Review: ‘Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind” by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley

by Kim on June 16, 2011 · 15 comments

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Title: Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’: A Bestseller’s Odyssey From Atlanta to Hollywood
Author: Ellen F Brown and John Wiley Jr.
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher at BEA
Rating: ★★★½☆

One Sentence Summary: “This entertaining account of a literary and pop culture phenomenon tells how [Gone With the Wind] was developed, marketed, distributed, and otherwise groomed for success in the 1930s, and the savvy measures taken since then by the author, her publisher, and her estate to ensure its longevity.” — IndieBound.

One Sentence Review: Although a little heavily focused on the legal issues surrounding Gone With the Wind, the book is a great read for fans of the original or about the role bestselling books can play in popular culture.

Why I Read It: I knew I was curious about the book after an enthusiastic review at The Book Lady’s Blog and after reading The Heroine’s Bookshelf, but getting a signed copy of the book BEA pushed me over the edge to read it.

Long Review: Since it was published in 1936, Gone With the Wind has been a phenomenon. As one of the first internationally best-selling books, the legacy of Gone With the Wind stretches across the globe. In Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’: A Bestseller’s Odyssey From Atlanta to Hollywood, writer Ellen F. Brown and Gone With the Wind enthusiast John Wiley Jr. chronicle the book’s journey from scattered manuscript pages shoved in closets to one of the most popular books in modern memory.

Margaret MitchellThis book is a sort of biography of both Gone With the Wind and of Margaret Mitchell, the private author who never really expected her book to be a huge as it was. As I read, it was nearly impossible for me to not love Margaret Mitchell. On the one hand, she could be a persnickety author, refusing to do any sort of publicity Gone With the Wind and constantly fighting with her publisher — in the most Southern and polite way possible — for the money and treatment she felt she deserved. But Mitchell also responded to every single fan letter she received, for years signing every single copy of the book that was mailed to her by a fan.

For a woman who was reluctant to be a best-selling author, Mitchell grew to fill the shoes admirably, morphing from a diminutive Southern belle into shrewed businesswoman that fought for her book in uncharted legal territory when her publisher couldn’t (or wouldn’t) go to bat for her. She’s a fascinating character in and of herself, and a person I felt excited to get to know.

What struck me most while reading Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ is how much the debates about popular literature and publishing haven’t really changed at all in the last 75 years. The players are different, but the questions we have about books and book selling seem to repeat.

For example, when Gone With the Wind was first published, it was a huge boon for the publishing industry (maybe on the scale of Twilight or Harry Potter). But bookstores weren’t the only places selling the title — department stores and drugstores began selling discounted copies of the books as a way to get people into their stories, prompting debates about price-cutting and the worth of books. Sound like current debates about Amazon?

Or consider the debate about “literary” versus “popular” fiction. When Gone With the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937, there was a big public debate about giving it to a “popular” title rather than a more literary option. If that’s not a debate that has persisted since, I’m not sure what has. Gone With the Wind has also inspired fan fiction, and the legal battle’s Mitchell and her family fought basically wrote the rules on foreign copyright for American authors.

That, however, leads into my one critique of the book — a lot of it focused on the legal battles over copyright concerns, both within in the Unites States and abroad. The anecdotes about publishers struggling during World War II or the fights Mitchell’s estate got into over unauthorized versions of the books could be interesting, but after awhile I started to skim over them a bit. Certainly, the legal battles and victories related to Gone With the Wind are hugely important, they were just sometimes a little dry; after awhile a fight in one country starts to sound a lot like the fight in another country, even if there are subtle differences to be probed.

I haven’t read Gone With the Wind since I was in high school, where I stole my mom’s thick and taped-together mass market paperback edition of the book to read because it was the fattest book I could fine. But I loved revisiting the book and it’s author in this nonfiction format, giving context and history to a book that I hadn’t thought about in years. I finished reading Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ on the 75th anniversary of when the original book was published, and I’ve been itching to revisit the Old South again.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Photo Credit: Al Aumuller, staff photographer for the New York World-Telegram and the Sun, via Wikimedia Commons

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