On the 75th anniversary of the publication of Gone With the Wind, David O’Connell explores how Margaret Mitchell’s Irish background influenced her writing.
Writing in the second edition (1940) of his monumental and influential study The American Novel, Carl van Doren wrote: “Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind not only gave a revised version of the Civil War in the South, so often the subject of more conventional novels, but also told, with remarkable verve and narrative energy, the story of Scarlett O’Hara’s rise from desolate circumstances in which the war had left her and her Georgia community.”
Van Doren made three important points in this brief statement. First, he noted that Mitchell had given new life to what was by then a rather shopworn genre by telling her version of the Civil War story from a completely new point of view. Instead of setting the action of her novel among wealthy and affluent Virginia aristocrats or in a sophisticated coastal setting like Charleston, and instead of attempting to describe bloody battlefields, she chose hardscrabble North Georgia with its red clay soil and rolling hills. Within that cadre, she wrote a novel about human relationships that had been irrevocably changed by the war.
Secondly, at a time when literary modernism was on the rise and the Southern novel, in the hands of someone like William Faulkner, was becoming deliberately more obscure in style, Mitchell displayed an awesome ability as a storyteller by writing in a style that was accessible to ordinary readers. And, thirdly, a point that is important from the perspective of the 21st century, Mitchell told her story through the eyes of a young woman (Scarlett O’Hara) who was the daughter of an immigrant with an Irish and Catholic sounding name. She wrote, historically speaking, against the background of the Know- Nothing “Nativist” politicians who had declared war on such people.
The power of the Nativist movement had crested in the election of 1856 but the Know-Nothings did not go away. Rhett Butler, one of the main protagonists in the novel, speaks for the Know-Nothings in his many putdowns of Scarlett, her family and its Irish origins. His comments range from “Now don’t fly off the handle and get your Irish up,” to “The Irish are the damnedest race. They put so much emphasis on so many wrong things. Land, for instance,” to the overall trashing of Scarlett’s people as “that bunch of wild Irish.”
Although Rhett is physically attracted to Scarlett, his sense of caste and class keeps setting off alarm bells in his mind about her social origins. As an aristocratic son of Charleston, he is thus a true “native American,” while Scarlett is the daughter of an Irish immigrant who speaks with a foreign accent, lacks social polish, and is separated from poverty in only a tenuous way – her father, Gerald O’Hara, won the land that he owns in a card game.
There is an important parallel to be drawn, one that the academic critics have missed, between Scarlett and Mitchell. For just as Scarlett grows up with the anti-Irish Know-Nothings in the background, Mitchell also went through her adolescent and young adult years during a time when Tom Watson (1856-1922), Georgia’s home grown anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic bigot, newspaper editor, politician and ally of the resurgent Klan, was garnering headlines. Watson, who grew up on his grandfather’s plantation, wrote a novel in praise of the slave system. Entitled Bethany: A Story of the Old South, it appeared in 1904 and was diametrically opposed to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Catholic reaction to Watson, who suspected Irish Catholics of “Popery” (more loyal to the Pope than to country) and a lack of commitment to the “Southern way of life,” was based at Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta, where Mitchell’s mother, Mary Isabelle, or “Maybelle” (1872-1918), was a committed and activist member of the congregation. In fact, despite her gender in the patriarchal Southern culture of the time, Maybelle was a founding member of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia, the group that took on the powerful Klan bigots arrayed against the state’s Catholic and Jewish populations.
Like Scarlett’s mother, Ellen O’Hara, Maybelle was solid and unwavering in both her beliefs and commitment to defend them. Also, like Ellen O’Hara, who dies at Tara while Scarlett is in Atlanta, Maybelle died in the influenza epidemic of 1917 while Margaret was away at college in Massachusetts. Both Scarlett and Margaret arrive home just after their mothers’ deaths. Given the enormous effect that this event had on Margaret, her novel can be considered as an expression of the daughter’s final words to her mother.
The narrative voice in Mitchell’s novel echoes neither the self-righteousness of the New Englander, Mrs. Stowe, nor the racial paternalism of Georgia’s Tom Watson. In fact, Mitchell, like her mother and Ellen O’Hara in the novel, shows immense compassion for African Americans, seeing their plight through the lens of her Irish background, with its implicit and automatic sympathy for the underdog and the outsider.
Her focus throughout is on the O’Hara household, in which just a few white characters live in close proximity, day in and day out, with black characters, and it is within this context that the novel’s narrative voice shows that bonds of affection and feelings of respect and endearment can grow between people of diverse origins despite what “the law of the land” might say about such things.
Central to Mitchell’s Irish identity was the couple represented by her grandfather, Irish-born John Stephens (1833-1896), and his wife Annie Fitzgerald (1844-1934), whom he married in 1864 in Atlanta’s Immaculate Conception Church as Sherman’s troops were heading south toward Atlanta.
It is widely believed that the cantankerous and headstrong Annie Fitzgerald Stephens was the principal model for Scarlett, although Mitchell would deny that there was any connection between her work and her family. Annie’s father, Philip Fitzgerald, who was born in Tipperary, owned the family plantation located about twenty miles south of Atlanta. They called it “Rural Home” or “Home Place,” and it would later become the Tara of Gone With the Wind.
According to Mitchell’s biographer, Darden Asbury Pyron, “These two Irishmen [Stephens and Fitzgerald] helped shaped the most fundamental stuff of Margaret Mitchell’s imagination.” Of her grandfather and great-grandfather Mitchell said: “They were both Irishmen born and proud of it and prouder still of being Southerners, and would have withered any relative who tried to put on the dog. I’m afraid they were so proud of what they were that they’d have thought putting on the dog was gilding the lily, and anyway, they left that to the post-war nouveau riche who had to carry a lot of dog because they had nothing else to carry.”
As a child, Mitchell made many visits to the Fitzgerald family home where her mother’s two maiden aunts Mary Ellen or “Mamie” (1840-1926), and Sarah Jane, or “Aunt Sis” (1849-1928) still lived. These two women, quite intelligent and very well read, never married. One reason for this was that in the aftermath of the Civil War, the number of eligible Southern men had been severely reduced by the tragic losses incurred in that conflict. After 1865, Mary Ellen and Sarah Jane transformed their maternal instincts, and channeled both their youthful energies and love of learning into the creation of a school. There, in the guest quarters that every antebellum plantation had possessed and that were scattered about the main house (and that, miraculously, had survived the war), they created several little schoolrooms for youngsters from the surrounding area. It was here that innumerable black boys and girls, over the course of the next several decades, attended classes and learned to read, write and do math with the Fitzgerald sisters.
Sarah Jane left a diary that Mitchell would use in the creation of her novel. Unfortunately, Mitchell’s husband, John Marsh, and her brother, attorney Stephens Mitchell, destroyed the diary after her death in an effort to silence various Fitzgerald and Stephens relatives who were claiming that Mitchell’s success and fame were unmerited because she had plagiarized her great aunt’s recollections.
The family’s ire was unjustified. According to Darden Asbury Pyron, the fallout was based partly on jealousy and partly on their negative perception of Mitchell as a lapsed Catholic, Smith College dropout, and divorcee. Whatever that diary contained, it was merely an inspirational text, a stepping-stone of sorts, for Mitchell. She filtered its contents through her own personal genius, and added elements created in her own imagination. Most of all, she used it to transform her family’s self-consciously Irish oral history of itself into a mythic and iconic text.
Within six months of its publication in May 1936, Gone With the Wind sold a million copies, an incredible achievement during the Depression era. Mitchell was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1939, the novel was made into a much beloved movie starring Vivien Leigh (the English actress who, like Scarlett, was of Irish and French heritage), and Clark Gable. The movie received 10 Academy Awards (eight competitive and two honorary), and has been dubbed one the greatest American films of all time.
Mitchell was struck by a speeding car in downtown Atlanta and died on August 11, 1949, not long before her 48th birthday. She is remembered for creating one of the most famous heroines of all time, and a book whose appeal transcends ethnic, regional and religious boundaries.
Gone With the Wind has found a truly worldwide audience all these years for one simple reason: Margaret Mitchell was able to take an Irish story and make it speak the universal language of the human heart and mind, one that stands, seventy-five years after its birth, as a towering masterpiece of American literature for people of every imaginable background.