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Interview with Margaret Mitchell from 1936

Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell

The following interview with Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind was conducted by Mrs. Medora Perkerson, of The Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, broadcast over radio station WSB, Atlanta, Georgia., July 3, 1936, on The Atlanta Journal. This is the first time this interview has been published in a digital format.

MRS. PERKERSON: Peggy, I have read your book Gone With the Wind with a great 
deal of pleasure, but I know that many of our listeners are not familiar with it. So can you tell us, briefly, just what the book is about?

MISS MITCHELL: I am glad to tell you, Medora. My novel is the story of a girl named Scarlett O’Hara, who lived in Atlanta during the Civil War and the days of Reconstruction. The book isn’t strictly a book about the war, nor is it a historical novel. It’s about the effect of the Civil War on a set of characters who lived in Atlanta at that time.

MRS. PERKERSON: Many critics are saying that your book sums up the whole story of the South and what the war and Reconstruction did to the South and to Southern people. The title of your book, Gone With the Wind means that the ante-bellum civilization was swept away by the tornado of war, doesn’t it?

MISS MITCHELL: Yes, Medora, that is the meaning of the title, naturally I would be glad if people thought that the book did tell the story of the whole South. But that isn’t the kind of book I tried to write. It is a book about 
Georgia and Georgia people, — especially North Georgia people. There are incidents in the book which take place in Savannah, Charleston, Macon and New Orleans, but nearly all of the action takes place in Atlanta and at Tara, the plantation home of Scarlett O’Hara, the heroine. Tara was in Clayton County, near Jonesboro, Ga. The story begins on the plantation in the period when the old style Southern life was at its height. Then the war comes, and Scarlett O’Hara goes to Atlanta to live. Thereafter, she experiences what Atlanta experienced during the war years — the thrills and excitement of the boom town that Atlanta became when the war changed it from an obscure small town into one of the most important cities in the South, then the increasing hardships as the Confederate cause waned, then the alarm of Atlanta people as they saw General Sherman’s army advancing steadily on the town, and ‘finally the terrifying days of the siege, the capture of Atlanta by Sherman and the burning of the town. Scarlett O’Hara goes through all those experiences and, after the war is over, she comes back to Atlanta and does her part in the rebuilding of the city. She lives through the terrible days of Reconstruction and the story carries her, and Atlanta, up to the time when the Carpetbaggers had been run out of Georgia and people could bean living their normal lives again.

MRS. PERKERSON: Peggy, how did you happen to know so much about the wartime activities of Atlanta?

MISS MITCHELL: My brother, Stephens Mitchell, had written an excellent Article in the Atlanta Historical Bulletin on the war-time industries of  Atlanta. I used much of his material. I also used facts I myself dug out of old newspapers of the war days and old diaries and letters of the period. I was surprised and thrilled to see how vital a part Atlanta played during the war, how important Atlanta was to the Confederacy. Atlanta wasn’t a big town in 1861. The population was only twelve thousand. But the little town had four railroads and they crossed here. And so Atlanta could draw supplies from the deep South to send to the armies at the front. The railroads connected Atlanta with the ports of Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington. The four railroads of Atlanta could feed the armies in Virginia and in Tennessee, Due to its safe position behind the lines. Atlanta was excellently suited for base hospital purposes and it had dozens of hospitals. In fact, eighty thousand sick and wounded passed through the Atlanta hospitals during the war. Overnight, there sprung up in Atlanta all kinds of war industries, for the South had to manufacture most of her war materials. There were pistol factories and percussion cap factories, tanneries and boot makers, saddle and harness factories. There were machine manufacturing shops and there were iron rolling mills where the armor plate for war ships was turned out, as well as the iron rails for the rail-road tracks. There were wagon shops and hat and cap factories and every type of industry needed to support an army in the field. Little Atlanta was terribly 
important to the Confederacy.

MRS. PERKERSON: General Sherman seemed to realize that, didn’t he?

MISS MITCHELL: Yes, Sherman knew that he had to take Atlanta. If he hadn’t succeeded, Grant could never have defeated General Lee in Virginia. For as long as Atlanta was drawing supplies from the deep South and sending them to Virginia, General Lee’s army could still stay in the field. As I road all these facts about the importance of Atlanta I wondered why they had never figured in fiction. And I wondered why the fighting around Atlanta was almost entirely omitted from novels. So much has been written, in fiction, about the campaigns in Virginia, so little about the campaign from the Tennessee line to Atlanta. And that campaign between General Sherman and General Johnston has always held more drama for me than any of the campaigns in Virginia, for General Johnston was far outnumbered from the start but he fought almost every day for months, slowly being driven back toward Atlanta but handling the retreat in a masterly way. I always thought it a truly heroic campaign and so I wrote about it.

MRS. PERKERSON: Did you get all of your information about the Sixties and the Seventies from research? How did it happen that you, a very modern person, knew this era so well?

MISS MITCHELL: Medora, I can answer that question best by saying that I grew up at a time when children were seen and not heard. That means that when I was a child I had to hear a lot about the Civil war on Sunday afternoons when I was dragged hither and yon to call on elderly relatives and friends of the family who had fought in the war or lived behind the lines. When I was a little girl, children were not encouraged to express their personalities by running and screaming on Sunday afternoons. When we went calling, I was usually scooped up onto a lap, told that I didn’t look like a soul on either side of the family and then forgotten for the rust of the afternoon while the gathering spiritedly refought the Civil war. I sat on bony knees, fat, slick taffeta laps and soft, flowered muslin laps. I did not even dare wriggle for fear of getting the flat side of a hair brush where it would do the most good. I should add, while I’m talking about knees and laps, that cavalry knees were the worst knees of all. Cavalry knees had the tendency to 
trot and bounce and jog in the midst of reminiscences and this kept me from going to sleep,

MRS. PERKERSON: It was lucky for your book that those cavalry knees did keep you awake, wasn’t it? Otherwise you’d have missed a lot of material you used in your book, wouldn’t you?

MISS  MITCHELL: Yes, fortunately for Gone With the Wind I had to stay awake. So I heard about fighting and wounds and the primitive way they were treated, how ladies nursed in hospitals, the way gangrene smelled, what substitutes were used for drugs and food and clothing when the blockade got too tight for these necessities to be brought in from abroad. I heard about the burning and looting of Atlanta and the way the refugees from the town crowded the roads and trains to Macon, and I heard about Reconstruction, too. In fact, I heard everything in the world except that the Confederates lost the war. When I was ten years old, it was a violent shock to learn that General Lee had been defeated. I didn’t believe it when I first heard it and I was indignant. I still find it hard to believe, so strong are childhood impressions.

MRS. PERKERSON: I don’t suppose children growing up now will ever get as excited about the Last Cause as we did who listened to grandmothers and grandfathers tell about firsthand experiences.

MISS MITCHELL: No, and I think they are missing a lot. I am glad that I grew up at a time when there were plenty of old veterans in Atlanta. Certainly I could never have written my book without my memories of those old men, when I was a little girl and rode my pony every afternoon, my boon companion was a fine old Confederate veteran. He looked exactly like a stage Confederate — white hair and goatee, jimswinger coat, and a habit of gallantly kissing, ladies’ hands, even my own grubby six-year-old hand. He and a young lady who had reached the beau age were the only two people in my part of town who owned horses. And we three went riding together. Atlanta wasn’t so big then and it didn’t take long to reach dirt roads and the country. We never went riding in the country that we didn’t pick up some other old veteran to ride with us: Frequently we had several veterans with us. The families of the veterans and my mother encouraged us to ride together in the belief that we’d keep each other out of mischief.

MRS. PERKERSON: And did you?

MISS  MITCHELL: No, Medora. I regret to say that we didn’t. There was still plenty of fire and dash left in the old boys. They still had hot tempers and bullheads and they still dearly loved a fight. The day seldom passed that they didn’t have a heated argument about the Civil War. And the day seldom passed when the young lady who accompanied us didn’t turn her horse and race for home. She realized, oven if I didn’t, that the company of quarrelsome old gentlemen was no place for a lady.

MRS. PERKERSON: I’ll bet you didn’t go home.

MISS MITCHELL: No, I didn’t, for at the age of six I was not concerned about being a lady. Besides I was too fascinated by the way the veterans shouted at each other. On these occasions, too, I was seen and not heard. I couldn’t have been heard, even if I had wanted to speak, for it would of taken the lungs of the bull of Bashan to be heard above their tumult.

MRS. PERKERSON: What did they quarrel about?

MISS MITCHELL: Oh, every subject under the sun, especially the particular regiments to which they had belonged in the Confederate army. Each one bragged about his own regiment and low-rated all the others. For instance, I recall one time when we flushed an old gentlemen who had been with Wheeler’s cavalry. He was a tough, wiry, little old fellow. And another veteran who had been in Stuart’s Cavalry remarked that the boys in Wheeler’s cavalry were worse chicken thieves than Sherman’s men ever were. Of course, after that insult, they went at each other at the top of their voices and with their riding crops. The language they used was highly entertaining and very instructive to a small but interested girl. They talked about the Civil war all the time, refought old campaigns and argued about the tangled, bewildering muddle of politics of the Reconstruction days. Their remarks about the carpet baggers and scallawags of reconstruction days were also forceful and of deep interest to me. The young lady who went riding with us always turned her horse toward home why they got on the subject of Reconstruction, so how could I help knowing about the Civil war and the hard times that came after it! I was raided on it; I thought it had all happened just a few years before I was born.

MRS. PERKERSON: Perhaps that is why you made it so real in Gone With the Wind. And I think the thing we are all most proud of is that you have given the complete picture, not just one side of the old South and war and Reconstruction. It is all there in your book and it all comes alive. A lot of people are already saying that you must have taken some of the characters from real life. One of your characters, Aunt Pittypat is exactly like one of my relatives, and I’ll bet Charleston is going to rise up in a body and denounce the dashing Captain Rhett Butler of your book, not only because of his refusing to go into the Confederate army but for what he said about making money out of the wrecking 
of the Confederacy. Did you take any of your characters from real life?

MISS MITCHELL: No, not a single character was taken from real life. In the first place, I wouldn’t know how to go about taking a character from life, and in the second place, made-up characters are so easy to handle. They will obey the author and do just what the author wants, whereas characters taken from real people are apt to be obstinate and unmanageable and to insist on having their own way.

MRS. PERKERSON: Your heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, is not at all like the usual Civil war heroine. She was just as shocking in her era as the flapper was in the jazz age. Was it your idea that Scarlett was the product of her time, just as the flapper was the product of the period following the World War?

MISS MITCHELL: Yes, wars have a way of changing women, whether the women are dressed in hoopskirts and pantalets or in knee-length skirts and bobbed hair. The sorrow and hardships and poverty of the Civil War changed Scarlett O’Hara from a spoiled and selfish but otherwise normal Southern girl into a hardened adventuress, just as the wild period following the World War made modern girls cut loose from their mothers’ apron strings and do shocking things.

MRS. PERKERSON: They say that a good woman has no history, or, at least, no one is interested in her history. But in your book, Gone With the Wind, I found Melanie Wilkes, your other heroine, who was a sweet, gentle character, almost as interesting as Scarlett. Melanie and Scarlett went through the war and Reconstruction, side by side, and it was fascinating to see how the same set of circumstances produced such contrasts in character. The experiences that hardened Scarlett O’Hara and made her unscrupulous simply made Melanie Wilkes more of a lady, she could do anything she wanted to do, and not shock people as Scarlett did, simply because Melanie remained a lady… that seemed to me to be the real theme of the book, how different characters reacted under the stress of circumstances.

MISS MITCHELL: If Gone With the Wind has a central theme, I suppose is the theme of survival. What quality is it that makes some people able to survive catastrophes and others, apparently just as brave and able and strong, go under? I have always been interested in this particular quality in people. We’ve all seen the same thing happen in the present depression. It happens in every social upheaval, in wars, in panics, in revolutions. It’s happened all the way down history from the time the barbarians sacked ancient Rome, And before that, I suppose, some people survive disasters. Others do not. What qualities are in those people who fight their way through triumphantly — that are lacking in those who do go under? What was it that made our Southern people able to come through a war, a Reconstruction and the complete wrecking of all our social and economic 
systems? I don’t know. I only know that the survivors of the Civil war used to call that quality “gumption.”

MRS. PERKERSON: Another thing that seemed to interest everyone I talked to about this book is the reality given by small details. Take the night Scarlett O’Hara went to Melanie’s party, just after she had been discovered in a compromising situation with Melanie’s husband. You had Scarlett wear a jade green watered silk dress with a large bustle adorned with pink velvet roses. It wouldn’t have done to describe this dress so minutely if ladies hadn’t worn rose covered bustles at that particular time, would it?

MISS MITCHELL: Indeed it wouldn’t! The bustle came into style in 1868, replacing the wide hoop skirts of the war days. If I hadn’t gotten the date of the bustle correctly, lots of old ladies would have written me indignantly — saying that they never wore rose covered bustles at that time. I had to do a lot of work on such small details as this — because I was very anxious to have Gone With the Wind accurate — not only in large historical facts but in the very smallest ones too.

MRS. PERKERSON: Peggy, where did you find out all the thousands of small details?

MISS MITCHELL: I read the files of old newspapers from 1860 to1878 and I read hundreds of old magazines, diaries and letters. And I don’t know how many hundreds of books I consulted. Those books were on every subject from Mid-Victorian architecture to how far a Confederate rifle would shoot. But best of all sources of information were my father and my late mother. Although both my father and my mother were born long after Reconstruction days — they know as much about those troublous times as though they had lived through them themselves, When they were children, they too had listened to the stories of the old folks and they remembered those stories and retold them to me. I think my father knows everything in the world about the Civil war, especially that part of the war which was fought in Georgia. I believe he knows where every battery was placed in the Atlanta campaign, the exact name of the officer commanding it, what the officer’s mother’s mother’s maiden name was, and whether the officer was shot in the right leg or the left. My mother knew just as much as he did. What was even better, she knew about the social history of the sixties and the manner, of that day. She had kept her ears open when she was a little girl and she could tell me, for instance, what was considered genteel during the Civil war and what was considered fast. She knew what our grandmothers ate and how they dressed and what songs they sang and how long a young man must know a girl before he started calling her by her first name — with “Miss” preceding it, of course.

MRS. PERKERSON: Thank you, Peggy, for telling me about the background of Gone With the Wind, I hope everyone has enjoyed it as much as I have.