the top of the newel post that once led to the eight apartments on the upper floors. The front door opens right into the parlor with its alcove illuminated by a triple set of leaded-glass windows. It was in this small recessed section of the room that Mitchell set her secondhand Remington typewriter on a small oak table and punched out her text.

A small hallway connects the parlor to the combination bedroom/dining room, and beyond this second room is a tiny kitchen through whose rear door tenants had access to an equally tiny porch. It wasn’t much for $17 a month in rent, but somehow more than 70 people squeezed into the space for the couple’s wedding reception. In these small rooms, Marsh and Mitchell also regularly entertained a wide circle of friends (she generally locked up her books at these events for her literary associates were known to be light-fingered) and provided sanctuary to as many as five cats at a time, all of which were rescued from the vagaries of life on the street.

All of her biographers agree that Mitchell’s second marriage was a happy one (her short marriage to first husband Red Upshaw had been plagued by their financial worries and his physical abuse). During their time at “The Dump,” Mitchell worked as a reporter for the afternoon paper “The Atlanta Journal,” and Marsh ran the public relations department at the Georgia Power Company. It was he who presumably prodded her to keep up with her creative writing and pampered her during a series of sometimes psychosomatic ailments. Still, she tended to enjoy reading more than writing, and it was a struggle for her to focus her attention on the compositional task at hand.

The generating idea for her novel came from a popular series of newspaper articles that she had written about the lives of Confederate generals. It was during her research for that particular journalistic assignment that Mitchell ran across material about the resilience of Southern gentlewomen during the disastrous years of the Civil War and its austere aftermath. With her husband’s gentle support, she started shaping her narrative, working from the last chapter to the first, covering her typewriter and manuscript with a towel when friends came to call. Her desire was to create a love story that would serve as the fictional nucleus of an essentially factual account of the American South before and after the war. Mitchell prided herself in the accuracy of her research, and she claimed that any personal bibliography used for writing the novel would run to thousands of volumes.

With the success of the book, the Marshes could afford to move to larger, more comfortable quarters, and they wasted no time in doing so. Ironically enough, however, it was only about three blocks from this original apartment that Mitchell met her death in 1949 while attempting to cross the intersection of Peachtree and Thirteenth streets on her way to see a film. Separated momentarily from her husband, she was struck by a speeding car driven by an off-duty cabby with a record of reckless driving.

In addition to the apartment house itself, which opened to the public in 1997, the Margaret Mitchell complex boasts a permanent exhibition on the making of the motion picture based on the book. Included in this collection are sundry film props, such as the doorway to Tara and the corset that Hattie McDaniel struggles to tie up while Vivien Leigh fidgets against a bedpost, and copious material from the December 1939 movie premiere in Atlanta.

An essentially private couple, Mitchell and Marsh came to regard Hollywood’s invasion of Atlanta as part of the “awful siege” on their lives that followed the publication of the novel. Not unlike Sherman’s march on the city 70 years earlier, the advent of the book and its subsequent film version was to have far-reaching consequences.

The novel’s success, for example, led to a major reconsideration of international copyright laws; and the David O. Selznick’s mass-scale marketing of movie-related merchandise (young women could buy simulated cameo brooches like the one that Scarlett wore for 15 cents and three wrappers of Lux soap) established an industry trend that continues to this day.

Although Mitchell herself would undoubtedly be astonished by the abiding interest in “Gone with the Wind,” the countless readers and movie buffs whose lives have been touched by her compelling narrative have made the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum one of Atlanta’s most popular attractions.

Tours are available from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday; admission is $13 for adults, but there are discounts for online purchases, seniors, students, children and groups. For more information, visit the museum at www.margaretmitchellhouse.com.

A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For his years as a cultural affairs columnist, the Greater Augusta Arts Council is honoring him with its 2013 Media Award later this month.

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