Reading Toward Scarlett: Tracing the Texts that Helped to Shape Margaret Mitchell’s American Epic

Christina Triezenberg, Western Michigan University


Despite its marginalization within the academy, Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind (GWTW), continues to exert a formidable influence on American and world culture and is a text that mandates our continued study. Using a blend of biography, social and cultural history, and literary interpretation, my project reframes Mitchell’s bestseller as a text that was heavily influenced by the nineteenth and early twentieth-century texts that Mitchell read as a child, as an adolescent and young adult, and as a journalist who sought to reinterpret her region’s defining conflict for a new generation of readers. By drawing on Mitchell’s references to her reading in her letters, the book reviews and articles that she wrote as one of Atlanta’s first female reporters, and the books from her personal library that were bequeathed by her husband to Atlanta’s Carnegie Library at the time of his death, I show how central reading was to Mitchell’s life as well as trace the impact of her reading on the development of her narrative in GWTW and on her strong-willed protagonist Scarlett O’Hara, in particular. By exploring the works of earlier southern women writers such as Frances Newman (1883-1928), Isa Glenn (1874-1951), Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945), Mary Johnston (1870-1936), and Augusta Jane Evans (1835-1909), my project repositions Mitchell’s novel as a work that was heavily influenced by the tensions of the 1920s and as a product of the female literary tradition in the South which began long before the Southern Renaissance. My project also explores Mitchell’s relationship with Atlanta’s Carnegie Library, an institution which her father Eugene helped to bring into being and to which Mitchell and her family remained deeply committed throughout their lives. Building on Karen Roffman’s exploration of the impact that the New York Public Library system had on Marianne Moore and Nella Larson’s development as writers, I show how Mitchell’s patronage of Atlanta’s Carnegie Library enabled her to continue the education that her mother’s death had cut short and provided her with a wealth of models for the rebellious and revisionary novel that she herself would eventually write.